Bud Mingledorff relaxes on the porch of his Myrtle Island home overlooking the May River. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

The spacious home on Myrtle Island provides plenty of light, scenic views of the May River, and – when the front and back French doors are open – admission to some of the local wildlife.

“When you open up the house you get everything from the outside,” said owner Bud Mingledorff. “We get the birds, the squirrels, wharf rats, snakes. We do have screens on some of the windows, but if you open the French doors, everything can come in.”

He grew up in Savannah but his family spent every possible weekend on the water in Bluffton, where his grandfather owned nine lots on Myrtle Island.

“Being river rats, we always wanted to come over and go to the sand bar, be out on the river,” he said. The family were no strangers to Bluffton’s charm.

His grandparents moved from Savannah, and literally built the United Methodist Church on Calhoun Street.

“We just restored the Graves House as a donation to the church. It’s now the parsonage next to the church,” said Mingledorff. “When my grandchildren go to church there, they are the fifth generation of the family to attend the UM church.”

When the family visited, the focus was always the water.

“On Myrtle Island we had no tennis, no golf. When we came here it was 100% on the river,” he said. “In those days, I don’t know why we didn’t worry about drowning like we do now. We didn’t have captain’s licenses. We were lucky to have life preservers on the boats!”

As a child, the river played a big part at meals.

“It was typical Southern fare. We’d have roast beef, pork chops, fried chicken, fish,” he said. “We would eat a lot of fish. We were catching trout and whiting and flounder. Sometimes we could catch a significant number of sheepshead around some of the structures.”

They used to go crabbing and cook the crabs in a big washtub.

“We’d catch them and put them in a vegetable basket so they could breathe. And then you’d take them and dump them in the hot water, and you’d have nightmares about that,” he laughed. “Then we learned how to pick them. As an adult, I discovered the oyster house has picked crab so we don’t pick crabs anymore. It’s not all mutilated like it is when we’re trying to get it out of the shell.”

The fun continued in Mingledorff’s teen years.

“When we would go out at night, all the teenagers would park and watch what we would call the submarine races. They would park down here at Alljoy,” Mingledorff said. “I’d have a little girl with me on the boat and we’d be chugging down the river, and all of a sudden all of these headlights would come on. And it was all the other teenagers trying to ruin my ride on the river with their headlights.”

For a few years, some local teens were partying on Belfair Plantation. The Mingledorff family had paid $50,000 for the 2,600-acre property, which then included the Sheridan Office Park and Belfair Shopping Center acreage.

“Today (Belfair) is 1,100 acres. We were the last family to own it. We were scorned because we were a Bluffton family who sold out to developers,” he said. “Truth of the matter is, we couldn’t afford the inheritance taxes. In the 1980s, inheritance taxes were 45% of everything you owned, and were due eight months from the date of death – in cash.”

Some local residents remember going to Belfair.

“A guy that works for me grew up on Hilton Head, and said they used to hit on all the tourist girls. They’d take them to the ‘Murder Mansion’ on Belfair. There was this alleged murder at the mansion,” Mingledorff said. “It was abandoned, nobody owned it, and it was in ruins. He would take girls over, and it was spooky. It had cobwebs, pieces of the side of the mansion were falling off.”

Some time after the Mingledorffs purchased Belfair, over on the island, a young developer was getting started.

“Charlie Fraser, when he first developed the island, he put beach front lots on sale for $25,000, and we laughed at him. Those lots today are worth four or five million dollars, so we missed that train because we had the local blinders on,” he said. “We never imagined Yankees would come down here and pay $25,000 for a postage stamp lot.”

Mingledorff is currently chairman of the board of the family company, Mingledorff’s, Inc., a leading distributor of HVAC and plumbing equipment in the Southeast. In addition to operating in 35 locations, the company has full distribution rights for Carrier and Bryant in parts of Alabama, Florida and Southeast Mississippi.

Mingledorff spent much of his career running the business from its headquarters in Atlanta. Moving to Bluffton permanently was not the plan, as he and his wife, Shirley, had built a house – designed to hold grandchildren – on Lake Lanier outside of Atlanta.

However, Shirley, who grew up in East Tennessee, loves the coast, he said.

Over the years, the Mingledorffs would vacation at the beach. That continued with their two sons, and for 20 years or more they stayed in condos at South Beach on the island.

“When the kids were coming out of college, they decided they wanted to come work at Mingledorff’s in the regional office in Savannah, so we followed them, built this house and moved into it in 2010 after we sold the lake house,” he said. “This place had a draw to it, so I tell everybody I served my 40 years in purgatory in Atlanta before I could get back to the paradise.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.