U.S. 278. If you live in southern Beaufort County, you’ll likely find yourself driving that road every day. Running from the Hardeeville line to the bridges to Hilton Head Island, the highway moves locals and visitors past a long line of car dealerships, businesses and neighborhoods. Along the way are people, places and stories you don’t know. Come drive the road with us.
A skinny blue arrow points to the green-and-white building and beckons people to stop.
Sometimes they do, but these days fewer people fall for what may as well be a mirage.
The building is a squat structure with a pair of satellite dishes sprouting like warts from its roof. A few hanging baskets, their plants or flowers long dead, dangle like decrepit ornaments on some forgotten Christmas tree.
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People used to sell Christmas trees on the building’s lot — pumpkins, too — and Ruth Ann Schaffer used to water those hanging baskets. They usually held ferns — huge ferns — though sometimes she’d swap them out for flowers. Tending the plants was part of her morning routine as concierge at the Hilton Head Island Visitors Center, the building just east of the intersection of Bluffton Road and U.S. 278.
That highway — not the widening road itself, but a small feature added to it — killed the visitors center, in Schaffer’s opinion. By the summer of 2015, fewer and fewer people were pulling into its gravel parking lot.
It wasn’t pretty toward the end, Schaffer said: the building’s air conditioning would break down; leaks appeared and grew; mildew did, too.
Her “second home” — where she’d babysat her grandkids and snuck in some ironing, wrapped Christmas gifts and worked for over 20 years — was falling apart. And yet she was shocked when the phone rang and she was told to shutter the place.
Aside from Schaffer’s connection to it, the visitor center’s closing might seem an unremarkable, unsurprising fate. Fran Mollica, Schaffer’s first employer from 1993 to 2006, said the internet and the expansion of 278 changed how people traveled and booked rooms, and foretold the end. The building has been vacant since August 2015, current property owners say; it and the surrounding land are under contract with a developer.
Which means, presumably, it will be torn down sometime soon.
When the past yields to progress and the building is no more, its story — which is, in some ways, the story of Bluffton and Hilton Head — will vanish.
For now, though, people remember.
All of a sudden, civilization
The one-lane, gravel-and-oyster-shell road ran into S.C. 46, and late on a Saturday night — maybe after some boozing — drivers traveling west on it might miss the intersection and plow into the pine trees.
“BAM-BAM-BAM,” Joe McCulloch recently said, remembering the sound some 60 years later. “I never knew of anyone to get hurt, but they’d sure tear up their cars.”
The stand of pines was near the Johnson family home — where Walmart is now — and the present-day, almost-three-acre lot where the abandoned visitors center sits. McCulloch would visit on the weekends after marrying into the family in July 1954. He and wife Georgia managed the lot for years before her death last August. He and her brother, Kenneth Johnson, are the current property owners.
Johnson’s family moved from Daufuskie Island to Bluffton in 1945, around the time his father bought the lot. The surrounding area was full of pine trees, he said, and fields with tomatoes, row crops and some cattle.
The oyster-shell path, which the kids called “the Buckingham Road,” led to Buckingham Landing, where by 1953 — before the first bridge was built — a state-run ferry took people from the mainland to Hilton Head.
A fruit and produce stand, operating on the lot by the mid-1950s, was, depending on folks’ destinations, either their first or last stop.
The Ware family ran the stand first, followed by the Fludds, Johnson said.
An improved, open-air stand was built on the lot in 1971, McCulloch said. Seven years and $8,000 later, a slab was poured and a metal building took its place. That building would become the visitors center.
But in the 1960s and 1970s it was the site of turkey shoots, where the community would gather, hang paper targets on the pines and aim their shotguns in hopes of winning a Thanksgiving bird.
“That place: you were coming here and seeing nothing, and it was all of a sudden civilization,” said Mollica, 63, a Beaufort County native who remembers the fruit stand from childhood trips to the beach.
It also sold rafts, coolers and ice, she said. And it was cheaper than the old Red & White grocery store on the island.
Later, it would stock golf balls.
‘We did a lot of praying over this place’
Kim Malphrus got the idea on a trip to Myrtle Beach in the 1980s — people would pay good money for used golf balls, especially on the way to Hilton Head.
She took over the fruit stand around 1990 — which, by then, had also served as a seafood market, according to county business-license records — with the aim of selling produce, seafood — and golf balls.
“$4.95 Per Dozen Golf Ball Outlet,” said the lettering on a new sign she had designed and mounted atop the building. The sign — since painted over in green and white — is still there today. But it’s missing the top half of the golf ball it used to sport.
After a couple years — when a new portion of U.S. 278 connected Bluffton to Hardeeville at I-95 — Malphrus moved her store there, near the interstate’s Exit 8. She added fireworks. She and a relative later sold the business, but the Golf Ball Outlet and Fireworks Mega Store that’s there today — the joint featured on Jimmy Kimmel Tonight in May — has its roots in the old fruit stand.
Her departure opened up the building again and, within a year, Mollica and Schaffer would make a go of the visitor-center business.
When business was good, Mollica said, they’d make 15 percent commission on “last-minute rooms” — selling “10,000 room-nights a year” — putting devil-may-care travelers in Hilton Head hotels the same day they arrived.
To keep the cars pulling in, they asked a nearby car dealer to park vehicles in their lot to keep up appearances.
“We did a lot of praying over this place,” Schaffer said. “This place raised our kids.”
The women, at various points during their time together, were single mothers trying to make it, and they had a saying: “God didn’t drop us off at 278 and 46 to leave us.”
They first noticed a dip in business after September 11, 2001, three years after a USA Today article listed the visitors center as Hilton Head’s “clearinghouse on rentals.”
Around 2005 — during the time U.S. 278 was widened to six lanes — an extended merge lane coming off of S.C. 46 and running in front of Mollica’s and Schaffer’s business made it hard to turn into their lot.
The traffic got thicker, and would continue to.
S.C. Department of Transportation data shows average annual daily traffic estimates quadrupling in some spots near the visitors center between 1987 and 2016, and nearly tripling in others. As congestion increased and the merge lane was modified, Schaffer would see tourists she knew sitting in traffic, unable to get to the visitors center. They would point and wave from behind car windows, she said.
Mollica got out of the building in 2006, she said, but Schaffer stayed on. She worked for Spinnaker Resorts in the end and pitched timeshares — which she’d done for Mollica during their last couple of years together — but she focused on hospitality and personal relationships.
Regular visitors to Hilton Head knew Schaffer. They knew her car — so much so that once, when she bought a new one, she got the same make, model and color. Later, they came to know her dog, “Baby Bear,” and her grandchildren, who played and colored alongside tourists’ kids in a children’s area she’d set up.
They would ask her how the ferns in the hanging baskets got so big, and she would tell them, “You can’t over-water a fern.”
She is still a concierge on Hilton Head.
Mollica and Malphrus have made their living in real estate. The building that was once a fruit stand and, in Mollica’s words, “the only thing around,” was, in various ways, a launch pad for them.
“It was awful,” Schaffer, 56, said of the center’s closing. “Like a part of me was lost. ... I spent almost a third — no, almost half — of my life in that place.”
She was at her desk on a normal afternoon when the call came to abandon the building.
She stowed the rocking chairs.
She turned off the “OPEN” sign.
And she pinned a note on the door.
On it was her phone number.
Call me if you need help, it said.