Christmas at Dunroy
By Missy Schenck
Christmas at Dunroy gives new meaning to the term festive. Images courtesy of the author.
Elaine Thompson loves Christmas. It was her mother’s favorite holiday and a decorating feast every year for her family. It is a tradition Elaine happily carries on at Dunroy, the historic home she and her husband, Michael, own in Flat Rock. The process of ornamenting Dunroy begins before Thanksgiving and continues for at least a week or more. It is a top to bottom holiday makeover of their home with multiple trees adorning the interior and exterior of the house and mantles and bannisters trimmed with swags, stockings and a variety of decorations. Elaine’s mother had a saying in their childhood home when the Christmas season began: “If you don’t move quickly enough, you’ll be decorated too.”
Dunroy’s history dates back to 19th-century rice planter David Rogerson Williams II and his wife, Kate, of Camden, South Carolina. Kate’s sister, Mary Boykin Chesnut, was the author of Diary from Dixie, an account of life as the wife of a member of Jefferson Davis’s cabinet during the War Between the States. In her account, Mrs. Chesnut made several references to visits with her sister in Flat Rock. The father of these sisters was Stephen Decatur Miller, a S.C. governor, congressional representative and a senator.
After spending a summer in Flat Rock at the Farmer’s Hotel, Williams purchased 97.5 acres in 1852 from Charles Baring, who was forced to liquidate his deceased wife’s Mountain Lodge holdings. Located just southwest of Mud Creek Baptist Church on a portion of land that was once Trenholm Road and before that The High Road, Dunroy is situated on Rutledge Drive. Williams engaged Henry “Squire” Farmer, the owner of the Farmer’s Hotel (Woodfield Inn and now Mansouri Mansion) to build his family’s two-story summer home.
Dunroy, sitting on a hillock, reflects the influence of Tudor houses in England with wooden edging under the gables called verge boards or bargeboards. This gingerbread style trimming was used on many of the “Carpenter Gothic” American houses and cut with a scroll saw. Gothic influence is also displayed in the steep roofs over the gables and former windows. Lattice frames segmental arches of the front porch.
In 1868, the Williamses sold their summer cottage to Duncan Cameron Waddell, whose tenure in Flat Rock was brief; he sold the house in 1875 to Louise Rutledge of S.C. Mrs. Rutledge’s first husband was Daniel Blake Heyward with whom she owned a rice planation between Charleston and Savannah. After he died, she married James Rose Rutledge, also of the Palmetto State.
Upon Mrs. Rutledge’s death in 1911, her daughter, Anne Louise “Loulie” Heyward, inherited the Flat Rock property. Both Mrs. Rutledge and her daughter were descendants of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Loulie Heyward married her cousin, Julius Henry Heyward, in 1885. Ambersley was the name that appeared on Mrs. Heyward’s stationery heading and the first known name applied to the property. When her husband died in 1923, Mrs. Heyward sold the cottage and moved to a smaller place on Greenville Highway.
William Dalton McAdoo was the new buyer and a real estate impresario who made a name for himself in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Greensboro, North Carolina. His local residence was Chanteloupe; Dunroy was simply one of his investments. The stock market crash of 1929 left the McAdoos considerably overextended and a 1930 transaction transferred the property to Harriott L. King, the wife of Maj. Gene. Campbell King, for “one dollar and other valuable consideration.” The Kings’ granddaughter remembers being told that the “other valuable consideration” was a “suitcase full of money” and that “any other form of payment would have been confiscated by the IRS.”
Maj. Gen. Campbell King, the grandson of Judge Mitchell King, one of the founders of Flat Rock, had an outstanding 36-year career in the United States Army. He was posted all over the world prior to World War I, in which he and George C. Marshall served as colonels under Brig. Gen. John C. Hines. King’s final assignment, beginning in 1929, was as commandant of Fort Benning, Georgia, the largest infantry school in this country.
Gen. King retired in 1933 and moved back to Flat Rock where he had been born. It was King who came up with the name Dunroy for the property: Dunroy from the Gaelic “dun” signifying a hill fortress or, more loosely, a castle; and “roy” meaning “king.” Thus, the combination became “castle of king.”
Except for short trips to Key West, Fl., each winter, General and Mrs. King seldom left Dunroy, finding it adequate and satisfying after years of traveling on an army schedule. A daily habit come rain, snow, sleet or high wind was a three-mile walk around their mountain at Dunroy.
General King died in 1953 and his wife a year later. Their son, Duncan Ingraham Campbell King, who became known by his initials as “Dick” moved into the family home. Dick fully renovated Dunroy as a year-round residence and lived there with his family up to his final illness in 1987. He opened his medical practice in Hendersonville where he served the community as a family doctor and an accomplished civic leader for more than 50 years.
In May of 1998, Dick King’s heirs sold the Dunroy property to Rutledge Road Properties, LLC, who renamed it Dunroy on Rutledge. In addition, the LLC purchased 27.32 acres on the top of the mountain from Eugene and Anne Kirkley making the area of the subdivision as it is known today. Joe Crowell was the contractor who set out to create this new 125-acre community.
