By Missy Craver Izard
The community of Fletcher, North Carolina, has the misfortune of being known as a suburban sprawl along U.S. Highway 25 between Hendersonville and Asheville, N.C. Often getting second billing or no billing at all, Fletcher’s history dates to the 1700s and includes colonial-era land grants as well as several Lowcountry families who migrated to the mountains of North Carolina to escape the summer heat and malaria. In A Partial History of Henderson County, James T. Fain, Jr. begins Chapter 6, “The Lowcountry Influence,” with an account of the Lowcountry early settlers in Henderson County. “The development of Flat Rock as a seasonal resort is well known, but perhaps less known is the fact that a similar development took place—and slightly earlier—on the northern border of what would be Henderson County, on Cane Creek, in the present Fletcher community.”
The property now known as Rugby Grange in Fletcher appears much the same as it did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Crowning a knoll above Cane Creek Valley, the main house was built by William Heyward of Charleston on land he purchased from James C. Harper in 1854. The 750 acres he bought included land stretching from Cane Creek on the south to Kimsey Creek on the north; he also acquired from the French Broad River on the west to just west of present-day Highway 25 on the east. He began construction of a large Italianate style home sometime after 1854 as a wedding gift to his daughter. When these marital plans ended, so did his interest and investment in the house.
It is believed that only the exterior walls of the main building were completed when Swedish diplomat Gustaf Adolphus George Westfeldt bought the property in 1868 from William “Tiger Bill” Heyward of Charleston. It is the same 750 acres that William Heyward bought from James C. Harper in 1854. Today, these 750 acres and more are still owned by the Westfeldt family descendants. The land, up until the construction of Interstate Highway I-26, was one continuous parcel.
Entering Rugby Grange today, the traveler proceeds along the same gravel carriage road that has taken visitors and residents alike in and out of the property for more than 150 years. The Big House, as the main structure has come to be called throughout the years, is a striking example of Italianate architecture with features of Greek revival style. Except for the two-story wing on the northwest corner, the Big House forms an almost perfect square. Built with native materials (limestone and hardwoods such as walnut and cherry) by local mountain craftsmen, Rugby Grange portrays some of the best workmanship available in Western North Carolina. Listed on the 1987 National Register of Historic Places, Westfeldt completed the interior construction of the main house between 1868 and the 1870s. He named his new property “Rugby Grange” for the Rugby School in Leamington, England which his sons attended.
The Westfeldt family
For six generations, the Westfeldt family dedicated itself to the green coffee industry and the preservation of their family estates, Rugby Grange in Fletcher, and their family home in New Orleans, Louisiana. It began with the immigration of Vice-Consul Gustavus Adolphus George Westfeldt (1813 - 1890) from Sweden to Mobile, Alabama in 1835. In 1851, Gustavus Adolphus, with his brother Carl Reinhold, founded Westfeldt Brothers, Inc. in Mobile as one of the nation’s first green coffee importers. In 1853, the company moved from Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans and by 1880, Westfeldt Brothers, Inc. was recognized as one of the principal green coffee importers in the nation.
How was it that George Westfeldt chose an unknown future in America over his royal heritage in Sweden? Somehow, even at the age of 22, George understood that nobility was not about the crown or fine possessions or a family crest. Instead, it was about heart, hard work and independence of thought. He chose a nobility of spirit not of official bestowal. In 1835, he chose America.
Westfeldt’s uncle, Carl Westfeldt had established himself in Charleston as the Swedish consul there. George the advantage of the guidance of his uncle, a gregarious and adventurous man the locals called Prince Charlie, and following his example, Gustafus Adolphus George Westfeldt became vice consul to Mobile in 1835. Within three years he had married a Mobile girl and in 1843 he became an American citizen, changing the family name from Wastfelt to Westfeldt, as it remains to this day. In his adopted country, Gustaf Adolphus George Westfeldt went by George, a popular and more American sounding name.
The Mobile girl was a young Irish American woman named Jane McLoskey. Born in 1820 in County Derry, Ireland, she was raised by two uncles, Phillip and Patrick McLoskey. At just 18 years old and nine years younger than her husband, Jane would prove to be his match in determination and adventuresome spirit. After their wedding in 1838, they embarked on a long life together that carried them overseas and back to New Orleans and New York and ultimately to Fletcher. Jane bore George Westfeldt six children in Mobile, three more in New York City, and one in Germany, who died as an infant.
As the threat of the War Between the States grew, George was warned to leave New York due to his southern roots. In 1862, the family moved to Leamington in Warwickshire, England where they lived for four years. Following the fall of the Confederacy, the family returned to New York. During their stay in England, the Westfeldts had learned of the beauty of the Mountains of Western North Carolina through an acquaintance from an old Charleston family, one Gilbert Tennent. Tennant owned a large house on the Swannanoa River just south of Asheville and told George of a large, unfinished stone house for sale in Fletcher. George sent his wife, Jane, and their daughter, Johanna, to see the property. After receiving favorable reports from them, he bought 750 acres in 1868.
In his book, The Westfeldts of Rugby Grange, Bill Moss recounts the trip made by Jane and Johanna:
“Jane McLoskey Westfeldt and her daughter, Johanna, gazed out at the forlorn-looking town of Old Fort as the train ground to a stop. It had been a long ride into unfamiliar territory, and they had reached the end of the line. The hardest part of their trip awaited on the steep hill to the west. It would take Jane and Johanna several more days of hard wagon travel up the Blue Ridge Mountains to reach the tiny village of Fletcher, where the house was located. With the help of George Washington Fletcher, the founder of Fletcher and a medical doctor, the visitors were able to locate the property. Jane and Johanna had endured hardship to reach the property, but there was much to like about the lush valley of the French Broad River. Jane knew her husband wanted to buy a place big enough for their large family with enough land to farm and raise livestock. They returned home with their positive assessment and recommended that George buy the property. This purchase would soon establish the Westfeldt family’s longest period of stability in America.”
