Goats continue to fascinate visitors along Murrells Inlet’s Marsh Walk
When Christine Vernon leads her Ghosts, Pirates and Legends Tours along the Murrells Inlet Marsh Walk, a popular attraction on South Carolina’s Hammock Coast, it’s not only haunts and apparitions that get the most attention.
Sometimes, it’s goats, not ghosts, that people are talking about on the tour — specifically, the goats living on the island directly across the creek from the iconic Drunken Jack’s restaurant.
“People absolutely love the goats,” Vernon said. “A lot of people think it is unusual and adorable having goats on the island.”
For almost 40 years, owners of Drunken Jack’s have brought as many as a dozen goats to the island in the spring, summer and fall to keep the vegetation on what is appropriately called Goat Island to a minimum, ensuring that people have a spectacular view of the inlet. They also enjoy leftovers from the restaurant, including bread and hushpuppies.
But visitors often wonder, how did all those goats get on the island?
“Many of them ask,” Vernon said, “how the goats got there and why they are there.”
Well, she said, there are two versions of that story: one for kids — the small human variety, not the goats — and one for adults. The kid version is that the goats eat the grass and keep it low, which is true, but the adult version is sprinkled with a little humor and involves a different type of “grass.”
One is, let’s say, sort of a scapegoat tale.
“Back in the 1980s,” Vernon explained, “a couple of gentlemen decided to grow another kind of grass on the island. People in the area didn’t like the idea of that happening, so they removed the ‘grass’ and brought goats to the island, so they never had that problem again.”
(If you get what kind of “grass” Vernon is referring to, then you get the joke.)
But who’s responsible for all the goats?
Al Hitchcock, who co-owns Drunken Jack’s with David McMillan and Theodore Russell, has been in charge of placing and removing the goats on the island since that first year, 1983. He admits that the adult version of the story is true and people were told that goats were brought to the island just to take care of the undergrowth. But the real reason was that they didn’t want word getting out that some people had managed to grow marijuana on the island.
“We didn’t want,” he said, with a chuckle, “the newspapers to pick up on it.”
In Murrells Inlet, known as “the Seafood Capital of South Carolina,” some big tales have been told for years, so after a while, the “grass” story became more humorous than a potential public-relations problem.
Now Hitchcock said the big question people ask during the winter when the goats have been taken inland is, “When are the goats coming back?”
He said the date when the goats return to their island is usually April 15, income-tax day, and he joked that they make sure the goats have filed their tax returns first. They are removed around Thanksgiving for the winter season and, when needed, before any major storms or high tides.
“There are usually more than 50 people lined up on the Marsh Walk to watch when the goats arrive,” Hitchcock said, “and we have a lot of people who volunteer to help round up the goats in the fall, too.”
McMillan agrees with his partner that having the goats on the island is a special thing the public expects to see.
“There is a lot of disappointment when people come and the goats aren’t out there,” he said. “If you were here last year in the second week of April and they were there, you expect them to be there again this year at that time.”
He commends Hitchcock for overseeing the goats all these years.
“I know Al keeps a vigilant eye on the moon tides when there is a full moon or a new moon, and the high tides,” McMillan said. “There really hasn’t been a time when he wasn’t prepared.”
This year on Goat Island is extra special because one of the females named Tilly had twins. Hitchcock’s granddaughters, Gracie Coggins and Ava Heise, cared for the babies before they were brought to the island in April, he said.
“They love taking care of the babies,” he said.
Some of the funniest stories about the goats come from the goats getting loose during the wrangling process. One such time was about 20 years ago when the goats were being removed before a hurricane threat.
“Before one hurricane threat, we had to go get them during low tide and they had a larger area to avoid capture,” Hitchcock said. “One male goat was the last one and he was determined not to get caught, so we left him there. That evening, the storm came, and by the morning, he was ready to jump in the boat.”
Another story Hitchcock related involved a goat that escaped into the Murrells Inlet community and wasn’t located for weeks. By the time they caught the goat, it had eaten a woman’s collard greens.
“A man from Georgetown came with his dog and wrangled the goat into a corner, and then he got a leash on him,” he said with a smile. “If a goat causes problems, I just tell Animal Control that it belongs to Bubba.”
Bubba Love, a long-time employee of Drunken Jack’s who feeds and cares for the goats daily, is an icon in Murrells Inlet. The restaurant called Bubba’s Love Shak, also on the Marsh Walk, is named in his honor.
Vernon said it is heartwarming to her that Hitchcock and Love take such good care of the goats and she enjoys seeing them on the island.
“Every time I walk down the Marsh Walk and see them, it makes me happy,” she said. “It puts a smile on my face.”
Austin Bond, a long-time resident of Murrells Inlet and youth pastor at Low Country Community Church, agreed.
“Most people love animals, and it is fun to see them out there grazing,” Bond said. “The goats also do an excellent job of keeping growth down on the island, so restaurant-goers can enjoy the view without it being impeded.”
He said the community and visitors owe a debt of gratitude to Hitchcock and Love.
“It is a lot of extra work taking care of animals,” Bond said. “They make it possible to have a beautiful view of Murrells Inlet from the Marsh Walk.”
He added that it is very entertaining when they transport the goats on and off the island, with help from volunteers.
“Guys like Bubba have to chase them down in the fall and spring,” Bond said. “I’ve seen them running around after them and it is quite hilarious to watch.”
For updates and information about the goats, visit the Drunken Jack’s Facebook page here.
By Clayton Stairs / tourism manager for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce