There once were cows in Pritchardville, an oyster shell clay basketball court in town, and dairy farms all over the area.
Although he has seen a lot of changes in Bluffton since he was born in 1935, Henry Emmett McCracken still feels that “it’s just a comfortable place to live emotionally, physically. And I think a very caring community.”
Returning to Bluffton was not in McCracken’s plans when he retired from the U.S. Army in 1989, but when their Springfield, Va., townhouse sold out from under them, that is what he and his wife, Teddy, did.
“We toyed with the idea of thinking of going back to Korea and my being an arms merchant,” McCracken said, “but Teddy’s mother was alone in North Carolina, my mother was alone, and there certainly wasn’t a particular appeal to stay in Washington, so it was a fairly easy decision.”
The couple bought a place in Moss Creek and joined McCracken’s mother Naomi in running the now-closed Stock Farm Antiques shop that was on May River Road. Six years later, they moved in with Mrs. McCracken in her home overlooking the May River in the Stock Farm development.
Although he was born in Savannah, McCracken is sure it was only for medical reasons.
“My folks lived here at the time. I try to convince myself that there weren’t too many high tides before I was back in Bluffton,” he said.
His father came from farming people but he was also a teacher, graduating from Clemson in 1927. Before he retired, McCracken Sr. became superintendent of Beaufort County District 2 schools. H.E. McCracken Middle School is named for him.
An only child, McCracken Jr. found himself among adults spending Sunday afternoon visits sitting in somebody’s living room “for what seemed like endless hours, and you had to sit down and be quiet,” he recalled. At home, he found plenty to occupy his time.
“The river was always a lot of fun. I was never was captured by fishing or shrimping, but boating and swimming were enjoyable,” he said. “It was just a neat place to grow up. It was quiet and you knew everybody. You had to be careful and not misbehave because the word got back quickly. Everybody was recognized by sight.”
When his father was assigned U.S. Army duties in Key West during World War II, their home on post was no farther than the distance from his porch to the bluff. It had an impact on McCracken’s future decision to join the army.
“They had reveille every morning, and ran the flag up and had retreat every evening, and I just got captured by it,” he said. “It was kind of like ‘From Here to Eternity’ without Deborah Kerr.”
When the family returned to Bluffton, his father rented land in Pritchardville, raising cows and hogs, and planting grain like oats, alfalfa and lespedeza. After school, young McCracken ran a pickup truck to the farm to feed cows or plow.
He recalled that in Bluffton there was just farming, seafood, and the river. A lot of people worked in Savannah either in the sugar factory or the paper mill.
“There were two dairies on Pinckney Colony Road. Illinois Smith had a dairy on what we refer to now as Buck Island; there were three or four oyster factories,” he said. “And then in the summertime you saw a lot of in-migration of the folks coming to Estill Beach or Crystal Beach, which got its name from Dixie Crystal Sugar in Savannah – so many people had summer homes over there were connected with the sugar refinery.”
There was no football at McCracken’s school, but there was basketball. Although their home games were played at Hardeeville High School, the team practiced on an outside hard clay court and a finely packed oyster shell clay court.
Playing baseball had its own challenges. “The baseball field was just about where Michael C. Riley Elementary School is now. Home plate would have been the front door of the school. Left field was over to where the fire station and EMS used to be, by the town hall, before it moved,” McCracken said.
The terrain is a little bit different now than then, he said. It had a tremendous ditch that bordered the back of right field, so standing in right field, the player was eye level with second base.
“If you got a fly ball in right field, you really had to do a little adjusting,” McCracken said. “I played first base because I got a first base mitt for Christmas, and I wouldn’t loan it to anybody – so it wasn’t based on talent.”
Active in Future Farmers of America, he served as state president his senior year of high school, graduating in 1953, and his freshman year at Clemson.
“Growing up in a Clemson household, you didn’t realize there were other choices,” he laughed. McCracken studied agricultural engineering but needed a little more preparation to get to West Point. In high school only algebra II and trigonometry were offered, no calculus or foreign language.
After two years at Clemson, he received an appointment to the military academy from Sen. Strom Thurmond, who had also spoken to his high school graduating class of six students.
“My two granddaughters finished Bluffton High and they were somewhere in the range of 300 to 400 in the graduating classes, so that’s a little bit indicative of what’s been occurring in Bluffton over the years,” said McCracken.
After graduating from West Point, McCracken spent the next 30 years in the infantry branch of the army, beginning with his first tour of duty at Fort Campbell, Ky., with the 101st Airborne Division. That was followed with a tour at the defense language school in Monterey, Calif., to study Korean.
After his first unaccompanied tour in Korea, subsequent tours included two more in Korea accompanied by his family, which by then included two sons; three tours in Washington, D.C., mostly in the Pentagon, a couple of tours at Fort Bragg, graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, and three years teaching geography at West Point.
Back in Bluffton, a downturn in the antiques business gave McCracken time to look at things that were going on around his hometown and the growth. Getting a lot of encouragement, he decided to run for office.
“When we came back it was still small and quiet and easy to move around. I had a lot of friends here, a lot of memories, my mother was a native and my great grandfather George Sewell Guilford was the first mayor of Bluffton in 1903, so I had some family ties and memories,” he said. “The first time I ran for county council was about 1990 and I was defeated – which was probably good for the soul. Then I ran again and was elected, and served on county council from 1993 to 1999.”
After that, McCracken ran for mayor of Bluffton, served one term, and then served another four years on town council.
McCracken said the major accomplishment in serving on both county and town councils was working on the comprehensive plan which was mandated by the state legislature.
“If you wanted to have zoning, you had to have a comprehensive plan. That took a long time,” he said. “I was on council in December of ’93 when we OK’d Sun City, and that was the start of a lot of changes in Bluffton.”
The annexation of Palmetto Bluff and a number of other developments occurred while he was on county council.
“Someone will often question why was Bluffton doing all this annexation and inheriting all these problems, but when you look at Sun City and the subsequent growth and developers that came in post-Sun City and the growth of Colleton River and Hampton Hall and other places, and the pressure the county was getting from developers, I think Bluffton knew things were going to change,” McCracken said. “Bluffton had a choice of either staying in the caboose and being whip-sawed as this went down the track, or try to get in the engine and have some say as to what was going on. I think that’s what drove a certain amount of the early annexation.”
McCracken thinks the current concerns focus on the May River. “I think that is the main jewel that we have, and we all have an obligation for good stewardship on the river,” he said. “A lot of that evolves to the citizens and to the political leadership in the town and county, so we’re going to have to be diligent as we go forward with that.”
McCracken believes he knows why people continue to move to Bluffton. “I think people for some reason have fallen in love with Bluffton, and whatever we have going to make people feel like that, we ought to maintain,” he said. “I think it’s the friendliness, the closeness of the community.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.