Unique Bluffton artifact donated to S.C. State Museum
Lynne Cope Hummell
Anyone who lived or worked in Old Town Bluffton for a length of time prior to 2009 knew Mary Graves, who lived on Calhoun Street near the river.
Some found her to be abrasive, tough, negative, even unkind. Those who knew her well understood that while she was often painfully honest, Mary was also intelligent, compassionate, and determined to protect the Bluffton she knew and loved.
Indeed, her grandfather was Bluffton's first mayor, in 1903 and for 12 terms following.
Mary held a Bachelor of Science degree and was a licensed and certified physical therapist. She served as a captain in the Army Medical Specialist Corps during World War II.
Mary loved animals and history. She was extremely passionate about preserving the character of Old Town Bluffton - to the point of railing against those who sought to change that character by acquiescing to special interests.
Mary also was an inventor. Hold that thought for a moment.
Fred Mix of Bluffton is a collector of unusual old stuff. He has bought and sold a few unique automobiles, inherited a nearly complete set of 1930s crystal glassware, and frequents garage sales looking for treasures.
A few years ago, he stumbled upon an odd-looking metal contraption with a motor, a timer, switches, gauges and leather straps. Vintage plastic labels noted various parts of the device.
Mix was at an estate sale at the home of Mary Graves, the aforementioned character who lived at 85 Calhoun Street for many years until her passing in 2009. Mary's family had removed personal items from the house and was selling some of the rest of her belongings.
Mix was intrigued by the machine and asked about buying it, but the family said they didn't want to sell it.
A few years later, after Kelly Graham became director of the Heyward House and the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society (BHPS), the organization held a sale that included the odd machine.
"It was left in a garage that the historical society owns," Graham said. "I had never seen it and didn't know anything about it. We had a yard sale, and Fred came over and asked, 'Are you selling that?' I said yes, and he asked, 'How much?' I think he got it for $10."
"I live near there, and I got there early, like a good shopper," Mix said. "When I saw it, I had to have it."
A hand-painted sign came with the machine, with some words missing, but indicating it was some sort of physical therapy gadget that worked on feet.
Mix believed the piece had historic value. "I just wanted to be the custodian of it. I had seen it at Mary's house after she died. I wanted it then, but they didn't want to sell it."
Neither of the men knew how it ended up in the garage of BHPS. But John Samuel Graves III, Mary's nephew, had some answers.
"I donated Aunt Mary's invention to the BHPS when she died, along with all the documentation about the device," Graves said. He said it was an exercise device for the ankle, designed by his aunt to work the muscles around the foot.
Graves also has copies of his aunt's patent documents as well as close up photographs of the device when it was new. He said he gave the original documents to BHPS.
In an email, Graves relayed the story of how his aunt came to invent the device. "As you know, Mary was a licensed physical therapist. She had a practice in Charlotte (N.C.) for years. She came to realize that such a device was needed. I don't know all the details but she must have hired an electrical/mechanical engineer to do all the necessary design work. The drawings are quite detailed. She must have paid someone to build the prototype (the one that went to the state museum)."
Mary obtained a U.S. patent on her machine - No. 3,580,244, dated May 25, 1971.
Alas, before Mary could raise the capital to produce her machine, another group produced a similar device, Graves said. "Mary became convinced that it was patent infringement and investigated a lawsuit for damages, but as you know, the legal costs of such a project are prohibitively expensive. She had to finally realize that she could do little about what had happened to her. It must have been a terrible disappointment for her, and of course, she lost all that she had invested in the machine."
Graves said the description of the device was long and detailed, but in simple terms, as noted on the patent, it was "a therapeutic device used to relieve and prevent heel cord contractures." It was patented under the category of Therapeutic Device, Oscillating Device.
Coming back to the present, the physical therapy device has found a new home.
On Nov. 5, JoAnn Zeise, curator of cultural history for the South Carolina State Museum, arrived in Bluffton at the request of Mix to accept the donation of the machine, given on behalf of the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society and the Graves family.
Zeise said the first thing museum staff will do is drain the fluid from the machine, clean it, and conserve it. "We won't make it so that the machine can't work again, just so that it doesn't leak," Zeise said. "A future researcher could still come in and figure out how it all worked."
Future plans will include getting a new sign for the instrument to explain what it is, who built it and that it came from Bluffton.
"We don't have a particular place for it right now," Zeise said, "but we will take care of it and find a place for it."
She said the museum has a good collection of older medical equipment, including items from the first female dentist, Dr. Leda Bruce Hurst. "This donation will help us promote an exhibit of women in medicine," Zeise said.
Though the piece will not be on exhibit right away, Zeise said "anyone can make an appointment to look at objects in the collection. We have family members come to visit objects as well as students and researchers from all over."
Now that the device has found a permanent home and "the rest of the story" has surfaced, John Graves is hopeful that people might see his aunt in a different light.
"Many people viewed Aunt Mary as a mean old curmudgeon. But that was probably because, if she didn't agree with you, she had no fear of telling you! And in a major fight she never backed down!" he said.
"Another thing that often irritated people was Mary's amazing integrity," he said. "She held strong moral beliefs and could not be swayed when she felt she or the town was being violated."
In order to help support her vision of the Bluffton that Mary loved, her nephew created the Mary Elizabeth Graves Endowment at the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry. "The fund was created to support historic preservation, environmental conservation and animal rights in the Bluffton area, all things she cared deeply about," Graves said.
He said funds from the endowment have been contributed to BHPS to assist in the effort to digitize historical records, among other gifts to local charities.