It wasn’t that long ago that, between Hilton Head Island and I-95, you’d find nothing but timber land. Just a few miles away from this strip, you’d find a sleepy little oyster town named Bluffton. Oozing Southern charm, this quiet corner of the world lived with the tides in a one-square-mile paradise on earth. Then, about 15 years ago, the area simply exploded. Its natural beauty, coupled with its prime location, convenient to Savannah, Hilton Head Island and Beaufort, created the perfect jumping off point for development. Funny thing is, though, as big as Bluffton becomes, it’s still that quiet town perched on a river.
That explosion of development continued on to nearby Okatie, and in fact it is this newer area where much of today’s most exciting growth continues. Now, Bluffton and Okatie are some of the most vibrant and fast-growing areas in the state. Both have been very careful to balance new growth with environmental considerations, and it has paid off with an area rich in cultural opportunities and ample space for those looking to set down roots.We begin in Bluffton, where old and new blend to create a unique and charming environment. Where else can you find a stateof-the-art tech park, home to the vanguard in technology, situated right up the road from a downtown that has remained largely unchanged since Bluffton still woke and slept by the tides? Where else can you enjoy a round of world-class golf on courses designed by the greats, take in a movie in stadium seating with the latest in picture and sound, browse the unique works of a score of talented local artists, and then plan your evening around the tides as you set up for a barbecue on the May River’s famous sandbar?
The first Blufftonians were Native Americans who came to reap the bounty of this riverside paradise’s shellfish, crabs and oysters. Apart from their annual visits, however, the town’s sole resident was the majestic May. That changed in the early 19th century when wealthy planters from around the state, and largely from nearby Savannah, flocked to “Bluff Town” to enjoy the cooling breezes that the May brought with each tide. In addition to keeping insects at bay, these breezes created a comfortable climate far from the heat of the city.
Bluffton’s road access to Charleston and Savannah and coastal locations made it a trade hotspot for farmers shipping their goods to cities up and down the coast and abroad. This trade spurred tremendous growth and, in 1852, the town officially incorporated as “Bluffton.” Over time, the town’s reputation as a trading post would be eclipsed by its role in fostering secessionist thought.
According to legend, disgruntled planters from Bluffton would meet at what is now called the Secession Oak (which still stands; albeit on private property, so don’t plan a visit) to air their grievances with federal trade policies. Their discussions would eventually spawn a rebellious ideology that would come to be known as the “Bluffton Movement.” This radical new movement would soon spread across the South, encouraging secession by planters and farmers and setting the stage for the “War of Northern Aggression.”
Within 16 years, the tensions reflected in the Bluffton Movement boiled over, and the first shots of the war rang out in Fort Sumter, just up the coast. Union troops, recognizing Bluffton as the birthplace of the secessionist movement, razed the town and burned many buildings, churches, and more than 30 homes. Along with these buildings, most of the town’s archives went up in flames, all but erasing Bluffton’s rich history. What we know now about Bluffton’s past has been painstakingly pieced together from letters, state records and family stories.
The few buildings which escaped the Northern torches, silent survivors of history’s brutality, were restored or renovated once the war ended. One such home, and perhaps the most famous, is the Heyward House. Believed to have been built in 1840, this stately reminder of a bygone era, appropriately enough, currently serves as home for the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society. The Society has made great strides in protecting Bluffton’s cherished history as the town builds toward the future.
This “historic district” has helped foster yet another radical movement: a quirky, whimsical attitude that has come to be known as “The Bluffton State of Mind.” Born of the relaxed creativity of its eccentric population, this mixture of art, performance, and culture is helping to redefine Bluffton.
If this state of mind had a capital, it would no doubt be Calhoun Street, the cultural heart of Bluffton.
Calhoun Street hosts a variety of festivals and parades, from the Bluffton Village Festival to the TGI3rd Friday events, all of which celebrate Bluffton’s unique mindset and atmosphere.
Utilizing a town manager style of government, Bluffton has the people and pieces in place to face its exciting future, while preserving its history and charm. The many neighborhoods around Bluffton offer amenities to suit nearly every taste, including golf, water views and luxurious stables. Combine that with plenty of shopping opportunities, from outlet malls to big box retailers to wonderful local shops, and add a short trip to the beaches of Hilton Head Island or the big city fun of Savannah, and it’s easy to see why so many are choosing to call Bluffton home.
The Bluffton Parkway continues to link the town together, as the recently-opened portions open it all the way to S.C. 170 and new stretches one day hope to provide a second route from the bridges to Hilton Head all the way out to I-95.
Farther north, in Okatie, development has included several new commercial districts and neighborhoods. Trading on the natural beauty along the Okatie River, this region is home to various neighborhoods that exult in outdoor activities. While the development in Bluffton was just booming, Okatie patiently waited for its chance to grow. Now, that chance has come, with new retail spaces opening up and new neighborhoods in the works.
Another exciting “South of the Broad” area is the up-and-coming city of Hardeeville. Once little more than a pit stop for travelers heading down I-95, this picturesque Southern town is expanding, with new developments going up in recent years and dedication to maintaining the small town charm that has people feeling as if they’ve stepped into another world.
There’s no telling how big this region will become in the coming years. Its location, infrastructure and natural beauty assure that it will continue to draw new residents, and smart development policies promise it will continue keeping an eye on preservation.