Originally created 08/31/99

Features hint at house's history



Imagine traveling South Carolina's backwoods along Two Notch Road between Columbia and Augusta in 1785. Night is falling, and you have reason to fear.

The frontier is a treacherous place where murder is common. Patriot and Tory bands carry out frequent raids of revenge across a territory scarred by nearly a decade of war during the American Revolution.

The Treaty of Paris had ended the fighting between American and British armies, but it has done little so far to end the bitterness -- much the way the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House would end the fighting, but not the enmity, of the Civil War 80 years later.

What's worse: You bet on King George III. You were loyal to Britain in the Revolutionary War, and now there is little protection for a traveling Tory.

Ahead in the twilight -- still almost a day's ride from the civilization of Augusta -- you see lights.

It's an inn. But is it safe? In the gloaming, you recognize the slanted sideboards and a double row of bricks around the chimneys.

It's a Tory house, and you realize you're safe for the night.

This is the legend of New Bridge Farm, a house a few hundred yards off of Wire Road north of Aiken. New Bridge Farm is among the oldest structures in Aiken County.

New Bridge Farm's owner, conservationist Nancy Wilds, said research tells her those two unusual architectural features -- the slanted sideboards and the double row of bricks -- may have been silent signals to weary Tories that they could safely stop for the night and that a passing Patriot had miles to go before he dared sleep.

Mrs. Wilds bought New Bridge Farm in 1976 and restored it years later.

She has since learned that South Carolina, then a newly independent state, granted the 150-acre plantation to Englishman Charles Richmond in 1785. But the same records do not make it clear whether the old home, now a soft-weathered gray, was already standing or built later.

The oldest documentation of the house comes from the Barnwell County tax digest of 1810. (Aiken County was formed from portions of Barnwell and Edgefield counties in 1871. The town of Aiken didn't exist until 1835, while Augusta is 100 years older, and Beech Island is older still.)

What is surely much older than New Bridge Farm is the section of abandoned road, a deep furrow 20 feet wide that runs just outside the front walkway.

The well-defined path, parallel to Wire Road, probably is the old Two Notch Road -- a colonial trail that linked Beech Island and Augusta with Columbia; Camden, S.C.; and Charleston, S.C., said Professor James Farmer, who teaches colonial history at the University of South Carolina Aiken.

Before that, it was almost surely an Indian path that led to the Savannah River from the Cherokee nation farther north. That was long before European trappers and settlers took it as their own and before backwoods brigands dubbed it "The Old Tory Trail."

Names such as Five Notch or Two Notch abound in the South because they were the frontier equivalent of road signs. After widening major Indian trails, frontiersmen would erect crude signposts -- notching one side and then the other to tell backwoods travelers which road they had come across.

The South Carolina Department of Archives and History has surveyed Mrs. Wilds' property and concurs with most of the findings of her research.

"The house is one of the oldest houses standing in Aiken County, if not the oldest," said Ben Hornsby, a researcher for the Department of Archives and History in Columbia.

State researchers examining New Bridge Farm's history found a continuous record of property deeds from the 1785 land grant to the present. The home was eventually owned by three women whose fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

The women were Sarah Rutledge and Mary Huger Ravenel of South Carolina, and Ann Morris Vanderhorst, a daughter of Louis Morris Jr., a New Yorker who came South to fight with Patriot Gen. Nathaniel Greene in the American Revolution.

"The house has an illustrious history," local historian Don Law said. "Some very important people to this area and South Carolina have lived there or owned it."

Mrs. Wilds finds it amazing the home "survived both the American Revolution, which was so vicious here in the Carolina backwoods, and General Sherman's army."

Gen. William T. Sherman had just burned Barnwell, S.C., a few days before the western wing of his Union army was turned back at the Battle of Aiken in 1865. But there is an oral tradition that New Bridge Farm served as a Union field hospital after the battle, saving it from the torches that lit nearly every other structure in Sherman's path.

There is little doubt that at least part of his army would have used the old stagecoach trail leading past New Bridge Farm on its way to burn Columbia.

State researchers found many architecturally significant features at New Bridge Farm.

"It is not known exactly when this structure was erected," according to a state report on New Bridge Farm, also known as Zahara Plantation and the Dawson-Vanderhorst house.

"However," the report continues, "architectural analysis suggest its having been constructed between 1785 and 1800. Outstanding features indicative of its being a late 18th or early 19th century structure include: the original shutters with hand-wrought strap hinges, the gable ends of the roof with no overhang, and the siding on the dormers which parallels the roof line.

"Also considered to be indicative of an early construction period are the simple mantels, the square headed nails, the mortise and tenon construction and the hand hewn lumber," according to the report.

The owner puts those clues into more personal terms.

"This home was hand-made when this area was on the frontier," Mrs. Wilds said as she gave a tour of her historic treasure. "It is entirely made of hand-hewn timbers. If it was built after 1800, they would have been made in a saw mill. And look at the simple, unadorned doors. It if was built after there was civilization nearby, those entrances would have decorations around them."

The high risers on the steps and many other features indicate Colonial and backwoods period construction, she said. She also points out the thick, wavy window glass, probably as old as the land grant.

Mrs. Wilds said she is pleased that she was able to save this part of Americana.

"It is amazing that this house is here at all," she said. "People will tear them down just because they like to tear things down. It seems small to us now, but it was the grandest house around."

Stephen Delaney Hale can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.