Written by Marti Skarupa
Many of us are familiar with the film "Somewhere in Time" where Christopher Reeve, the lead actor, dissociates himself from the present through self-hypnosis and is transported back in time and the upper class world of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.
Based on its box office success the story definitely captured the imagination of millions. After all, who among us would not like to be magically transported to a time and place of the past to which we are inexplicably drawn?
For some it may be the great Greek classical periods of Socrates and Aristotle. (Oh! To have one hour of dialogue with one of these great minds.)
For others it might be the English countryside and the manors depicted in the very popular Masterpiece Theatre, "Downton Abbey", before and after WW I.
To others still it may be Rome in the time of Caesar, or Egypt in the time of Cleopatra.
For me, I must confess, my fascination has always been the South before the Civil War, or until recently more commonly known in the South as the War Between the States or that most "unpleasant hostility". Perhaps Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind influenced me. Definitely the musical sounds of southern voices combined with the idea of living on a vast cotton or rice planation with a whitepillared home were always quite appealing.
Of course, as I matured, I realized that such a lifestyle would depend on the sweat and tears of hundreds of slaves much like the aforementioned upper class lives were dependent on the sweat and tears of slaves or servants of their era.
Nonetheless, youthful ideas are difficult to forget.
Consequently, after marriage I encouraged my husband to plan vacations to Southern areas---Charleston, Savannah, and of course, Hilton Head Island where I devoured everything I could about the island's history before and after the Civil War; especially, the town of Mitchelville, and its freed black slaves.
Each time we visited the Island we would see the small sign on 278 directing people to Bluffton's historic district. Each time I would say we really must drive down that "little road", but we never did.
And then one early summer evening on our way back from Beaufort, we decided to check out this little historical town. It was nearing dusk, the windows were open, and as we came into the historical section, I felt the most heavenly of breezes. As we drove down Boundary Street to the river, dusk had turned into a bright moonlit night. The shadows were long and the air heavy with the scent of summer flowers. "Gardenias? Honeysuckle?" I said to my husband.
We parked the car and began to walk. All around us were towering live oaks dripping with Spanish moss seemingly whispering to each other as the night breeze rustled their leaves. And then I saw it—a group of oleander bushes— more precisely "oleanders swaying in the moonlight." My heart fluttered. A sense of familiarity came over me. I continued to walk until I saw the river shimmering in the moonlight.
It was then that I experienced "a most peculiar moment." I had closed my eyes and had taken a deep breath, when suddenly I heard a series of thunderous sounds, which frightened me with an overwhelming sense of sadness. My husband, though, heard nothing and was only confused as to why I was so startled and visibly shaken. As we headed to the car, he tried to offer logical explanations for what I thought I might have heard, but I could not be convinced. I decided that even though he may not have heard it, I had! I knew that it might have been only for a moment, but in that moment, my mind had somehow stepped back in time. But what "other time" was it?
Unfortunately we had to return north the following morning, and my question could not be answered, but I never forgot that "most peculiar moment."
I returned the following year in March and as the oleanders in the moonlight had touched my heart, so did the azaleas in the sunlight.
Each year on our annual visit to Hilton Head, we would return and walk the narrow and charming streets of Bluffton. Each year I felt the same familiarity...those same "peculiar moments." Considering my feelings of déjà vu, it was inevitable that we would build our winter home in Bluffton.
I soon became a docent at the Heyward House built in 1842 and lived in by the descendants of Colonel Thomas Heyward, one of the three signers of the Declaration of Independence for the colony of South Carolina. It is the site of the only slave cabin in Bluffton. As a docent I read voraciously everything I could about the history of the little town on the May River bluff, which so captured my heart on that moonlit night several years earlier.
Considering my emotions, it is not surprising that I have often suggested to friends to take a similar walk early in the evening hours. I suggest that they walk to Bluffton's oldest structure built in 1825 and located on Bridge Street, not far from the Heyward House. It is called the Card House where high stakes poker games brought tears to some and smiles to others. It is said that the 1,000 acre Braddock Point plantation was won on one such occasion.
