Hilton Head Island Celebrates 30th Birthday
Author: Frank Dunne, Jr.
Surely you’ve heard the story of Captain William Hilton, sailing on the good ship Adventure, exploring what we now call the South Carolina Lowcountry in 1663. He’d been commissioned by a group of British merchants from colonies in New England and Barbados to survey the region for further colonization. At the time, the town of Port Royal was the port of call for the area, so accurate charts and maps were critical to mariners navigating Port Royal Sound and the Beaufort River (as these bodies of water are known today). Remember, this is 1663. GPS apps for smartphones were still a few years away.
On one of his journeys, Hilton noticed a bluff of trees on a headland near the entrance to Port Royal Sound and noted in his journals that it made a good navigational reference point. Cartographers identified the point as Hilton’s Headland. No one is 100 percent certain, but the most popular theory is that Hilton was looking at a spot somewhere near the Fort Walker ruins in Port Royal Plantation. Whether or not that is precisely accurate, the name stuck and eventually became the name—with slight modification—of the entire island that we call home today. Hilton Head Island went through many incarnations over the ensuing 350 years; nearly uninhabitable jungle, military and naval outpost, home to newly freed slaves post-Civil War, rice and indigo plantations, hunting camps, renowned golf, tennis and beach resort, and the Town of Hilton Head Island as we know it today are all part of the island’s history.
This month we commemorate that history with the Hilton Head Island 350th Sighting—30th Anniversary Celebration, or 350/30 Celebration. It’s a weeklong festival to recognize the 350th anniversary of the day William Hilton spotted that headland and the 30th anniversary of Hilton Head Island’s incorporation as a township. Looking around the island today, you might find it hard to believe that the latter almost didn’t happen. While it is our natural instinct and birthright to complain about annoying and intrusive ordinances that are the purview of town governments, the alternative could have been much worse. If you live here and love it, the town’s incorporation is definitely something to celebrate.
Try to imagine a petrochemical plant and a natural gas processing facility on what is now Colleton River Plantation. Or standing on Burke’s Beach looking at offshore oil drilling platforms. Imagine pre-fab “stack-a-shacks” popping up all over the off-plantation landscape. It could have happened if not for the efforts of people like Ben Racusin, who would eventually become Hilton Head Island’s first mayor, and then president of the Hilton Head Island Chamber of Commerce/Visitor and Convention Bureau, John Curry. Those two were instrumental in getting the business community organized and speaking with one voice to eventually wrest control of Hilton Head Island’s fate from the county seat in Beaufort and place it in the hands of those who lived and worked here. In 1983 the Town of Hilton Head Island was born.
Over the course of 30 years, it’s natural to see businesses and other organizations and institutions come and go, especially in a small town like this. But then there are those that find a way to thrive, adapt to changes, and continue to thrive year after year. We have quite a few of them here. Some share the Town’s birthday like Truffle’s Café, which opened its doors in 1983 and today has three locations: Sea Pines Center, Pope Avenue, and Belfair Towne Village in Bluffton. They’ve done it with consistency, great food, great atmosphere, and a connection to the community with Cultivate Wines through which 10 percent of sales are donated to Hilton Head Island and Bluffton charities in support of basic human needs. Others have been around even longer, such as The Porcupine in The Village at Wexford. In the face of mass merchandising and online retailing, The Porcupine has kept destination shopping for fashion conscious ladies alive since 1976 with an intimate setting and personal touch that can only be found in a classic apparel, shoes, and accessories boutique.
To Hilton Head’s regular consumers of cosmetics, spa accoutrements, facials, massage and myriad other forms of pampering and indulgence, FACES DaySpa (BeautyBoutique/SpaShoppe) is a household name. No surprise there, because FACES originally opened for business on July 23, 1983, but not as you would recognize it today. “We were a women’s apparel store primarily, and we carried Estée Lauder cosmetics,” said founder and CEO Patricia Owen of the shop’s nascent days. Owen relocated FACES from Heritage Plaza to its current space in the Village at Wexford in 1988, and she recalls that year as a turning point for Hilton Head Island’s retail landscape when the arrival of more national chains and the Mall at Shelter Cove effectively ended the “mom & pop” business model’s predominance. “I don’t think dramatic is a strong enough word to describe the changes that took place,” said Owen, who points to adaptability as the key to her business’s longevity. “You’ve got to stay on top of trends and changes in the industry.”
