Part I: Journey Through Time and Space

Faulkner was right. The past is not past. It’s hiding. Travel some backroads, and if you know where to look, you can find it. I did one cool Saturday in February. My journey unearthed some of South Carolina’s past, a past that’s given us so much history, a history being further examined. I traveled to Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site and Historic Brattonsville, places that draw back the curtains on a past overlooked by many. Interpreters Nathan and Sara Johnson guided me back to a time seen through a lens called history. I could not have been in better hands. I saw the past up close.

Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site

When you turn off Sardis Road into Rose Hill Plantation, look uphill through old magnolias and you’ll see a plantation home. Closer in, you’ll walk past a 160-year-old rose bush, a glorious thing abloom, a garland of pink roses amid jungle-like greenery. Rose Hill, indeed. You’ll see a log cabin, freestanding kitchen, and tenant home too. More than that, you’ll see the past.

Elements of the Gists’ 1800s garden, including magnolias and boxwoods, surround the historic mansion.

Park Manager Nathan “Nate” Johnson, in his forest green, gleaming brass South Carolina State Park Servce uniform brings protocol to Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site. Before coming to Rose Hill, Nate was a ranger with the National Park Service at the homes of Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a fine provenance.

Johnson, proudly wearing his ranger’s hat, delivers a synopsis. “By 1860, Rose Hill was a 2,000-acre cotton plantation. Today, the South Carolina State Park Service protects a 44-acre site at the center of the former plantation. The U.S. Forest Service administers the remaining acreage as part of Sumter National Forest.”

Sara and Nate Johnson

I look around and see thick forests in all directions, but I know that beneath the leaves and among the roots of oaks, walnuts, and pines lies soil where cotton once grew. Nate continues, “As many as 178 people were enslaved at Rose Hill by 1860, making it one of the largest enslaved communities in Union District.”

This history of cotton, slavery, and the plantation’s grandeur resurrect the antebellum era for many, but Johnson knows there’s more to Rose Hill than that. “The site contains significant resources besides the main house. Many of the site’s significant stories happened after the Civil War.” To make his point, he brings up post-Civil War times. “Reconstruction is a richly documented period in Rose Hill’s history that sheds light on the hopes, dreams, needs, and expectations of freedpeople. Labor contracts, censuses, voter registrations, court testimonies, school and church records, and militia enrollments are some of the documents we rely on to tell the story of Reconstruction at Rose Hill.”

Some know Rose Hill as the home of “Secession Governor,” William Henry Gist, the 68th Governor of South Carolina from 1858 to 1860. A leader of the secession movement, he signed the Ordinance of Secession December 20, 1860, breathing official life into the Confederacy. That’s the narrative many are familiar with but history is multifaceted and Rose Hill is no exception. Johnson’s mission is to tell lesser-known Rose Hill stories. Walking the sloping hilltop he explains. “Oral histories from former sharecroppers and tenant families who once lived on the plantation have helped us gain insight into the history of Rose Hill during the early 1900s. Their memories bring to life the landscape, buildings, roadbeds, and archaeological sites around the former plantation. We share their memories with visitors so they feel connected to the site’s history and understand its significance.”

This four-post canopy bed has occupied the Gists’ bedroom at Rose Hill from the 1800s to the present.

I’ve been to Rose Hill twice. I imagine that time when fields of white and green surrounded it. Back then, folks could see clear down to the Tyger River. The past Faulkner referred to hides here but there’s a plan to unearth some of it. Said Johnson, “Archaeology will help us discover more about the past at Rose Hill. We’re preparing for an archaeological survey of the entire 44-acre historic site. Findings from the survey and other projects will provide valuable information that can be incorporated into the site’s reinterpretation.”

Ruins of tenant houses line an old roadbed. “By studying these remains and conducting oral histories with people who once lived in these tenant houses, we are gaining a deeper understanding of the changing landscape and evolving history of the site,” said Johnson.

For the last seventy years, people have interpreted Rose Hill as a secessionist movement shrine or a window into the lifestyle of an upstate planter family. Change is coming. “A recent plan for reinterpretation aims to reinvigorate the site and help it grow,” said Johnson. “Through community outreach, oral history documentation, in-depth research, and archaeological investigations, the South Carolina State Park Service is engaging the public with difficult, yet significant, histories: slavery, Reconstruction, racial violence and terrorism, and the continuous struggle in South Carolina to define freedom, equality, and citizenship.”

To see Rose Hill Plantation is to glimpse another time … Family records tucked into an old Bible. Neck collars resting on a handsome trunk. An old tin tub where folks bathed … the L. Rickets Baltimore piano in the ballroom merits a look. Close your eyes and imagine stately dancing to a minuet from an earlier century, for surely they did. Then there’s the four-poster bed where Gist and the First Lady slept. See the portrait of distant cousin Belle Culp, hair parted down the middle like Alfalfa. Walk into the freestanding kitchen out back … see its spacious twelve-tiered brick fireplace where cooking took place. In a tenant home out back in dim light you’ll see where someone pasted newspaper to the wall to keep out the cold. Look closely and you’ll see a word, “cotton.” Check out the old log cabin where someone patched its wood with mortar. Step back and see what looks like eye of a gator in the woodwork. The imagination gets a workout here.

