Travelling back in time on a Flat Rock road
by Rob Neufeld
If you walk the one mile length of North Highland Lake Road in Flat Rock, you step nearly 200 years into the past.
At the east end, the 21st century reigns. Fronting six-lane Spartanburg Highway, a super-Ingles sits above a bog; and a CVS store faces an Octopus Garden smoke shop, a chiropractor, a cell phone provider, and a six-lane avenue to I-26 a mile away .
Neither Ingles nor CVS carries the big fold-out road map of Henderson County that had been available 20 years ago. If the Internet ever breaks down, people will be asking old-timers, “Where does this road go?” begging the laconic answer, “It doesn’t go anywhere, it just stays put.”
Though it might not stay put.
An NCDOT plan to turn North Highland Lake Road (State Route 1783) into a “complete street” has been upgraded from a low-priority project to an immediate one at the request of the Flat Rock village council, which seeks bike paths and sidewalks. The “complete street” policy requires that any such state highway improvement also include road widening, curve straightening and easements.
North Highland Lake Road forms part of the boundary of one of the largest and most authentic national historic districts in the east. It’s where the Charleston elite had established an extensive community before the Civil War, and where subsequent owners up to the present day have preserved most of the homes.
The proposed road-widening, Flat Rock’s Cultural Landscape Group states on its website, would take down hundreds of trees, eat into the steep road banks of historic properties, destroy landmarks, cause drainage problems, and create a speedway between Spartanburg Highway and Greenville Highway, the path to historic Flat Rock village and Connemara.
Many residents, the Cultural Landscape Group adds, “are concerned that widening N. Highland Lake Road is the first step in resurrecting an earlier plan to create a southern loop for the county,” connecting to Kanuga Road to “make a thoroughfare-bypass around Hendersonville.”
History is in the making as you read. On Friday, April 13, 2018, at 10 a.m., there will be a special Flat Rock village council meeting at St John in the Wilderness Church regarding the NCDOT North Highland Lake Road project. The council has the power to vote down the project.
The landscape of N. Highland Lake Rd. changes radically one-quarter mile from Ingles as you cross the mostly unused railroad that had connected Spartanburg to Asheville via the notoriously steep Saluda Grade in 1885.
It is at this point where, today, you begin to see “Don’t Urbanize Flat Rock” signs on lawns and driveways.
To the right, grassland flats watered by ponds and King Creek form the Park at Flat Rock, established in 2013 on the site of a golf course realized in 1910 by Joseph Holt for his new Highland Lake Club.
“Yes, mam, an eighteen hole golf course,” the “French Broad Hustler” of Hendersonville boasted at the time, “something that Charlotte and Spartanburg and Asheville dream of at night.”
The project had become possible because of the development of technology that could dredge and drain the mountain bogs that had been—and still are to a fractional extent—a unique feature of the East Flat Rock area.
The ridge above the bog, on which Charlestonians had built homes, had once been a Cherokee trail, significant because of its relation to a celebrated Cherokee meeting place, the flat rock—an exposed granite outcrop now visible at and across from Flat Rock Playhouse. An extension of it, near the Carl Sandburg Home, had been a place where Sandburg had escaped distractions.
“When the day was mild enough,” Paula Steichen, Sandburg’s granddaughter, wrote in “My Connemara,” “Buppong (her pet name for him) often took his mail and reading to the porch, or the lawn, or to the great granite rock on the rise by the back of the house.” He wrote poetry there.
Early settlers had also found Flat Rock’s climate and scenery stress-relieving, but it hadn’t been until the construction of the Buncombe Turnpike and its South Carolina part, the Saluda Gap Road, that Charleston’s rice planters had sought it out as a refugefrom discomfort and disease as well as distraction.
“As the great rice empire of the south shifted from water reserves (reservoirs) to tidal irrigation, malaria increased and planters sought the antidote of a salubrious climate in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Susan Lowndes Allston wrote in “Early Sketch of St. John in the Wilderness and Flat Rock, North Carolina.”
The booming rice industry helped make Charleston an international mecca, and brought many Africans to America as slaves. European countries had ambassadors in Charleston, and some of them made it to Flat Rock and built homes.
Since the Cherokee path had followed the ridge from the flat rock and probably went east then north along Mud Creek (the route of present-day I-26), it’s likely that Cherokees on summer vacation had often walked or ridden what is now North Highland Lake Road.
