CITY GUIDE 2022: Bluffton

Old Town is New Again

Bluffton historic district teeming with history

By Dean Rowland

Newcomers to Bluffton as tourists or residents might think that Old Town hasn’t changed much since it was incorporated in 1852.

It looks old because it is old. Its charm has not changed, but it has changed.

The Old Town Bluffton Historic District — stretching west from Burnt Church Road to Verdier Cove Road along the May River Road and the river — was granted National Register Historic District status in 1996.

While it’s true that Old Town has retained many of its historic buildings, homes and landmarks, the 1-square-mile village that sits atop the bluffs of the May River went through a period of benign existence before flourishing decades ago as a commercial, cultural and religious center with a decidedly eclectic personality. Until then it was a quick stopover before heading across the bridge to the resort community of Hilton Head.

Numerous art and pottery studios, eateries, quirky shops and a farmers’ market line Calhoun Street, the main two-lane road that runs south from Route 46 to the river. Numerous side streets abut Calhoun.

The early times of Bluffton’s beginning can be traced to the early 1800s when area plantation owners built homes for their families as summer retreats along the cool, breezy May River. They left behind hot, humid and unhealthy living conditions in the lowland rice and cotton fields.

The calm and contentment of Bluffton and its small group of residents became a political hotbed in 1844 when state congressman Robert Barnwell Rhett addressed about 500 residents under the Big Oak Tree protesting federal taxes and other issues adversely affecting the South. The “separatist” or “Bluffton” movement was the genesis for South Carolina to become the first state to secede from the Union in 1860.

That infamous 80-foot-high, 400-year-old oak tree collapsed a few years ago.

With the Civil War raging in the 1860s, and the North and South invading each other, Union forces overran Hilton Head and Port Royal by the presence of the battleship USS Wabash and an assortment of other military instruments. A Union gunboat and two transports chugged up the May River on June 4, 1863, in a thick dense mist with infantrymen aboard. That morning, the Union shelled and set ablaze the town of Bluffton, a strategically located military outpost.

The antebellum life in Bluffton, known as the “Heart of the Lowcountry” for its geographic crossroads location, ended that day in mushroom clouds of smoke. Most of the 60 or so dwellings in town became ashes.

The rebuilding of Old Town steadfastly stretched into the 1880s when it became Beaufort County’s economic seat.

Today, 10 antebellum homes in Bluffton still stand as reminders of a storied history.

The Church of the Cross, a Bluffton landmark since 1854 and a mighty presence on a bluff along the May River, survived the Union assault.

Another building that survived the siege is The Heyward House on Boundary Street, built in 1841 by enslaved West Africans. It serves as the town’s museum and welcome center.

Cyrus Garvin, a freed slave, built his small cottage on the banks of the river in 1870. It’s a historical footnote as the “Garvin House” (or Garvin-Garvey House) is believed to be one of the oldest homes in Bluffton built by a freed slave and still exists today. After some neglect and disrepair, the home was restored by the town using some of the home’s original materials.

Old-timers today see a revised, re-invented Old Town Bluffton that has retained its southern small-town hospitality while reaping award after award from international and national travel, leisure and living publications.

Across the street to the north is The Promenade, a continuation of Calhoun Street that showcases a vibrant mixed-use eight-acre-plot of land filled to capacity with restaurants, shops, apartments, parks and boutiques. 

The town put on paper in 2006 its Old Town Master Plan, which serves as the guiding path for growth and preservation of the historical district, its maintenance and quality of life.

By The Numbers

Population
30,754

Square miles
54.65

Number of Businesses
4,224

AGE
Median Age: 37.5 
Over 65: 19%

RACE
White: 80.7%
Black: 6.8%
Hispanic: 13.7%
Asian: 1.7%

INCOME
Per Capita: $44,326
Median household: $85,844 
Below poverty level: 4.2%

EDUCATION
High School diploma: 96.8%
College degree: 46.3%

HOUSING
Median Rent: $1,761
Median Home Value: $469,648

NEW BUILDING PERMITS
Residential (Jan. 1-June 30, 2022):  320
Residential (Jan. 1-Dec. 31, 2021): 1,026
Commercial Buildings (Jan. 1-June 30, 2022):  42
Commercial Buildings (Jan. 1-Dec. 31, 2021):  46

* Bluffton Commercial Building Permits include Multifamily

Source: US Census Bureau, Zillow (Median Home Values as of 7/22), World Population Review (Median age/population), Local towns.