The Gist family Bible, an 1842 edition, is one of dozens of original artifacts at Rose Hill. Old records have long hidden inside this Bible.

Johnson said Rose Hill’s visitors enjoy the site’s stories. “The site has a long and difficult history that helps us understand the struggle in South Carolina to define freedom, citizenship, and equality. We tell those stories through the perspectives of the Gists, enslaved people, freedpeople, sharecroppers and tenant farmers, as well as their contemporaries. It’s powerful to engage with history where it actually happened.”

The new vision is to become “A plantation that uses its difficult past to help shape a better future.” Thus, the Rose Hill team has been researching Reconstruction and late 19th-early 20th century history at the site to incorporate it into their interpretation. “Part of this research has included conducting oral history interviews with former sharecroppers and community members connected to the history of Rose Hill,” said Johnson.

“We’re preparing for an archaeological survey of the entire site,” said Johnson. “We’re exploring how to open up the tenant house, which has been closed to the public for about fifteen years. We are also having conversations with the U.S. Forest Service, which maintains most of the former plantation as part of Sumter National Forest, about how to interpret and provide access to resources associated with the site, such as a cemetery for people enslaved by the Gists. Many of these projects will enable us and our community to better tell diverse stories of the African-American experience at Rose Hill and surrounding area.”

Visit Rose Hill Plantation. Nate Johnson, park manager, will give you a memorable tour and interpretation. “I establish the park’s vision and set goals so that we can reach park and agency missions. We’re in the process of reinterpreting the site to include all its complex layers of history and memory. Community outreach, collaborating with partners, and raising the park’s profile are at the core of my job. We want to get more people involved with Rose Hill and increase awareness of our site’s relevance for everybody.”

Johnson takes great pride in his work. As a kid, he loved visiting museums and historic sites, along with taking family road trips, reading history books, studying for social studies classes, and listening to elders talk about the past. That fondness for understanding the past lives in him still. “I have always had a strong belief that we can and should learn from our past,” said Johnson. He’s right.

In Part II, Preservation/Restoration Specialist Sara Johnson takes us to Historic Brattonsville.

Journey through time and space. Visit the website for details on planning a trip to Rose Hill. Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site, 864.427.5966, 2677 Sardis Rd., Union, SC 2937.

From Rose Hill To Brattonsville, Part II: Journey Through Time and Space

In Part I Park Manager Nate Johnson led us through Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site. In Part II, we visit Historic Brattonsville. With a bit of tailwind, it takes about 54 minutes to drive from Rose Hill to Historic Brattonsville. Not quite 42 miles, the route takes us northeast to Highway 49 through Union, Monarch Mill—by John B. Long Lake—Lockhart, McConnells, and a circuitous route over and around Draper Wildlife Management Area into Historic Brattonsville. Sara Johnson knows this journey well. She drives it five days a week. If you think she’s related to Nate Johnson, you’re close. In 2006, she and Nate worked at the Aiken Rhett House Museum in Charleston. Today they’re married and interpreters of historic sites. For Sara, it’s Historic Brattonsville.

Historic Brattonsville

You won’t find barbed wire or metal post fences on the farm in Historic Brattonsville in York County. You’ll find no anachronisms here. You will find split rail fences in this place where you can step back in time at an 800-acre historical site, one of South Carolina’s most important cultural attractions, part of the York Culture & Heritage Museum.

A split-rail fence fronts the Homestead, ca. 1828. Restoration of the Homestead began in 1975. A year later it was opened to the public.

At the property’s heart is the Brattonsville Historic District (National Register of Historic Places). It features fourteen original buildings dating from the 1760s to the 1880s. The buildings and cultural landscape reflect four generations of Brattons and the people who lived around them.

Preservationist Sara Johnson points out fingerprints in handmade bricks in an original slave house interior.

Sara Johnson works at Brattonsville as the Preservation/Restoration Specialist. It’s a good fit. “I decided when I was 11 that I wanted to be a ‘historic preservationist.’ ” When Sara was in the sixth grade she had to choose a cause to write a persuasive paper for, and she chose to write about the need to preserve old buildings. “I’ve always had a love for old buildings and a particular interest in historic building materials, so I chose to go into architectural conservation where I would be able to work hands-on on historic buildings.”

Well, I’ll say here that Sara loves her work at Brattonsville. She works with Property Manager Joe Mester to oversee the preservation of more than 35 buildings, including original historic structures, historic buildings moved to the site in the 1970s and 80s, as well as reconstructed buildings.

“A lot of what I do is hands-on preservation; work that we do in-house with our preservation team and summer interns to maintain our buildings,” said Sara. As an example, she mentions As an example, she mentions “restoration done on the two original slave buildings including repointing and rebuilding of brickwork.” Sara also performs condition assessments and prepares scopes of work for preservation of Brattonsville’s buildings as well as other historic buildings owned by York Culture & Heritage Museums. She works with architects, engineers, and contractors hired for larger projects like the upcoming restoration of the Brick House.