With development comes demolition and Dunroy was no exception. Fortunately, the main house was kept, but several of the outbuildings including a kitchen house, woodshed and barn were destroyed. Lucy and David Crawford bought the historic house comprising one acre and lived in a camping trailer in the yard as they renovated the structure. David salvaged bead board, trim and other valuable pieces from the outer buildings and incorporated them in their renovation. They meticulously worked on the project for five years and documented the progression with photos.
Lucy Crawford and Michael Thompson grew up in Hendersonville and attended grade school together. One day Lucy invited Michael to come see Dunroy’s transformation. A beautiful old camellia tree was in full bloom by the house as Michael approached it. He was so taken with the blossoms on the bush that it made an impact on Lucy. When he entered Dunroy, Michael knew in that moment he wanted to own it one day. There was something special about the house — it spoke to him. He told Lucy that if she and David ever decided to sell Dunroy to let him know. Not long after this visit Michael arrived at his office one day to find a single camellia on his desk with a note saying, “Michael, call me.”
A one-of-a-kind nativity scene is one of many charming Dunroy decorations.
The Crawfords had done as much as they could financially on Dunroy and had decided to sell it. They wanted to give Michael and his wife, Elaine, first refusal. It was an easy decision all around and the Thompsons soon became the new owners. Within four months Elaine and Michael were packing up their home in Tranquility subdivision and leaving behind a newly built house for a piece of history. Moving day was December 29, 2004.
Michael and Elaine continued the renovation of the property including a small cottage, the ice house and garage. Most people inherit a few things with an old house, but little did Michael and Elaine know that Susannah, the housekeeper, and Shady the cat would be sticking around. The first project Michael and Elaine tackled was the renovation of the cottage behind Dunroy, so Susannah would have a place to live. Shady moved with the Crawfords to their new home on Maybank Drive just down from Dunroy but kept running away to the old home place. After a while, the Crawfords told the Thompsons to just keep Shady, a blue-gray mix, who has now spent most of his life on Dunroy’s front porch.
Spurgeon Pace was the caretaker of Dunroy for 75 years and raised his family on the property. He was also a camera buff and photographed all things Dunroy during his tenure. His grandchildren graciously showed me scrapbooks with photos dating back to the 1930s with the Thompsons, who have preserved them along with the Crawfords’ photos as part of Dunroy’s history. The house is not only a labor of love for the Thompsons but also a significant historic landmark with them as its stewards. As the years passed, they bought the land adjacent to Dunroy accumulating six acres and enriching the landscape and grounds. In addition, they placed the house in a preservation easement with Historic Flat Rock, Inc.
One of the key characteristics that drew Michael and Elaine to the house was its warm, welcoming feeling — an important feature for a family who enjoys entertaining. “The rooms are spacious and the dining room is made for large crowds. The house truly comes alive with a party,” says Michael.
Dunroy has a legacy of being a place for parties, balls and events. One such historic occasion was a costume ball held by the Williams family in 1866 to celebrate their daughter’s 18th birthday. Many of the Lowcountry families sought refuge in Flat Rock during the years of the War Between the States. It was in these war-torn acres that they gathered in the summer of 1866, reviving their optimism and providing a festive time for all. The affair was documented in a pencil and watercolor picture by Alice Izard Middleton Lowndes and was the centerpiece of an article by Elise Pinckney and Henry Burke in the August 2001 Carologue, a publication of the South Carolina Historical Society. “The scene of the 1866 ball, the drawing room at Dunroy, stands now as it did then: 21 feet long with a bay window opposite the fireplace and ceilings some 13 feet high.” The costume ball was Alice Lowndes’ most complex composition with identifying names near all the figures.
This colorful 2001 edition of Carologue documented the 1866 ball at Dunroy.
Elaine and Michael Thompson are givers. They give thanks, love, gratitude, joy and themselves to one another. It is evident in their love of Christmas and the variety of trees full of memories and meaningful ornaments in each room of their house. It is evident in their festive celebrations like Christmas dinner on Thanksgiving Day because both sides of the family can be there and everyone loves the Christmas china. It is evident in their welcoming hospitality and kindness to their community and friends. These attributes also personify the spirit of Dunroy where 100 traditions have gone and new ones have taken their place. It is a place where Christmas will continue and will be at the heart of a spot the Thompsons call their “happy place.”
Information for this article was obtained by referencing the published works of Blanche and Kenneth Marsh, Lenoir Ray, Sadie Smathers Patton and Frank FitzSimons. Addition resources include Southern Antiques and Interiors (Summer 1972), Carologue, A Publication of the South Carolina Historical Society (Autumn 2001) and The National Register of Historic Places.
Missy Craver Izard Schenck was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina with her husband, Sandy Schenck, where their family runs a summer camp. Missy currently serves as the president of Historic Flat Rock, Inc., a position once held by her father-in-law, Alex Schenck, the first president of the organization and a founding trustee.