By Mike Conklin, Special to Tribune Newspapers
8:22 PM EST, December 26, 2012
BLUFFTON, S.C. — In this sesquicentennial period of the Civil War, it's the 150th anniversaries of significant battles that are getting the attention, such as with opening shots heard in Charleston. But some historians say the fiery, public rhetoric leading to the conflict started almost 20 years earlier under the limbs of a giant oak tree that today stands unmarked and mostly unnoticed.
The Secession Tree is this Low Country city's most enduring historic symbol, a magnificent oak under whose spreading branches on July 31, 1844, a crowd heard U.S. Rep. Robert Barnwell Rhett proclaim it was time to consider separation from the Union. The site is regarded here as the birthplace for a movement that grew into South Carolina's being the first state to secede.
The 75-foot tree, with hanging Spanish moss, is an estimated to be 350 to 400 years old. I found it at the end of a long, narrow road in a forest of oaks just off State Route 46 that cuts through town. It is in a private development known as Stock Farm. My directions came from Emmett McCracken, a lifelong resident, owner of Stock Farm Antiques, and former property owner where it stands.
"About once a week I get someone in the store asking how to find it," McCracken said. "I'm happy to do so. We consider it a real landmark, but people routinely go by it."
Bluffton itself is easy to miss. Most tourists blow by on U.S. Highway 278 to visit better-known neighbors Hilton Head Island or Savannah, Ga. "We call it the 'hidden gem,' " said Maureen Richards, executive director of the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society. She's not wrong.
Bluffton is a tidewater community surrounded by marshes, rich with plant life and loaded with reasons to stop. Del Webb arrived with a Sun City development in 1993, and the town steadily annexed its way from several hundred residents to 12,000 without losing a grip on Southern lifestyle and hospitality.
The Bluffton Historical District, a square mile of shops, landmarked buildings and a terrific farmer's market, anchors everything. The Heyward House Historic Center is a logical first stop. There, visitors can learn complete offerings and get a docent-led walking tour.