A weeklong festival celebrating the 350th anniversary of Hilton Head Island's sighting and its 30th year of incorporation kicked off Monday with a bike ride along all 57 miles of the town's paths and an open house at Town Hall.
For longtime resident Michael L.M. Jordan, the history of Hilton Head Island will always be one of preservation and self-determination.
From early Native Americans to the escaped and freed slaves who created Mitchelville to the town's founding leaders, all have been driven by a common goal that endures to this day.
"And that was to make sure that Hilton Head Island remains ... a special place (where) the lives of people, the activities of businesses, the lives of wildlife and the protection of our environment all remain in balance," Jordan said.
He spoke Monday before a crowd of more than 70 gathered at Town Hall to kickoff a weeklong festival to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the island's sighting and its 30th year of incorporation.
"No matter when you came, you moved to Hilton Head Island because our island is a truly special place," said Jordan, the town's first attorney. "And over these past 30 years we created an environment where residents, visitors, businesses, developers and wildlife can all exist in a natural environment that is as close to paradise as God can create and man can preserve."
It was nearly 350 years ago when Capt. William Hilton, sailing from Port Royal Sound toward the sea, spotted something to his starboard that he thought was worth jotting down -- a bluff near the heel of a barrier island that would serve as a guide for future sailing expeditions.
More than 300 years later, Hilton Head was in many ways still a frontier. In 1970, the island -- with a population of 2,456 -- was divided into plantation neighborhoods, with land still to claim and develop.
By 1978, more than 60 percent of the developable land on the island was controlled by master plans, deed restrictions and covenants. But by the early 1980s, Jordan argues, a new breed of developer had come to Hilton Head -- one that cared little for the historically accepted norms of responsible development established by island developers Charles Fraser, Fred Hack, Bob Onorato and Gen. Howard Davis.
Quality, environmentally sensitive construction was transformed into pre-fabricated trailers lifted on top of one another to build multi-story "stack-a-shacks."
"The question before us was whether these multi-story, pre-fabricated trailer parks were going to be the future of our Island," said Jordan, who graduated from law school and moved to Hilton Head in 1973 from Michigan. "... The answer was 'NO.'"
By 1983, the final push for self-control and self-determination of what Hilton Head was to become had begun. On May 18, 1983, the Town of Hilton Head Island was formed.
"We have successfully protected our natural beauty; created a unique sense of place; providing meaningful experiences that cherish our history ... and enrich the lives of residents and guests," Mayor Drew Laughlin said Monday.
Emily Vaughan, a senior at Hilton Head Preparatory School, envisions similar dreams that drove the island's former slaves and their descendants.
"As I look out on the vast ocean, I ponder the potential that this island has and dream that one day it would be a place rich with Gullah culture and prosperous community," Vaughan wrote as part of an essay contest celebrating the island's history and culture. " ... I believe that God has something in store for the people of this island.
"Years from now I imagine a flourishing town, one where slavery is dormant and everywhere every man, regardless of his skin tone can live a life of freedom."
Highlights of the celebration
- Tuesday: Free "History Day" bus tours north, south and mid-island. Buses leave from the Coastal Discovery Museum, Port Royal Golf Club and the Coligny Beach parking lot off Pope Avenue. Departure times are 9:30 a.m., noon and 2:30 p.m. Self-guided tour maps are also available at each location as well the Heritage Library Foundation. Biking is encouraged, and Sea Pines and Port Royal gates will be open to bicyclists for free during the day.
Lawrence Rowland, professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and author of "The History of Beaufort County SC, Volume I" (1514-1861), will present a brief history of Hilton Head beginning at 5 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 540 William Hilton Parkway. The program, presented by The Heritage Library Foundation and The Beaufort County Historical Society, is free and open to the public.
Also, Jerrold Hilton will give a presentation on the family history of Capt. William Hilton from 10:30 a.m. to noon and 2 to 3 p.m. at the Heritage Library, 852 William Hilton Parkway, suite 2A.
Video: Hilton Head anniversary kickoff events
Celebrating a bicycling culture
Mayor Drew Laughlin on the time capsule
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.