Many people have told stories about the Sunset Lodge in Georgetown, South Carolina, which closed five decades ago this year. However, knowing which stories are true is difficult. That is the challenge of an oral history of a brothel. No one kept records, no one took pictures, and no one put the story of his visit to the Sunset Lodge in his journal. Written first-person accounts do not exist. Newspaper articles were, for the most part, embarrassingly romanticized versions of what the writer thought he or she should say about a “house of ill repute.”
In 1935, a half-dozen brothels existed in Florence, South Carolina, a town of 15,000 people. Florence was a railroad town. By 1940, the train station was the busiest in South Carolina, with 14 passenger trains daily. Train stations and brothels go together. Florence was overrun with prostitution houses.
D.E. Ellerbe stepped up in 1935 to run for mayor of Florence on the platform of firing the chief of police for not shutting down the brothels. Ellerbe won that race by beating a man who had been mayor 25 years. At the first city council meeting after Ellerbe took office, city council fired the man who had been chief of police 14 years along with three members of the police department.
Hazel Weisse owned one of the Florence brothels. Her property was located on Commander Street, about four blocks from the Florence train station. The 1930 census listed Hazel as the owner of a boarding house with three boarders, all single women under 25 years old. After the 1935 election, Hazel started making plans to move her brothel.
Almost everyone suffered during the Depression. In Georgetown County, the Atlantic Coast Lumber Company shut down, the railroads stopped running, and the banks closed. Fortunately for Georgetown, virtually all the old rice plantations in Georgetown County had been purchased by rich industrialists from the Northeast who wanted to duck hunt. Also, International Paper announced in 1936 the immediate construction of the largest paper and pulp mill in the world in Georgetown. Thus, Hazel decided to move her operation there.
Hazel bought a house in 1936 on the Coastal Road, three miles south of Georgetown, on the way to Charleston. She bought more land in 1937, 1939, and 1941 until she owned 20 acres around her house, which was named Sunset Lodge. Hazel was in business in Georgetown for 33 years, from 1936 until 1969; from the terms of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to President Richard Nixon; from sitting by a console radio listening to Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chat” to watching Gomer Pyle on a color television set; from the flights of Amelia Earhart to the spaceflight of Neil Armstrong. She became a rich and powerful woman.
The 1940 census shows that Hazel owned a boarding house, and she claimed her annual income was $3,033. The 1940 Federal Wage or Salary Report for South Carolina showed 76,000 men and 26,000 women were working in the category of Rural, Non-Farm. Of those 76,000 men, only 1,400 made more than $3,000 and of those 26,000 women, only 23 made more than $3,000. Hazel was only in her fourth year of a business that lasted 33 years, and she already was building wealth. When she died in 1974, her probated estate was $175,000, roughly the equivalent of $1.5 million today.
Cars entered Georgetown every day looking for the Sunset Lodge. Stories abound of men riding around town with out-of-state license tags. One man said his 10-year-old son did not know what the Sunset Lodge was, but he could give excellent directions.
The marina on Front Street competed with other marinas along the East Coast. Owners of yachts in New York would tell their ship captains to take their boats to Miami for the owners to use when they arrived. Invariably, the boats would “break down” in Georgetown for a few days. The marina manager would have to ask the ship captain what he wanted listed on the bill as the reason for the repair.
When Hazel arrived in Georgetown, the airport was a grass runway. During World War II, the Army Air Force built an airport with concrete runways across the road from the Sunset Lodge, and the government deeded the airport to the county after the war. Hazel now had customers who could arrive by airplane, get a ride across the Coastal Road, and still make it home in time for supper. A high school student reported a $50 tip for driving a man from the airport to the Sunset Lodge and back to his airplane.
The dark side to the fascinating stories of the Sunset Lodge is the immorality. Hazel enabled destructive human behavior. How much pain did her business create in families? How many relationships were damaged or destroyed? How many men were consumed with guilt? What was the effect on the women who worked there? Of the countless stories about the Sunset Lodge, none tells of a family broken or of a child torn by the tension of family strife. No one wants to share those stories; those stories cut too deeply, they are too personal, too hurtful.
Hazel’s brothel was no different than any other house of prostitution, but she lived in a time and a place that allowed her to build a business that was so distinct that 50 years after its closing people still are telling stories about it. How did she do it?
First, Hazel gave away an abundance of money. It may have been a part of her business model, but it was effective. One woman from Georgetown referred to Hazel as “our own United Way.” Another person said the volunteers for an annual fundraising group always wanted to call on Hazel because she was an automatic gift.
