Builders, Grocers, And Postmasters: 130 Years Of The Blanchard Family On Sullivan’s Island
Eight generations of Blanchards have graced the porches and parlors of, at one point, 10 homes on Sullivan’s Island. Delores Schweitzer meets a family whose ancestors quite literally built our island. Photos by Steve Rosamilia.
Memories come as clear as sunlight sparkling on the Atlantic to Mary Blanchard as she sits in the parlor of her home on Central Avenue, surrounded by pictures of nieces, nephews, siblings, parents and grandparents. Having spent most of her 81 years on Sullivan’s Island, the mind of this former Latin and Algebra teacher is sharp as a sandspur, recalling family stories of industrious men and strong-willed women that helped to build Sullivan’s Island.
Trying to capture all Blanchards and their descendents is a bit like scooping a handful of beach sand on a windy day. Just when you think you have a grasp, some start slipping away while others are blowing in. A strong Catholic community led to large families, and life circumstances often led to remarriages, creating an intricate web of connections between many Islanders. And so we follow one strand back to its source.
According to census and naturalization records, Edward Blanchard, a carpenter, emigrated from France to Charleston and became a citizen in the early 1830s. He followed in the footsteps of other Blanchard relations, who arrived in the city in the 1700s (Mary remembers visiting their bakery on Calhoun Street as a child). Edward and his wife, Cecelia, had at least five children, one of which was Mary’s great-grandfather, Theodore Stanislaus Blanchard, born in 1845.
Theodore served in the South Carolina militia during the Civil War, and 1870 found him working in a saw mill and living in Charleston with his wife Catherine Keenan Blanchard. Catherine, also a first-generation American, was the daughter of Edward and Mary Keenan, who had settled in Mount Pleasant.
By 1880, Theodore and Catherine had established a grocery store at Station 10, in Moultrieville on Sullivan’s Island, where they sold staples like grits, rice and sugar to soldiers at Fort Moultrie and summer visitors to the island.
The Blanchard Store prospered, particularly with fort expansion in the late 1800s due to the Spanish-American War. The family grew and Catherine developed an ambition to buy each of her eight children a property on the island. With her shrewd business sense and entrepreneurial spirit, the grocery delivery service stretched into Mount Pleasant and as far as McClellenville. By the time Catherine died in 1931, the Blanchard family owned ten homes on Sullivan’s Island.
Catherine sold the house at 2002 Central Avenue in 1900 to her son John Edward Blanchard for $5. He lived here with his wife, Mary Comar, his father-in-law Patrick Comar, and their six children—Eugene, Agnes, Kathryn, Claude, Keenan and John—while working as an engineer at Fort Moultrie to construct, among other things, the movie theater and the concrete gun batteries.
Claude followed in his father’s footsteps, building many houses on Sullivan’s Island, including eight that still stand between Stations 21 and 22, on or near front beach. Brother John, Mary’s father, worked for Carolina Shipping Company. In the 1930s, John and Claude bought adjacent beachfront lots on Pettigrew, where they built homes to accommodate their large families. Mary’s scrapbooks document times spent playing, laughing, riding horses and celebrating holidays with her mother Rosalie, brothers John and Gene, sisters Sophie and Agnes, and a multitude of friends and relations.
Back on Central Avenue, the unmarried sisters of John and Claude provided a home base for the family when finances were tight. “We moved like gypsies,” Mary says. They had three houses—the one on Pettigrew, an old house at Station 22 1/2 purchased because Rosalie was afraid guns firing from the Mound during World War II would hit the beach house, and the house on Central where Aunts Aggie, Katie and Keenan lived.
“Whenever it wasn’t rented, we lived there. Daddy always said we were the only paupers on millionaire’s row.”
Fortunately, there were many simple pleasures to island living. Mary went to the public school and had excellent teachers who prepared her for her future vocation. She enjoyed playing on the swings with her best friend, Norwood Smoak, and sitting on the porch of her aunts’ house, listening to the members of Mt. Zion A.M.E. church next door, whose services were so different than those of Stella Maris.
“They would clap and holler and sing, and it was so wonderful. We hated when they got air conditioning because they closed the windows and we couldn’t hear them any more,” she recalls.
Mary’s brother John, ever the adventure-seeker, remembers riding down the Mound on his bicycle, where the real trick was to avoid crashing into the fence at the bottom. Cousins were always nearby for a game of half rubber on the beach. And as for digging ditches to lay the foundations of the 1953 Sullivan’s Island Elementary School? Well, that was just “good exercise.”
If there was a legacy in commerce and construction in the family, there was also a postal connection, too. Thomas Keenan, Catherine Keenan Blanchard’s brother, was postmaster for Atlanticville. Mary’s aunt Kathryn Blanchard was postmistress for Moultrieville and, later, all of Sullivan’s Island. When Kathryn died, Mary’s brother Gene Blanchard was appointed postmaster, where he served for 30 years.
The Central Avenue house was closed up in 1979 because Mary found it easier to care for her parents and Aunt Keenan at the Pettigrew home. Nephew Jack Blanchard fondly remembers the porch with its canvas hammock: “It was the best place to sleep, listening to the waves break at night. We would come from Mount Pleasant to the beach house in the summer, and the family would always gather there for major holidays,” he said.
Only after the family sold the beach house did Mary consider restoring the house on Central Avenue in the mid-1990s.
“Nineteen contractors laughed at me before I found Stan Miller.” It took a lot of restoration and innovation, but finally Mary welcomed John Edward Blanchard’s descendents back to their first island home. Today, the house is a rambling warren of porches, renovated rooms and quirky additions that testify to the many ways it has served the family over the years, providing a family touchstone when all of Catherine Keenan Blanchard’s other properties have been sold off or lost to time.
This spring, twenty-some Blanchards gathered on Central Avenue to celebrate the 80th birthday of Mary’s brother John (pictured left). Mary and her brother Gene still live on the island, but most other family members have moved to Mt. Pleasant or further afield, making every birthday and wedding a joyful reunion.
“It’s always like this,” Michel McNinch, daughter of Sophie Blanchard, said, looking around at her assembled clan. “Everyone under one roof, someone barking orders, and nobody listening.”
The scene of grandchildren racing in and out of doors with adults gathering on the porch or in the parlor to catch up, and others working to set up tables and organize food called to mind similar family celebrations over the past 115 years. If the house could talk, it would echo Michel’s sentiments.
“Uncle John’s great grandchildren are the eighth generation to sit on this porch, in a swing made by my grandfather.” It stands as a legacy of a rich family past, with an arc toward the future— something that would make Catherine and Theodore proud.