By Kimberly Duncan
Just as every family has secrets, so does every community. Despite a rich heritage of history, beauty and culture, the port of Georgetown is no exception. Many natives know the story, though few talk about it without persuasion. “Enough’s been said,” says one. “Let it rest,” snaps another. But usually – once he or she realizes the “story is out” – a knowing smile and a good natured chuckle is followed by a tale or two.
From the Kaminski House Museum on Front Street to Brookgreen Gardens’ grand entrance, Georgetown County is blessed with famous landmarks. Barely one mile south of the port city, however, stands remnants of what was once the city’s – indeed, the State’s – most infamous landmarks. Its name was Sunset Lodge.
Euphemistically speaking, Sunset Lodge was well-known as a “house of ill repute.” In and of itself, this fact is not so astounding. Prostitution is, after all, said to be the world’s oldest profession. The astounding detail of the story is that Sunset Lodge flourished, despite Deep Southconservatism, from the early 1930s to 1969. For nearly four decades, the rural bordello “operated under a blanket of protection that began with Georgetown county law enforcement officers and continued to the state house in Columbia,” according to a Christmas Eve, 1969 article in the Charleston Evening Post. “Sun Sets on Sunset Lodge,” read the headline. And the article went on to describe the establishment as “perhaps the most widely known site in SC, with the exception ofFortSumter.”
Sunset Lodge, a quiet looking Dutch Colonial building, was built in the late 1920s when Highway 17 was being paved. It opened without fanfare and attracted little attention from passersby. According to an article published in the Coastal Observer onMarch 19, 1992, it is said the construction of the paper mill flooded the town with rowdy laborers from big northern cities … laborers accustomed to easy access to cathouses. “No woman was safe in the streets, the story goes, so the powers that be decided to recruit a good madam. [Tom] Yawkey said he knew just the one.” It is speculated that Yawkey, a local resident and the owner of the Boston Red Sox, convinced “Miss Hazel,” to relocate fromFlorence where she was already operating a high class whorehouse.
World War II represented a particularly golden era of prosperity. Taxi drivers ran shuttle services fromCharleston, and untold numbers of soldiers and sailors left the Lowcountry to share the story of Sunset Lodge. Local men said they could be anywhere in the world and if they mentioned where they were from, someone would yell, “Sunset Lodge!”
After the War, Sunset Lodge evolved into a playhouse for the upper crust. The Lodge had a reputation for cleanliness, and “Miss Hazel’s girls” were hand-picked for being cultured and beautiful. Medical doctors were paid by retainer, and “the hostesses” were checked once each week – after which they displayed their “certificates of health” under glass on their bedside tables. It is not surprising then that most customers were doctors, lawyers, politicians and millionaire sportsmen. According to Sun Sets on Sunset Lodge, one nationally circulated magazine held a meeting of contributing writers at Myrtle Beach and, as a part of the program, retained the Sunset Lodge for an entire night. Boaters touring the Intracoastal Waterway knew it well and yachts often tied up at Georgetown simply because of the proximity of Sunset Lodge. Aviators often flew into Georgetown Airport … for a visit. And, albeit quietly, Sunset Lodge thrived.
The unspoken consent of local officials and residents ended in the final month of 1969 when Sheriff Woodrow Carter closed the bordello. Some speculate he did so to stave off political criticism in an upcoming election. Others contend Madam Weisse actually asked him to lock the doors as she was getting too old to manage the establishment. The media reported the Lodge was closed after receiving complaints from residents throughout the state. Whatever the reason, the closure brought an end to one of the most colorful chapters in Georgetown County history.
Following is the editorial that ran in The Georgetown Times on December 18, 1969. One cannot help but notice a shade of sadness in the clipping.
Sunset Lodge, a unique Georgetown county institution of international renown, was closed Friday as one phase of a state crack-down on illicit activities.
The 36-year-old brothel closed its doors on order of the Sheriff’s Office. No charges were filed. Notice was served; Sunset hostesses packed their bags and left.
Sheriff Woodrow Carter said it was closed “indefinitely.
Sunset was a paradox of society. It was tolerated or ignored by most. In a seaport community, it was above board and self-disciplined. It was the source of frequent contributions to many civic causes.
It existed despite the blue laws of government. The transition from a straight-laced to a permissive society ironically brought its downfall.
Rampant back-street vice in other South Carolina cities and demands for uniform enforcement of law placed a spot light locally.
In a twist of fate, Sunset was eclipsed in the back-lash of a libertine age.
Subsequent editorial clippings from a variety of local and regional papers confirm not all local citizens were pleased about the demise of their “one big tourist attraction.” One resident, the owner of a toy store, claimed he had to close his doors when the Sunset girls moved away. Another prominent businessman claimed the Lodge was instrumental in bringing industry to the area. “It was the added attraction which tipped the scale in our favor,” he said.
After its closing, Sunset Lodge was purchased by a local couple who made the infamous house their home. Madam Weisse lived with them until her death in July of 1974. Of her, they had only good things to say: “she was a precious lady … like a grandmother to my children.” They also reported that “for years and years, we’d have ten cars a day … asking for Sunset.” Following the Vietnam War, whole busloads of eager soldiers sometimes showed up direct from the plane in Charleston.
The Lodge burned in October of 1993. With the exception of a few outbuildings, little physical evidence remains today. Regardless, even if only in memory and old clippings, Sunset Lodge lives on.