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Lake Summit and the Montgomery family

By Missy Craver Izard

On a hill overlooking Lake Summit Near Saluda, North Carolina, one finds Montaire, the Montgomery family home. A beautiful white house built in the early 1920s; Montaire derives its name from Mont for Montgomery and air for the fresh mountain breezes that cool off the hot summer days. Surrounded by picturesque gardens, including a well-loved Japanese scene complete with paths, streams and plant life cascading from the property down to the lake. The garden was a gift to Rose Cornelson Montgomery from her husband, Walter, Sr. Throughout the years, the garden was expanded and is now a magnificent oasis of nature and a source of solitude for Betty James Montgomery, an avid gardener.

Betty and Walter Montgomery having a pleasant chat. PHOTO BY NACE FEW

For our interview, I had the pleasure of spending the morning with Betty and Walter Montgomery, Jr., the current owners of Montaire and descendants of one of the families responsible for constructing Lake Summit. Montgomery cousins Roberta Heyward Cart and Liz Warrington Maiche joined us and generously contributed to the myriad of stories told that day. Betty and Walter were well prepared and had graciously taken time to write up a brief history of the lake and its development prior to our meeting. We spent most of our visit sharing memories and stories of a beloved family gathering place — including some not to be repeated.

Captain John Henry Montgomery 1833-1902

Captain John Henry Montgomery was born on a farm in Hobbysville in Spartanburg County on December 8, 1833, the eldest son of Benjamin Montgomery and Harriet Moss. In the early 1850s, Montgomery worked as a store clerk and then a partner with his brother-in-law in a mercantile business. In 1857 he married Susan A. Holcombe, a union that produced eight children. Shortly after marrying, Montgomery entered into the general merchandising business with his father-in-law and acquired an interest in a local tannery. He served in the South Carolina Volunteers during the Civil War, reaching the rank of captain.

After the war, Montgomery continued with his farming and mercantile activities. One day while plowing the fields, he stopped in his tracks. His wife, who was watching him from the kitchen window thought he might be sick and rushed into the field, whereupon Montgomery told her that he was too smart to plow fields for the rest of his life. His successful experimentation with commercial fertilizers led to an association with John Merriman’s Baltimore-based firm, where he was brought on as a salesman. In 1874, Montgomery moved from the country to the city of Spartanburg and joined the mercantile firm of Walker, Fleming and Company, the largest cotton buyer in the county.

In 1881, Montgomery and Walker, Fleming and Company purchased Trough Shoals, a property situated on the Pacolet River as the site for a new textile operation. A year later, the Pacolet Manufacturing Company was organized with an initial capital stock of $103,000. Montgomery was chosen to serve as president and treasurer of the company, and the first mill became operational in 1884. Under Montgomery’s guidance, the Pacolet Manufacturing Company expanded its operations to a second mill in 1888, adding a third in 1894. By 1895 the company operated more than 50,000 spindles and maintained a capital stock of $700,000.

Montgomery’s success was due in large part to his skill at attracting Northern investors, notably bringing Seth M. Milliken of the New York selling house Deering, Milliken and Company to Spartanburg. Milliken lent Montgomery $10,000 for Spartan Mills, his second major mill project. Organized in 1888, Spartan Mills merged with Whitfield Mills of Newburyport, Massachusetts the following year in an arrangement that brought all of Whitfield’s machinery to Spartanburg.

Montgomery played an important role in the development of upcountry mill villages with the construction of company housing, schools and shops. In November of 1885, the Spartanburg Carolina Spartan stated that the Pacolet Manufacturing Company served as a “monument of practical utility.” Seth Milliken once said that Capt. Montgomery was the smartest businessman he ever knew.

By 1900 the upcountry mills under Montgomery’s presidency were consuming cotton at such a high rate that they had to look further south for enough supply of raw cotton. Two years later Montgomery opened two mills in Georgia, one in Gainesville and the other in New Holland. John Montgomery died on October 31, 1902, shortly after falling from a scaffold at the Gainesville site. His sons took over running the mills with Ben at the Drayton Mill, Victor at the Pacolet Mill and Walter at Spartan Mills.

