Burnt Church Road.
For years, I’ve been asked how this main thoroughfare into and out of Bluffton got its name.
Now I have plodded through some of old Bluffton’s brightest, though somewhat mature, minds.
And here is the answer:
It’s a mystery. And there is no smoking church.
“Apparently, once upon a time a church in the vicinity burned, but we don’t know where it is,” said former mayor Emmett McCracken at Stock Farm Antiques.
Alan Ulmer Jr. gets a little warmer.
“It was a praise house that burned on that road,” he says with a drawl steeped by the generations of Ulmers living in Bluffton and owning much of the land around Burnt Church Road.
Praise houses were part of the Gullah culture. Few are left standing, and those are rarely used. But at one time, these small, woodframe buildings dotted the landscape as places of exuberant and prayerful worship on weeknights.
But Ulmer does not know where this praise house was, or when it may have burned.
“It was probably built on live oak blocks, which they used to use a lot,” he said, “and everything burned out completely.”
Ulmer said that “the old folks” — his father and friends in the generation ahead of him — called it Palmer Avenue.
But he does not know who it would have been named for. “I have not heard of a Palmer from that time,” he said.
Jacob Martin, who was a child in Bluffton eight decades ago, said, “They claim there was a church there that burned down, but I can’t ever remember a church being out on that road.”
Neither does he connect a praise house to that road.
“That was a turpentine area,” he said.
And, “We used to take our cows down there in the winter and they stayed in fields in the area that’s now Foreman Hill Road.”
The late Thomas G. “Tommy” Heyward, who had a home on Foreman Hill Road and told many stories about local history, couldn’t solve the mystery even if he were still here.
“Tommy was asked that a lot, and he said he never found out how it got that name,” said his wife, Joan Heyward.
Jo Rackliff, who owns a business on Burnt Church Road, used to get the question more than she does now.
But at The Sugaree, a cafe, bakery and restaurant at 142 Burnt Church Road, she’s heard plenty of tall tales over the years.
“The most common piece of folklore I’ve heard is that when troops came through here in the Civil War they were told to burn everything but the churches,” she said. “But one day the soldiers got drunk and burned a church on Burnt Church Road.”
But there’s more.
“As an extension of that, they say the Rose Hill Mansion was saved because they thought it was a church.”
But I don’t see that in the history books. That includes a book about the day in June 1863 that federal troops torched a lot of Bluffton, Jeff Fulghum’s “The Bluffton Expedition: The Burning of Bluffton, South Carolina, During the Civil War.”
In more modern history, I’ve been told, the long, straight street was a place to race cars when it was just a country road.
It’s a lot busier today, but still a link between the old town and the main highway: U.S. 278, or Fording Island Road.
But Jacob Martin recalls more people using what is S.C. 46, or Bluffton Road, to get from town to the highway.
“On a Sunday evening, we’d walk out to the highway to what we called Mr. Bob Walker’s Corner,” Martin said of the S.C. 46-U.S. 278 intersection that today boasts the Lowcountry Motors car lot, a Sam’s Club and Walmart Supercenter, and the entrance to The Crescent, a major housing development.
“We’d go west down 278 to Buck Island Road and turn there, unless we walked down to my aunt’s house on Pinckney Colony Road and eat something with her. We’d walk Buck Island Road to S.C. 46 and back to town where we started.”
This was a ritual, he said, because “there ain’t nothing else to do.”
Except maybe make up stories about how Burnt Church Road got its name.