(a continuing series in partnership with CityTrex.com)
Bluffton's dogged insistence upon survival is a two hundred year tale told with flood, fire, wind, rain, rice and cotton, slavery and sedition, war, boom, bust and boom again. Through it all the town of Bluffton has remained virtually unchanged in many ways until the recent explosion in development. Yet, the beating heart of whatever modern Bluffton may become, is Old Town, a square mile National Register Historic District and the key to the town's past and future.
– Excerpted from The Lowcountry Weekly, March 4, 2009
In the two years since I wrote those lines much has changed and much has not in Old Town Bluffton.
The stretch of Highway 46 leading into town from 278 is still a work in perpetual progress. The mixed-use development of The Promenade at the tip of the historic center somehow bridges the gap between trendy and traditional. Meanwhile, throughout Old Town the famous “Bluffton state of mind” seems to thrive in an eclectic blend of culture and commerce, the old juxtaposed with the new. Nowhere is this more evident than Calhoun Street. On the south end the street begins at the public docks on the May River, a popular spot for locals to wet a line and gaze up river at the shrimp boats docked at the century old Bluffton Oyster company. For decades this was where locals caught the ferry to Daufuskie Island. Some years back an idealistic young teacher named Pat Conroy stepped aboard the boat and took a voyage into literary history. Next door the Church of the Cross keeps watch over the river from the bluff above, as it has for more than 150 years.
Like their Beaufort cousins, Sea Island planters sought out the river bluffs to build summer cottages, escape the oppressive heat and mosquitoes and take advantage of the river’s cool breezes. The river made commerce and trade convenient and her pristine waters yielded an abundance of shellfish. Oystering eventually became both an industry and a culture. The seeds of the Civil War were planted here beneath the sprawling branches of a live oak. The tree known as the Secession Oak still stands, it’s ancient limbs covered in resurrection ferns – perhaps a fitting metaphor for the town.
Old Bluffton has survived fires, floods and hurricanes. She’s been torched by Union Troops, suffered through Reconstruction, the Great Depression and the implosion of the oyster industry. But perhaps the greatest threat to this sleepy little village came in the form of a different kind of army – a legion armed with checkbooks, lawyers, bulldozers and bankers. While the developers gobbled up outlying parcels, bought out old family farms and spread gated communities over pastures, fields and forests the city began an aggressive annexation program. Nearly overnight this tiny riverside community became the third largest municipality in the state, expanding from one square mile to just under sixty square miles.
I once wrote that Bluffton was the “the quintessential sleepy little village – a coastal Brigadoon lost in time.” The problem with sleepy little towns is that someone always seems to want to wake them up. It’s human nature to change what we seek, and more often than not, spoil it. Myrtle Beach springs to mind. Hilton Head was doomed the moment the bridge opened. And that is both Bluffton’s fortune and dilemma: location.
“When we moved here no one understood why we wanted to live here,” says Babbie Guscio, owner of The Store. “Now we can’t keep them away. They’ve discovered what we always knew: life is better in the slow lane.”
I’m quick to point out that there always seems to be someone intent on widening the slow lane into a freeway. Standing in front of The Store, though, it’s apparent that the original historic district is still very much the eye of the storm, still that slow lane.
Guscio’s Calhoun Street shop has been a roadside attraction along this particular slow lane for more than three decades. She describes her whimsical inventory of art, fashion and furnishings as “a mélange,” a throw back to the era of the “notion” shop. Right across the street her son, Will, is a partner in Old Town’s newest – and perhaps most unexpected – venture, Vineyard 55 (see Life Behind Bars). The brainchild of Jon and Joe Rinaldi (late of Sun City’s British Open Pub), Vineyard 55 offers “fine wine and artisanal cheese from around the world.” The exterior is all Lowcountry, with its tin roof and wide-open front porch, but inside the motif is meant to conjure an old world winery with modern amenities. The huge selection of wine is balanced with an equally impressive cache of exotic beers and ales with a select rotation on tap at the bar.
This is St. Patrick’s Day, as well as the first Farmer’s Market of the season. By mid-morning cars begin to line both sides of Calhoun and some of the side streets. The block of Calhoun in front of The Cottages is cordoned off and the market will sprawl through Thomas Viljac’s retro-historic urban development. Viljac’s wife and partner, Kim, also manages the market, which last year moved to The Cottages and instantly transformed Thursday afternoons into a weekly street festival.
“Farmer’s markets always have their own personality,” she says. “Ours is all about community. A lot of people walk and bring their dogs and kids after school. We have a lot of kids’ programs and things for them to do while mom and dad shop. It’s a unique experience in the Lowcountry.”
Unique is a trademark in Old Town. Jacob Preston (Bluffton’s self-proclaimed “tallest potter”) turns out remarkable pieces of functional art in his studio. Around the corner Rhonda Fantozzi fashions wrought iron into custom furnishings and sculpture just steps away from Nancy Beaupre’s award-winning children’s bookstore, The Storybook Shoppe.
Beaupre found the location last fall and moved right in with her hand picked selection of books and board games. She says the lack of parking hassles and pedestrian-friendly village vibe make Old Town a perfect location. “There are a lot of families with kids here,” she says, “and a lot of grandparents. The merchant’s council here works so closely together and there’s always something going on. So that’s a big plus.”
“Bluffton matters,” says Maureen Richards. The Executive Director of the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society oversees those efforts from an office in the Heyward House on the corner of Boundary and Bridge. Local planter, John James Cole, built the house (probably with slave labor) as a summer home about 1840. Today it serves as the town's official welcome center, museum, and a living reminder of what life was like for white Antebellum society. The slave cabin out back tells the rest of the story in volumes. And that is literally another story. An officer with the National Trust For Historic Preservation recently completed a project on slave cabins in South Carolina. He spent a night in the Heyward House cabin and recently presented at the Trust’s national conference. He’s slated to do the same in Bluffton next November.
For Richards and others, the area’s rich history is a valuable resource and an opportunity to cultivate the burgeoning market for heritage tourism in Bluffton. “Many folks and families throughout the world are interested in the history of people and places,” she says. “We have the real deal here. We have the real physical history. Stories are one thing, but when you have the stories and the places that represent them, it’s the full picture.”
“We have all the pieces,” says Richards. “We have the art, we have the history, we have the old town, a walkable community, we’re green – we have the Farmer’s Market – we’re on the river. We have the whole package.”
Each visit to Old Town seems to bring a new discovery along with an overwhelming sense of calm. It’s most evident on the bluff by the Church of the Cross. The lawn overlooking the vast bend of the May River is a favorite picnic site for locals and visitors alike. It is a prime spot to sit beneath a giant coastal cedar, gaze across the water and just exhale.
Back at the Farmer’s Market the people have gathered in Kelly green to browse the vendors, sample the food and listen to the live music. I make my way through the crowd on a determined path toward the rear of The Cottages and the splendid Old Dispensary Bar. It is St. Patrick’s Day, after all. I can exhale later.
To be continued (indefinitely)…
Coming in future issues:
Rediscovering the rare lost art of Old Town Vintage Posters.
The savory science of Ted Huffman’s barbecue obsession.
How to properly eat your way through the Farmer’s Market.
The potential impact of “smart” urban development and “green” tourism.