The Mattress Tree of Edisto Island

“The song and the land are one.” – Bruce Chatwin

Mattress Tree Mourning, November 16, 2009 Edisto Island, SC © C.Hutson-Wrenn

Frank Gadsden died this winter. The full mattress and box springs, the swinging hammock, the one that hung from the limbs of a grand live oak tree on the side of the road for at least a generation, is gone.

The loss of Mattress Point, as some old islanders refer to the place, is no small thing. It was part of the myth of this island paradise. Lying in a hammock is a traditional summertime habit for those who come to the beach for vacation. For visitors to the island, it reminds us of the importance of taking a nap, of putting our feet up, of swinging the day away, “Edislow” style.

The idea to string up, in the huge tree in his own front yard, not just a rope Pawley’s-Island-style hammock, but a whole bed, was funny, funky, and clever. It was an example of what poet and sage Nick Lindsay might call “gumption”. It also spoke to us of hospitality in its own way. It said “Come into my living room, my friend. Sit awhile. Hey, even lie here under this great oak tree. Take a nap.” It was a a symbol, then, not only of welcome and hospitality, but of a certain wildness, of taking a creative leap. Is there something in ourselves, when we arrive at this island Paradise that teases us to take some creative leap?

Certainly the swinging bed was not without its controversy. When so many people stopped to photograph and draw the unusual swing, Mr. Gadsden, feeling exploited somehow by the fascination that artists and photographers and just about everyone seemed to feel about this Edisto Island ‘sculpture’, began to charge viewers 5 dollars, then 10 dollars for a photograph of the thing. Others complained that the place was an eyesore, for Frank also worked on his lawn mowers and left extra mattresses lying around under the great tree. Oh, and the people! Frank’s friends and family gathered there in summer, to wave to passing cars, to pass the time with each other. In winter, men folk met to play cards around a small table, all day long, warmed by the fire burning in an old oil drum. But it was a place with people and energy, whether you liked it or not.

This spirit is one of the reasons many of us have fallen madly in love with the place. Certainly, Edisto Island is one of the most naturally beautifully places on earth. Thanks to The Edisto Island Open Land Trust and her supporters, the big developers have been held at bay so far, and over half of the island is permanently protected by conservation easements. We realize that Henry David Thoreau was right when he said that “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” But what else is it that makes so many of us love this place?

Jane Jacobs, (The Death and Life of Great American Cities) writer and urbanist, wrote that in cities, the worst possible virus, capable of sucking the life out of a place, was “the great grey blight of dullness”. She was referring to cookie- cutter suburbs, too much planning, and sprawl, those strips of roadway that are all too common in American now, with nothing but signs and stores and concrete. Neighborhoods, she argued, need to be… well, ‘interesting’. “There are emotions that draw us to places”, she continued, “and they depend on things being a bit messy….”

Edisto is a wildly interesting place, the natural organic world and the creative spirit of her people in evidence everywhere. There are front porches where people still sit on mismatched chairs; there are whole outdoor living rooms where people entertain themselves by watching other people.

The song language of the Gullah people is still in the air, too, if you listen. This place sings with a great lyrical rhythm. Highway 174 is now a National Scenic Byway. So, when you are headed to the beach this summer, past the curve in the road where the old mattress hung, remember Frank ‘Tisha’ Gadsden, Sr. who was born on on the 2nd of February in 1944, and died last November, on a Thursday, the 12th. Thank you, Mr. Gadsden for reminding us of so much of what we already knew.

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I was called to be an artist. And as an old old midwife said to me "If the Lord wants you to do something, you won't have no good luck' til you do." So, here I am, sharing what I love, longing to illuminate the work of art, which is everywhere.

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Posted in architecture, art, Arts & Culture, creativity, Green, Gullah
19 comments on “The Mattress Tree of Edisto Island
  1. Jae says:

    Great story Charlotte…did anyone ever write down how to rig that bed in a tree? It reminds me of all the nights I use to sleep outside in the lawn chair. I love the idea of the Island, a place to relax and be lazy. It also helps a person develop character and artistic flare. It reminds me of the story, “Daughters of the Dust”, holding off land developers, keeping the culture and the traditions alive. This is one that I think should be preserved.

    • Jae. Well, I am not sure about how to rig the thing now that you ask. Takes Gumption! (creative figuring out). Thanks for reminding me of Daughters of the Dust; I need to see it again. Thanks so much for reading and commenting Jae, and yes, this place is worth preserving in all her wildness.

      • JOE MURRAY says:

        CHAROLETTE, I KNEW FRANK GADSDEN VERY WELL, AND HIS NAME WAS TISHA. TISHA IS WHAT WE CALLED HIM, AND WHEN HE WAS SICK , I AND MANY OTHERS VISITED HIM.
        WHEN FRANK, “TISHA” WAS NEAR THE END. I SAW HIM FOR THE LAST TIME, I SAID “TISH, YOU STILL ARE THE MAYOR OF EDISTO” HE SQUEZED MY HAND , AS TO TELL ME I KNOW WHO YOU ARE, AND THANKS FOR COMING TO SEE ME.
        TISHA DIED THE NEXT DAY.
        AS FAR AS THE TREE, AND BED? TISHA WAS A GREAT LAWNMOWER FIXER, HE COULD MEND SHRIMP NETS, FIX BROKEN APPLIANCES, AND OCCASIONALY HE WORKED FOR ME, HIS BED WAS A $ MAKER FOR HIM, AND HE DID SLEEP ON IT.
        THE FAMILY WILL STILL HANG THE BED ON SPECIAL DAY’S, FRANK,S ASHES ARE SPREAD AT THE BASE OF THE TREE. WHY NOT?, THAT’S WHERE HE WAS AT HIS BEST. I MISS TISHA, AND STILL LOOK OVER THERE WHEN I GO BY.
        THE BED WAS HUNG WITH WHAT EVER WAS ON THE GROUND–AND WET MATRESSES WERE COVERD WITH A DRY ONE, AS MANY AS 3 WERE ON IT AT A TIME.

      • Thanks, Joe! I took “Tissa” from the obituary, but I am sure your spelling is probably correct. It is “Tisha” now. Do you know the beginnings of the bed in the tree? What made him hang it for the first time? And about what year was that?

  2. Pinkney says:

    I remember it being rigged with four ropes of differing lengths going to different places in the tree. I don’t think it moved a whole lot, but being attached to the limbs it probably had some gentle motion and Mr. Gadsden likely knew when weather was beginning to happen.

    • Pinkney, I just drove by there tonight on the way to the Piggly Wiggly…tomorrow would be Frank’s birthday and the boys are stringing something up to celebrate it seems….a new mattress with box springs? Will report tomorrow, and Jae, I will actually look at the rigging.

  3. Charlotte,
    Great post. I wonder what Frank would have thought about his “legend” being preserved online. Most newcomers still can’t believe he charged for photographs of the swinging mattress. Seems like just yesterday that the sign was up there informing everyone of the cost. As a young child I can remember Dad telling me “There is the swinging mattress, we are most to the beach.”

  4. In wildness is the preservation of the world! Oh, I just love that. And I believe it, too. And I think Frank’s idea was a wild and wonderful one. I still want to put a big old rope swing in my kitchen one day. I will miss Mr. Gadsden and his Wild Mattress.

    • That quote about wildness if from the audio interviews (by Michael Toms) with Joseph Campbell, called The Wisdom of Joseph Campbell. He talks about how we are made of earth and water and how we humans have a biological need for some wild nature from time to time, for balance. It is a touchstone for me, I know. A rope swing in the kitchen! I can’t WAIT! xo

  5. Charlotte:

    Thank you for this writing of “The Edisto Hammock”. I enjoyed reading it. I also like your paintings.
    Van Leer Rowe

  6. TEREION GADSDEN says:

    Thank you for taking the time out to remember my uncle and his legacy he will be sadly missed exspecially all his jokes thanks again.

  7. Mary Gadsden says:

    Hi Ms Charlotte Hutson-Wrenn how are you doing ,fine I hope as you know Frank is my brother and to tell you the truth their will never be another brother like Frank ,he did’nt think twice about telling you how he think about you. Ms Charlotte I always wanted to write a book about the history of Frank and the Bed under the tree is their any way you will be able to get togather with me on this matter .Their are some good time,bad time,happy time ,sad time,and some time that should not be told at all.I know from the beginning to the end.and think this book will be brought by everyone who know about the bed under the tree.please email me back Mary Gadsden
    ps frank love you like his sister.

  8. Shjuanna Connelly says:

    I have been going to Edisto for as long as I can remember. When I was a “young’un” the matresses were a landmark letting us know we were very close to the beach. This year is the first time in my 47 years that the matresses have not been hanging in the tree. Those matresses were part of the charm of my “Lowcountry” and my child hood trips to the beach. The ride will not be the same without them.

  9. Kingsdown Mattress Review…

    The Mattress Tree of Edisto Island « Charleston through an Artist's eye…

  10. Shawndrakae Mack says:

    This is Shawndrakae Mack and this is his niece. His birthday is coming up on Feb 2 and I will be decorating the bed. Everyone is welcome to stop by and place flowers or hear stories from the family about our uncle “Tisha”.

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What’s this?

Welcome to my blog about the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a place proud with beauty, history and art. Sometimes we feel a call, to be, to go, to do. I was called to be an artist, and as an old midwife from Alabama said, “If the good Lord wants you to do something, you won’t have no good luck until you do it.”

So here I am writing about what I know, about the 'under glimmer' as the poet Basho, says, the way I have learned to see, to notice. I am inspired by, and talking about the history and art and culture of this place that has called me to herself. By the ancestors.

My background includes a degree in fine arts from a small private college in Florida, and before that, four years of all girls' boarding school in Asheville. I worked as a professional photographer, helped my children grow up, and now and I love seasoned things, good food, better conversation, beauty, my beloved and beautiful Italian Greyhound, Beau. Moved by the sacred places and stories of this beautiful historic land called the Lowcountry, I am here in spirit and I hope to infect you with my love of this place.

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