Flower Town in the Pines: Summerville, South Carolina

Flower Town in the Pines: Summerville, South Carolina

By Christina Butler/Butler Preservation for Charleston Empire Properties

September 2020

Summerville, South Carolina is a lovely, sprawling community with an extinct colonial settlement and a nineteenth century resort town at its core. Summerville is a fast growing town with housing options for every price point, all in short distance to parks and historic plantations and other amenities. About twenty miles inland from the coast, Summerville proper is situated in Dorchester County. It is bounded by Lincolnville, North Charleston and the Ashley River, and today includes Knightsville, Jedburg, and several other small historic towns that have been absorbed. Historic downtown Summerville, with its winding tree lined residential roads, features a main street lined with traditional shops and a town square park dating to the antebellum era. Moving outward along Highway 78, I-26, and Old Trolley Road, density gives way to suburban developments with rural surroundings.

A map showing downtown historic and great Summerville in 1897. Library of Congress.

In the colonial era, what is now greater Summerville was part of three parishes- St. James Goose Creek, St. Andrews, and St. George- comprised of many private plantations. A small town called Dorchester was founded in 1697 by Congregationalists and Anglicans as a trading hub along the Ashley River, to serve the plantations and bring goods from Charleston. In 1757 a large tabby (oyster shell concrete) fort was built to protect the town for colonial invasions during the French and Indian War. Today the extinct town, with fort intact, is a historic archeological site and state park, with the beautiful ruins of St. George Dorchester Episcopal Church as its focal point. Residents can also visit Drayton Hall, Middleton, and Magnolia Plantations (all established in the early eighteenth century) along the Ashley River for a feel of the early character of the area. Summerville was surrounded by swamps and dozens of rice plantations, and Dr. Ed West of the Summerville-Dorchester Museum states that fugitive enslaved people began to create maroon communities, “fleeing to the wilderness because the underground railroad did not reach this far into the deep South. Those survivors started new lives inside of secluded areas including Beech Hill Road and Four Holes Swamp.”

A turn of the twentieth century map by Henry A.M. Smith showing Summerville, Dorchester town (bottom of the image) and various historic plantations along the Ashley River.

The ruins of Old St. George Dorchester Church.

Historic downtown Summerville dates to the late eighteenth century and originated as a retreat called Pineland Village, for Lowcountry planters seeking an escape from the summer heat, humidity, malaria, and yellow fever. They built wood frame houses on high raised basements above the damp and mosquitos, along meandering roads “on a pine-forested ridge” to spend the summer months. According to the National Register, the original “streets were laid out without any plan, and winding roads still characterize this older section of town. The more regular ‘new town’ was laid out in 1832 by the south Carolina Canal and Railroad company. Streets run parallel and at right angles to the track laid in 1830-31.” White Gables, a beautiful wood frame house near the rail line, was built by railroad engineer John Peake, who helped pick the track’s, and the town’s, location. Both the old and new sections were incorporated as the village of Summerville in 1847. By 1860, there were 1,088 inhabitants living in five hotels, three churches, two public buildings, 9 stores, 372 dwellings and servant houses (some of which survive.)

White Gables on a historic postcard. Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Library.

Downtown Main Street and park, early twentieth century. Library of Congress.

Like much of the state, the town hit a tough economic spell after the Civil War, but emancipation led to the creation of new communities for freed people leaving the plantations. Neighboring Lincolnville, for example, was founded in 1867 by seven men including Bishop Richard Harvey Cain, who bought the land from the South Carolina Railroad Company and chartered the town as Linolnville in 1889, in honor of the former president. Today it remains a predominantly African American historic community and an important reminder of the early history of the Summerville area.

“Negro houses” in 1930s Summerville, and former slave cabins behind the Goffin House. Library of Congress.

Still reeling from the Reconstruction era, Summerville experienced damage during the Great Earthquake of 1886 (the epicenter of the Woodstock fault is on Faultline Road in Dorchester County), and a destructive fire caused more havoc. Shortly after, Summerville entered another heyday and building boom in the late nineteenth century as it resurfaced as a resort town for Northern tourists and residents seeking quiet life and clean air. Residents built Queen Anne and Eastlake Victorian wood frame houses with picket fenced yards, and Main Street gained new brick Italianate and Victorian commercial buildings.

