May 2010

Change of the Celebratory Guard - Bluffton Rotary adopts the Bluffton Village Festival

Author: Erik Olson

“It was all very innocent in the beginning” said Babbie Guscio, owner of The Store on Calhoun Street, who founded the Bluffton Village Festival in 1978. She’s right; it seems the best celebrations always start out that way. “We needed a social event,” she said, and so she chartered the Bluffton Village Festival, sometimes known as Mayfest, with 25 vendors and a prayer. Guscio estimates 500 patrons showed up. “Every person was a godsend that first year,” she said, and the celebration hasn’t looked back since.

But as the Town of Bluffton has evolved and changed, so has the festival. Lead continuously by Guscio for the first 30 years—a remarkable feat—the festival was adopted by Bluffton Rotary last year as Guscio’s handpicked successor, appropriate as the foundation and principles of the festival jibe with those of Bluffton Rotary.

According to Guscio, when the Houlihan Bridge was built to cross the Savannah River in 1922, it was the second blow to commerce in Bluffton following the 1863 torching of the town by Union forces. However, the town was (and is) resilient, and that first bridge to Savannah, long before the development of Hilton Head, became instrumental in shaping Bluffton’s identity. The decline of large commerce allowed the town to become a haven for artists, musicians, craftsman and the distinct culture found in town.

Missing when Guscio arrived in 1972 was a celebration of that culture. “We needed an event for the community,” she said. As for the name, Guscio explained that in 1978, the town still felt more like a village. Like any worthwhile endeavor, it wasn’t without challenges. The first year planning revolved around getting the town and authorities to buy into the enterprise. “I had to convince the ladies at the Church of the Cross to make the sandwiches. They didn’t think anybody would eat them,” said Guscio. This year, they’ll sell out as they have every year (including the first).

Beyond sandwiches, in her 30 years of stewardship, Guscio has witnessed everything. A gentleman tried to sell homemade knives one year. To kids. No. Another year an individual decided to sell fireworks, against Guscio’s will, which yielded Roman candle battles on Calhoun Street. Bad. Kids set fire to a boat at the town dock one year. Whoa.

With her from the beginning as a vendor and friend has been Jacob Preston, of Preston Studio on Calhoun Street. “When the festival originated,” said Preston, “I was the third highest grossing business in town behind the speed trap and Scott’s.” Renowned for his pottery and ceramic work; Preston threw pots under an old oak in front of the Church of the Cross for the first six years. The tree fell. So he moved his location to the sidewalk in front of his studio and has been there since.

According to Preston, the timing was right for passing the torch from Guscio to Bluffton Rotary. “Babbie is so sweet; people would say they were selling wooden toys and show up with car alarms” said Preston. “With the size of the festival now, Rotary brings new blood and changes— the changes it needs. They take care of the carnies and scammers.”

Preston’s participation in the festival has never been a venture focused on personal gain. Among other things, each year he is tasked with creating the trophy for the Ugly Dog Contest. “It never gets old,” said Preston. “I remember a dog that I swear was an oversized squirrel.”

The Ugly Dog Contest will celebrate its 22nd anniversary this year; older than the “big one” in California, according to Richard Coffield, Ugly Dog mastermind and owner of May River Realty. “Cheap notoriety” is the justification for the event: “We tried to do it just once. It didn’t work,” he said, citing popular demand. “Embracing nonconformity—classic Bluffton.” Contest results show that a Chinese Crested is the prototypical winner. However, Coffield’s original recipe for success: “Ha ha! Stake out a dumpster at the Nickelpumper.”

Event chairman, Karen Lavery of Bluffton Rotary, has made certain that the Bluffton Village Festival continues to embrace the traditions that patrons have come to love. After all, Rotarians are members of the community. Known for their ability to facilitate events and raise funds (which will be given to chosen charitable and community organizations), Rotarians also pride themselves on being able to enjoy each endeavor along with the community. As it pertains to the festival, the sentiment held by Guscio has never changed: “I love the thrill and the excitement the event brings for the town,” she said.

Rotarians will be working with the local police department and other agencies to ensure that all 150+ vendors and 10,000+ patrons can celebrate Bluffton and the festival with the same success as in years past. Every merchant and art gallery will be open; children and dogs are welcome; and as Coffield says, “Hell, we always have a good time.”

This year’s event will be held Saturday, May 8, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is free.

The festival will feature many unique and quality art vendors, food, music, a Civil War reenactment and a Mayfest favorite, the Ugly Dog Contest. (The Ugly Dog Contest will be held in front of Sprouts this year at 1 p.m., corner of Calhoun and Lawrence.)

New this year will be a Kids’ Luau Carnival, presented by the May River Montessori School from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Face painting, a limbo contest, fishing tent, and more await kids of all ages. Another special area will be the Carson Cottages, featuring music and entertainment throughout the day and tables where festival goers can relax.

The festival will continue at the Promenade with the music event, The Village Party after Hours, from 6-10 p.m. Admission to the party is $5 per person. VIP table seating is also available by reservation at $250 for a table of eight. Live entertainment slated to perform includes The Chilly Willy Band, The Chris Stevers Band, The Trainwrecks, and JoJo Squirrel. Food and beverages will also be for sale.

For more information, call (843) 815-2277 or visit

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