The Sandburg house harbors two past worlds
by Rob Neufeld
When Carl Sandburg first moved to Connemara in 1945, snow blocked the car route, and Frank Ballard, farm manager for its previous owner, Ellison Adger Smyth, transported Sandburg with an ox and cart.
Carl and his wife Lilian established a family home and a prize goat farm, retaining the name that Smyth had given the place, Connemara.
Before Smyth, the 240-acre estate below Glassy Mountain in Flat Rock had been called Rock Hill by its long-term owner, Christopher Gustavus Memminger, the legislator and businessman who became Secretary of the Confederacy. Memminger resided there 50 years, from the day his baby daughter had drowned in what has become Front Lake to his own death, at age 83 in 1888. His legacy included, among other things, 10 children who lived to adulthood and a landscape.
The Memminger Path at the National Park Service’s Sandburg Home leads to Glassy Mountain; and the road to Ballard’s old house and the barn leads to Memminger Creek.
Days of yore
Memminger had chosen the name Rock Hill in reference to the flat rock exposed on his grounds. It was an extension of Flat Rock’s big flat rock, the former convention center of Indians trading with colonists.
Sandburg used Connemara’s flat rock as an office retreat, reflecting, meanwhile, on “Remembrance Rock,” the title of the memoir he wrote at his new place. He was harking back to the boulder that had stood behind his childhood home in Galesburg, Illinois.
Yet, local ghosts hovered nearby, recalling the “Golden Age of Flat Rock,” 1840-60, when it had been “the little Charleston of the Mountains.”
One of the first Charlestonians to come to Flat Rock was Judge Mitchell King in 1830. He built Argyle and named it for his wife, Margaret Campbell, and his late first wife, Susanna, Margaret’s sister. They were descendants of Lord Campbell, Duke of Argyle.
King was a member of the elite who had risen from poverty.
He started well-off enough. His father, James Kingo, had been a master weaver in the port town of Crail, across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh.
James had had a fiery reputation. A 1778 financial report noted that he “pays all of his charges out of the stamp-dues, of which he justly complains.”
When the minister in Kingo’s Presbyterian church, who liked using tradesmen’s terms in his sermons, had wondered what red-hot tool might have pulled the flesh from persecuted Christians under Emperor Nero, Kingo had shouted out, “pincers.”
The story appeared in Charles Rogers’ 1867 book, “Illustrations of Scottish Life,” revealing how personally and vividly Scots Presbyterians took their religion.
James’ son Mitchell was given a top-flight education and developed a hunger for horizons. As a college graduate, he looked for opportunities in Prussia and the East Indies.
Then, in 1805, at age 22, Terry Ruscin writes in “Hendersonville & Flat Rock: An Intimate Tour,” Mitchell “sailed to Malta and Sicily on the ‘Castle of Hull,’ which was captured by a Spanish privateer and diverted to Málaga. He escaped to America on the ‘Sally’ bound for Charleston, South Carolina, and arrived penniless.”
Mitchell King’s knowledge of four languages, including Latin, got him a teaching job at the College of Charleston. He attained a law degree, became a lawyer and judge, and eventually came to own over 1,000 acres in Henderson County, including the land he donated to create Hendersonville. “King’s slaves laid the town’s main street,” designed to be 100 feet wide, Ruscin notes.
Charles Baring, a London banker, and his rice-plantation-owning wife, Susan Heyward Baring, had greeted King when he’d arrived. King had first visited Flat Rock in 1829, when the Barings had been finishing construction on their home, Mountain Lodge, and King had been scoping out a path for a railroad.
The Charlestonian were an interesting breed—representatives of a plantation way of life; romantic; economic progressives; bankers; many of them Episcopalian (the Barings built St. John-in-the-Wilderness); and throwers of parties.
The Memminger influence
Like King, Memminger entered the warm embrace of Flat Rock society after a rough climb.
Memminger’s father’s death fighting for Württemberg against Napoleon had caused his mother to flee with Christopher to Charleston, accompanied by her parents. When she died, the grandparents put the four-year-old boy in the Orphan’s House of Charleston and moved to Philadelphia, leaving him behind, Louise Bailey chronicles in “From Rock Hill to Connemara.”
“At the age of eleven,” Bailey writes, Christopher “had so captured the attention of Thomas Bennett of Charleston, later a governor of South Carolina, that Mr. Bennett adopted him and provided him with a splendid education and the refinements of a cultured family.”
Culture was more restricted then, and counted for more.
Memminger became a lawyer and a Charleston alderman, reformed the school system, became a state legislator, reformed banking practices, and (unsuccessfully) moved to have prayers and religious services instituted in the State House.
Finally, he needed to take some breaks. Hence, Flat Rock. He rode up on a horse in his wide-ranging search for a farm and received “every attention from the residents,” he wrote in a journal. “With the Count de Choiseul and his family I was particularly pleased.”
The Count Marie Joseph Gabriel St. Xavier de Choiseul was cousin to Louis-Philippe, king of France; and served as the French Consul to Charleston. He was a friend of the Barings and, in 1831, bought land from them to build Saluda Cottages and then The Castle (now called Chanteloup).
By the1850s, Flat Rock’s aristocratic society had reached its peak. The de Choiseuls and the Barings were often guests of Memminger and King.
“We discussed music, Milton, Shakespeare, Pindar,” King wrote in his diary on Oct. 8, 1853. On May 7, 1847, King noted, “Capt. Knight gave me a long interesting talk of Swedenborgianism.”
“He thinks Abraham one of the worst of men & the Jews the worst human race,” King quoted Knight. “All the crimes of the race descended on Mary by inheritance—not that she was individually guilty but that the ManGod born of her might have in him...all human depravity...yet understand all human frailty & encourage the greatest sinner to come to him & live.”
It requires an agile historical mind to see how prejudice, culture, refinement, business sense, and, for those in their circle, kindness and sympathy combined in the Flat Rock Charlestonians. In other words, not “Django Unchained.”
In 1852, as the Farmer Hotel (now Monsouri Mansion) was going up in Flat Rock, Memminger was opposing secession. He supported Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Pierce because he thought a president aligned with the South would dampen rebellious fervor and allow for a peaceful resolution of regional conflicts.
Memminger improved his estate, creating Little River Road for long rides and Jerusalem Path for trips to St. John-in-the-Wilderness. He enlarged the creek in which his daughter had drowned into Front Lake.
Mary McKay, Ellison Smyth’s granddaughter, recalled that “somebody drowned in front lake not long before we bought the place,” and, an NPS document quotes her, “the Smyth grandchildren were never allowed to swim in the lake as a result.”
The Civil War changed views and devastated the South, but Connemara, though raided, escaped being destroyed or appropriated. Legend has it that Memminger had invited Jefferson Davis to retreat to his place; and that the Seal of the Confederacy may also have been offered hiding there. Did Sandburg know this as he brought all his Abraham Lincoln materials to his Connemara office?
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times. He is the author of books on history and literature, and manages the WNC book and heritage website, “The Read on WNC.” Follow him on Twitter @WNC_chronicler
October 17 marks the 48th anniversary of the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site’s opening as a National Park. The site is open year-round. Visit www.npr.gov/carl.