Clad in snake boots, thick pants and an insect-repellent shirt, Oliver Dominick trampled low-lying brush and strode through tall grass.
The boots rode high, almost reaching his knees, but Dominick conceded a large rattlesnake could strike even higher. Still, he plowed ahead, waving away insects and pushing aside branches on a warm July day, revisiting his magnificent boyhood home.
Dominick, 63, grew up on The Wedge, a 1,500-acre plantation located outside McClellanville, on the banks of the South Santee River.
Most recently, The Wedge has been on the auction block, offered for sale by its owner, the University of South Carolina. USC, which once operated a research facility at the site, was asking for at least $4 million for the estate.
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But it found no takers.
Today, The Wedge remains for sale, and Oliver Dominick is keen on helping to shape the plantation’s future, no matter who its next owner might be.
Long used as a rice plantation before becoming a winter respite for wealthy Northerners, Dominick’s father, Richard, purchased The Wedge in 1966 and began converting the property’s outbuildings into research facilities for his meticulous study of moths.
The elder Dominick, a retired New York eye surgeon, had chosen wisely when purchasing the Wedge – the place abounds in bugs. To walk The Wedge in summertime is to commune with ticks, spiders, chiggers, biting flies and mosquitoes, which are exceptionally bountiful.
Yet the presence of those creatures – or of poison ivy, snakes and alligators – did not deter Oliver Dominick as he explored the thickly wooded grounds of his former home.
In fact, Dominick was giddy to be revisiting his old stomping grounds, entertaining thoughts of what conservation-and-education activities once again could occur on the plantation.
‘Place you ... never forget’
In 1976, Dominick’s father suffered a fatal accident at The Wedge. Soon thereafter, his family decided to sell the property to the University of South Carolina, which furthered Richard Dominick’s legacy by conducting insect-related research at the plantation for two decades.
But money for research at The Wedge dried up in 1996. Since then, the university has leased the property to private individuals. After USC failed to sell the Wedge in June, Oliver Dominick traveled south from his home in Maine to revisit the plantation and contemplate its future.
As Dominick retraced his boyhood steps, he stopped for a moment in the small cottage that he had shared with his parents and sister during their first year at The Wedge, while the plantation’s 8,000-square-foot main house underwent restoration.
“This is the sort of place you spend a year in and never forget,” said Dominick, a retired research physiologist.
Stepping outside, he gazed down a dirt road running between oak trees, leading away from the house to rice ponds and the river.
“Imagine as a kid on a horse riding through country like this – with no one telling you what to do.”
Some of America’s richest families
Oliver’s father, Richard B. “Dick” Dominick, enjoyed the same type of charmed Lowcountry life during his own childhood at the family’s winter home – Jasper County’s Gregorie Neck plantation.
Dick’s father, Bayard Dominick, was a partner in the New York stock brokerage firm of Dominick and Dominick, as was his uncle, who owned Bulls Island, now part of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge outside McClellanville.
The Dominicks were hardly the only Yankees to enjoy the mild winters and ample hunting opportunities afforded by their Lowcountry estates.
Rich Northerners came in droves to the Lowcountry in the decades following the Civil War, attracted by the temperate weather, exotic flora and fauna, affordable land prices and train service that delivered them overnight from New York close to the gates of their S.C. estates.
Among the S.C. plantation owners were some of America’s richest families, including the DuPonts, Doubledays, Kresses and Vanderbilts.
Though the families’ presence in the Lowcountry was subtle – their homes were secluded among vast acreage and tucked behind gates – the Northerners did not go unnoticed.
In the early 1930s, The News and Courier of Charleston assigned a handful of journalists to chronicle the comings and goings of these new plantation owners. The writings of one Allendale-based reporter were republished in 2009 in the book “Northern Money, Southern Land: The Lowcountry Plantation Sketches of Chlotilde R. Martin,” co-edited by S.C. historians Robert B. Cuthbert and Stephen G. Hoffius.