Hazel’s name can be found in the Georgetown Times for her contributions to Easter Seals and the March of Dimes. She donated annually to C.L. Ford store on Front Street so that 30 baskets of food could be assembled and distributed to the needy at Thanksgiving. She gave money to families of men who died in a work accident or whose house burned down. She is thought to have donated more money to the community each year than International Paper.
Secondly, Hazel ran her business her way and controlled her employees. She would not let them go to Front Street unless they were conservatively dressed. She made them go in pairs, never alone. She made them ride with Hazel’s chauffeur or take a cab and had them go to the doctor every Monday morning. She put the doctor’s certificate of good health under the glass on each bedside table.
She trained her employees not to look at men on the sidewalk — no soliciting and no loitering. Hazel was not about to embarrass the residents of Georgetown. Her business had a single location, and men had to go to her and knock on the back door. If they were dirty, drunk, or dangerous, Hazel refused entry.
Hazel sent new employees to the bank to open savings accounts. She was in a cash business, and by Monday she wanted that cash out of her building. The bank tellers were trained to open new accounts and to ask no questions when a woman gave her address as Route 2, Box 300. When the women closed their savings accounts, usually within a year, they generally had more than $8,000. The average annual income in South Carolina in 1960 was $4,000.
Hazel and her employees shopped on Front Street. Hazel bought a new car every year and took her employees to buy cars. She purchased food, supplies, furniture, jewelry, clothes, shoes, and dry cleaning. Her employees had plenty of money and freely bought whatever they wanted. The son of one business owner said his dad’s jewelry store lost $40,000 in revenue during the 1969 Christmas season when the Sunset Lodge closed.
Finally, Hazel was powerful politically and spent time in Columbia with influential politicians. The South Carolina Legislature informally adjourned one week every spring, the same week Hazel closed the Sunset Lodge to everyone except legislators and judges.
A concerted effort was never made to shut her down. The Rev. Dr. H. D. Bull, rector of Prince George Winyah Church in Georgetown, went to the grand jury every year to insist Hazel be arrested, but nothing ever happened. A group of ministers went to see the sheriff to demand the Sunset Lodge be closed. The sheriff responded, “Preachers come and go, but we have to live here. Send me your elders and your deacons, and I will close it down,” but nothing ever happened.
Her customers were the rich and the powerful. An old joke in Georgetown referred to the low numbers on the license tags, both in-state and out-of-state, by asking how many cars could pull out of the Sunset Lodge parking lot before the tag numbers exceeded 10.
Many Georgetown residents know and still tell a well-known story about the Sunset Lodge. The man involved told the story on himself by the time he died. The man was in the Sunset Lodge one evening when a friend told him the man’s wife was sitting in her car outside. The man had taken the precaution of hiding his car in the woods, but he was stuck. About 20 minutes later, a hearse pulled up and two men jumped out and ran inside with a stretcher. A few minutes later, the two men carried out a man on the stretcher with a sheet pulled over his head. The men in the hearse took the man home, where he waited for his wife to give up and return. He explained to his wife that someone stole his car and he and the sheriff had been riding around looking for it. She picked up the phone and called the sheriff to ask if he had seen her husband that night. “Yes, ma’am,” the sheriff said, “we could not find his car tonight, but I am sure we will find it tomorrow!”
The Sunset Lodge closed in 1969. The sheriff was quoted in the paper as saying Hazel asked him to close her down, and she may have. She was 69 years old, she was ill, and she was tired. Georgetown in 1969 was not the same town as Georgetown in 1936. The suspicion is that the sheriff led Hazel into a conversation about how and when she would close. He resisted the option of flashing lights and high-profile arrests; instead, he allowed Hazel to continue to live in the garage apartment in the backyard. They may have privately cut a deal before the sheriff took a witness to the brothel and said, “Hazel, it’s time.”
Hazel asked a young couple, Bettye and Jack Marsh, with two small children to buy her house. She held their mortgage, and she retained a life estate in the garage apartment. The couple said it took a long time for the word to get out that the Sunset Lodge had closed. At least 10 cars stopped by every day for several years. The men invariably were embarrassed when they drove around back and saw the swing set.
The couple worried about the safety of their children, so they dug deep holes on either side of the driveway and put posts in the ground with a heavy chain between them. One day a car turned into the driveway and plowed into the chain, badly damaging the car. Jack ran over to make sure the driver was okay, and he asked, “Didn’t you see the chain?” “Yes,” answered the visitor, “but I didn’t believe it!”
When Hazel’s health worsened, she moved to Ashley House in Charleston to be close to Roper Hospital. In 1974, her trustee took her to Indiana, where she died on July 15. Her death certificate listed her occupation as, “Retired—Investments.”