David Lauderdale

Lauderdale: Clinging like a crab to the dream that Bluffton is a state of mind

Babbie Guscio
Babbie Guscio

Once upon a time, people hereabouts wore "Bluffton Bowling Team" T-shirts.

Above the pocket where the alligator would be on a golf shirt was etched the bowl of a marijuana pipe.

Bluffton was different -- a disheveled, eccentric speed trap -- and dang proud of it.

Much of Bluffton's little gaggle saw Hilton Head Island as a kudzu vine of pushy people from off who wanted all the buildings to look the same in new neighborhoods with armed guards. It was teeming with men with briefcases full of plans for world-class developments on top of world-class developments, while Bluffton wanted to be left alone to celebrate goat weddings in peace.

That time and place was captured beautifully by writer Emma Edmunds for the Atlanta Weekly magazine in the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution in June 1982.

Edmunds told of the "marriage" of goats Heidi Magnolia and William "Billy" Asterbutt IV at the Cram family property at Foot Point. Ben Turner, who produced the eccentric T-shirts, performed the ceremony before the "beer-ly deluded."

In that era, Bluffton called itself "a state of mind."

The buzzard was adopted as the town bird. One time I found myself at something like a chili cookoff in an empty lot on Calhoun Street. A band played bluegrass on a flatbed truck. The air had a nip in it and the crowd was sparse. I turned to Bluffton Mayor George Heyward and said, "George, you've got it made." He put his finger to his lips and said, "Shhhhhhhhhhhh."

The Atlanta Weekly article was titled "Slouching Toward Bluffton." The cover photo was a man sleeping on the rail of a bateau filled with oyster shells. Photographer Ed C. Thompson also captured the town potters, Elison Mingledorf and Jacob Preston; Harry and Lucy Cram of Devil's Elbow Island in the May River; ex-Chicagoans Betsy and Ben Caldwell who edited "The Longer Short History of Bluffton, South Carolina and its Environs"; composer Luke Peeples at his piano in a home with a fallen tree left to rot on the roof; and a somewhat newcomer to the old Peeples general store on Calhoun Street -- Babbie Guscio.

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When a much newer picture of Guscio was hung on the Wall of Honor at Town Hall on Nov. 10, much of the talk was about her instigating the Bluffton Village Festival with its Ugly Dog Contest, or the children's Easter parade, or her "On The Town" column in the Bluffton Packet.

The emphasis should be on Bluffton's old virtue of daring to be different.

In 1978, Guscio opened a store to sell non-essential oddities in the run down Peeples store. It had been vacant for decades. She called it The Store. She didn't fix it up much. It had no business plan, no "concept," no focus groups.

It was an extension of its environs, and Guscio's unusual upbringing by sophisticated parents who were really like hippies -- roving about the earth, subjecting her to its finer points. Like the day her mother, one of the last "Telfair Babies" born in that old downtown Savannah hospital, introduced her to Robert Frost. Guscio was 6. She informed Frost she had read all his poems.

Bluffton was eccentric when Don and Babbie Guscio moved to Buckingham Landing in 1972. He had taken a job in land planning at Sea Pines on Hilton Head. A year earlier, the two of them camped in their Volkswagen bus directly beneath the Eiffel Tower. Soon they were raising a family over The Store.

Here on Calhoun Street, there was a Messex filling station and the Robinowich family's Planters Mercantile, affectionately called "the Jew Store." Guscio says Breezy Winn from Estill came every two weeks to cut hair. Men lined up and shot the breeze waiting their turn. And Luke Peeples next door, whose other brothers included Matthew, Mark and John, played the piano in what amounted to a classical, open-air concert seeping from a cluttered yard.

Now Calhoun Street is lined with funky stores, galleries and restaurants. The problems are not dogs sleeping in the street, but where to park and how loud the music should be in what they brand as "Old Town."

Guscio is still there. Jacob Preston the potter is still around the corner. There might not be enough blue blood eccentrics left to get up a good bowling team. But some still cling like blue crabs to the dream that Bluffton is a state of mind, not a six-lane state of confusion.

Follow columnist and senior editor David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale and facebook.com/david.lauderdale.16.

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