By Ben Schools
Cedar Hill Plantation resides on the East Branch of the Cooper River, southwest of Middleburg. Its acreage has changed during the course of many years but it still bears the remnants of inland and tidal rice fields. Currently it is the largest privately owned plantation on the Cooper River, encompassing 3,488 acres on both sides of Cainhoy Road. The property features a five-mile stretch of preserved land and more than a mile of waterfront with a beautifully restored home looking over the water.
In 1682, Jonah Lynch received a grant of land, which he called “Blessing” after the ship that brought him to the new colonies. The Blessing was eventually divided into three plantations — Blessing, Cherry Hill, and Cedar Hill. Together they passed through the Bonneau, Deas and Laurens families before James Poyas of Beaufort purchased them. He and his wife, Charlotte Bentham, acquired the property and built a two-and-a-half-story rectangular frame plantation house in 1834. Supposedly, the Poyas family entertained William Tecumseh Sherman several times while he was stationed at Fort Moultrie.
By 1860, all three plantations were owned by William James Ball before being sold separately in 1865. In 1927, The Wellington Corporation purchased all three plantations and the next year sold them to T. Ferdinand Wilcox, Esq. and Edward Roesler, Esq. of New York. These partners repaired and renovated the house built by the Poyas. Once again, the plantations have been separate for years and will likely remain so.
Wayland and Marion Cato acquired Cedar Hill Plantation in the mid-1990s. Around the same time, the historic William Alston House was scheduled for demolition at its 141 Ashley Avenue address in downtown Charleston. In a turn of events, the Catos decided to move that house to Cedar Hill.
Their friend, former governor Jim Edwards, suggested the idea after the couple expressed interest in placing an existing historic structure on the property rather than building a new one. Why not? After all, Mary and Tom Huguenin had successfully moved the Quimby Plantation house to their Halidon Hill Plantation many decades earlier. While clearing trees in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, the original plantation house foundation was discovered overlooking the river, and thus the Catos’ search for a “proper home” began.
The house was constructed around 1817 by Georgetown planter William Alston on a property bound by present day Calhoun Street, Ashley Avenue and Mill Street. A surviving example of a summertime villa, it features two stories over a raised basement in an atypical “T-shaped” plan. The fluted porch columns extend the entire two floors, and the home’s interior is noted for its ornate mouldings and plasterwork. In 1941, the house was moved to 31 Mill St., and in 1981, MUSC purchased the property and moved the house once more to 141 Ashley Avenue. There it endured damage from Hurricane Hugo and continued deteriorating through the 1990s, despite efforts by the Preservation Society and Historic Charleston Foundation.
Wayland and Marion Cato reached an agreement with MUSC and preservation groups to relocate the house to Cedar Hill in 2001. Glenn Keyes Architects and Richard Marks Restorations developed a plan for completely dismantling the house, piece by piece, to be reassembled upon the old foundation at Cedar Hill. The two-year project consulted surviving documentation to produce a faithful restoration that transitions an authentic antebellum sojourn to a country escape. The house now sits on a high bluff overlooking old rice fields.
Cato established two duck ponds and optimized habitats for other game like deer, quail and dove. There is a large dove field, beautiful deer and turkey woods and extensive trails running through acres of timberland. The property is currently managed for timber and hunting. Apart from the house, other improvements include a manager's house, kennels, equipment sheds with a workshop and guest quarters for hunters. Ruins of an antebellum rice mill still stand on the riverbank, including an over 20-foot-tall brick chimney.
Much of the surrounding land, including that of neighboring plantations, is protected from development either by conservation easements or by state and federal governments. The Francis Marion National Forest extends east of Cedar Hill with more than a quarter-million acres of protected forest.
Cedar Hill Plantation provides an example of innovation in preserving Charleston’s unique history. Its elements combine to create a modern paradise out of pieces from the past. As the city moves into the future, preserving our timeless grandeur becomes ever more important. For the rivers, the land and the structures upon them tell a story that resonates with those who care to remember. Recognizing the beauty before us is a step in the right direction.