“Along this road” in 1827, Allston recounted, “came two Carolina rice planters, Charles Baring and Daniel Blake, and with them Alexander Robertson, a rice factor.” Baring, son of a major London banker, had become a rice planter in Charleston after having married Susan Heyward, the land-rich widow of rice-planter James Heyward.
The Barings built Mountain Lodge, a large white Colonial mansion with towering Greek columns around a portico. On their acreage, they established “a porter’s lodge at the entrance gate, a private chapel and a rectory some quarter of a mile from the main dwelling, and a private park for deer hunting,” Blanche Marsh noted in her 1961 book, “Historic Flat Rock: Where the Old South Lingers.”
Photos by Kenneth Frederick Marsh are held by University of South Carolina and posted online.
The arrival of the Barings in Flat Rock began a migration that fostered a summer colony of Charlestonians and created a landscape of estates and roads that marks it today as a rare archaeological survival.
Except that it’s more than archaeological. The Flat Rock-Charleston kinship continues today; and Flat Rock society serves as stewards of architecture, landscape and a bucolic country style.
Charles Baring had established the Flat Rock way when he’d bought thousands of acres of land and sold tracts to newcomers, joined in 1830 by South Carolina judge Mitchell King, who’d made similar investments.
King built Argyle three-quarters of a mile south of the village on Greenville Highway. The Barings’ Mountain Lodge looked over Memminger Creek and the Barings’ church, St. John in the Wilderness, on Greenville Highway just around the corner from N. Highland Lake Rd.
Argyle is currently being maintained by the King family, which has been in continuous ownership of the place since 1830.
Mountain Lodge, threatened by ruin at one time, was purchased in 2014 by Historic Flat Rock Inc. and resold to Julien and Lori Smythe. Julien is the great-great-nephew of Ellison Adger Smyth, second owner of Connemara.
To restore the house, the Smythes engaged historic preservation architect Joe Oppermann, husband of Langdon Smythe Oppermann, an architectural historian and Julien Smythe’s first cousin.
The Oppermanns own Many Pines, built by James Pringle in 1847 and located on Highland Lake Drive, behind Highland Lake Inn off North Highland Lake Road. Mountain Lodge is one of three homes on Historic Flat Rock’s 50th Anniversary Historic Home Tour, Sat., July 21st. (Visit historicflatrockinc.com.)
Book after book about Flat Rock celebrates Charles Baring’s wife, Susan, of whom her previous husband’s family had been suspicious. A brother-in-law, Nathaniel Heyward, had tried to invalidate Susan’s marriage and thus her life interest in three Heyward plantations on the Combahee River below Edisto, Robert B. Cuthbert related in his book, “Flat Rock of the Old Time.”
All that had come to light in Nathaniel’s investigation of Susan is that “before her marriage to James, she had apparently been mistress of five other men … Moreover, she came a class of tradespeople, her father having been a butcher.”
Susan proved a valuable and loyal partner to Charles Baring. Her command of her society—at Mountain Lodge parties and at St. John in the Wilderness—went along with a flair that made people defer to her magnificence.
“She was a woman of dominating personality who had passed middle life when she first came to Flat Rock,” Sadie Smathers Patton related in her 1961 book, “A Condensed History of Flat Rock.” “She was recognized as a skilled writer of dramatic works, and had some accomplishments as an amateur actress.”
When the Barings “carriage reached the church door,” Patton said in her 1947 “The Story of Henderson County,” “a footman would step down and wait until Mrs. Baring laid her Prayer Book on the pillow which he held ready for its reception.” Another attendant notified the rector that the service could soon start.
Susan died in 1845. Charles remarried and built Solitude on land that is now occupied by Highland Lake Inn and the Rhett Mill Dam on N. Highland Lake Road. The current DOT plan threatens the roadside of the historic property, including pillars, stone walls, driveways, plantings and access roads.
Mountain Lodge, 1827 home of Charles and Susan Baring, pictured in Blanche Marsh’s 1961 book, “Historic Flat Rock”; photo by Kenneth Frederick Marsh, now held in the Marsh Photograph Collection, housed at South Caroliniana Library, U. of South Carolina.
Flat Rock’s “Golden Age” created a heritage site
Having traveled a mile forward and 200 years into the past on North Highland Lake Road in Flat Rock last week, we now train our sights on Highland Lake, the entrance to which is a quarter mile back toward Spartanburg Highway.
