Village of Flat Rock, NC

A Short History of Flat Rock by Louise Bailey

Below is a short history of Flat Rock as illustrated by the quilt panels and as written by Louise Howe Bailey (1915-2009).

Flat Rock is a mosaic of diverse lives and times. Its fields and streams were once claimed as hunting grounds by the Cherokee Nation; its rocky soil sustained stalwart men and women who accepted land grants after the Revolution and carved a homeland out of a mountain wilderness. These were the Early Settlers. It was a place of respite for businessmen and planters and their families escaping malaria and the oppressive summer heat of coastal South Carolina. Historians wrote of merchants from the seaport of Charles Towne (now Charleston) meeting with Cherokee braves on the “Great Flat Rock” to trade beads and trinkets and sometimes ammunition for valuable hides and furs to ship to European markets. In 1807, the “great flat rock” gave its name to the pioneer settlement that was growing up around it.

By 1827, when the Buncombe Turnpike was completed from Asheville to join the Poinsett Highway in upper South Carolina, Flat Rock was thriving. Mud Creek Baptist Church, built in 1804, was drawing from the Flat Rock settlement the first organized congregation in what later became Henderson County. Grist and lumber mills were in operation, and there were brick makers. Two taverns accommodated drovers taking hogs, cattle, and wild turkeys from East Tennessee to markets in Columbia, Charleston, and Augusta. Then in 1829, the face of the settlement was changed forever.

Charles Baring, a member of the Baring Brothers Banking family in England, found in Flat Rock the healthful climate he sought for his British-born wife Susan. Lifetime heiress of considerable property left her by her fifth husband, James Heyward of Charleston, Susan brought wealth into the pioneer settlement, and with it Baring purchased four hundred acres on which to establish a summer home, Mountain Lodge, built on the order of an English country estate. A porter’s lodge stood at the gate; a deer park enclosed a large tract of forest land. Baring continued to acquire land until he ultimately owned some three thousand acres, much of which he sold to other Charlestonians desiring summer homes in Flat Rock.

In the midst of a Baptist stronghold, the Barings, loyal to the Church of England, built St. John in the Wilderness, the first Episcopal Church in Western North Carolina. In 1836, they deeded it to the Bishop of North Carolina, reserving three pews for their household and the ground underneath for the graves of Susan and Charles.

After Susan’s death, her wealth reverted to the Heyward heirs. Charles Baring sold Mountain Lodge to Edward Trenholm, a member of Fraser, Trenholm and Company, a fleet of vessels significant in the War Between the States. The storied “Alabama” was among the fleet. Edward’s brother George became Secretary of the Confederate Treasury after Christopher Memminger’s resignation.

About the time of Baring’s arrival in Flat Rock, Judge Mitchell King, a Scotsman then living in Charleston, traveled to Tennessee in the interest of a proposed railroad linking the southern seaboard with navigable waters of the West. During a few days’ rest at the Flat Rock Inn, King found the health of a member of his family so greatly improved that he immediately purchased land and arranged to have a summer home built, calling it Argyle after his wife’s ancestral home in Scotland. King continued to acquire land, much of it for the price of twenty-five cents an acre, until he owned four thousand acres. In 1841, he settled the issue of where the seat of Henderson County would be placed by donating fifty acres for the town of Hendersonville.

Coastal South Carolinians continued to come to Flat Rock, calling it their “little Charleston of the mountains.” They hired local men to build their houses, make furniture, and tend their gardens and livestock. Women and children came the end of May and remained all summer, while men, some of whose names are recorded in the annals of South Carolina’s history, went to and from Charleston as responsibilities allowed. Among them was Count Marie Joseph deChoiseul, the French consul to Charleston. He built Saluda Cottages, a small two-story house with two houses for employees just south of it. The deChoiseuls remained at Saluda Cottages until 1841, when “The Castle,” where the Countess and her son and daughters would remain year-round, was ready for occupancy. The original house was the center portion of today’s Chanteloup. The additions and the gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmstead were added by the Norton sisters of Kentucky near the turn of the century.

Saluda Cottages had been so called because it lay near the Saluda Path, the first road to open Saluda Gap to wagons traveling from South Carolina. John Earle, living just across the state line, had been granted land near the “great flat rock” and had built a mill that would play an important part in Flat Rock’s history.

About 1839, Christopher Gustavus Memminger, a Charleston attorney, built a summer home in Flat Rock, calling it Rock Hill. When appointed by Jefferson Davis to the position of Secretary of the Confederate Treasury, Memminger urged Davis to remove the southern capital from Richmond to Rock Hill, thinking Glassy Mountain, rising behind the house, would offer protection. But Glassy became a hiding place for deserters and bushwhackers.

Nevertheless, during the war Rock Hill offered haven to families refugeeing from Charleston. Near the turn of the century Ellison Adger Smyth, the leading textile manufacturer of South Carolina at that time, purchased Rock Hill. He changed the name to Connemara, honoring his ancestral home in Ireland. In 1945, Connemara became the last home of the great poet and biographer Carl Sandburg.

Vital to the Flat Rock settlement was the Old Post Office, built around 1837 and served by Col. Valentine Ripley’s stage coach plying between Greenville, South Carolina, and Greenville, Tennessee. Much excitement was created by the arrival of the mail once a week at first, then twice, and finally daily. The original building served at different times until 1965, when a new and modern facility was built.

