While traffic on U.S. 17 isn’t easy now, imagine the road 80 years ago.
“It was a whole different world, and the speed limit was 35 mph. There was no power steering or power brakes,” said long-time Bluffton resident Annelore Stelljes Harrell, 87, who grew up in Savannah. “We came over the old Houlihan Bridge out Bay Street from Savannah. That was a busy Highway 17 from New York to Florida, and the traffic was horrendous. But once you turned toward Bluffton there was nothing.”
Harrell and her family made the trip as often as they could, renting places on Oyster Street or Buckingham whenever her father, Martin Stelljes, could take a few days off.
Her memories are rich in detail. “I’ve got a picture taken of me down at Alljoy Beach held in my mother’s arms. I think that was 1933-34, somewhere around there. We rented over here for the Fourth of July or Labor Day,” she recalled. “We could never rent full time because we could never afford it. We rented a house on York Street in Savannah. Everyone lived in apartments.”
One of the factors that enabled the Stelljes family to periodically visit the town of about 460 people was her father’s expertise.
“During the war daddy was a watchmaker, and you couldn’t get a watch because they all went to the military,” said Harrell.
Alex Wattenhofer, a friend of her father’s who lived in Chicago, would pass through Bluffton every fall on the way to Florida to spare his wife’s arthritis from the winter cold in Chicago. A timely piece of advice gave Harrell’s father’s business a boost.
“He said to Daddy before the war, ‘Martin, buy all the watch parts you can buy. Take all your money and buy parts because bad times are coming.’ So Daddy did that. When the war came along and watches were no longer available, he could fix everybody’s watches,” she said. “He was a master watchmaker and he could make a watch. When he wasn’t in the store he had a workbench at home, and he’d sit in the bedroom, and he’d fix watches there. So when we had a chance for a weekend or holiday or something, we loved to come to Bluffton.”
The never-ending work of minding the store and repairing watches was part of the impetus of visiting Bluffton and looking for a place to buy, not rent. Harrell said her mother, Anna, really wanted to take a break from the store and the hours of working her husband was putting in.
As a family, they began looking for a place in Bluffton, employing Julia Colcock as their real estate agent. There was at least one requirement: it had to have a beach, because Harrell’s mother could not swim.
“Miss Colcock showed us a lot with an old house on it. She told us it was 24 hours water, but we knew that when the tide went out it would be mud. She finally showed us Myrtle Island,” Harrell said. “She took us down to the end and showed us the smallest house on the island, but the whole end was for sale and I fell in love with it. I begged Daddy to buy it. It was $3,000, but Momma hated it because it was away from everyone.”
Nevertheless, the lot was purchased and the work began. Every Sunday after Sunday School, the Stelljes family would pack everyone and their tools into the 1935 Chevrolet and work on clearing the property.
“We didn’t get a house on the property until after the war had ended because materials were frozen. Finally we had a 20 foot by 24 foot house, and we were so excited. We already had a well dug by Mr. C.E. Ulmer and it was a pump well,” Harrell said.
Harrell’s parents slept on a double bed, and the children slept on studio couches they had bought for $15.
“We had a kitchen and a bathroom, but we had no electricity. We cooked on a kerosene stove. It had three burners and oh, my Lord, we could cook three things at one time,” she said. “Daddy had a bright idea of cutting a hole in the floor so when the ice melted in the ice box it would drain. Otherwise it would slop over the floor.”
There was a beautiful beach on the north side of Myrtle Island and the neighboring Stiles family had the only dock on the end of the island.
“Momma loved it because she didn’t swim and she could put her feet in the water. Daddy had a boat. He built a bateau and I loved it. I claimed it and I would row anywhere I wanted to row when Daddy wasn’t using it,” said Harrell.
She also confessed she would sneak away from home to around the corner to build fairy gardens, taking some green moss and little flowers and sometimes a piece of mirror.
In the late ’40s, friends from Atlanta and Fort Smith, Ark., would come to visit and the entertainment would be croquet on the bluff and badminton (“We’d play some wicked games of badminton.”)
“Teal Lawton had a tennis court and we would go sweep up the pine needles and play on it. We never saw him, but we used it all the time,” said Harrell. “There wasn’t that much socializing between the Bluff and Bluffton. You would come in your driveway and pull it up behind you.”
Even after the war was over and rationing ended, it didn’t matter to Harrell’s mother. “Momma had one rule: You could come to visit but you had to bring your own food and drink,” she said. “Momma was a good cook. She made a wicked fried chicken and she made it in this great big cast iron frying pan.”
Favorite dishes Harrell recalled were snap bean soup, and a stew filled with bacon, potatoes, carrots and stew meat.
“And we always stopped by Gottlieb’s bakery for kuchen and coffee cake and macaroons,” she said. “The big treat in the summertime was to make ice cream. Philip Schank and his wife came over with their one daughter. He made a banana ice cream that was wonderful.”
There were watermelon seed-spitting contests, homemade lemonade, ginger ale – her father’s favorite drink, and beer. When the family arrived in Bluffton, they always had to stop at the liquor store for a bottle of sherry because it was cheaper in Bluffton than Savannah and her mother enjoyed her cream sherry, Harrell said.
“We did most of our shopping in Savannah,” she said. “We’d buy popsicles or a cookie at Mr. Peeble’s store, where The Store is now.”
Bluffton has changed a lot since Harrell was a baby. There is no Bessie’s where the family could buy blocks of ice. There are no gas pumps selling orange or purple gas to farmers and auto owners. The Montessori School now stands where there was once a little gift shop selling stamps, stationery, books and postcards.
And farther down the street was “the juice store that had magazines or a funny book, and if you were lucky,” Harrell recalled, “you could look at the funny book without them telling you to put it down.”
In 1953, Harrell married George “Bill” Harrell, and by 1981 they had a permanent home on Myrtle Island, joining others who were no longer “summer people” but permanent residents of Bluffton.
But memories of the early days still linger. “What I remember most is breakfast, the smell in the morning of coffee and bacon. There is no better smell. There was no perking. You’d boil the water and then put the grounds in and take it off the fire,” said Harrell. “Daddy made pancakes, mostly country crepes. He would pour it into the frying pan, about the size of a 12-inch plate. Then he would slip the pancake onto the lid and flip it back into the frying pan and then we would have it with jam and fruit. The children still try to make the pancakes because they were special.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.