For nearly three decades, civility reigned each time folks took a paint brush to the derelict boat along Folly Road and slathered on marriage proposals, birthday wishes and political statements.

Cooler heads prevailed through potentially divisive messages from Gamecocks and Tigers fans, from Barack Obama supporters, from those hoping to liberate Tom Brady from his oppressive "Deflategate" suspension.

The tension that emerged this week, though, threatened to ruin the fun that people have had with the Folly Beach landmark since Hurricane Hugo deposited it on the roadside.

Renderings of the Confederate battle flag that appeared Thursday morning started a back-and-forth painting duel between those who put them there and those who covered up the banners several times. At one point, the opposing sides stood next to each other and argued as they simultaneously created their respective displays.

The paint flew. The police came.

"The painting of the boat is not a protected right; the city allows the graffiti on the boat as a choice," Folly Beach Public Safety Chief Andrew Gilreath said. "We aren’t going to let any groups, regardless of their affiliation or message, stand on the side of the active roadway and get into fights with each other."

Officers told everyone to leave the boat plain white and go home before the confrontation turned physical. Everyone left.

Officials do not expect the kerfuffle to threaten the place that the so-called Folly Boat has cemented in local lore and in the pluff mud. As long as profanity or overt racism doesn't appear, the vessel is there to stay, the city's mayor said.

But Michelle Melton, who was involved in the confrontation after painting over the rebel flags three times, said free expression had devolved into childish behavior, for which she blamed the other side. She was one of several offended by the display because of its proximity to the second anniversary of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church, whose perpetrator was a self-avowed white supremacist who waved the Confederate flag.

"That boat has been there for years," Melton said. "It's a place where people come to spread joy, not hate. It's never been a point of contention or division. Until now."

'The greatest thing'

It was 1989 when Hugo wrecked homes and jumbled watercraft on the South Carolina coastline. The Folly Boat got hung up in marshland just inside city limits.

Resident Bob Linville, Folly Beach's mayor at the time, said it became an eyesore. He tried enlisting the Army Corps of Engineers, a conservation group and the James Island fish camp he'd discovered was the vessel's rightful owner to haul it away. Nobody did.

People started spray-painting obscenities on its hull. He didn't see it as a fine art medium until someone masterfully painted a pair of killer whales in 1996.

Since then, it has transformed into an outlet for a number of political and personal musings. Rather than a piece of refuse, the boat became a source of pride for locals, Linville said.

He couldn't remember the last time he saw something vulgar on it, even during the cutthroat college football season.

"The people of Folly Beach think it's the greatest thing in the world," he said. "It ain't going nowhere, as long as they keep it clean. You don't want to mess up a good thing."

Many past mayors, including the current one, have feared severe backlash if they ever toyed with the idea of removing the boat.

At times, volunteers have helped keep the nearby land tidy. The city has posted signs warning people not to climb on the decrepit craft.

Periodically, the boat sheds its hundreds of coats of paint when they become too heavy for it to bear. City workers help peel away the sheets of paint, their various colors resembling tree rings.

"Something obscene or racial slurs would obviously drive a concern," Mayor Tim Goodwin said. "But as long as everybody is respectful, I guess the boat will be there for everybody to express their feelings for a while."

It endured a "free Tom Brady" cry, coupled with the New England Patriots football logo in May 2016. In 2012, it was used as a billboard for residents' political gripes with Goodwin. And someone painted "Thank you, Obama," on Inauguration Day.

A brief controversy arose last July when it was painted black and blue as a memorial to Dallas police officers slain in a mass shooting. It was replaced with "Black lives matter," the common refrain for those lamenting police shootings of black men.

'Wouldn't dare'

But Thursday brought one of the stormiest chapters in Folly Boat history since the hurricane grounded her just a few feet off Folly Road.

The Confederate flags were replaced several times with words like "hope" and phrases like "love wins."

James Bessenger, leader of the South Carolina Secessionist Party, said he was painting the banners for a fourth time when Melton showed up. Melton took her time painting over them, but Bessenger hung around.

Once Melton was finished, Bessenger and his friends stepped in again. But Melton started painting, too, and once brushed Bessenger's hand with a paint roller. He got paint on his skin.

That was assault, Bessenger alleged, and he called the police who would soon defuse the situation.

Bessenger won't be deterred, he said, and he has already received donations to buy more paint.

"We plan to keep doing it," he said. "If people come out and engage us, I hope they do take the boat away because people have taken our Confederate heritage away from us left and right. ... But as long as the boat remains a public forum, we're going to use it."

A teenager eventually repainted the boat as a tribute to her dying father, calming the dispute further. "Make every breath count," it said.

"I wouldn't dare cover that up," Bessenger said.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the quick response team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.