Sunday, January 8, 2017

Summerville's Rich History--From Pine Trees To Sweet Tea

Unlike "New Summerville," which was laid out by the South Carolina Railroad like a checkerboard with straight, broad thoroughfares, "Old Summerville" was characterized by winding streets. When it came to laying out the roads, it's apparent the old town planners did not incorporate the idea "the shortest distance between two points is a straight line." For that matter, as to what a straight line meant, they had no clue. Summerville history implies the early road architects were of the four-legged variety, bovine to be more exact.

New Summerville plot map 1850
New Summerville plot map 1897
Richly graced with thick groves of tall pines and old oaks, the trees cooling touch and healing scent enticed early Ashley River planters to the sandy hilltop in the pines where they could escape the oppressive heat and voracious mosquitoes of their lowland plantations. During these marooning excursions, they brought their livestock with them. On arrival, the beasts were turned loose to wander in and around the tall pines and old oaks. Overtime, these creatures of habit carved out the thoroughfares that became the first named streets of the newly founded summer village.

From those very same trees, they constructed their simple homes. Beginning with Captain James Stewart, 14 families eventually marooned themselves every summer for nearly five months in structures scattered around the main cattle path called the Great Thoroughfare--W. Carolina Avenue today. Called "mosquito houses," these structures were built eight feet off the ground on stilts to protect against insects and to catch breezes. A wide center hall ran the full length with two rooms on each side for cross ventilation. Each room had a fireplace. If there was a second floor, it was identical to the first. The stables and carriage house were located away from the main home for obvious reasons--besides trampling out the roads, the livestock produced an odorous by-product unlike the pleasant pine scent.

Map of Old Summerville
Other notable cow paths of original Summerville connected to the Great Thoroughfare were Railroad Street; now Sumter Avenue, Pine Street; now Charleston Street, Centre Street; now Linwood Lane, Morgan Street; now Clifton Street, Gadsden Street, and the present Cuthbert Lane once referred to simply as "Street." A plat, drawn-up in 1831, showed the layout of the early streets and homes.

In 1841, there were 15 homes in "Old Summerville" when "New Summerville" was established by the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company. Seven years later in 1838, there were 29. The two Summervilles became an official town in 1847. The cherished pines were declared sacred and a law prohibiting the cutting of certain-sized trees without permission was passed. Now connected to Charleston and points west by the railroad, wealthy Charlestonians came to town and built homes to escape the yellow fever epidemics. At the end of the 19th century, it was declared one of the two best places in the world for the treatment and recovery of lung disorders launching the dawning of "The Golden Age of the Inns". Despite the longtime commitment to preserve and protect the sacred pine trees, the planners of Summerville deemed it necessary to sacrifice some of them to embrace its burgeoning fame as a health spot to the world and the illustrious Pine Forest Inn (1893 booklet) was built. While visitors flowed into town, other inns were established.

As a now famous story relates, one such individual, who came to town to avail upon the purported healing aspects of the pine tree's turpentine scent on the advice of his physician, was found sitting on the porch swing of a W. Richardson Street residence by its matriarch and became the first guest to stay at the newly established White Gables Inn. Other notable names included Carolina Inn, Halcyon Inn, Wisteria Inn, Holly Inn, The Postern, Squirrel Inn and Pine View Inn. Summerville flourished into the 1900's, but in time, it would lose its magical charm. Its icons one by one mercilessly succumbed to the wrecking ball and the tantalizing scent of its biggest asset faded into the changed landscape.

In 1991, 40% of the buildings in the downtown district were vacant. With a mission to revitalize the downtown area, DREAM was formed in 1992. Then, in 2010, inspired by an article in the Azalea Magazine, Summerville experienced an identity renaissance when it branded itself the "Birthplace of Sweet Tea." The "Sweet Tea Festival" was inaugurated and the Summerville Trolley Tours were established benefiting local businesses and captivating residents and visitors alike. Nexton exploded unto the scene and Summerville's first craft brewery on November 26, 2014 broke ground in the remaining space of the Coastal Coffee Roasters building with the laying of its cement floor. In 2014, a plan for a boutique hotel was proposed. In 2015, a conditional final approval for the project was given by the Board of Architectural Review, but one of Summerville's cherished pine trees overshadowed the proceedings and became a flashpoint for preservationists and opponents in what would become the Dorchester Hotel controversy.

Of the pine trees still around, longtime residents nurture fond memories and tell stories of playing below their broad branches. Located near the corner of W. Richardson and Central Ave, the proposed site of the hotel, stands one of those cherished pines. Considered the oldest tree in Summerville with a circumference of 13 feet and believed to predate 1847, the old pine was scheduled for an appointment with the axeman to make way for the highly contested Dorchester Hotel project.

Ragged from old age and brutal weather, the trees glory days were waning. The cutting down of the tree would have been a solemn day. It was a sad day when the Pine Forest Inn came crashing down. We could dignify the old tree the way the Hopelands Gardens in Aiken honored one of its prominent cedars when a portion of it came down. They carved benches out of the cherished wood and placed them on site for visitors to use. Inevitably, each pine in its time will succumb to the natural powers to be.

Truth be told, the tree was not the only concern raised by the hotel's opponents, but alas, it is no longer of any concern. The Dorchester Hotel Project itself has been axed. However, imagine where Summerville's history would be today if people in the late 1800's would have opposed the construction of the Pine Forest Inn because they wanted to preserve an old pine tree or the increase in traffic it may have caused or believed it did not reflect the flavor of the historic district, which by the way, could be legitimate concerns. From Hutchinson Square (Master Plan) to Middleton, you can smell the ongoing scent of change.

The cows no longer wander around the tall pines, the "mosquito houses" have disappeared into the shadows of the old trees, the trains of the old railroad no longer stop, and the great inns have gone quietly into the night. People no longer come to escape the oppressive heat and voracious mosquitoes of the coastal lowlands or for the cooling touch and healing scent of its sacred pines. Today, people come for its charm, its southern hospitality, its sense of community, and its rich history. A history as colorful as the town's famous azaleas and refreshed with the lifting of every flavorful glass of sweet tea. Wouldn't it be nice if the Town had a place for them to stay? A place that is as much an integral part of its identity similar to the way the Pine Forest Inn (1909 booklet) was in the heyday of the "Golden Age of the Inns." Maybe, a hundreds years from now people will look back on this era and call it Summerville's "Golden Age of Sweet Tea."

Things to see and do in Summerville.
Shop Summerville.
Dinning in Summerville.
Theater in Summerville.
Historic Sites in Summerville--Colonial Dorchester State Park, Middleton Place.
Summerville's B.I.R.D.S. Project.

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