The lake, a half-mile-long body of water—and if it’s a body, it looks like a shapely dancer with arms and legs extended—lies in the middle of a rocky hill through which King Creek swells before joining other streams to reach Mud Creek at Route 64 and then the French Broad River in Fletcher.
The un-eroded highland plateau has provided the idyllic stage for sojourners and settlers from Cherokee conventioneers to contemporary villagers. As noted last week, NCDOT plans to make N. Highland Lake Rd. a thoroughfare, expedited by the village council, threatens the landscape and historic properties, a key part of a National Historic Landmark.
In 1848, Charles Baring built his home, Solitude, on the outcrop after his powerhouse wife, Susan, had died. They’d been the leaders of the Charleston migration to Flat Rock, starting in 1827. In, the 1870’s, Andrew Burnett and his wife, Henrietta Aiken Rhett Burnett, established a water-powered powerhouse on King Creek where it spills toward N. Highland Lake Rd. Their story will take us through the Civil War and up to the present day in a future feature.
First, we are diverted at Pinecrest Presbyterian Church, where N. Highland Lake Rd. meets Greenville Highway and where the Park of Flat Rock ends in a shoal that displays Carolina marsh clam shells.
The spirit of Isabella
Before the Civil War, Isabella Middleton Cheves and her husband Charles Manly Cheves had made their home, Acton Briars, on a ledge at the bottom of the hill where it sloped to Memminger Creek.
Isabella had been one of the belles who’d spent summers in the Flat Rock colony where genteel Charlestonians had gone to escape heat and mosquitoes.
“I feel like walking for miles, and am a perpetual laugh,” 26-year-old Isabella wrote her mother, Harriott Kinloch Middleton, from Flat Rock. Harriott was in Newport, R.I. The October-like weather in July 1852 was intoxicating, Isabella rejoiced. “It is Sunday and all the world at church,” she continued, “but I am sure I never could sit quiet such a day as this.”
The letters of Isabella and other relations are collected in Robert Cuthbert’s book, “Flat Rock of the Old Time: Letters from the Mountains to the Lowcountry, 1837-1939” (University of South Carolina Press, 2016).
It is not clear where Isabella was staying in Flat Rock in 1852. The date of the opening of Farmer’s Hotel is variously given as 1852 or 1853. (Squire Henry Farmer, its owner, was a relation of Susan Baring). Previously, there had been the Old Inn, and the big homes of early settlers, such as Judge Mitchell King’s 1830 house, Argyle, with its six bays, two stories, full-length porch and three gabled dormers, which accommodated a steady flow of family members. He had 18 children from two wives, and threw parties.
“The arrival of (King’s) caravan of supplies, slaves, and oftimes 23 relatives,” Blanch Marsh wrote in her 1961 book, “Historic Flat Rock,” “was an exciting annual event in Flat Rock.”
“The community was steadily growing,” Susan Lowndes Allston wrote in “Early Sketch of St. John in the Wilderness and Flat Rock.” “Households for the most part were cared for by good Negro servants, who made part of the cavalcade necessary to a planter bringing his family to the mountains. Some of these servants attended St. John’s.” Eventually, the African-American community built their own church.
Isabella Middleton had grown up knowing Flat Rock as an educated, protected, traditional belle would. She enjoyed a flirtatious life in the Jane Austen mode; and, at age 20, married 21-year-old Charles Cheves. Charles, son of Judge Langdon Cheves, was on his way to becoming a physician and wealthy rice planter.
By 1852, Isabella had three children, and she and Charles were looking for a home in Flat Rock.
“Charley has found a sight (sic) for a building overlooking Mr. Bearing’s (sic) mill pond and belonging to him,” Isabella wrote her mom, “but whether he will sell or not is very doubtful.” They’d previously been shown Mr. Maxwell’s property, “but it was too high and windy and the hill in front almost perpendicular, water being raised by buckets attached to a wire.”
Isabella preferred land like Judge King’s, which accommodated gardens and orchards.
Let’s say that at the time, Isabella was staying at Farmer’s Hotel. Farmer had engaged the Barnett brothers, leading builders in Flat Rock, Allston related, to build “a stalwart, three-storied house, with two tiers of piazzas in front,” the top tier of which had often been filled with people in rockers gazing at the mountains.
(Farmer’s Hotel became Woodfield Inn in 1939; and survives as Mansouri Mansion, an inn, restaurant and wedding venue in operation since 1981.)
