It was a Bluffton kind of event to the core, the kind of gathering that would spring up organically when the town population was lucky to push 500 residents.
The Feb. 19 Bluffton State of Mind Reunion was born out of the passion of the folks participating in the “You Know You’re From Bluffton When …” Facebook group. Bluffton native Michael Reynolds started the page years ago to share his passion for the town’s history and the people that his hometown so unique.
Much like the pre-2000s population, the number of regulars to the page was in the hundreds for much of the page’s early existence. But over the past 18 months, the group’s membership has grown exponentially. Maybe it’s the new wave of residents taking an interest in their new home, maybe it was all the long-timers confined to their homes during the pandemic.
Whatever the reasons, one thing was clear: History has become cool again.
“It is so exciting to see how the page is growing, all the folks sharing their remembrances and making this an oral history of the town,” said Reynolds. “It has really been an exciting mix of newcomers wanting to soak up every bit of Bluffton they can and the folks that made this town so special sharing their memories with every new photo we put up.”
That mix is no better exhibited than in the group admin pairing of native Reynolds with relative newcomer Paul Tollefson, who moved to the Lowcountry in 2002 and made his home in Bluffton in 2009. Tollefson has been relentless in uncovering long-lost photographs, documents and publications like the Bluffton Eccentric and sharing them on the page.
As more and more natives started sharing their memories triggered by seeing the photos, a rallying cry began to spring up. “Hey, we ought to get everyone in the group together.”
Reynolds and Tollefson are both doers and made the gathering happen with help from town officials and folks like Town Council member Larry Toomer, who offered $12 buckets of oysters for the event.
Oyster Factory Park was filled with food trucks, bring-your-own beverages, the music of Lowcountry Boil and more than 500 people on the slightly chilly, vest-weather evening. Reynolds brought in a series of speakers to share their memories of growing up in Bluffton. Folks like 85-year-old Lonnie Beach shared tales of growing up on Calhoun Street. The family ran a store in the 1940s and ’50s which a then-teenage Beach turned into a dance hall, The Limbo Room, in the late 50s.
Beach and Reynolds used to go see a popular band at the Bamboo Ranch in Port Wentworth and convinced the band to come play in Bluffton. The overflow crowd of the event caused such a ruckus that the entire downtown become a parking lot.
“The mayor at the time, Dan Heyward, was not thrilled with the crowd,” Reynolds recalled. “He walked up to us and tried to get words out, but he had a little stuttering issue. He was so hot and bothered, he couldn’t get any words out. He just turned around and stormed off.”
Two nights later, Town Council voted to ban live music events in Bluffton.
Heyward’s granddaughter and Reynolds’ regular partner on the history lecture circuit, Anne Heyward, also shared stories with the crowd, along with fellow oral historians Oliver Brown and Emmett McCracken.
“I was just so happy to get up and talk to this group. It was great to be among so many folks who cared about the town, both folks I’ve known for 50 years and folks I just met that night,” McCracken said of the event.
“It was a wonderful night. You know, not everyone had the same experience growing up here. We went through segregation and ‘separate but equal,’” Brown said. “But when you can get folks together and share those collective experiences and truly begin to know and understand each other, that’s what brings a town together. And we’re growing, yes, but it’s quite clear there are a lot of folks still in love with Bluffton and focused on keeping the spirit of this town alive.”
That sentiment was shared by countless ticket holders who took to the Facebook group to share their joy over the event.
“I loved the entire experience,” said attendee Sissy Ziech. “I told myself that I should speak to 25 people, and I sure did that. I made some new friends and learned a lot about Bluffton.”
“I thought it went great, and am already looking forward to next year,” said Thomas Heyward.
“Michael, you and Paul knocked it out of the park,” said native Mike Niver.
“Please do it again! So wonderful to see old friends, make new ones and hear delicious stories,” said Christina Poschmann.
Reynolds said the event was such a success that he and Tollefson are determined to make it an annual party. He has already reserved the park for Feb. 18, 2023.
“We immediately asked for feedback from folks and we got so many great ideas for how to make it even better for the future,” Reynolds said.
This was never intended to be a money-making venture, but Reynolds said one of the great side benefits of the events was that once all costs were covered, there was close to $2,000 left to make donations to historical groups around town.
Reynolds said nearly $1,500 will be donated to the Heyward House, with $300 going to the M.C. Riley Alumni Association to help them complete a report on the history of the school. And $100 was donated to the First Zion Baptist Church, who allowed eventgoers to park closer to the party site.
“This group and the resurgence of excitement in the history of the town, it’s really made me fall in love with Bluffton all over again,” Reynolds said. “I saw folks I haven’t seen for 40 years – like Alec Ulmer, and met folks I’d only talked to on the page. It was just so much fun. I think a lot of new friends were made. I know I made a bunch.”
Reynolds said one thing that will change is the event’s name, which will forever be known moving forward as the “State of Mind Shindig.”
“I think some folks got the wrong idea with the word ‘reunion,’ like it was only for old-timers,” Reynolds said. “That crowd was 50-50 with old-timers and newcomers, that was so exciting. And everyone left knowing that no matter how long you’ve been here, you’re a part of Bluffton.”
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at email@example.com.