Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Scarlett O'Hara of Summerville Past And Her Tara--An Epic Story

Scarlett O'Hara is the protagonist in Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind"--the 1936 novel that became an epic film in 1939. In the original drafts, Mitchell named her character Pansy, but just before going to print she changed it to Scarlett; a more fitting name for the fiery, shrewd, opportunistic character who had no qualms about doing what was necessary to survive and succeed. Years before Mitchell created her character, an early Summerville resident by the name of Sara Woodruff in many ways embodied those characteristics, but in a delightful way. She is the Scarlett O'Hara of Summerville and her Tara was White Gables.


White Gables was built by the Peake Family somewhere between the 1830's and early 1850's. A three-story house with 12 rooms, three halls, five baths and three porches, it was designed in the Classic Greek Revival architecture with a southern flavor. The first floor structure is formidable with double brick walls over 18 inches thick, 9 foot ceilings, plastered walls, pegged solid shutters, wainscoting and molded chair rail throughout the rooms. The second floor has 14-foot ceilings featuring wide cornices and carved medallions. The original house had double piazzas front and back; the back piazzas were altered later in its history. A conservatory was also later added to the property. It was once chosen by the Preservation Society as an outstanding representation of period architecture.


In the early 1900's, Sara developed a fondness for the near 65 year old house located on the corner of Richardson Ave and Palmetto Street. What happened next gave birth to her distinguished story and White Gables fame. Both fascinating and amusing, it is a story unlike any other in Summerville history.

Sara was married to Harry Woodruff, a Charleston station master who was somewhat of a big spender and had a weakness for gambling. A family story reported he lost downtown Houston in a card game in Texas. A constant concern for Sara, she worried about their finances and because Harry was 10 years older than herself, she worried about being left with no income and children to raise. To ensure the families success and survival, she put in motion a shrewd plan.

Harry had returned to town from business for the railroad and as usual, was met at the Summerville train station by the family retainer with his horse and carriage. But to Harry's bewilderment, upon leaving the station, they did not take the customary route home. Puzzled, he asked the driver, "Where are you taking me?" Unknown to Mr. Woodruff his home address had changed while he was away. Sara had purchased White Gables.

The Woodruff's were a very traditional Southern family. Always respectful of her husband, this was certainly a bold move on Sara's part. Still, she had no qualms about buying the house and property without her husband's knowledge. Despite the deception, Mr. Woodruff appreciated Sara's resourcefulness and all the family came to love their new home.

It was the Golden Years for the Inns of Summerville. Sara watched with curious interest as the influx of visitors from Charleston and places beyond stimulated the local businesses and potentially profitable opportunities. The Pine Forest Inn, Carolina Inn, the Halcyon Inn, and others were all thriving. She envisioned White Gables with its three servants cottages as a potential source of income for the future. Then one unsuspecting day, opportunity came rocking on her porch.

One day, coming out her front door, she found a man sitting on the porch swing. He had been walking around town looking for a place to stay, got tired and sat on the porch. He introduced himself as Henry Clay and related how he had been sent to Summerville by his doctor for the turpentine rich air, being an asthmatic. Sara left Mr. Clay with a glass of lemonade and an invitation to talk when she got back, which they did, and Mr. Clay became her first boarder.

The story does not end there. It seems Mr. Clay was a paying guest on the third floor of White Gables for almost four years without Mr. Woodruff ever knowing it. You see, Mr. Woodruff was a very regimented man and did things to a particular schedule. Except for his own rooms and the first floor parlor, he never went in any other part of the house or showed an interest in what else went on. On the other hand, as part of the strict terms laid out by Sara, Mr. Clay agreed to stay in his room during the evening hours, only venturing to the downstairs during the day.


From 1914 to 1939, Sara's White Gables was famous for Summerville hospitality. Ten months out of the year visitors, many from Charleston and some nationally famous people, rented the three cottages on the property and boarded rooms in the house. It became the financial success she envisioned and the security she scrupulously and shrewdly planned for. Considering all of this narrative, she is the Scarlett O'Hara of Summerville.


White Gables is presently for sale. If you would love to own a famous piece of Summerville's glorious history, this is an the opportunity. You can purchase it for $649,000. The day I visited the property, I sat on what quite possibly was the swing Mr. Clay sat on over a hundred years previous and talked about its history with a gentleman who lived in the conservatory.

A historical note: During the Civil War, Mr. Peake was away on business in Columbia. With the home vacant, he was concerned the Yankees would occupy it. To prevent this, he asked the Jamison Family to live in the house until his return.

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