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Local Father and Son Publish First History of the Island
By Mary Durben   - 02/15/2007

Daniel Island News

Some fathers and sons work together on Soapbox Derby cars. Michael "Mike" Dahlman, 48, and his son, Michael, Jr., 17, have researched, assembled and written the first history of Daniel Island, the community they moved to only 2 ˝ years ago.

The book, Daniel Island, was published by Arcadia Publishing and advance copies were delivered to every household on Daniel Island last month, courtesy of the Daniel Island Community Fund. Launched Feb. 13 with a celebration at Vincent’s Pizza, the book is available for $19.99 at area bookstores, independent retailers, online bookstores, or through Arcadia Publishing at www.arcadiapublishing.com or 888-313-2665.

The book grew out of the Dahlmans’ shared love of history and their chance discovery of a very old brick and other artifacts almost 2 ˝ years ago.

Mike Dahlman is a native of Washington, DC, and grew up in Germantown, Md., where he spent summers exploring old farms, gristmills and abandoned houses and speculating about their histories. His father was an historian, but Mike studied mechanical engineering at Cornell University and became a nuclear submarine officer for 14 years, meeting his wife, Cindy, while his submarine was docked in Charleston. For the past 12 years, he has been a consultant for numerous government and commercial customers, specializing in the education of large workforces and the optimization of an organization’s professional knowledge. Besides a bachelor’s degree from Cornell, he has master’s degrees in business administration and public administration from Boston University and Harvard, respectively.

Michael, Jr., was born in Charleston at the Naval Hospital, but the family soon moved away to Boston and, later, Springfield, Va, Gaithersburg, Md, and Cincinnati, Ohio. He traces his love of history to a camping trip to the Antietam Battlefield when he was five years old and visits to Fort Sumter and Gettysburg in following years.

Michael’s particular interest is in Civil War history. "I have books and more books in my room about the Civil War," he said. Now a junior at Bishop England High School, he has a sister, Christina, who is a freshman there and another sister, Julianne, who is a sixth grader.

The family moved back to Charleston/Daniel Island in August 2004. Not long after, Michael, Jr., made the first of the discoveries that were to lead them to write the book on Daniel Island. When football season ended that fall, he had some free time for bike riding around the island. On one of those rides he discovered what he later learned to be the ruins of the plantation of Robert Daniell, the early governor of South Carolina after whom Daniel Island is named. Michael brought a brick home to show his dad.

Mike wasn’t too excited about that find, but Michael kept bringing home relics. What finally piqued Mike’s interest was his own discovery of an old brick in the rubble pile at a nearby homesite. Close examination told him that this wasn’t a modern brick but a very old one that was handmade.
"I’ve always loved trying to figure out the history of wherever I was," Mike said. Working at it was "an unfulfilled urge…. I always considered myself an industrial archaeologist, trying to figure out how did electricity develop, where were the roads, and so forth."

A full and accurate history of the island had not been written, he discovered, and he thought it would be a great project that he and his son could undertake together.

The Dahlmans began by using online resources and visiting the South Carolina Historical Society to develop an outline for their research. Daniel Island Company President Matt Sloan provided introductions to the Guggenheim Foundation and to individuals who gave them key insights into the island’s past: Peter Lawson-Johnston, a Guggenheim descendent and caretaker of the estate; The Rev. David Reilly, a great great-grandson of an African-American soldier buried on the island; Bob Tuten, who moved to Daniel Island with his family in 1935 and whose father operated one of the truck farms then on the island; and Philip Daniel, a descendent of Robert Daniell. They also interviewed famed Charleston blacksmith Philip Simmons, whose artful iron gates can be found at the Smithsonian Museum as well as all around Charleston, and who grew up on Daniel Island; and The Rev. Benjamin Dennis, who worked on the island in the 1930s and whose father operated a steam ferry between Thomas Island and Charleston.

Other resources included historians at the South Carolina Historical Society and the South Carolina Room at the Charleston County Main Library, the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, the Charleston County Deed Office, the University of South Carolina map collection and the Library of Congress. Mike also visited the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art in New York City and was given access to its collection of artifacts, pictures and papers from the estate of Harry Frank Guggenheim, who once owned Daniel Island and used it for a hunting preserve and a cattle-breeding operation. One of the first resources they turned to was Brockington and Associates, a firm that conducted two archaeological surveys of the island prior to the construction of the Mark Clark Expressway linking Daniel Island to Mount Pleasant.

Michael, Jr. continued to amass a collection of artifacts including pottery chards, buttons, pieces of iron, farming hoes and axe heads as father and son roamed the island to locate various features, including the ruins of historic plantations, piers, bridges and roads, farm buildings and borrow pits, where clay was mined to make bricks. They downloaded a 1985 aerial photo of the island and blew it up. Then they could line up historic maps with prominent features that could still be seen on the newer map.

"You let the land talk to you. Why is this here? Nature didn’t make straight lines. So you would go out and explore," Mike said.

"It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle. You could get the frame, but you had to study the inside pieces to decide where they would fit.

"At first we were writing short snippets, then we started weaving it together. It was like a hobby until we got enough information together. We started telling people about it and thinking that it would be fun to put this together (as a book). Finally, we thought we had enough so we approached Jimmy Bailey of the Daniel Island Co."

Coincidentally, Bailey had spoken to Arcadia Publishing’s Richard Joseph just that day. The Dahlmans were looking for a publisher at the same time that the Arcadia publisher and Daniel Island resident was looking for a writer for just such a book.

Joseph wanted a book to mark the 10th anniversary of start of development of Daniel Island, so they set a target of December 2006 for publication. After that – after they got an editor – it was no longer just a hobby, Michael, Jr., said.

"But every time we got stuck, something would be found," Mike said.

There was a picture of Harry Frank Guggenheim and a young girl, assumed to be a granddaughter. They e-mailed the Foundation to learn more about the photo. The e-mail response said the girl was, indeed, a granddaughter, Carol Langsdorf, who was just then sitting in the Foundation office.

"By the end, the editor at Arcadia was calling the book ‘haunted,’" Mike said. "It was a book that wanted to be written."

But once they got started, they kept going back to reconfirm and learn more, he said. The editors had to step in and say "stop," then help them to pull the pieces together. Mike did the final editing, but Michael, Jr. was equally responsible for the book, Mike said.

"He has an amazing ability to remember all of the details," he said.

Michael said his teachers and friends were amazed at what they were doing, and he kept them up to date on their progress. He plans to study the history of the colonial through Civil War period in college, and hopes to attend the College of Charleston because of the excellence of its history department and opportunities to study abroad. Being a published author is a feather in his cap that will enhance his prospects.

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