Sunday, August 28, 2011

John C Calhoun Summer Home Fort Hill South Carolina

No more beautiful or salubrious region is to be found in the whole United States than that which is lifted above the low level and clinging heat of the Atlantic coast by the clustered hills of the Blue Ridge; and no part of this range is more attractive than that included in the easternmost corner of South Carolina, where that State lies like a wedge between North Carolina and Georgia.

It was here, half a century or more ago, that one of the men of the South, who has stamped his name deeply into American history, the Honorable John C. Calhoun, fixed his home, and possessed himself of what have now become ancestral acres. in the prime of the old Southern supremacy and prosperity, in the zenith of the states­man's career, it was a place where the citi­zens of Charleston and Columbia, and all of the rest of the world who were fortunate in having the owner's friendship, went for large hospitality and rural sport au grand seigneur. In these days of the decadence of all that make such a place glorious and its owner an autocrat, the half-deserted mansion has become a point of pilgrimage for those whose imaginations still cling to ­the old order of things, and of curiosity to others, who care to see a relic of former pride.


The approach to it is from the railway station on the Piedmont Air Line at Cen­tral, and the distance about nine miles. The road lies almost all the way through fine woods of a great variety of trees, largely of second growth, exhibiting forcibly the decline in agriculture that has followed the downfall of the institution of slavery. Here and there a picturesque, deeply sunken stream, where the trout lies, is crossed upon a bridge of poles, or you come out upon some eminence, whence you can look away over miles and miles of forest-clothed hills, rarely broken by tilled land, showing few houses, and seething almost as wild and quiet as when white men first came.

" What is the name of this stream?" the driver is asked, at the first one, confident that some pleasant tradition lingers about its Sunny margin.

" Eighteen," he answers.

" Eighteen! How came it to be called that? " "Why, you see, in the Revolutionary times, settlements were scarce here. The white men were scattered all through the country separately, and down below here a piece they built a stockade. One time there was some trouble, and the white men and friendly Indians in the garrison were pushed right smart by the enemy who sur­rounded them. Finally a girl named Nancy Hart managed to get through, and she jumped bareback on a horse, and started up this way as hard as she could ride, rous­ing everybody to go to the relief of the garrison. As she rode alone, she gave every creek coming down out of the mountains the name of the distance it was from the stockade. And so you'll find 'em - Six, that is Six-mile Creek, Ten, Twelve, Eighteen, Three-and-Twenty, and so on up to Ninety­-six, where she stopped. I reckon she guessed at it, but 'pears like she calc'lated right close."

It is a gradual ascent to the central part of the estate, where "Fort Hill" holds its commanding position. Calhoun found the name ready for him when he came, and well supported by history, or, at least, by tradition. When the Six Nations, of which the Seneca were the chief representatives in this region, were at their fullest power, they had extended their sway as far south as here, driving back the Indian tribe which previously had held possession. It was a frontier post of their domain, however, and here they built a stockade for defense upon the crest of a long, steep ridge which approaches close to the margin of a placid stream now called the Seneca River. There is a vague story of early Indian tights on this ridge, and, in plowing it, many stone relics have come to light. Later, when the sturdy mountaineers were rallying for the new republic in '76, and resisting the sol­diers whom the Crown landed on the Car­olina coast or marched down from Virginia; when Marion was ranging the woods with his squirrel-hunters, and King's Mountain saw a day of bloody battle on its rounded summit and along its abrupt sides, then this pleasant hill by the Seneca was again fortified and garrisoned under the name of Fort Salvador, after its commander, and more than one half-Indian skirmish took place within sound of its one small cannon.

Around this garrison grew up a small set­tlement, and a well was dug to guard against being cut off from a supply of water. Tradition says that after Salvador had been "killed - in one of the. fights, and General Wilkinson had taken command, disasters followed and the place was aban­doned, but that first a large amount of val­uables and of war material was buried in the old well. It is the Captain Kidd's treasure tale of the region.

When, half a century ago, Calhoun bought this place, to which he had been attracted while up here hunting and fishing in summer vacations, he for the first time extinguished the Seneca title, acquiring about fifteen hundred acres.

His first act was to layout and improve an extensive park, and to build a house upon the top of the hill, . where a wide landscape of marvelous beauty saluted his eyes in every direction. It is this park and mansion that now appear through an opening in the tangled woods, and realize the traditions of the old, rich, rural life in the South.