In their introduction, the editors describe how each winter the Northerners traded high-society life in New York for simpler pleasures down South: “For many the schedule was to rise early in the morning for a hunt (after black servants had crept into their bedrooms before dawn to light the fireplaces that were the only source of heat), eat breakfast on the run, move to another field in the afternoon to hunt a different prey, bathe (often with water transported by servants since some of the places had no plumbing), dine in tuxedo jackets (though perhaps with boots and rough pants under the table), and end the day with cigars and after-dinner drinks. This was South Carolina plantation life of the 1930s. ...”
At Gregorie Neck plantation, the book notes, the Dominick family raised quail and built a whitewashed brick house overlooking the Tullifinny River.
Encouraged by his parents, teenage Richard Dominick began catching moths while at Gregorie Neck.
It was hardly just a collection of the unremarkable moths that congregate around the porch light or hide away in chests to destroy wool sweaters. Instead, Dominick enjoyed capturing large, showy species, including the fantastic luna moth and handsome cecropia, whose body and wings feature brilliant red-and-orange coloring. His collection was so good it was accepted by the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Buying The Wedge
As Richard Dominick matured, he enrolled at Yale University and served in World War II as a Marine Corps aviator, piloting a dive bomber in the Pacific Theater. Returning from the war, he completed his undergraduate studies and then medical school, becoming an ophthalmologist in New York.
Though Dominick enjoyed practicing medicine, said his son Oliver, he found the administrative policies of hospitals stifling. Dominick much preferred the life of an adventurer, regularly exploring the natural wonders of East Africa, South America, and Nictau, a remote, rustic hunting and fishing camp in New Brunswick, Canada.
If nothing else, Dominick was a “man of action,” said Oliver Dominick. “This guy was going to make life happen, and he wasn’t going to let anyone stand in his way.”
In the 1960s, Richard Dominick returned to South Carolina on a trip that would change his life.
Stopping in a country store, Dominick purchased a field guide to butterflies and moths. Inside its pages he was amazed to see illustrations of moths from the Coosawhatchee area of the Lowcountry, near Gregorie Neck plantation, which had been sold after Bayard Dominick’s death.
Richard Dominick then realized that, in order to write that section of the field guide, the author must have consulted the collection of moths that Dominick had collected as a boy and donated to the American Museum of Natural History. To Dominick’s disappointment, however, the illustrations of the moths were subpar and the field guide was not comprehensive.
Soon enough, Richard Dominick gave up his career in medicine, and, with his fourth wife, Tatiana, purchased The Wedge, moving south with son Oliver and daughter Julia.
‘An insect rainstorm’
Resolved to improve the classification and understanding of moths, Richard Dominick established a laboratory at The Wedge and began collecting specimens.
His efforts entailed more than prancing across the plantation with a butterfly net and collection jar, though those tools were critical. Instead, he strung bedsheets between trees and placed a black light at the taut sheet’s base, to intercept moths flying in the night.
He placed other sheets around the base of trees and enlisted Oliver’s help to paint the tree trunks with buckets of fermenting slop, which he had concocted from combining beer and fruit. The moths would be attracted to the intoxicating mixture and, then, in a drunken stupor, fall to the base of the tree or cling to the bark, making for easy collection.
Dominick’s most ambitious method of collection was to illuminate an old cottage on the property and let it function as a giant bug trap.
Dominick blacked out the cottage’s windows, painted the walls and ceilings white and installed black lights inside. At night, he left all the doors open and flipped on the light switch, prompting moths and other bugs to stream across the property into the glowing trap. The next morning, the cottage would be crawling with thousands of bugs. Dominick inspected his bounty and removed the specimens he desired.
“It was sort of like walking into an insect rainstorm,” says Oliver Dominick. “It was like being on another planet. It was actually a little crazy. If you weren’t into the insects and science it was unmanageable. If you were it was really exciting.”
Oliver Dominick was just as creative in his interactions with bugs on the property.
During his first year at The Wedge, mosquitoes would sneak past broken door and window screens to gather in the cottage bedroom that he shared with his sister. Dominick’s solution was to collect frogs and release them in his bedroom, a few hours before turning in for the night. By bedtime, the frogs had enjoyed some dinner and removed the pests.
