Judy Hutson knew she found a beau that treasured her and made her laugh. When she married Harvey Hutson in 1975, the city girl moved from Savannah to Bluffton. She inherited a ready-made family with three kids and Harvey’s six siblings that made family dinners a storytelling extravaganza. Life was good.
The more she heard the family stories, the more she realized how connected Harvey’s family was to the history of Palmetto Bluff.
“Their stories brought this place alive for me, truly got me interested in the incredible history there,” Hutson said. “When Harvey passed eight years ago, I wanted to find a way to honor him and his family.”
That mission gained momentum when the former McCracken Middle School teacher met acclaimed book publisher Lydia Inglett, a fellow parishioner at Hutson’s church.
“The more we talked about her life as a publisher and my history with a family so connected to Palmetto Bluff, it rapidly turned into a book idea,” Hutson said.
The result is a gorgeous coffee table book history of turn-of-the-century life at The Bluff, the wealthy families that energized the land and the staff that became family. “A Special Place and Time” is the result of a five-year journey into the past that connected her even more deeply to her husband of 38 years who passed away in 2013.
“I knew from the dinner conversations that these were amazing people with such vibrant stories of everyday living,” Hutson recalled. “The staff at The Bluff, they lived there, schooled their kids there and were treated like family by the Wilsons.”
The book begins by introducing the Wilson family, led by traveling salesman R.T. Wilson Sr. Financing from his father-in-law allowed him to chase his business dreams at the beginning of the Civil War. He later amassed a fortune investing in Southern railroad bonds.
His son, R.T. Jr., inherited much of the family fortune, part of which he spent to buy 18,000 acres from John Estill that he renamed Palmetto Bluff.
The Wilson estate was amazingly self-sufficient for the time, complete with water towers, a power house, vegetable gardens and a dairy herd. To support their 72-room mansion and three-story stable, the Wilsons brought on a deep roster of helpers to support their blacksmith shop, dog kennels, squab and terrapin houses and chicken pens. They even built a schoolhouse on the property for the employees’ kids.
The other central figure in Hutson’s fascinating storytelling is Harvey “Fish” Beach, a family man who became the Wilsons’ trusted gardener and landscaper. Beach’s family, including Judy’s future in-laws, grew up around the rugged beauty of The Bluff.
Hutson’s many interviews with surviving family members paints a colloquial landscape that ends up reading like a novel, as she describes the life and times of the growing Beach and Wilson families and how the children grew up together on the estate.
“My Harvey’s father learned the plumbing trade at The Bluff, started out as a groomsman taking care of horse and buggies, but became apprentices to the plumbers that often worked on the well,” Hutson said of her father-in-law.
Hutson was aided in her research by Bluff archeologist Mary Socci, who spurred Hutson on to complete the book. The fruits of their labor bring the sprawling Wilson estate back to life. The mansion built in 1912 and sadly burned to the ground in 1926. But for that brief window, Palmetto Bluff served as a frequent vacation getaway for many of the nation’s richest families, including the Vanderbilts – thanks to a union between daughter Grace Wilson and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Multiple boats often transported guests between Savannah and the Wilson estate, including The Isabelle, a rare photo of which Hutson found for the book.
Hutson taught for 31 years at McCracken Middle School and continues to substitute teach at M.C. Riley Elementary today. Her way with words shines in turning even the most mundane adventures into a Tom Sawyer-esque tale.
The unearthed photos are an equal star of “A Special Place and Time,” a research project so time-consuming that Hutson exhales deeply at the suggestion of a follow-up book.
“I gave everything I had to telling this tale. There are always more stories to tell, but that may be for the next historian,” Hutson said.
Hutson’s vivid detail in laying out the family bloodlines is dotted with a series of remembrances and funny stories culled from her multitude of interviews. And it makes her recounting of the ultimate tragedy of the mansion fire and the lives lost that day all the more devastatingly authentic.
The Beachs and Wilsons remained intertwined long after the mansion fire – some of Hutson’s best vignettes are from octogenarian Lonnie Beach, a McCracken High School graduate in the 1950s, reliving his journeys with the Wilson offspring.
“Their life was so incredible. Honestly, I appreciated every moment I had with my husband, but being able to complete this project, it just made our own adventures all the more special,” said Hutson, who recalls one of her first post-marriage adventures – a city-girl-meets-feral-pig tale – in the book’s introductory pages, laying out her intimate connection to the subject matter.
Hutson still lives in the house Harvey built for them on Burnt Church Road, then a dirt road with no traffic. The property became legendary in its own right as an adventurous retreat for many of Judy’s students and co-workers.
“I’m blessed that my boys grew up here. We have our own stories to tell of life in Bluffton,” Hutson said. “It’s so important to get these stories in print and recorded. I’m very proud to have played my part in introducing that history to newcomers and putting smiles on the faces of the locals that remember all these wonderful times.”
“A Special Place and Time” is available for purchase from Lydia Inglett Publishing and Starbooks at starbooks.biz.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.