Aug 16, 2009, 06:01 PM
Gypsyheart~ Queen of Rust
MOUNTAIN REST , Oconee County, SC
THE RUSSELL HOUSE
For many generations, the steady flow of upland tourists had found the
Russell House a haven of refuge from the cares of an outside
world. Many personages of renown had tarried for a night's lodging, including
President Woodrow Wilson. Local sojourners referred to Russell's as the
"Half-way House," for the simple reason that ox-cart drivers and horseback
riders of that period had considered it to be approximately halfway between the
town of Walhalla and the thriving summer resort at Highlands.
In the early 1900s, it was more than a day's journey to follow the winding
mountain road from Walhalla through a strip of Georgia and across Pine Mountain
into the North Carolina tourist attraction at Highlands. Obviously, it was the
same situation when the coming of fall brought the tourists back, over the same
route, on their return trip homeward, and so it was that Russell's became not
only an ideal stopover, but a necessary one, as well.
The early history of Russell's Halfway House is a fascinating one-typical
of the simple life and of the hardy pioneers who lived it. Considerable research
into the authenticated facts and background of this primitive outpost has
yielded another colorful chapter to take its place among the early traditions of
Oconee County [Seneca Journal, 1970].
The property on which the Russell House is located was retained in 1816 by
a half Cherokee, Walter Adair, when the Cherokee deeded their remaining lands in
South Carolina. William Dark purchased the property in the same year (Book N.P.
106). In 1819, Dark sold the property to Solomon Palmer [Palmour, Palmor]
(Pendleton Deed Book P). Palmer sold the 640 acres to Ira Nicholson on February
10, 1928 (Pendleton District).
Of these years, Mrs. Christine Nicholson Ables, the great-granddaughter of
Ira Nicholson wrote, "Ira's son, Baylus, was my grandfather. Baylus had a twin
brother named Baley. There were a total of eleven children in the Ira Nicholson
"My father, Lee Nicholson, told me that he, his brother William, and his
sister Rebecca were born in a log cabin where the big Russell House stands now.
The house was constructed on four rock pillars, had a chimney made of mud and
rock, and the log walls were plastered with clay. The windows were wooden slats
which opened out and were held together with large hinges.
I take great pleasure in visiting the old Russell House because it is the
birthplace of my father. I walked down to the large springhouse. The cool
mountain water flows down the spring entirely surrounded by rocks. This
section was made to keep milk and butter. A big gourd dipper hangs on a peg. The
water is so clear and cold. Many travelers stop here to quench their thirst with
a sip of this cool water.
My mind wanders back to the 1800s to visualize the old meat house, where
the apples, kraut, brine pickles, and other food were kept.
The old barns and sheds are gone now. The bee hives and the slat wooden
fence around the garden are also gone.
Down a few yards from the old home flows the Chattooga River. On each side
of the river, there once was rich bottom land; there the Nicholson clan planted
corn and grain to feed their children, slaves, and livestock. They raised all of
their food on the farm except sugar and coffee. They went to town twice a year
to get supplies in the covered wagon" (Keowee Courier, Reach, 1981).
Baylus Nicholson (Ira's son) sold the land in 1867 to William Ganaway
(Bill) Russell of Macon County, North Carolina, for $1200 in California gold.
"Russell had driven a herd of cattle to Sacramento during California's gold
rush. [Other sources say he drove a team of oxen.] He made a tremendous profit
on the cattle, but was unable to return home immediately due to the outbreak of
the Civil War. Russell remained in California until the end of the War,
operating a butcher shop in mining outposts. At the end of the War, Russell
returned home with his fortune in gold sewed into the lining of his clothes.
Russell persuaded Nicholson to venture west to likewise seek a fortune in
gold. Nicholson sold his property to Russell in 1867 and headed west, only to be
stricken with fever en route.