Historic houses on Magnolia and West Carolina that are currently on the market.

Visitors to Summerville flocked after the vice president of the International Tuberculosis Congress in Paris touted the town in 1887: ‘if the patient has heart complications with lung trouble . . . choose among low, dry altitudes, in a pine region, where the airs is charged with derivations of turpentine- I refer such places as Summerville, South Carolina.” The circa 1913 Squirrel Inn was one of the most popular resorts, and although it closed in 1966, it was converted into condos about a decade later in a renovation that retained much of the buildings’ original character. Guests staying at resorts like for their health also visited the Pinehurst Tea Plantation, opened by “scientific philanthropist” Dr. Charles Shepard. The most famous visitors were Presidents Taft and Teddy Roosevelt, who stayed at the now-lost Pine Forest Inn during their Summerville vacation. Today, Woodlands Inn is one of the most popular and exclusive resorts.

The circa 1906 mansion was built as a summer home on 100 acres for a wealthy Pennsylvania rail magnate Robert Parsons, and later was meticulously renovated as a hotel replete with a Grand Dining Room.

Pine Forest Inn in the early twentieth century. Library of Congress.

Roosevelt’s entourage at the Pine Forest Inn. Library of Congress.

Summerville today protects both its lovely buildings in a regulated historic district (with over 700 buildings predating World War One), and its landscape features.  The old growth pines and tree canopies were threatened by railroad companies needing rail tie materials, so one of the first acts of the newly chartered town in 1847 was passage of the motto, “Sacro Pinus Esto”, and instatement of a very hefty (for the era) fine of $25 for cutting grand trees. The town also has a love of azaleas, and there is a variety cultivated here called “Pride of Summerville.”  The Azalea Garden, which is the focal point of the annual Flowertown Festival in Azalea Park, was planted by a local nursery in the early twentieth century.

A Summerville road lined with Spanish moss draped pines and oaks in 1938. Library of Congress.

Downtown Summerville is host to holiday events and festivals including a Christmas Tree lighting and the Italian Feast, and there are numerous restaurants and local shops along Main Street that visitors can enjoy year round.  Tupper’s Drug Store dates to 1902 and features a traditional soda fountain.  The nearby Old City Hall built in the folk Greek Revival style in 1860 has been converted to a community space where the Summerville Preservation Society hosts history lectures and events.  Close by parks include Gahagan, James Allen, and Wassamassaw Community Park.

“Flower town in the Pines Municipal Park”. Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Library.

Tupper’s Store in a 1970s National Register photograph

Summerville has blossomed in the last thirty years, as the population jumped from 5,000 in the 1970s to nearly 51,500 today.  Residents can choose from historic houses in downtown Summerville, or from a host of new-build subdivisions on the periphery like Nexton; Pine Forest Country Club near Jedburg, the Ponds, and the Lakes of Summerville; and mature subdivisions such as Azalea and Oakdale Estates closer to the historic town core.  Much of the growth is doe to new jobs in the tech and manufacturing sector, a variety of price points, the convenient location, good school systems, and the parks and historic amenities that give Summerville a quintessential small town ambiance.

Newly built houses for sale in Pine Forest Country Club and on Aberdeen Drive in Knightsville.

Sources:

  • Henry A.M. Smith. “The Ashley River: Its Seats and Settlements.” South Carolina Historical Society, January 1919, Vol. 20, No. 1 3-51.
  • Henry A.M. Smith. “The Town of Dorchester- A sketch of its history.” South Carolina Historical Society, *, Vol. 6, No. 2, *.
  • USGS Topographic Maps. Accessed through University of South Carolina digital archives.
  • National Register, Summerville Historic District.
  • Town of Summerville Municipal Code. Appendix A: History of the Town.
  • Joy Bonala. “Summerville: One of the First Railroad Towns in America.” Summerville Journal Scene, 23 May 2019.
  • Historic American Buildings Survey photographs. Library of Congress
  • Map of Dorchester County, South Carolina : made and created by an Act of the Legislature of So. Ca. Feb'y 25th 1897, from portions of Colleton and Berkeley counties
  • Town of Summerville official website. https://www.summervillesc.gov/339/Brief-History-of-Summerville
  • National Register, Colonial Fort Dorchester.

Preservation Consultants, Inc. Dorchester County, South Carolina Historic Resources Survey. Charleston, 1997.

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