FACES, along with other Village at Wexford merchants, will celebrate 30 years along with the Town of Hilton Head Island, at a special “Wednesdays at Wexford” during the 350/30 Celebration. “It’s had ups and downs, but I wouldn’t change anything,” said Owen of Hilton Head Island’s past 30 years. “It’s just a wonderful place to live.”
The Goldsmith Shop owns the distinction as Hilton Head Island’s first jewelry store, and from very humble beginnings, it thrives to this day. “I started working out of our villa in Treetops in 1972,” said proprietor Gary Fronczak. His business, creating and repairing jewelry, grew enough to move it out of the home and into space at Coligny Plaza, which at the time (1975) was pretty much the beginning, middle and end for shopping on the island. Fronczak and his wife Brenda moved the shop to its current location on Lagoon Road in 1987. He reflected on how things have evolved; “Everybody wanted to come to Hilton Head, so naturally the competition has grown.”A simple formula of consistent quality, fair prices and good old Hilton Head hospitality has kept The Goldsmith Shop in the game for 40 years. An excerpt from the shop’s website sums it up very well: “After all, isn’t it nice to know that even as the world changes, you can count on some things to always remain the same?”
Coincidentally, an annual island tradition that is probably second only to RBC Heritage (more on that shortly) in popularity, the Hilton Head Island St. Patrick’s Day Parade, also celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. Parade founder Tom Reilley recalled that first event, which was a far cry from what we see each spring on Pope Avenue these days.
“We had about 50 participants, plus a trolley and a little toy fire truck,” he said. The route started on Dunnagan’s Alley, went up Arrow Road and made a right turn on 278 to the Sea Pines Circle and ended at Reilley’s Grille and Bar’s original location in the Gallery of Shops on Greenwood Drive. We started marching, and the police chased us and stopped the parade. They said we needed a permit and they were going to arrest me.”
Well, he wasn’t arrested since the concept of permits for such an event was unheard of until that year. Who knew? One can only imagine what thoughts ran through Reilley’s head as he rode the Budweiser Clydesdale wagon in front of some 25,000 spectators during the 30th Annual Hilton Head Island St. Patrick’s Day’s parade last spring.
No conversation about Hilton Head Island’s rise to prominence as a world-class destination resort, township and all around great place to live is complete without mentioning the “big kahuna” of island institutions, the RBC Heritage golf tournament. You all know the story. In 1969 a little golf tournament called the Heritage Classic was slated for Thanksgiving weekend at Harbour Town Golf Links. Organizers probably spent as much time wondering if anybody would show up as they did making preparations. As good fortune (or maybe some “island magic”) would have it Arnold Palmer, easily the most popular pro golfer of the time, won the inaugural event in the shadow of the yet-to-be completed Harbour Town Lighthouse. You couldn’t have asked for a better public relations bonanza, because now the whole world had heard of Hilton Head Island, and the golf press was raving about its great new Pete Dye-designed course.
Almost 45 years later, and despite a few bumps in the road and many changes along the way, RBC Heritage remains the event that nearly every Hilton Head Islander circles on the calendar. Tournament director Steve Wilmot has this Happy Birthday message to the Town of Hilton Head Island: “The RBC Heritage, presented by Boeing, has enjoyed 45 years of great golf and charitable giving, thanks in part to the unique town that is Hilton Head Island. Town officials, staff and the community have always supported us and made us not only a tremendous community event but a golf tournament that is enjoyed all over the world. On their 30th birthday, we would like to say congratulations and thanks for everything!
Wouldn’t it be cool if you could hop into a DeLorean modified with a flux capacitor and a Mr. Fusion to travel backwards in time to land on Adventure’s deck that day in 1663? Oh, the things you could tell Captain William Hilton! Think he’d believe it?
Happy Birthday, Hilton Head Island!
For more information about the Hilton Head Island 350/30 Celebration visit CelebrationHHI.org or call (843) 686-6560.