Woodfield Inn, originally Farmer Hotel, opened in 1850, financed by ten summer residents contributing one thousand dollars each. Henry Tudor Farmer, Susan Baring’s nephew, built the hotel and then bought it in 1853, operating it until his death. During the War Between the States, it provided haven to coastal South Carolinians, and for a time a company of soldiers remained on the grounds for the safety of the people in residence.

A popular gathering place for the lads of Flat Rock was Markley’s Blacksmith Shop, founded by John Markley and continued by his sons James and Garfield. A highlight of summer was rounding up all of the horses and taking them to be shod. Fascination lay not only in the strength and skill of the blacksmiths, but in their homespun philosophy that made its point through tales told by the Markleys for both entertainment and example.

Dr. Mitchell King, a son of Judge King, built Glenroy, now known as Kenmure, around 1850. After graduation from the Medical College of South Carolina, King had sought further study in Germany, where he became friends with a fellow student Otto von Bismarck. Their correspondence continued throughout their lives and is now in the Library of Congress in Washington. At Glenroy Dr. King built an office behind the house and there carried on his medical practice. When an epidemic of yellow fever struck the Jacksonville, Florida, area in the 1880s, Dr. King, realizing the disease did not occur at higher elevations, urged the Florida doctors to send convalescent patients to an infirmary he set up for them in Hendersonville. Thus the Hendersonville area became known to Florida residents, and a thriving tourist business has resulted.

An ardent supporter of the Confederacy, for as long as Dr. King lived he wore suits made of Confederate gray material woven at the mill John Earle had built nearly one hundred years before.

Beaumont, built of stones quarried from the “great flat rock,” was originally the summer home of Andrew Johnstone, a rice planter of Georgetown, South Carolina, and his family. During the War Between the States Johnstone was shot and killed at Beaumont by a band of renegades. His family sold the property, a later owner being Frank Hayne, at one time a “cotton king” of New Orleans.

Many Pines was built in 1847 by James Pringle of Charleston. Later owners were Arthur Barnwell and Augustine Smythe, also Charlestonians. It is now the property of Joseph and Langdon Oppermann, she a member of the Smythe family, and they have done extensive restoration of the main house. A “street” behind it runs past several small buildings typical of lowcountry slave dwellings.

Peace’s Store, now The Wrinkled Egg gift shop, was owned and operated by members of the Peace family from the turn of the century until the death of Clarence Peace some 85 years later. In addition to offering groceries and gasoline, the store was a favorite place for local men to meet and discuss politics and other issues of the day.

Trains came to Flat Rock in 1879, providing a welcome alternative to the arduous, two-day carriage ride which previously had been required for persons wanting to get to Flat Rock from Greenville, South Carolina. Track had to be laid up the steep Saluda Grade. At 5.3 percent it is still the steepest grade in the country east of the Rocky Mountains, needing huge engines with five sets of driving wheels to pull the cars. The Flat Rock Depot was built in the center of East Flat Rock in 1889, replacing a log dwelling that had initially served as the station. The depot was taken down in 1958 when passenger service between Charleston and Cincinnati was discontinued. Engine Number 1457 owned by the Southern Railroad was retired the same year.

Dr. Arthur Guérard built his private home Heidelberg in 1885. Later he enlarged the house, but ran into financial difficulties and attempted to open it as a hotel, then as a sanitarium. Both endeavors failed, so he sold the property to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1921. A contest held to find a suitable name resulted in Bonclarken, meaning “good, clear vision.”

In 1939, John Earle’s mill, then known as Rhett’s Mill, entered a new phase of its history. It became a summer theater for Robroy Farquhar’s Vagabond Players. It opened with Kim Hunter, a budding young actress amongst the cast. World War II interrupted the lives of the Vagabonds, but after the war they regrouped at Lake Summit. Then in 1952 the property including the “great flat rock” and the I’On Lowndes house became available, and the Vagabonds at last had a permanent home. With Robroy’s unyielding energy and optimism the future of the Vagabonds was assured, and now, in their Flat Rock Playhouse, and as the North Carolina State Theatre, the Vagabonds are bringing nationwide awareness of the historic little community of Flat Rock.

Frank L. FitzSimons was born in South Carolina and settled in Henderson County after finishing college. He served his country as a Marine during World War I and was awarded the Navy Cross. He served his community during the rest of his life as a teacher, school principal, banker, agriculturist, public official, historian, and as author of three books on the history of the area. He was the first chairman of the Board of Control of the Henderson County Curb Market. During 25 years of radio broadcasts he endeared himself to local listeners with wondrous tales of their history.

Louise Howe Bailey has been a lifelong resident of Henderson County. Although her forebears had been coming to Flat Rock from Charleston each summer since 1830, her father chose to remain in Henderson County to open his medical practice. Louise has always been interested in the history of the area and began jotting down notes while still in high school. Sharing her store of knowledge through her newspaper columns, books, and lectures, she has kept this rich history alive. Recently, Blue Ridge Community College dedicated a room in its library as a repository for the original copies of all her written books. It will be a haven for researchers and historians, and for all who just want to read her accounts of local history.

In 1995, the Village of Flat Rock became incorporated. The first elected officials chose to lease space for the Flat Rock Village Office in the former Flat Rock School. The building was constructed in the early 1920s on a site located at the intersection of U.S. 25 and Depot Road, now known as Blue Ridge Road. The building is a portion of the original school, part of which burned around 1962. It no longer serves as the Flat Rock Village Hall.

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