A trip through old town Bluffton brings many alluring visuals. Small art galleries line the roads and quaint cottages turned into coffee shops or restaurants give a small-town feeling draped in Southern charm. But if you look closer, sometimes hidden among mossy oaks and sparkling white buildings, you can discover a piece of the past that hasn’t been repurposed.
Bluffton’s first “dispensary” opened its doors for business on August 1, 1939 by J.F. Coburn, Jr., then just 26 years of age. This was six years after the end of prohibition, and to those that lived here, the store was welcomed by everyone except the bootleggers of the time. The nearest liquor store was 15 miles away In Hardeeville, ironically owned by his father and Magistrate. J.F. Coburn, Sr.
Most of the shipments of liquor were brought in by train from Savannah or Charleston via the depot in Prichardville (Prichard Station). Fridays and Saturdays were always the big-money days at the store, when the weekly paychecks from locals were given out. The homefolks and the Hilton Head bootleggers would come and buy what they could afford and take it back to the island.
The building itself was built in the 1920s, and its first life was a filling station. It was also at one point someone’s house, complete with a small wood-burning stove. When the Coburns made it their store, the original white clapboard siding was bricked over and bars were added to the windows for security. The back door was secured due to Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) regulations. In the ABC’s eyes, a back door represented bootlegging. The island between the two front pillars was removed and a sales counter was added.
In 1942, J.F. was drafted, leaving his wife, Janie, to run the store. Although they had rented the store, Janie saved up enough money to buy it. During the war, J.F. was missing in action after being shot by a German soldier and dragged across the line by another German soldier who saved him. J.F.’s brother, Gus, took a leave of absence from the Air Force to search for him, and ended up finding him in France! J.F. came home in 1945 with a Purple Heart.
Brenda Coburn, J.F.’s daughter, ran the store for many years thereafter. She recalls times when people tried to rob the place.
“I woke up many a night to the sound of my daddy shooting at people who tried to break in,” Brenda said. “There Is a bullet hole in in the wall of the store next to the chimney” where her father shot at a would-be robber. She remembers that the locks to the doors had to be replaced 2-3 times a year and, during one Christmas season, twice in one week.
South Carolinians often speculate various explanations as to why there is at least one if not multiple red dots in the front of liquor stores. Some say it’s because liquor store owners needed a way for the people who couldn’t read to find their stores. Some think it represents a red sun because the state’s liquor stores were originally opened from dawn to dusk.
Today the building sits abandoned. The red dot that once beamed bright, is now faded. The outside walls engulfed by the palmetto trees and vines. The yellow rope with the “no trespassing” sign is likely unnoticed to locals and tourists alike.
The old adage “if these walls could talk” comes to mind when passing the Red Dot No. 452. Surely their message would be as spirited as the goods that were once sold within.
Article by Paul Tollefson 2021
Main image Photo by Matthew Richardson Circa 2020: Click Here To Purchase!