Bulls Bay Supply closes its doors
Oliver and Debbie Thames lived their dream for 33 years … but their dream ended Sunday evening at 5:30. That’s when Debbie rang up the last sales at Bulls Bay Supply in McClellanville.
One of those last sales was a pair of sunglasses. Not exactly typical for a hardware store. And yet, it provides a good example of how the couple has fulfilled their dream of running a family-owned store in the fishing village of McClellanville.
Screws, plywood, tools, the best cup of coffee, widgets for the what-cha-ma-call-it. You know, it’s about this-s-s long.
That’s what they’ve done for 33 years, and what’s been done in years past since the business first opened in 1894.
“It’s been a long, wonderful run,” Debbie Thames said. “The community has been awesome to us.”
In McClellanville, as in many small villages and communities, you can’t help but find kin wherever you go.
Oliver Thames comes from a line of family members who provided for the needs of their nearby folk up and down the coast for years.
Charlotte Thames Morse and Jenna McClellan worked in the store with them for more than 20 years, and were among current and former employees who came by on Sunday evening to say good-bye to the store and to the couple.
Charlotte and Oliver are cousins.
Her grandfather owned Bonnie’s Barn, which was just south of the South Santee River on U.S. Highway 17, at its intersection with South Santee Road.
There were three Thames brothers who owned three country stores along a 20-mile stretch of the Ocean Highway — U.S. 17.
Herbert Thames owned a store in Awendaw, about 30 miles north of Charleston. He was Oliver’s grandfather.
Heading towards Georgetown, next up was Bonnie Thames, who had a store in northern Charleston County, about 16 miles away.
Then, shortly after crossing the South and North Santee Rivers, a traveler would come to Jennings Thames’ store. That’s what later became Mitchum’s, in the North Santee Community. Today that store, 4 1/2 miles from the old Bonnie’s Barn, is called Carolina Country Store.
Folks who lived in the countryside and the villages like McClellanville, and Germantown, and North Santee and others didn’t have easy access to big grocery stores and supermarkets, or big box stores like Walmart and Lowe’s.
Instead, they depended on the country stores like the ones the Thames brothers ran along that stretch of two-lane highway.
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, at least, that road crossed over the Santee Delta on a wooden bridge. There were occasional stretches of road bed made of concrete and steel, but mostly the bridge was made of wood.
Charlotte Thames Morse recalled on Sunday that a tractor-trailer rig or some other big truck was involved in an accident along that road. The bridge had to be rebuilt in part of that area, so folks who had to travel from Georgetown to McClellanville had to go by way of U.S. Highway 17A to Jamestown and then turn back along S.C. Highway 41 to get to McClellanville or Charleston.
Those geography lessons aren’t just to tell you how people got from one place to another, because often they just didn’t.
They had to depend on their local country store. Many families didn’t own a car or truck. They walked, maybe rode a horse, mule or wagon, or caught a ride with a neighbor.
Oliver Thames grew up with that sort of lifestyle as the fabric of his life.
Continuing family ways
Debbie grew up in Summerville. Her dad was in the military. She and Oliver married and raised two kids.
“Our first business was a marine nautical business in downtown Charleston.” She was also a mortgage banker.
Oliver long dreamed of having a store of his own.
In April 1980, the couple bought the Western Auto store in the village of McClellanville from the Grahams.
That store dated back to 1894. At some point, the grocery and hardware store businesses were separated. The grocery is now T.W. Graham’s restaurant. There was a mercantile store, gone now, and the hardware store was next to that.
When Oliver and Debbie bought the store, they changed it to a True Value hardware store.
The couple has lived in McClellanville since.
Raising up the kids
Their kids worked in the store as their teenage jobs, and many of their friends did likewise.
“I feel like I’ve raised a lot of children,” Debbie told the Georgetown Times. “A lot of them worked here in their teenage years and through college. There were some here Sunday. I knew when they were born, and they now have babies.”
Their daughter is 30, and their son is 27.
“That whole age group is really special to me,” she said.
Their son stays in McClellanville part-time. He’s a mate on a fishing boat so is working that part of the year. Their daughter married a year-and-a-half ago and is now living in Amsterdam.
“A lot of couples would have trouble working together, but for Oliver and I it has been good,” Debbie said.
“We don’t have specific plans. We’ll take a small break.”
“We would like to do something that’s maybe not as confining, but definitely want something as rewarding as this has been.”
“I would of course have preferred to see the buyer continue the business, but it’s been his prerogative to do something else,” she said.
“We’re just looking to start a new chapter in our lives.”
For almost a decade, Oliver and Debbie Thames ran their store in the village. They were working on plans to build a new location when a “guy” named Hugo brought drastic change.
That was September 21-22, 1989.
Hurricane Hugo came ashore at Bulls Bay with a “storm tide” of 19.8 feet.
See the separate story about dealing with Hugo.
The village of McClellanville has about 500 people. The Zip code 29458 has about 3,000 people.
“A lot of people here are not in the town limits. They live in the rural areas. Our demographic is about 10 to 15 miles.”
Bud Hill agreed to say a few words at the impromptu party folks threw on Sunday for Oliver and Debbie.
“The one true constant in all this, is these two people,” Hill said.
“They have contributed not only as business people but to the community.”
Hill is well-known as the driving force of the Village Museum in McClellanville. He noted that the Thames have contributed with their business, with discounted prices for screws and nails and shelving for the museum, and in all parts of the life of the fishing village that is McClellanville.
“They’ve helped us out with all of them,” he said.
“When I need a key made, some glass cut, or I need a Coke and a Snickers bar,” Hill has gone to Bulls Bay Supply.
“We’re all going to miss them. We’re all going to be driving to Georgetown or Mount Pleasant — but we will miss them.”
Simple words, but they conveyed a depth of feeling that hovered in the air around Debbie and Oliver Thames, Hill, and dozens and dozens of fellow villagers who stopped by the store.
There were hugs, handshakes, smiles and tears.
The people of McClellanville came out as the sun set in the sky, and the sun set on Bulls Bay Supply.
“For every day we’ve been here,” Debbie Thames told her customers who are also her friends, “you’ve been supporting us.”
“We’ve raised a lot of babies in this village. Now, I see those babies come in with their babies on their hips.”
“Thank you all for being such an important part of our lives,” she said.
“The whole point of the other night was to say good-bye to one era,” Debbie said on Wednesday.
“There were a lot of good friends [there] who supported us, and are our friends. It was a time to say good-bye to the business. It was very special to us.”
Whatever they do after their short break, Debbie said, one thing is certain.
Will you stay in McClellanville?
“Had we been stuck in Charleston with 9 to 5 jobs, none of this would have happened,” Oliver Thames said on Sunday.
“This has been my dream since I was a kid. Y’all have made it happen.”
“The most important part of this has been the people.”
By Tommy Howard
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