On Aug. 26, 1852, Isabella wrote her mother, “La Tante has arrived,” referring to her 52-year-old aunt, Eweretta Barnewall Middleton. La Tante was not happy. Her stagecoach had broken down on the way; she’d arrived at 11 p.m., and there wasn’t a room for her until some shifting was done.
She had to be happy, however, with the new hotel, which had replaced the Old Inn. Traditionally, summer residents from Charleston, in order to gain Flat Rock’s “champagne air,” as one traveler had called it, had had to suffer rough roads and rustic abodes.
“The vulgarity and dirt which is encountered on the road between Carolina’s chief city and these mountains really make one doubt one’s own claim to decency,” 26-year-old Emma Middleton Huger wrote Eweretta, her second cousin, on Aug. 4, 1839.
Many Flat Rock maidens, in the late 1830s, had been writing Eweretta, who’d already started her family, and who preferred to stay in Charleston despite the 1 in 10 sickness odds in the summer. Sometimes, Eweretta went to New York and took orders for clothes. Harriet Kinloch Middleton, her sister and Isabella’s mom, once sent Eweretta $200 ($5000 in today’s currency) to buy dresses and material of the best quality.
On Aug. 4, 1839, Emma Middleton Huger Izard, Isabella’s older cousin, had complained to Eweretta that every meal at her lodgings was “taken to the tune of chicken, chicken, chicken. Should I return to you next fall in the shape of a chicken pie, you must not be astounded, but in charity have me enclosed in a Roumillat crust.” (Roumillat was a kind of cheese, yet I have not found a recipe.)
Emma had noted that she was staying at a house a half mile from the Old Inn. I can’t figure out where that was. It was after her cousin’s husband, Frederick Rutledge, had sold his place to Charles Edmonston, who built Brooklands; and before her younger brother Arthur Huger had married Margaret King, and moved into Greenlawn, which the bride’s father Judge King, had built for them.
(Greenlawn became Tall Trees, and now survives as Kenmure, an events venue within a gated community.)
In the same letter, Emma had reported that “Henrietta Rutledge came down to Mrs. King’s a day or two ago and made us a visit.” Henrietta had been pale, and was coughing blood, and Mrs. Baring had brought her back to health. (Henrietta would die three years later.)
Emma had gone on to enjoin Eweretta to come to Flat Rock and bring wine, a pillow, and camphor on her journey. The camphor was for bed bugs at local hostels. One innkeeper, Emma had said, had insisted to a traveler there was not a single bed bug in her place, and he had replied, “No, m’am, they are all married and have very large families.”
The Flat Rock idyll supported a society that put business out of mind—the men took care of that elsewhere—and created an American version of English country estate living.
Women flowered in girlhood, married people of their class and sometimes their family, and went along with tradition, with some exceptions. Louisa Cheves, unlike her older sister, Sophia, resisted marriage until she was 30, and wrote books, Leigh Fought recounts in “Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisa S. McCord, 1810-1879.”
When Louisa’s Shakespearean play, “Caius Gracchus” had been called a “closet drama” by one critic, she’d responded, “What else can a woman write? The world of action must to her be almost entirely a closed book.”
The great legacy of Flat Rock’s “Golden Age,” as its pre-Civil War years are called, is its architecture and landscape, which qualifies as a world-class as well as regional survival. .
There are a few ways in which such tangible historic environments are preserved. They become museums or historic homes, charging fees. Or they become parks and monuments, staffed and funded by governments. Or, as with The Flat Rock Historic District, they remain with private owners, who depend upon some protection from the political districts within which they’re located.
Many of Flat Rock’s historic buildings and sites are open to the public as hotels, restaurants and venues; as parks or public buildings; and as stops on occasional home tours.
Historic Flat Rock’s 50th Anniversary Historic Home Tour, Sat., July 21st, features Mountain Lodge, the Barings’ 1827 home; Saluda Cottage, a French Second Empire-style mansion erected by Count Joseph Marie Gabriel St. Xavier de Choiseul, cousin to Louis-Philippe, king of France, and French Consul to Charleston; and Andrew Johnstone’s 1839 Beaumont, built with local mica-flecked granite. (Visit historicflatrockinc.com.)
A historic driveway on N. Highland Lake Rd., threatened by NCDOT road-widening plans, displays a “Don’t Urbanize Flat Rock” sign, part of an effort by Flat Rock’s Cultural Landscape Group (clgflatrock.org) to persuade the village to vote down the road plan.