From the heavy gate which a little negro labors excitedly to swing back on its rusty hinges, showing all his white teeth at a nickel, a broad and solid road, brown with a carpet of fine needles, winds upward toward a mansion that reminds one of Mount Vernon, a large house of stone, stucco and whitewashed, with a gable roof ex­tending over the porch, and supported upon four great pillars, stucco into smoothness and whiteness. At the farther, or western, side of the main house begins an extension, one story in height and made of wood, which is fully one hundred feet long. This held the kitchen and house-servants rooms, and it was half-screened from view by a row of cedars that have now become sadly gnarled and dead. Just under the brow of the hill, in front of the house, bursts out a copious spring, whose drainage has cut a deep gully into the rocky slope. Over this spring was built a low, square house, the mossy roof of which is too low to obstruct the view from the piazza. Underneath, the rock was excavated into a large chamber, where the spring was curbed and taught a sober channel, cooling the air for the rows of pans of milk and the jars of butter that dwelt in the shady, semi-subterranean retreat. Stone steps led down to this dairy, and a phoebe-bird or two built a nest in, the rough portal. Beyond, a little way, four stout posts held a large pigeon-house, a lad­der's length above the ground, and beyond this stretched a clover field down to the river.

Entering the broad hall in the center of the mansion, the eye rests upon a large num­ber of antlers, all of deer killed close by, and some with the senator's own rifle. Even now the woods about there are full of venison, and only the day before the writer's visit a black bear had come down from the forest at high noon, trotted leisurely through the door-yard,. run across the park, and so gone out again to his wilderness.

In the sitting-room, which opens at the left of the hall, everything is substantially as Mr. Calhoun left it, and all is plain and worn. The old fashioned sideboard was constructed of historic wood, and, besides much family plate, it was ornamented by two great polished horns of African oxen, handsomely mounted in gold, a gilt clock of the time of Louis XVI., and other lesser articles of virtue, all gifts to Mr. Calhoun. Another interesting relic was the old straight-backed, sprawl legged armchair which Washington used at Trenton. The negroes believe that it incapacitates the per­son who sits fifteen minutes in it for suc­cessfully lying during the following sixty days. It is not in high repute among them, therefore, as an easy chair. In the more reserved "parlor," beyond this room, are many family portraits in antique frames, including a queer one of Mrs. Calhoun's mother when a girl, with her hair done up in an inconceivably bushy manner.

But the statesman's favorite haunt was his library, which occupies a square, one­ storied structure by itself, a hundred feet or so in the rear of the house. One gets a good idea of the grandeur of the old estate from the porch of this little building, whence he can view the three hundred acres of park, and admire the gigantic, symmetrical, it is not too much to say perfect, examples of live-oak, cedar, and other trees that group themselves picturesquely in this noble de­mesne. Beyond it, the hill slopes away to the river bottoms, which, overflowed yearly, are perpetually fertile, and to the greensward or black fallow that marks the swell of old Fort Hill. At his right, close by, is the old house-garden, now a tangled, odorous jun­gle of roses and grapes; at his left a varied landscape, with the spires of old Pendleton, the county town, in the distance; behind him a valley full of woodland, out of which, a dozen miles away, rise the hill and park and large white house where the senator's brother resided. This latter estate can be seen from the railway trains, when they are a few miles west of Central.

The library has its sides filled with book­ shelves, and these are packed with volumes of every description, though largely the literature of the law and the rostrum. Cal­houn's own speeches appear in several editions, and there are many books that bear the marks of his pen. A marble bust of the senator occupies a pedestal in the corner, and here are the table at which he wrote, the chair in which he sat, the pictures that pleased his taste. It is a dark and somber room, though; there is not a bit of brightness or light to relieve the sober array of books, the heavy furniture, the dark paint, and dull, groined ceiling.

When John C. Calhoun sat, and wrote, and attended to his affairs in this gloomy library, he was a man not only of unbounded influence, but of great wealth. Besides this princely domain, he was proprietor of a great plantation in Alabama. He owned from three to five hundred slaves, and kept them all busy. He would send a detachment down to his cotton fields, as long as they could stand it, and then bring them back here to the brisk mountain air for recuperation. At one time this home estate amounted to fifteen hundred acres, but now it is not more than half as large, and is going into a melancholy decay for lack of money to make its cultivation profitable or its beauty available for anyone's pleasure. It still remains in the family, but a pur­chaser for the larger part, if not for the whole, would probably be welcomed.

Originally published in Scribner's Magazine.  April 1881.
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