Walter Scott Montgomery 1866-1929 – Hydroelectricity and the Mills

Walter Scott Montgomery married Elizabeth “Bessie” Gibbes, the daughter of James Guignard Gibbes and Rhoda Elizabeth Waller of Columbia, S.C. Together they had six children, James, Frank, Kate, Albert, Walter and Lucille. James died an infant death. Frank, considered to be the star of the family, went to Yale and graduated with honors in 1915. In 1918, he was killed in an airplane accident while serving in World War I. Albert went to Sewanee and pursued the banking business. He died in 1922 at the age of 25 of a streptococcus infection. Kate, Walter and Lucille lived long lives. “My grandfather was always a quiet man — he never talked about the past, said Walter, Jr. My grandmother, called Miss Bessie by many, was a very lively, happy person and loved to have fun. On Saturday nights after dinner, she would lead all of us in The Big Apple, a dance that went through the dining room and living room.”

Walter Scott Montgomery and his friend John Adger Law, president of Saxon Mills, felt the future of the textile mill industry depended on the development of hydroelectricity to power them. In the 1890s, Montgomery’s father (Captain John Montgomery) built a summer home in Saluda. Saluda and its surrounding area was the ideal place to produce electricity due to its proximity to the lakes and because of the summers Montgomery spent there with his family.

Montgomery and Law visited Joseph Oscar Bell, Sr., the founder of Tuxedo, N.C., a vibrant mill village. Bell along with his brother-in-law, J.A. Durham, and S. B. Tanner, formed a textile mill alongside the Green River in Tuxedo in 1907 and named it Green River Manufacturing Company. Bell oversaw the construction of a small lake, now known as Lake Edith, by building a dam across the Green River where the old iron bridge is currently located. This became the main source of hydroelectricity for Bell’s textile mill.

Montgomery and Law felt they could generate enough power by damming the Green River and created the Green River Corporation to acquire large tracts of land to develop lakes for hydroelectricity. With Bell’s help, they acquired as much land as possible along the Green River in Henderson and Polk counties, with plans to build a total of four dams to create hydroelectric power. Lake Summit — the first and highest — was built in 1920 in Tuxedo and lowest, Lake Adger in Polk County, was completed in 1925. Soon after the second lake was built, electric power produced by coal-fired generators proved to be much more efficient and plans to develop the two sites originally proposed for Big Hungry and Little Hungry Creeks were abandoned.

Montgomery and Law formed the Manufacturer’s Power Company in Spartanburg, and after absorbing Hendersonville Power, the business was incorporated into the Blue Ridge Power Company as part of the plan for damming the lake. On May 17, 1917, the Blue Ridge Power Company and the Willard Boggs Company signed an agreement that arranged for the construction of a 121-foot-high dam across the Green River.

To build Lake Summit, a small community with many family homes as well as a grist mill, sawmill and church had to be relocated from the future lakebed. A large amount of timber also needed to be cleared, so the first house built on the south side of the lake was constructed for the timber operation manager, which still stands and is now owned by the Hudson and Crowley families. After the timbering was finished, the dam had to be built. To accomplish this, the Green River had to be temporarily diverted — a small earthen dam was constructed for this purpose.

Several houses were built for the foremen and engineers, among them two original Minter Homes located on the east end of South Lake Summit Road on the southwest side of the dam. The nation’s oldest manufacturer of prefabricated houses, Minter Homes established a factory in Greenville, S.C. shortly after World War I. The Minter Company had intended to develop a public beach at the end of the lake near the trestle and to sell vacation cottages, but the company went bankrupt before the project could begin.

Returning to the families involved, Miss Bessie and Walter loved to play bridge and enjoyed partnering with a Belgian named Dr. Adolphe Vermont, who served as the chair of the Modern Language Department at Converse College in Spartanburg and his wife, Effie. Eventually, Bessie convinced her husband to sell the houses to Dr. Vermont and throughout the years, the Vermont family compound grew to four cottages, one for each one of the Vermont children, Dolph, Albert, Venerable (Bun) and Fannie Louise had their own houses. They are now owned by the fourth generation in their family.

