There is it seems a wealth of Americans who have an undeniable – and mildly perverse – thirst for anachronism. We were reminded of this simmering perspective when visiting Palmetto Bluff today. Palmetto Bluff is 20,000-acre private residential community tucked away in beautiful and scenic Bluffton, South Carolina not far from Hilton Head Island. While the throwback is both entertaining and instructive it’s also a bit spooky. The Village amounts to a Disneyland re-enactment reminiscent of the 1939 American epic historical romance film “Gone with the Wind” starring Clark Gable (as Rhett Butler) and Vivien Leigh (as Scarlett O’Hara) which pointedly opened on the eve of the American Civil War in 1861. The plantation setting captures the magic of the era but the attempt to relive it is a reminder of the South’s shadowy past and its unwritten codes.
Follow the road less traveled through live oaks and red cedars all the way to where the land ends. Where you’re surrounded by history – while you make some of your own. Here, days are measured by the tides, and families gather to the soundtrack of marshes teeming with life. Welcome home to quiet streets, gas-lit walkways and wraparound porches. Here, shops open early, the days feel endless and scents wafting off the grill mean that dinner is served. Palmetto Bluff feels like it is from another time. Where kids stain their knees on the Village lawn and walks around the block could take hours due to friendly conversations had along the way. Foot paths, bike trails, camaraderie and conversations – it’s all part of everyday life when you make Palmetto Bluff your home.
Contributing to the rich history of Palmetto Bluff, the ruins that grace the Village Green are all that remains of R.T. Wilson, Jr.’s “Palmetto Lodge.” Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, R.T. Wilson, Jr. entertained lavishly in his magnificent 72-room home, complete with grand ballroom. The Palmetto Bluff estate was designed with guests in mind. Visitors arrived at the estate by way of a Savannah Line steamship, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, or the Seaboard Airline train. The social pages of the New York Times listed the comings and goings of the New York elite with frequent mention of individuals “leaving today to visit Mr. and Mrs. R.T. Wilson of Palmetto Bluff, S.C.” Guests would stay for weeks, enjoying Mrs. Wilson’s lavish parties. One can only imagine the elegance and bounty of the meals served there, with the freshest of ingredients harvested from the surrounding waters and woods, and the produce of Wilson’s extensive farms.
The Wilsons’ pastoral winters at Palmetto Bluff came to a sudden and tragic halt in 1926 when, during their occupancy, a fire broke out in the attic of their mansion that could not be controlled. The destruction of the 14-year-old mansion was heartbreaking to Richard Wilson Jr., who is reported to have wept profusely at the loss and had to be twice carried from the burning building. In ill health, with liver and other problems, he made no attempt to rebuild the mansion and sold the entire property, including the sawmill and other business properties, to the Varn Turpentine and Cattle Company in 1926.
What’s spooky about this place is that it is palpably unreal, an improbable production, though there is no question that the developers of this community know what they’re doing. If you have any affinity for the Confederate South then the bells and alarms soon begin ringing. It reeks of exclusivity and hearkens back to an era of what for some must have been unimaginable wealth and privilege (which at least in part explains the reluctance of the governing class to relinguish its hold on slavery). This particular exposition of the erstwhile vernacular is however at best symbiotic. The four-mile tree-lined road from the initial gatehouse to the Village through a vast unspoiled forested area sets an unmistakable tone. Unfortunately the obvious regulation of everything – and its studied fabrication as old fashioned – tends to translate the place into a theme park. One cannot help but feel under-dressed for the occasion.
One has to wonder what is the attraction of this foray into the past. Like most other enclaves it is clearly designed to separate one class of people from another. The price of homes would easily average $1,500,000. That alone is nothing startling. What, however, is conspicuous is its fictional quality. To say that it is contrived would be an understatement. There are even real gas lamps which burn all day. it is a mere skip from being a staged setting. Significantly many of the areas throughout this community are dedicated to golf, water sports, sailing, tennis and horseback riding. The setting is appropriate to a cottage life-style with a decided punch for luxury.
It is impossible for me not to compare Palmetto Bluff to Hilton Head Island. There is apparently more than a bit of substance to this comparison as it has filtered to the street level that Hilton Head Island is under threat of stalling while nearby Bluffton is beginning to overtake it. The heart of the matter seems to be the question of commercial development. Allegedly the Old Guard of Hilton Head Island is anxious to preserve the place as it has been since its inception; namely, a tranquil, environmentally sensitive residential community with healthful opportunities. What’s lacking in that formula is any expansion of modern diversions, some of which might for example include bowling alleys, movie theatres, sports parks, etc. My personal inclination is in favour of maintaining the status quo. I much prefer the “natural” exercise of bicycling, golf and beach sports. I have an inherent fear of Coney Island and Myrtle Beach. As for the preservation of Hilton Head Island’s residential districts (many of which are private, gated former plantation properties) I have no objection whatsoever. Any left-leaning tendency I may harbour on some issues does not, I am afraid, dilute my acceptance of distinction. Nor does it include embracing a preposterous pretence of the past. I prefer to maintain a degree of authenticity and confine any performance of mine to athletic endurance.
The further south one travels, the greater the risk of commingling real estate with swampland. No doubt the threat derives from the frequent juxtaposition of resort properties with investment opportunity, a fluidity which promotes curb appeal at the expense of austerity. If this clay is in the hands of selfish developers the outcome can be astonishingly synthetic and fragile. Hilton Head Island has as far as I can tell resisted the pressure to accommodate raw commercial expansion. Understandably there is a balance required to ensure the survival of people who take the chance to offer retail services. It may be that the retailers will be required to cater to a niche audience to achieve their goal. Illustrative of the dilemma is an incident which occurred earlier today when we were returning from Palmetto Bluff and made a quick stop at Maywood Davis, an odd little coffee house on William Hilton Parkway on Hilton Head Island. The server told us when we ordered our Cappuccinos that the coffee house was originally the first place of business on that road in 1976, a gas station. Although for me 1976 is just yesterday, I need to remind myself that it was 40 years ago, a generation ago. Things have changed. There is now a new generation coming up through the ranks. I have no idea what these younger people either want or expect. My vote is to maintain the course but I will have to await the outcome.
This piece elicited the following response from a colleague to whom I sent a copy with the qualification that I may have been too harsh:
Actually, you handled it well. These are people who attend civil war enactments and want a Disneyland of their own.
Apparently, they can afford it. Idealised, mind you – without the body odour and slaughter of chickens or dung in the streets which would have been signatures of the real thing.
Cute and sanitized, which is to say without any real historical significance but with rebel flags stowed in the closets for post-inauguration use.
Mind you, Sherman’s march to the sea was a holocuast for the ante-bellum culture and perhaps this is a memorial of sorts.
Michael Tweedie, B.A. (Hons), M.A., M. Litt., M.L.S., LL.B.
Coincidentally I stumbled upon a BBC news article, the gist of which is copied below:
Property ownership had special meaning for these former slaves, known as Gullah Geechee, and the land has been proudly passed down through the generations, as a safe haven to raise families and farm.
But America’s seemingly insatiable appetite for coastal living and the money that can be made from buying up cheap former plantation land is a potential threat.
“The only people we see are the developers,” says the Rev Ben Grate, gazing at the empty road that snakes through Jackson Village.
“We call them ‘strangers’ and we are afraid of them. Because they come to take your land.
“They are millionaires, in big cars, driving slow, staking out property, dreaming on what it would be like to have a motel on the river right here.”
Gullah Geechee: Descendants of slaves fight for their land
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News, Washington DC
5 December 2016
From the section Magazine