Celebrate Bluffton: Promoting and Preserving A Town's Past
Author: Debbie Szpanka | Photographer: Butch Hirsch
Walls do talk; so do streets, homes and collectively, a town. Carolyn Coppola is giving Bluffton its voice back through a new non-profit called Celebrate Bluffton.
“Bluffton’s history and heritage emerges from family members passing down stories; however, there is no linear written record to document the story of its people and places. Celebrate Bluffton’s mission is to change that,” Coppola said.
Now a Bluffton resident, Coppola’s love affair with Bluffton started years ago when her family came down from the Hudson Valley area of New York to vacation. “The minute I got off the plane, I felt I was home,” she said. “It was an instant connection and I was totally absorbed with Bluffton’s natural beauty, wildlife and, of course, its history.”
Coppola’s journey to document Bluffton’s past started when she went to Savannah College of Art and Design for a college visit for her son Alex. At the intersection of a possible career change from the software industry, Coppola sat in an orientation session and told herself, “I need to go here.”
Twenty-five years after her first college experience, she enrolled and her son did not. Last year, Coppola graduated with a master’s of fine arts degree in historic preservation. After ruining some of clothes with the yellow dust and long hours in archive rooms while interning at Savannah’s historic homes and being absorbed in the process of incorporating the stories of slaves into a city’s history, Coppola combined her love of Bluffton and her love of history to birth a new non-profit and a personal mission.
“New facts and stories are surfacing all the time, so research never ends. History is not static. Celebrate Bluffton is a hub for people to celebrate what they know about Bluffton’s past and a gathering place for new information as it emerges, collected and shared,” Coppola said. “While many know the headlines of Bluffton’s past, its full story is still coming to the surface.
“In Bluffton, we aren’t interpreting one building, one site or one family’s story; we are reinterpreting an entire town. In doing so, we are telling a story. What makes Bluffton special is that much of that town still exists as it was. So many towns and cities no longer exist as they were because of the destruction of the Civil War, destruction of Mother Nature or destruction of man’s need to build anew.”
One of Celebrate Bluffton’s main projects is to create a heritage trail which will cover all of Bluffton, not just Old Town Bluffton. The Heritage Trail app is being designed so that people can explore Bluffton by foot, car, bike or golf cart. Scheduled for its debut in six months, the app will be a “living organism” and continue to grow as more information becomes available. “As people visit sites on the trail, they will be introduced to the people and events that shaped the Bluffton of today,” Coppola said. “We expect our work to protect and promote Bluffton’s cultural resources.”
One Bluffton site which is garnering statewide attention is the Garvin House, which sits on the May River, across from Oyster Factory Park. It is now being held together with cribbing or pressure treated wood so it doesn’t cave in on itself before it can be further preserved. As much as Bluffton officials know, the Garvin House is the only structure still existing on the May River that was owned by a former slave, and it gives a rare peek into what life was like during the Reconstruction Era.
It is believed that Cyrus Garvin built the house in 1870 after he was freed as a slave from Joseph Baynard. Prior to Garvin building that house, it is believed that Joseph Baynard’s plantation house stood on that site before the infamous, “Burning of Bluffton,” which happened June 4, 1863.
The house, now surrounded by protective fencing, is awaiting funds and resources to restore its structure as well as its voice so it can continue to tell its story of why, how and who existed in it years ago.
“Slaves and their masters lived in very close proximity on the small lots in Bluffton, and this created avenues for the transmission of cultural heritage and property from former plantations,” Coppola said. “Once you know the stories, a stroll through Bluffton becomes a deeper, richer experience as you imagine our past residents living and working on the same streets and homes we see today.”
While the Garvin house is the only structure still existing that was owned by a former slave, much of the property in Bluffton was owned by confederate soldiers and plantation owners. The site of the Pine House, located on Boundary Street, now owned by Joan Heyward, was once the home of Confederate General Thomas F. Drayton.
The house that stands on the property today was built in 1903 and rehabilitated in 2006. In 1943, Gaillard and Lucille Heyward purchased the property, and it has stayed in the long-established Bluffton family since. This house is an example of a property which has lived many lifetimes and has stories to tell about each.
“Originally, Thomas F. Drayton owned the property. He and his wife owned two other plantations in greater Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island, so the Pine House property was a central location to manage both plantations,” Coppola said.
The stories of these two homes will be included on the Trail.
The future of the past
Celebrate Bluffton’s board of directors consists of dynamic professionals who deeply care about the town. The board includes a retired advertising executive, a Ph.D. in anthropology, a certified public accountant, a professor of fine arts, a historic preservationist, a business owner and a non-profit professional.
Beyond the Heritage Trail, the organization will be a hub for resources and information about how to preserve historic properties. The board members and staff members hope to help current owners shore up their properties so the past can be preserved into the future.
“Bluffton is such a unique town and experience; we all need to be stewards of this gift,” Coppola said.