Until a bridge was built, transportation from one side of the lake to the other was by ferry. Railroad tracks on the north side of the lake were elevated 18 feet and a large concrete train trestle was built over the lake. Once complete, Lake Summit covered 324 acres and became the largest lake in Henderson County. The water from the lake fell over a 254-foot single arch dam into an eight foot cypress flume, leading to the power house at Pot Shoals and supplying power for the textile mills in Spartanburg.

When Lake Summit was finished, Walter Montgomery and John Law choose sites each on top of their own hill to build their family houses — Montaire, the Montgomery family home and Interlocken, the Law family home. Montgomery was not interested in the real estate development of the rest of the land around the lake and sold it to a group of businessmen from Spartanburg and Greenville who formed the Lake Summit Corporation. They put in roads and divided the land into hundreds of small lots. The mountains of WNC were attractive and businessmen were counting on the real estate boom of the 20s to make their fortune. They spent quite a bit of money on the infrastructure and when the Great Depression hit, the company lacked the funds needed to sustain the construction project and went bankrupt.

Montaire, the Montgomery family home. PHOTO BY NACE FEW,

On March 2, 1936, there was an auction of the Lake Summit properties on the steps of the Henderson County Courthouse. Among the attendees was Walter Scott Montgomery, Sr., who bought the property back for $5,000. This purchase ultimately saved Lake Summit from becoming another overcrowded development. After the auction, Montgomery gave or sold five elevenths of the real estate to John Law. “My father always told me that after the auction, he wanted to make sure there was land for all of his children and grandchildren to have a lot at the lake,” explained Walter, Jr.

Walter S. Montgomery, Sr. 1900 – 1996

(For reasons unknown, the naming patterns used in this family were unconventional. The original Walter Scott Montgomery named his son Walter Scott Montgomery, Senior instead of Walter Scott Montgomery, Junior. That son proceeded to name his own son Walter Scott Montgomery, Junior instead of Walter Scott Montgomery, III.)

Walter Scott Montgomery, Sr. — known as “Mr. Walter” was born in Spartanburg on October 18, 1900, the son of Walter S. and Bessie Gibbes Montgomery. He was educated in the public school system as well as the Hastoc School for Boys in Spartanburg and graduated from Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia in 1920.

Walter, Sr. began his business career with the Montgomery & Crawford Hardware Company in Spartanburg and joined Spartan Mills in 1922, a company founded by his grandfather, Captain John H. Montgomery. In 1926 he was named assistant treasurer and was elected president and treasurer following the death of his father three years later. On February 3, 1972, he became chairman of the board after the election of his son, Walter S. Montgomery, Jr., as president and treasurer, serving in this capacity until his death in 1996. Montgomery was an active civic leader and a supporter of many local philanthropic organizations. In 1986 he was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame and received the Order of the Palmetto from Gov. Carroll Campbell.

Walter S. Montgomery, Sr. married Rose Bailey Cornelson of Clinton, S.C., whose brother George was a friend of Walter’s and was included in his wedding party along with Rose. After the couple was paired together for the wedding festivities, the rest is history. They were married in 1928 and had two children, Walter S. Montgomery, Jr. and Rose Montgomery Johnston.

Through Rose and Walter Montgomery, Sr. Lake Summit became a beloved gathering place for generations of the Montgomery family to grow up with their cousins, aunts and uncles on the lake. “I was never bored,” recalled Walter, Jr. “With eight cousins and a little sister, there were always plenty of playmates. The household rule was to be on time for meals, and our guests knew to be at the table for lunch at 1:00 p.m. and at 7:00 p.m. for dinner. We took full advantage of the lake, swimming and skiing nearly every day and fishing for giant carps. Our adventures differed and often included walking on old logging trails, picking berries and playing gin rummy — they were all part of the peaceful days of our childhood and are still enjoyed by our children and grandchildren.”

Betty and Walter Montgomery, Jr. now serve as the stewards of Montaire and the Montgomery family legacy of Lake Summit. Many Montgomery relatives have houses on the lake, fulfilling Walter, Sr.’s wish. Lake Summit has been the heart of the Montgomery family and home for the last 100 years and remains a place where one may surrender to the healing magic of summertime in the mountains.

Missy Craver Izard was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina where their family runs a summer camp.

Photos by Nace Few, lifetime Lake Summit native and photographer.


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