History and Culture of Bluffton, South Carolina
Beneath the towering oaks, along shell-strewn shores and across heart of pine floorboards, Bluffton’s history is alive today through preservation, education and exploration.
Photo By: Darcy Kiefel
Photo By: Chris M. Rogers
Photo By: Chris M. Rogers
Altamaha Town Heritage Preserve
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 100-acre Altamaha Town Heritage Preserve just north of the Town of Bluffton, cradles so much of the Palmetto State’s early history. The gnarled and lofty oaks were just seedlings when the Yamassee Indian tribe called this spot home in the early 1700s, encouraged by British traders to settle as a buffer against the Spanish. Evidence of ancient tribal activity, burial mounds, Colonial cemeteries and rice plantation activity further tell this area’s story through its many manifestations. The property was saved from development by The Trust for Public Land and the Beaufort County Rural and Critical Lands Program back in 2004. Devoid of cars, this quiet and contemplative place welcomes hikers, who break through the shade of the forest onto a sun-dappled saltmarsh overlooking the Okatee River.
Heyward House Museum
Set in the middle of Bluffton’s one-square-mile nationally recognized Historic District, the Heyward House Museum is also the official Welcome Center for the Town of Bluffton. This West Indian-style Carolina Farmhouse has remained relatively unchanged since it was built in 1841. Held by the Heyward family, descendants of a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, from 1881 to 1998, the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society purchased the property as a house-museum and offers guided tours daily.
Church of the Cross
Calhoun Street, the main road through Old Town, terminates on the bluff overlooking the May River. Serene and contemplative, this spot was chosen by the Anglican congregation to build the historic Church of the Cross in 1857. One of the only structures spared from burning by Union troops, this gothic cruciform structure is clad in unfinished cypress. The pink glass for the windows came from England, and the exposed beams are hand hewn from indigenous yellow pine. Designed by notable 19th century Charleston architect E. B. White, the Church of the Cross was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
Oyster Factory Park
When development threatened to diminish the storied Bluffton Oyster Co.’s near century-old operation, the Beaufort County and the Town of Bluffton moved to protect not only this historic seafood operation but also the land on the May River so that its citizens and visitors would have access to the water. Patrons can partake of sweet oysters, shrimp and crab in season either at the market or the restaurant, as well as a boat ramp, picnic tables and an open-air pavilion.
Oyster Factory Park also is the site of the historic Garvin-Garvey Cottage, a recently restored freedman’s home. This rare example of Reconstruction-era vernacular architecture illuminates the story of Cyrus Garvin.
West Africans brought through Sullivan’s Island near Charleston during the 1700s carried with them a keen knowledge of rice cultivation and the craft of weaving wide, shallow coiled baskets from palmetto fronds, which were used to remove the rice from the chaff. The art of making these sweetgrass baskets has been passed down from mother to daughter for centuries, and now, both old and new baskets woven from natural materials are prized by collectors. Visitors can learn the history of the sweetgrass basket as well as techniques to make their own from a seventh-generation Gullah basket maker every other Saturday at Hilton Head Island’s Coastal Discovery Museum.
Palmetto Bluff Village Green
Portions of the brick foundation and columns are all that remain of the opulent summer mansion of a New York banker and his socialite wife. Destroyed by fire in 1926, these ruins create the set piece of Palmetto Bluff’s Village Green. This verdant square overlooks the May River and is surrounded by shops and eateries, a chapel and the Montage Palmetto Bluff—a luxury inn and the site of many a romantic wedding. This view convinced Union Camp, which purchased the property in the 1930s, to preserve the 20,000 acres of surrounding timber and use it as a hunting retreat for clients and employees. That same conservation ethic carried over when the site was developed as Palmetto Bluff in 2004.
Take a boat launch from Hilton Head Island across Broad Creek to Daufuskie Island, a key stop on the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Amid the resorts and golf courses, vestiges of the quiet farming and fishing community that descended from freed slaves remains. At one time, more than a thousand Gullah lived on this island near the mouth of the Savannah River. But, pollution from industry along the river decimated the thriving oyster business in the 1950s.
Daufuskie Endangered Places Program
Fewer than 20 Gullah call Daufuskie home, although many heirs still own land and the Daufuskie Endangered Places Program, according to a Georgia Public Broadcasting report, is helping to rebuild houses and restore historic sites. Among those bits of history: the First Union African Baptist Church and the two-room school house where author Pat Conroy taught Gullah children, a story he captured in his memoir, “The Water is Wide.”