George sent his eldest son, Charles Fleetwood Westfeldt to live in the North Carolina Mountains and supervise the completion of the stone house. Charles, along with his wife Martha Ray McMillan and their two daughters moved to Fletcher in 1870, first staying in one of the cabins on the property and later in “The Cottage” built for them by Dr. Fletcher, located just east and down the hill from the Big House. The Cottage became the year-round residence for the Charles Fleetwood Westfeldt family.
From the early 1870s until the end of the century, the Westfeldt family enjoyed their most stable period, with Rugby Grange as its centerpiece. By the mid 1880s, the Grange had become a busy enterprise, as the manor-style farm ran under the management of George and his son, Charles, with help from Newton Lance, the first of several generations of Lances to serve as farm managers. The Grange became the full-time residence of the Westfeldt family and eventually the home of George’s extended family and their children. But for Gustaf (known by his siblings as “Bo,”), the task to bring the farm to a place of being self-sufficiency was the ultimate goal.
After the death of their beloved mother Jane Westfeldt in 1899, the siblings were faced
with the difficult transition of Rugby Grange’s management. Bo’s idea was to go on holding the Grange together for all who could go there and that this would be carrying out his mother’s wishes. As the family increased and their guests multiplied, the quarters allotted to them in The Grange became cramped and led to strain. Many unpleasant situations arose, and everyone was aware of the tension, but because the family wished to keep the Grange, they were willing to adjust to the new regime and tried to go on as nearly as they could, the idea being that Jane Westfeldt would like them to do so.
For his part, Bo made plans in 1905 to build a separate house that would become known as Rugby Lodge. The distance between the Big House and Rugby Lodge was a few hundred yards. The decision to build The Lodge was not Bo’s alone. His wife, Louise Dugan Westfeldt, of the Thomas Dugan family of New Orleans, was strongly in favor of it and helped pay for the house from her family money. Louise and Gustaf (Bo) Westfeldt had four children—three sons and a daughter, Gladys Louise, who married Dr. Paul McIlhenny in 1912 merging America’s favorite hot beverage with American’s favorite hot sauce. The marriage brought into the Westfeldt fold a family even richer in South Louisiana heritage. Paul was the son of the Tabasco founder.
The strong allegiance to family and the insistence of passing leadership down from one generation to the next accounts for the durability of the Westfeldt Brothers coffee company and their mountain estate, Rugby Grange. “Each generation in the Westfeldts knew that you really only have one boss,” said Vaughn Fitzpatrick, the great grandson of Gustaf R. Westfeldt. They understood the business was only as good as the person running it, and it’s worth precious little if that person isn’t the right person because it’s all about integrity and energy.”
New owner brings restoration
Thomas Dugan Westfeldt, (Tommy) is the current owner of Rugby Grange. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Tommy as he recalled tales of Rugby Grange and his tenure as its owner. When his grandfather died in the 1960s, the land was split up among family members. His father’s acreage included agricultural outbuildings, fields and a total of 12 contributing buildings including Rugby Lodge II, the “Big House,” the Cottage, the Shanty, Uncle Martin’s and Uncle Billy’s cabins, the icehouse and several barns. Many of these buildings are still intact, and the surrounding land is still actively farmed to this day. However, the Big House had fallen into disrepair, having stood empty since 1921. “My father did not want to spend a dime on the house,” recalled Tommy. In 1994, my sister and I got the property. After two years of ownership, my sister realized the bills were adding up and she started thinking differently about it and in 1998 I bought out all but 22 acres of her half.”
I first learned about Rugby Grange from my friend Mary McCabe Dudley, Tommy’s cousin. Their mothers were sisters and Mary’s family owned Kenmure, a large estate in Flat Rock. The cousins spent summers going back and forth between Flat Rock and Fletcher, riding horses, swimming in the McCabe’s lake, berry picking, and picnicking in the lower pasture.
Mary recalls the Grange’s reputation for producing the best butter ever made. She did her part sweeping the cow feed back into the trough while the cows were being milked, for which she was paid 50 cents an hour. “Life at the Grange was lively and involved ghost stories, hayrides and square dances mostly at the Green House, the track owned by the McIlhenny cousins. There are so many memories of children and adults spending time together whether it was early morning walks or summer evenings of relaxation.”
One of Tommy’s first moves after taking ownership of Rugby Grange was to hire a historical architect and an engineer to investigate the structure of the Big House. Fortunately, it was found to be in good condition, and he implemented his plan to restore the building to its former grandeur. He hired Cordell Construction to complete the work, the same company that had just finished restoring the chapel at Christ School (Tommy’s alma mater).
During the initial stages of restoration, the Westfeldt’s daughter, Mary Scott, became engaged to Ryan McKinnon. The Grange was her first choice for the wedding venue, which meant the restoration pace quickened— it seemed there was no time to to return the house to its original status as a showpiece before the nuptials. Finally, on a beautiful summer evening in 2011, nearly 300 Westfeldt descendants gathered to celebrate Mary Scott Westfeldt’s marriage to Mr. McKinnon. The Big House and the extended Westfeldt family were united once more, and Rugby Grange, restored to its 18th century grandeur, continues to serve its large and devoted family to this day.
Missy Craver Izard was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina where her family runs a summer camp.