Culture // 5 min Read

Return to Palmetto Bluff

Written by Dr. Mary Socci

Apr 9, 2020

When Roberta Marcantonio spent a few days in the spring of 2011 helping her sister house hunt in Bluffton, she found herself charmed by an old house in the town’s quirky historic district. Back home in Atlanta, she told her husband, Joe Brackin, that a little coastal town in South Carolina might be the perfect place to live. Joe was happy to make the trip to check it out. He and Roberta had been thinking about where to settle when they retired and deciding on a location early would give them plenty of time to plan. A few months later, they drove to Bluff ton to investigate.

What Joe and Roberta didn't understand yet was that they were already a part of Beaufort County history. As they approached Bluffton, realization began to dawn on Joe. As he describes it, “We’re going down 46 and suddenly I recognized where I was and I said, ‘The cemetery is right down here on the right and that’s where my great-great-grandparents are buried.’ Then I saw the Church of the Cross and I remembered being there when I was a 10- or 12-year-old.

”The family connection made Bluff ton an even more enticing destination. The property that first interested Roberta turned out to be too big to tackle, but there were other possibilities within walking distance of the town’s center. As they discussed the options, they remembered a coffee-table book in Joe’s mom’s house, A History of Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina by Patty Kennedy.

Joe had heard stories about his great-grandparents raising their family at Palmetto Bluff in a small house called “Box” overlooking the May River in what is known as the Headwaters section. Finding out that Palmetto Bluff was now a residential community gave them a perfect reason to “ride out there and see what it is like.

”Like so many of us, Joe and Roberta started to fall in love with Palmetto Bluff on their first drive to Wilson Village. By the time they crossed the inland waterway, they were taken in by the beauty and Lowcountry atmosphere. Joe now wanted to know more about his family’s connection to the Bluff. A map in the History Center illustrated where the antebellum plantations had been located on the property. Near the entrance was one owned by Esther Box. Joe was stunned. He and his siblings had grown up thinking their grandparents’ house was called “Box” because it was small and rectangular and looked like a box. Now he knew it was named after the family who had owned it before and during the Civil War. The next step was to visit the site. Jay Walea, director of the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy, took Joe and Roberta out to where the little house once stood.

The house was gone, but with a sketch drawn by Joe’s great-uncle and a description by phone from another uncle, Jay was able to lead Joe and Roberta to the old family homestead.S

Standing where his great-grandparents had stood a century earlier, Joe started on a mission to uncover the details of his family’s life at the Bluff. (In the meantime, he and Roberta purchased a lot and built their own home there.) Joe learned that his great-great-grandparents and great-grandparents had lived at Palmetto Bluff. His great-grandfather Dan Crosby had worked for R.T. Wilson Jr., the wealthy New York banker who owned Palmetto Bluff from 1902 to 1926. Dan had started working for the Wilsons as a carpenter but eventually became general manager of the estate. He and his wife had nine children, several of whom were born at Palmetto Bluff in the house that Dan rented.

Dan Crosby’s oldest daughter, Bertha (Joe’s grandmother), was born in 1901. She began working for the Wilsons as a teenager, helping her father with the bookkeeping and housework in the mansion. Joe’s research has revealed the nature of the Crosbys’ relationship with the Wilsons. “It’s my understanding that the Crosbys took care of the place when the Wilsons were away, sometimes even staying in the house,” Joe says. “And I think they pretty much had the run of the place when the Wilsons were up north.” Eventually, Dan Crosby’s father-in-law (Joe’s great-great-grandfather) also began to work for R.T. Wilson, as a farmer.

Photos of Joe’s grandmother Bertha and her siblings at the Bluff are often whimsical—Bertha striking a model-like pose, her brother flirting with one of the maids working at the mansion, her sister sitting at the wheel of a Model T. But the photos belie the hardships the family faced. One of Bertha’s younger sisters died in 1920 at age four, and her father died the following year. Joe recounts that when Dan Crosby died, Mrs. Wilson stopped by the house and made it clear that she expected the family to relocate. While the Crosbys moved on to resettle in Savannah, Joe’s great-great-grandparents remained.

After Bertha had married and begun her own family, she started taking her children (Joe’s mother and siblings) to visit her grandparents (their great-grandparents) at Palmetto Bluff. Joe’s uncle tells about staying at Palmetto Bluff as a child. He recalls his grandmother taking him one morning to look at the vegetable garden and seeing deer there. She “…always had an apron on, and she would do it like this [wave it up and down] to scare the deer away."

Visits to Palmetto Bluff stopped in 1935 when Joe’s great-great-grandfather died and his wife moved in with their daughter in Savannah. Nonetheless, the Bluff held a place in the hearts of those who had memories or family ties there. In 1985, while at a family reunion in Savannah, Joe’s great-uncle, two of his great-aunts (all of them Bertha’s siblings), and his mother stopped by Palmetto Bluff. They went out to the site of the family home with Charlie Bales, land manager for the paper company that owned Palmetto Bluff at that time. It was the first time since 1935 that any family had been back. Though the house was gone, the group easily recognized the place where they had grown up. Today, only a few people still have firsthand recollections of Palmetto Bluff in the 1930s. Joe has made it a priority to record and preserve his family’s history since he and Roberta moved here in 2014. Incidentally, many of the Crosby family photos had been graciously shared by Joe’s family and are included in the history book written by Patty Kennedy that once sat on Joe’s mom’s coffee table.

One of the Palmetto Bluff stories that Joe treasures is from an uncle. “In the fall, the creek [next to the house] produced some of the finest oysters . . . a fire would be built close to the house, and a steel plate placed on some rocks was used to roast the oysters. Everyone would stand close to the fire to keep warm and eat this delicacy.” Now Joe and Roberta host their own oyster roasts. Joe says he can’t help thinking about those past feasts and how his family savored not only the May River bounty but also their time together. Joe recently introduced another generation of his family to May River oysters. “This is what makes life at the Bluff so special, sharing experiences with family and friends that connect us to our past and to each other,” Joe explains. This is home.

Photography courtesy of the Brackin Family.