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Garvin-Garvey House

Garvin-Garvey House - Audio
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The Garvin-Garvey House, the earliest known home built in Bluffton by a freed slave, yields insight to the life of a freedman immediately after the Civil War, and the many talents of its owner, Cyrus Garvin.  The house has been restored  by the Town of Bluffton and is open for tours through the Bluffton Historic Preservation Society. From its construction, we glean clues into the post Civil War life of a talented former slave. Simple things, like the color of a wall, tell us about his beliefs, while hand hewn wall framing speak volumes about the craftsmanship of the era and offers us a glimpse into life in Bluffton during the Reconstruction period.  But first, you need to know about the card game, "Flinch."

Have you ever played a card game called “Flinch?”  In 1905, “Flinch” was a favorite party game, and one summer night in August of that year, Mrs. Isaac Garvin (Jennie to her family and friends) hosted a “Flinch party” at her home on “the Bluff,” as Bluffton was often referred to.  This “delightful evening” included dancing and “dainty refreshments,” and lasted well into the night, at least according to the society page of the Savannah Tribune, an African-American newspaper.

This brief note in the Tribune gives us a peek at the vibrant social life of African-Americans in Bluffton during the Jim Crow era and is an example of how historians can glean information from a few sentences.   More details of the lives of the Garvin family can be found in the architecture and construction of their home, the house that you see before you.

Cyrus Garvin, a former slave and Jennie’s father-in-law, built the house around 1870, shortly after the Civil War on land owned by Joseph Baynard, a successful plantation owner whose summer cottage stood on this site until it was destroyed by the burning of Bluffton on June 4, 1863. 

The house is typical Lowcountry vernacular style, a style that, prior to the war, was restricted to planters and a few free African-Americans. In post-bellum Bluffton, Garvin’s use of this style can be considered a statement of hope...hope for a better life to come in the new era of Reconstruction and freedom.


Studies of this historic home point out its unique materials and construction techniques; the presence of original hand-hewn and sawn-cut studs; the fine carpentry of the builder; the recycled crate materials used as wall boards; and the blue paint used on ceilings, walls and door frames.

All of these clues provide us valuable insight about the age of the building and scarcity of construction materials during the Reconstruction era as well as Garvin’s building skillsand cultural heritage.  For example, applying blue paint around doors and windows was a common practice among the Gullah people. It was believed to prevent entrance of the “haints” or “haunts,” mischievous spirits who mistook the blue color to be water, which they dare not cross.  

An unusual feature of the house are its finished walls, indicating that Cyrus Garvin intended the home for year round living.  Since Bluffton was originally founded to house planter families only during the six hottest months of the year, a time considered the “sickly season,” antebellum cottages were typically built without upper wall and ceiling boards in an effort to promote cooling airflow.  Cyrus Garvin built this home so that he and his family could live here 12 months a year – a clear demonstration of a changed economy and political landscape after the Civil War.

Recently discovered records indicate that Cyrus managed a large farm for Joseph Baynard who left Bluffton after the war to become a “money broker” or banker in Savannah.  Perhaps that is why Baynard allowed Cyrus to build a home on his land. We do know from these records that Cyrus purchased the land from Baynard 20 years later in 1890 for $450 – a considerable sum for a former slave.

Other newly discovered deeds show that Cyrus purchased an adjoining half acre lot from the State of South Carolina one year after gaining title to the land upon which he built his house.  This expanded his small parcel and gave him waterfront access on the May River.

Old deeds also tell us that in 1878 Cyrus purchased 54 acres from the estate of Esther Box, a white plantation owner whose property was part of today’s Palmetto Bluff. He kept this acreage for seven years and sold it in 1885 to John Holbrook Estill, owner of the Savannah Morning News.  Clearly, Cyrus Garvin –former slave – was a man of great talent and ability who worked hard to improve life for his family.

Garvin’s house remained with his descendants for nearly 100 years, until 1961. After it was sold, it fell into disrepair. The building was stabilized in 2008, with steel beams to support the upper floor and prevent collapse.  More recently, work is underway to fully restore the Garvin House as an interpretive center by reconstructing what has been lost to time and neglect.

Few written records about Cyrus Garvin survive other than old deeds. For this reason, the insights gained from this modest and fragile building are especially important to our understanding of an important era of our history and culture.

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