Written by J. Mitchell Brown
Photography by Donna Huffman
modest white house stands under magnificent live oaks on the corner of Bridge and Calhoun Streets in Old Town Bluffton. Walking down the street towards the Maye, if you peer under a low-hanging Confederate jasmine arbor on that corner, you will see a skinny brick walkway that leads up to a comfortable looking Carolina porch. At all times of the year, the front yard is speckled with a host of flowering and tropical plants. A plaque on the brick gatepost proudly displays the Bluffton Historical House's name and circa: Fripp-Lowden, 1909.
You might also glimpse the owners of the house, Hank and Lori McCracken, out in the yard keeping alive the legacy that the home's original builders began nearly a century ago.
Long before there was a 278 or a Target or a Parkway – heck, long before there was even a bridge over to Hilton Head – there was sleepy ol' Bluffton. A few homes and farms dappled the flat land around the area, including a few down near Alljoy Beach and some on the bluff overlooking the river. These early folks built our town with charming little cottages and focused, more often than not, on the simpler aspects of life.
Alfred Fripp and his wife Sallie (formerly Sallie Fripp) were just that type of Blufftonian. They commissioned Nathan Crosby to build the cottage on their corner in 1909 – 90-something years before a second 4-way stop was added. Although the history of the Fripps is fascinating in its own right, Mrs. Sallie Fripp is responsible for the gardens.
Sallie Fripp was a school teacher by profession, but an avid gardener by passion. Her vision to transform a formerly vine-choked acre of mosquito farm (the lot is bordered on the rear by Huger Cove) into a gardener's paradise rivals any present-day landscape architect's plan that would cost thousands.
In the true spirit of Bluffton, Sallie Fripp patiently began creating a yard that suited her fancy and helped shape the character of Old Town Bluffton. The yard of the Fripp-Lowden house is not filled with the formal gardens reminiscent of Charleston blue-bloods. Rather, Sallie Fripp followed an informal approach to gardening, allowing plants to thrive where they wished instead of where some design placed them. Indeed, her yard was more akin to the back yards of Key West than Savannah.
Sallie passed along her love of all things blooming to her daughter, Imogene Lowden (she was married to Ollie Lowden, the plumber who parked his truck one day in town and left it there long enough that a tree grew right up through the cab). Together they continued to build the garden around the house at 80 Calhoun Street; after Mr. Fripp passed away, Imogene and Ollie, along with their only daughter, lived in the Fripp-Lowden house with Sallie Fripp. Mother and daughter worked together, keeping the yard in tip-top shape.
Nearly 100 years later, you can walk by the house and see some of the original plants that were introduced by the pair. Plants original to the property include leather leaf ferns which crowd around the bases of 200 year old oak trees, Lady Banksia Rose, which sits on the back of the property near the cove, and what must be one of the largest magnolia trees around town. Sallie had the only banana shrub in town for a number of years, and even now flowers unseen for ages sprout up from bulbs planted long ago and forgotten.
Since acquiring the property several years ago, Lori and Hank McCracken have discovered old garden paths, gardening tools, and even a freestanding coldframe undoubtedly used for starting and keeping plants in the wintertime.
The crown-jewel to this spot in Bluffton is, without argument, the Fripp-Lowden Camellia collection. Although the McCrackens have done a spectacular job of accenting the gardens with hostas, daphnes, caladiums, and tropicals, I am sure they would agree that the original camellia plantings are the most valued.
Today over 50 individual camellia plants remain from Sallie and Imogene's originals. Both the original harbinger of the winter blooming season, Camellia sasanqua, and the late blooming Camellia japonica still thrive in the yard, together offering an unprecedented blooming season of nearly six months from October to March. Although some of the camellias remain unidentified, all kinds of flowertypes still thrive, including singular, semi-double, formaldouble, rose, peony, and anemone.
Perhaps most fascinating is the Bluffton-original camellia, successfully grafted by the mother-daughter duo, which can still be seen only in our town. There has been some speculation as to whether Mrs. Fripp and Mrs. Lowden were able to successfully graft two versions of camellia. However, my most trusted source of gardening knowledge and the long-time friend of Imogene Lowden, Mr. Hugh Mauney of the former Harrison Island Nursery, set the record straight by telling me that the camellia Sallie Fripp and the camellia Bluffton Lady are indeed the same. Actually, Imogene wanted her mother's graft to be named "Miss Bluffton." We're not sure if they ever came to an agreement on it, but it seems that all three names work just fine for the same plant.
Regardless of its name, the Bluffton Lady wears a beautiful cream-colored double blossom with an accent of pink stripes. The shrub itself actually sprouts a branch of solid pink blossoms on occasion. Mrs. Fripp planted two of these grafts in her yard, and both are thriving today.
The next time you stroll around downtown, stop and peer under the arbor and up the walkway to the Fripp- Lowden house. Perhaps the McCrackens and their daughter will be churning ice-cream on the front porch after a hard day's work in the yard. Peek back into history at the understated beauty of a one hundred-year-old garden. During blooming season, see if you can pick out the Bluffton originals (I'll give you a hint…the one in the front yard is to the right of the walkway.)