I talked to the Hilton Head Onion Man today.
Now I can tell you he sure remembers you.
“I kind of had it made,” said Jack W. Tapley of Vidalia, Ga.
He was talking about the 20 or 21 years he rolled onto Hilton Head Island in an old yellow school bus filled to the ceiling with bags of Vidalia onions. He sold them from a sandy lot near Sea Pines Circle, starting when Vidalia sweet onions were a novelty with an almost cult following.
From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, the Onion Man was a sign of spring, a breath of fresh air from a world more attached to reality than our own, and a colorful piece of the fabric of Hilton Head.
Mike Ryan of Hilton Head sent this email:
“THAT’S SO FUNNY BECAUSE I WAS TELLING FRIENDS ABOUT HIM LAST WEEK; THEY THOUGHT I WAS CRAZY..............A YELLOW BUS FULL OF ONIONS................YEA, RIGHT! I MOVED HERE IN 1989 AFTER HUGO. DARN GOOD ONIONS TOO. GREAT ARTICLE. THANKS, MIKE RYAN.”
Jack Tapley is 80 now, and he still has the bus. It’s parked in his back yard, full of stuff.
He got out of the onion business not long after he quit coming to Hilton Head. But he’s still working. He sells portable buildings in a lot across from the Vidalia Wal-Mart. Coming full circle, sometimes people are on the lot selling bags of Florida oranges or maybe shrimp.
Here’s what he said about Hilton Head:
He came here thanks to Barry Ginn. Barry had a limousine service at the Savannah airport at the time. He said one day a yellow school bus was in the parking zone he paid a lot of money for. It was Tapley selling Vidalias. Barry said he told him that wouldn’t do, “but I’ve got the perfect place for you.”
It was a lot owned by his brother, Bobby Ginn, on Hilton Head’s main drag, by its main traffic circle. It was between a Hardee’s and a bank. Barry said the rent was a bag of onions for him and his brother.
Tapley slept on a cot in the bus. First, it was at the sometimes rowdy blacktop public parking lot next to the Holiday Inn at Coligny Circle. Then at the lot where streams of people from all over America came to buy Vidalias.
Tapley said his shower was a garden hose hooked to a nearby building. His restrooms were at the Hardee’s (now a real estate office) or the McDonald’s across the street.
When he first came, he’d see only one or two cars between the bridge and his lot. But in one three-day period a few years later, he sold $33,000 worth of onions. He ended up stretching out his season selling Walla Walla Sweet Onions. And eventually he stayed so long, he was selling Christmas trees.
People think he left because the Town of Hilton Head Island hassled him, but he said that wasn’t so.
“When the onions started being available in drugs stores and everywhere else, the sales slowed down,” he said.
He said he eventually bought the lot from Bobby Ginn, and he and co-owner sold it when the onion gig was done.
Barry Ginn remembers the Onion Man fondly.
“We used to sit on the back of that bus and have some of the best conversations about nothing,” Ginn said. “He didn’t want anything out of me and I didn’t want anything out of him — except friendship.”
I told the Onion Man that people here still remember him.
“I appreciate every one of them,” he said. “I had a good time. I sold a lot of onions. People there respected me better than anyone ever has. It was great being on Hilton Head Island.”