George Cuthbert Heyward V was always going to settle in Bluffton. He had a home he knew he would inherit, a long line of ancestors and living relatives in the Lowcountry, and years of memories from summers spent with his grandparents.
Turned out he came home much sooner than he had planned, and that was fine with him.
“The family has been from Bluffton for a long time,” Heyward said. “Wherever else in the world you go, it’s always the center of the universe.”
Born at the Telfair Woman’s Hospital in 1947, Heyward never met his father who died of cancer four months before he was born. Heyward, his older sister and his mother soon moved from the home they had on Walpole Street in Savannah to live with his father’s parents in the family home on Pritchard Street, Bluffton.
“The family was always focused on rice plantations between Charleston and Savannah,” he said. “Everyone wanted to get out of the swampy fields with malaria, so they moved to Bluffton.”
If the name Heyward sounds familiar, it should be. Thomas Heyward Jr., who was born and lived in Jasper County, was a delegate of South Carolina to the Continental Congress, and signed the Declaration of Independence and the Articles Confederation. He is Heyward’s 7th great-grandfather.
George Heyward didn’t spend a lot of his youth in Bluffton. His mother remarried and the family moved to Philadelphia. Summers, however, were spent with his grandparents who had one of the first houses with electricity.
“My grandmother was from Philly, and she grew up with electricity. When she married my grandfather and moved to Bluffton, she insisted on having at least one light bulb in each room, powered at first with big glass battery jars,” Heyward said. “When I grew up, they still had an icebox, though. There was an ice house on Wharf Street, and our grandparents would try to get us to behave by saying they would get a block of ice and drive it home. The child who behaved the best would get to ride in the front seat and put his feet in the block of ice.”
Bluffton is 54 square miles with a population of more than 20,000, but when Heyward was a kid the town was a one-mile square until 1998.
“Everybody’s business was everybody’s business, and gossip kept everybody under control. Even more so were the generations before me,” he said. “It was just relatives and friends. There were probably six of eight waterfront properties that had cousins in it.”
In the summer, the grownups turned the kids loose in the morning after breakfast and their activities focused entirely on the river.
“When we were little, we had to be home for the big midday meal, and when I was young, my grandmother made me take a nap,” said Heyward. By that time, he had two younger half-sisters. “Then we were turned loose again in the river and we had to be back by dark. We spent our time mucking around in the mud and running up and down the river. And here I am at 73, still doing the same thing. I just like playing in the river in the boat.”
Heyward remembers those meals.
“My grandmother was a reasonably good cook, but she had some cooks, local African American women who cooked in the Lowcountry style, so there was fried chicken, butter beans and rice. Lots of fatback and salt,” he said.
Living and playing on the water, Heyward also had access to the bounty of local waterways.
“In my father’s era, fishermen and shrimpers would go out in their boats and come back with mullet. Mullet is a fish that most areas won’t eat because it’s a bottom feeder, plus it doesn’t freeze,” he said. “You can’t put it in the fridge for the day. It doesn’t keep. You’ve got to eat it fresh. I remember going out at night and coming back with mullet, cleaning it at night and then waking up and having mullet or shrimp.”
When he was older, Heyward and his friends would cut the beach when they had cars.
“There was a public beach down at Alljoy. It was a gathering point all times of the day and night, and you’d have to go cut the beach,” he said. “So you’d drive past and see if anybody was there. Well, nobody was there, because they were doing the same thing – driving by to see if anybody was at the beach. Finally we’d catch up with each other and get together. There’d be a little beer, then there’d be some racket, and then the parents would come down and yell at us, and we’d have to get going.”
Heyward said he grew up in a suburban upper middle class family going to an exclusive private school.
“I was supposed to go into law or banking, but I was affected by the counterculture, and money wasn’t significant. I decided to choose a major or career that was socially significant. The two fields that were like that but had low pay were law enforcement and teaching,” Heyward said. “By the tail end of college, I decided to become a teacher because I thought it was something that was needed.”
Because he made his decision late, he did not have the correct teaching credentials where he lived. When May River Academy opened in Bluffton, he applied for the job as a high school social studies teacher, covering area such as U.S. history, African American history and comparative religion.
“I taught a lot of unusual aspects of social studies,” he said. “I had a real nice job.”
One day he decided to run for town council.
“It kind of follows out of being a teacher, my Messiah complex of leading people. I had a cousin who was on council, so I didn’t think they voted for me. They voted for the last name,” he said. “I think it may have been because no one wanted it particularly. And when I ran for mayor, it was because the present mayor wanted to retire. We all looked at each other and asked who was going to run. I was 35 and they said, ‘You run, you’re a young guy.’ I got elected, and I did more business in the grocery store than in my office.”
Being mayor at the same time he taught school proved to an inhibitor for some of his students.
“I was elected mayor for eight years when the population was 300-400 or up to 600. I taught class and if the kids misbehaved, they knew I’d see their parents in the grocery store or some other place,” he said. “We also had the grandma network. The police chief went around the neighborhood. The grandmother knew whether the bicycle or pair of binoculars or anything else belonged to that child, so he’d let all the grandmothers know if something was missing. If it got returned, no charges would be filed, except the kid had to stand up in school the next day because he got his back end warmed.”
Despite running for office and speaking in front of constituents and council, Heyward said he is not naturally outgoing and sociable.
“I don’t like public speaking but I like giving speeches. When I had to give one, I found that I really enjoyed it. I liked knowing what was going on and helping things get going in the town,” he said. “There wasn’t much going on, but there always was an attempt to keep the rural nature of the town, and keep the density down.”
There may not have been a lot going on, but there was one event which remains in the memories of long-time residents. A resident who lived near the Oyster Factory at the end of Wharf Street sued Heyward for working to keep the native business open. The suit said it was a public nuisance and drew buzzards. The detractor’s appeals took it all the way up to the state Supreme Court, costing almost $7,000, Heyward said.
“I was angry about that, so I declared that the buzzard would be the town bird, and I had some stationary made with buzzards. That was the year we had a new garbage truck that I wanted to show off during the Christmas parade, so I put on a buzzard costume and flapped on the top of the truck,” he said. “I didn’t do it the next year, and everyone wondered where the buzzard was, so I did it for the next six years. There’s a Bluffton Buzzards football team, and the highway cleanup crew was called the Buzzards.”
Heyward ended his teaching career after 28 years, working in various schools and finishing at Hilton Head High School. Although he and his wife Lillian spend time in both Nova Scotia and the Bahamas, Bluffton is very much home.
“It’s family history. I could show you fingerprints on the upside down roof boards. I feel so lucky that I can go so far back in my family history. American are very mobile and rootless, and I was always very lucky knowing I was where I wanted to be,” said Heyward.
“It’s where I belong, and nobody can say any different. It is changing and there’s nothing I can do about it, but it’s still Bluffton, and I’ll be there until my toes turn up.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.