Dr. John S. Bratton built the Brick House, circa 1843, but died right before its completion. A planter and doctor, Bratton was also a merchant. The Brick House, a combined residential and commercial space, housed the Bratton’s mercantile store, post office, and living space on the first floor. At some point, probably during the 1850s, a wooden frame was added on the back, a bit of a mystery. Why and when was it built?

The Brick House

Let Sara take you back in time as she recounts detailed store records from 1843 to 1847. “Cloth, mostly imported fabrics but also homespun, was the most frequent item purchased. Customers also bought tobacco, pens, paper, soap, spectacles, boards, sugar, 1 lott chinaware, 4 Breakfast Plates, nails, razors, straw hats and bands, buttons, butt hinges, looking glasses, snuff, coffee, teakettles, books (including a catechism and an arithmetic book), kidd slippers, tin buckets, Epsom salts, chamber muggs [sic], pocket knives, saddle blankets, twine & bagging (for cotton) and cologne.”

You get insight into the people’s needs in the 1860s and 1870s as well. From the accounts John S. Bratton, Jr. preserved, it appears that staples (such as molasses, lard, etc.) needed by the recently freed men and women who kept working for the Brattons provided partial payment for work.”

Want more insight into life back then? Records from 1866 list the following items for sale: flax, children’s shoes, soda, paper, a coffee pot; a seine, tobacco, a comb, a hair brush, kerosene; a wash basin, raisins, a soup ladle, a tin pan, a hoop; a water dipper, a boy’s hat, lady’s gloves, soda crackers, candy; mustard, hams, children’s stockings, needles, thread; a handkerchief, a cravat, cheese, mackerel, hose; calico, laudanum, a spelling book, a padlock, bitters, a carpet broom; ginger, cologne, a lamp & wicks, a whetstone, a fine comb; matches, lemonade, a straw hat & band, and a “shaker bonnet.”

In 1885, the Bratton Store moved from the Brick House into a new, freestanding adjacent building built specifically for this purpose. At that time, the Brick House was modified to make it completely residential. New partition walls went up on the first floor and the two doors that provided separate access to the store and private space were bricked in, moving the entrance to the center. The Bratton Store operated out of the freestanding store structure until 1915 when it closed and the last of the Brattons moved from Brattonsville. The building burned in 2004. Only the stone piers and central chimney remain.

In the 1820s most slave cabins were built from logs, John Bratton, however, used brick, a unique departure from typical slave cabin construction. Some thirty years would pass before other plantations built brick slave dwellings. While time eradicated most log slave cabins Brattonsville’s slave cabins endure. No one knows why Dr. John Simpson Bratton built brick cabins in the first place.

This building may have served as a dairy as well as housing for enslaved people. It is one of two original slave buildings that remain.

Among Brattonsville’s twenty-nine structures stands an old corncrib too. You’ll see much here. See the faux grain door, painted for The Patriot. See the extraordinary brick slave cabins. Step into the old smokehouse and inhale fragrances of woodsmoke and salt. See its salted meat.

Great plans are in store for the Brick House. “We are in contract negotiations with a general contractor to undertake the restoration of the building so that it can be opened as a museum space,” said Sara. “Only the first floor of the Brick House will be restored to its appearance from the 1850s through the 1880s. The rest of the building will be stabilized.”

Restoration will include removing partition walls built after the store was moved to the 1885 building, restoring the original configuration of doors and windows related to the store entrance, building custom store cabinetry and paneled counters based on photographs of the originals. A hatch that once led from the store space into the full-height cellar (possibly used for storage of goods) will also be restored.

The store will carry things it would have in the late 1800s, based on receipts and records showing goods sold there. The historic paint colors, based on paint analysis, will be restored throughout the first floor and exterior of the building. A vintage look and feel will only get better.

Brattonsville’s vintage appearance isn’t lost on Revolutionary War re-enactors who stage The Battle of Huck’s Defeat, a Revolutionary War rallying point that eventually led to the King’s Mountain victory. At his own home, William Bratton ambushed Captain Christian Huck and 130 Loyalist cavalry belonging to British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s legion, a dominating defeat.

So, history lives on at Historic Brattonsville. And what might Sara want you to know? “I’d like people to know there will be a lot of exciting changes at Historic Brattonsville in the near future. We’ll open up the Brick House to interpret a part of the Brattonsville history that has not been a major part of the site’s interpretation until now. The Brick House tells the story of the mercantile/commercial side of the Brattonsville community and can better represent the period following the Civil War when the store/post office ran out of the Brick House would have served other farming families nearby as well as the community of tenant farmers that worked for the Brattons during and after Reconstruction.”

Historic Brattonsville. Step back in time with Sara.

Journey through time and space. Visit the websites for details on planning a trip. Historic Brattonsville,, 803.628.6553, 1444 Brattonsville Rd., McConnells, SC 29726


Image credits: all of the photos in this story were taken by the author, © Tom Poland.

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].