As I have done with my friends, I also invite the reader to take a walk down Boundary Street to Water Street. Do this on a sunny morning. You will see a property on the left side called the Pine House, which has been recently restored by a Heyward descendant. The home is built on the site of General Thomas Drayton's home, which was burned by the Yankees in 1863. General Drayton led the Confederate forces in the battle of Port Royal.
Or perhaps the reader would want to gaze on what was once the site of Squire Pope's summer residence built in 1850. Squire Pope was one of South Carolina's most respected statesmen serving in the South Carolina House of Representatives for three terms as well as the State Senate from 1822 through 1832. The site is at the corner of Water Street and Calhoun. Squire Pope owned several plantations on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton. Since he was a slave owner, as were the other planters who brought their families to Bluffton for the summer season, I often wonder how many slaves lived in this little resort town. Were there any slaves present when his home and most of the town were burned in 1863? Sadly what you see now is only the merger of a slave cabin and carriage house.
Across the street is the Church of the Cross. Built in 1857 it was somehow spared destruction by the Yankees from Ft. Pulaski. This Gothic structure was designed and built by architect Edward Blake, who also designed and built the Rose Hill Plantation home. Visit the church on Christmas Eve when it is totally lit with candles, and you will indeed be transported back in time!
Take a tour of the Heyward House and ask about the Secession Oak. Hundreds of years old, it still stands and is a reminder of how sleepy Bluffton was once a hot bed of secession dating back to 1844.
Do not forget to walk past Seven Oaks, also on Calhoun Street. It is a beautifully restored 1850 home with a wide porch running across the first and second floors to catch the lovely May River breezes. It is easy to imagine sitting on its wide porch drinking lemonade or a mint julep. From this vantage point it is even easier to imagine the town prior to June 4, 1863 when the Yankees set fire to this little resort town on the May River. (I often wonder if this was the time and place to which my mind traveled on that moonlit night when I was so visibly shaken as I experienced that "most peculiar moment.") Unfortunately when the smoke cleared, there were only 15 antebellum homes remaining. Decades later half of those were destroyed in the Great Island storm of 1893.
Take your time. Look around and imagine the secrets the live oaks may hold. Many of them are hundreds of years old. If they could talk, they could tell us of the hard times that fell upon Bluffton after the Civil War and through the first half of the 20th century.
Fortunately, since my first visit on that moonlit night, Bluffton has been experiencing a renaissance. Historical restorations have been made and economic growth has come in the form of art galleries, boutique and antique shops, and lovely restaurants serving delicious southern cuisine.
Even more fortunately, there are those spirits that still haunt the old areas. If you allow yourself the infinite possibilities of the mind, you might see them in the oleanders on a moonlit night. You might sense them in the azaleas on a spring afternoon or on the river on a sunny dazzling summer morning.
Who knows? You may find yourself wondering about an inexplicable familiarity. You might even experience "a most peculiar moment." These feelings might not dissipate. You may be compelled to return time and again.
As a result, like me, you may ask yourself, several haunting questions: "Was I once a guest of one of the town's prominent families? "
"Was I a child happy to be spending the summer months on the cool May River bluff as I lay across one of the long outstretched arms of one of the live oaks which now surround me?"
"Did I lose my father, husband, brother, or fiancé in that most 'unpleasant conflict'?"
"Did I witness the burning of the town by the Yankees in 1863?"
"Was I once a slave living with my master and his family, and, as a slave, was I also grieving the loss of a loved one or the plight of my condition?"
Or might your feelings be just a magical spell cast by the ghosts of the little town of that most beautiful May River?
To those of us caught in that spell, we will never really know. We will just know what we feel when we are transported "somewhere in time" and experience "a most peculiar moment."