The original Nicholson house had been burned by the Union forces during
the Civil War. Ganaway Russell built the present house in 1867. He married one
of the Nicholson daughters (Jane) in 1870. By 1880, the couple had seven
children and were operating a self-sufficient farm. Fifty-two of Russell's six
hundred acres were farmed; the rest were in forest. Crops grown by Russell
included Indian corn, oats, rye, potatoes, and apples. Russell also had one
horse, two mules, four milk cows, eleven beef cows, fifteen sheep, fifteen hogs
and fifty-two fowl. In addition, he kept bees that produced fifty pounds of
honey in 1879 (Tenth Census). According to Russell's granddaughter, he only went
into Walhalla, the County Seat of Oconee County which was located approximately
fourteen miles from the Russell House, twice a year for supplies" [Anderson
Independent, 1981]. By 1900, the Russells had fourteen living children (Eleventh
"The Russell place contained a blacksmith shop, a shoe shop and a knitting
machine. The Russells made soap and molasses and built coffins. Russell served
as the community doctor and dentist, pulling teeth and performing minor
surgery" [Anderson Independent, 1981].
Jane Nicholson Russell, who assisted her husband and was also proficient in
medicine, was often called, day or night, to administer to the sick in the
community. She rode horseback side-saddle and being small in stature, she could
not mount her horse from the ground. Her husband built a platform of rock that
she could climb up on the get on her horse. Some of their descendants still own
and cherish the medical instruments they used.
The Russell House served as a stagecoach inn for passengers traveling from
Walhalla to Highlands. The Russells built additional rooms as this tourist
business attracted widespread attention. During the summer months, the house
became so crowded that it was necessary to pitch tents in the yard. The
descendants of the Russell family recall as many as eighty people on hand at
mealtime (USFS, 1979).
"According to tradition, numerous prominent South Carolinians spent the
night there" (Keowee Courier, 1935). "The house served as a Post Office from
1910 to 1920. Otto Russell (son of Ganaway) continued to operate the 'Halfway
House' during the 1920s" (USFS, 1979). Otto's wife, Mattie, is 75 years old and
lives in Mountain Rest next door to her daughter, Louise Alexander [Seneca
Kathryn (Kate) Russell Willingham, the last surviving child of Bill and
Jane Russell, is in her eighties and has resided in Greenville since she married
and left the mountains. Bill Russell had one piece of California gold left when
Basil Willingham asked for his daughter Kate's hand in marriage. He gave them
his blessings and had a wedding band made from the small piece of gold.
The Russell House and two hundred acres of land were purchased by the U.S.
Forest Service in 1970 and developed into a visitor information center. The
displays depicted the history of the site from Cherokee Indian days through the
Russell family period. Forest Service personnel lived on the site to protect it
from vandalism and answer questions about the Sumter, Nantahala, and
Chattahoochee National Forests. The center was closed in 1972 due to low use by
the visiting public. "We've been under pressure to economize and we feel that
based on its use, the high cost of maintaining the home and the vandalism to the
barns doesn't make it economical to keep open," said Gene Cocke, a Resource
Forester with the U.S. Forest Service [Seneca Journal, 1976].
For the past several years the Forest Service has contacted historical
societies and other civic organizations attempting to find a group who would be
willing to adopt the house and restore it. Estimated cost for making the
buildings safe for habitation and opening to the public is $100,000-$200,000. To
date, no group has expressed serious interest.
According to District Ranger Joe Wallace at the Stumphouse Ranger Station,
there are some specific requirements that the Forest Service would require
before giving a special use permit for the project: (1) the Forest Service would
expect the house to be open to the public and continue the tradition of
hospitality developed by the Russell family; (2) use of the property would have
to be compatible with mountain culture and crafts rather than a tourist trap
atmosphere with high development levels; and, (3) a schedule of refurbishment
projects and planned activities would have to be approved by the Forest Service.
"We are open for suggestions and will consider all proposals from groups
who desire to preserve this site which is so much a part of the Mountain Rest
history," Wallace said.--[JW]
I go a great distance,while some are considering whether they will start today or tomorrow
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