In the morning, Dominick would collect the frogs and release them outside.
Or at least most of the frogs, he said, estimating the recapture rate at 80 percent and noting the difficulty of catching leaping frogs. “You don’t reach where the frog is, you reach where it’s going to be,” he said.
UFOs and LBMs
The Dominicks did not conduct all the moth research on their own.
Richard Dominick invited scientists and university professors to his home to help. He established the Wedge Entomological Research Foundation, which paid natural scientists to help create a multi-issue, comprehensive guide about moths: “The Moths of North America North of Mexico.”
Still, Dominick was the main thrust behind all this research, pioneering innovative research techniques – from the best methods for preserving caterpillars through freeze drying, to the most successful ways to photograph moths and their intricate patterns using backlit blocks of wax he would melt and shape on his stove at The Wedge.
“It was pretty revolutionary and, boy, there was wax all over the place,” says Oliver Dominick of his father’s trials and errors. “It was really fun.”
In 1971, the first part of the moth series was published – a 170-page volume concerning 115 species of the Sphingidae family of moths, also known as hawk moths or sphinx moths.
Meanwhile, Dominick’s collection of moths at The Wedge was growing and included newly discovered species. In his laboratory, he had drawers labeled UFOs – unidentified flying objects – and drawer after drawer of LBMs – little brown moths.
It was in Dominick’s laboratory that his research suddenly came to an end in May 1976.
It is thought Dominick, who had a reputation for absentmindedness when absorbed in his work, mistakenly grabbed one of his moth-killing jars, instead of a glass of water, when he was thirsty. Tipping back the jar, Dominick ingested a solution of cyanide and plaster of Paris.
He quickly became ill and died.
The Dominick family buried their patriarch, per his wishes, in a plain pine coffin in an unmarked grave near a grove of sweet bay trees on the plantation.
From USC to horror movie set
Following the family’s sale of The Wedge to USC, insect-related research continued through the university’s International Center for Public Health Research.
Public health professionals from dozens of developing countries traveled to The Wedge to take courses about insect ecology and control, including the management of mosquitoes and control of mosquito-borne disease.
According to former director Dwight Williams, the center also uncovered Lyme disease in South Carolina and tested assorted insecticides for their effectiveness.
Through a series of ponds dug across the plantation, The Wedge also was used to train Peace Corps volunteers on how to raise a type of fish that eats mosquito larvae.
In 2008, a horror movie starring Kevin Costner, “The New Daughter,” was filmed at The Wedge.
After research funding ran out in 1996, USC reduced its presence at The Wedge, by then in need of major renovations.
However, Richard Dominick’s legacy lives on through a collection of more than 25,000 moths that he collected, housed by USC’s McKissick Museum.
The Wedge Entomological Research Foundation also continues to publish books on moths, producing about two volumes a year. In 40 years, says Oliver Dominick, who sits on the foundation’s board, about 25 percent of North America’s moths have been comprehensively documented by the foundation.
While proud his father’s work continues, Oliver Dominick concedes “there’s a long way to go,” adding most current research focuses on rather unglamorous species of moths, like the LBMs.
Now, he says, “We are high into the nerd scale.”
Back at The Wedge
During this July’s visit, Oliver Dominick’s snake boots were worn for naught. He did not encounter any serpents at The Wedge, though he did see an alligator floating in the South Santee, close to the plantation’s dock.
Driving and walking across The Wedge, he found some of the plantation to be overgrown; rice ponds were infiltrated by salt water and invasive grasses.
Still, the landscape easily brought back fond childhood memories. Dominick recalled exploring turtle nests on nearby beaches, letting newborn alligators clamp onto his earlobes to make alligator “earrings” and his dog, Helper, buried under a massive, centuries-old live oak.
Dominick briefly searched for Helper’s grave but stopped for fear of uncovering snakes in the grass.
He did not seem too disappointed.
For a day, at least, Dominick was back at The Wedge, close to departed friends and family, traversing the plantation’s dirt roads, with no one telling him what to do.