ost Columbians know about Gov. Wade Hampton’s “Millwood” and the ruined colonnade of his
burned plantation home, but few realize at least three grand antebellum Columbia estates rivaled it.
The order ledgers of Pomaria Nursery from 1859 to 1863 provide proof of the extent and nature of these three gardens, forgotten today by most Columbia historians. Pomaria Nursery, founded in Newberry County some 26 miles north of Columbia by William Summer in 1840, has sparked recent interest among horticulturists nationwide. Garden historians use Pomaria’s various documents to study specific central South Carolina gardens, large and small, and to prove the high degree of sophistication of their antebellum gardeners.
Perhaps the most noteworthy of these forgotten estates, judging from the plants ordered from Pomaria Nursery in this four-year span, was the garden of Charles P. Pelham of Mill Creek Plantation, neighbor to Hampton’s Millwood. Author William Gilmore Simms called this estate Pelham’s “beautiful country seat,” situated a few miles east of the original city grid.
Among the rare plants that went into his landscape were cork oaks, English yews, Norway spruce, funebral cypress (C. funebris), pyramidal cypress (C. pyramidalis), heath cypress (C. ericoides), twisted cypress (C. torulosa), and magnolias. His large acreage on what was then the city’s outskirts allowed room for large orchards. Pomaria’s offerings in 1860 included more than 500 apple varieties, more than 400 each of pears and peaches, several hundred cherries and plums, and several hundred varieties of grapes, both native and foreign. Pelham, thus, had one of the largest and most select nursery offerings in America from which to choose his trees.
From 1859 to 1863, Pelham ordered 182 pears, 235 apples, and 309 peach trees. The estate also included a vineyard. One order for 200 grapevines came during this time. Pelham was also planting raspberries, blackberries, figs, apricots, nectarines, and roses. For his roses, Pelham could choose from Pomaria’s amazing collection of more than 800 varieties of the rose personally selected by him and his Scottish gardener, James Crammond, for the Southern climate. Six hundred and seventy-five of these were named and described in Pomaria’s catalogues. In November 1859, Pelham and other Columbia gardeners could choose from 300 varieties of dahlias at the 1.5 acre display garden at Pomaria.
Pelham’s Columbia town house at the corner of Bull and Washington also had a noteworthy large garden that was considered a city showplace. Pelham himself, an erudite and cultured gentleman, was both a planter and a professor of classics at South Carolina College. He graduated there in 1838 and traveled widely in Europe, where he visited the grand estate gardens. These European gardens no doubt provided him with much inspiration. Crammond was also an expert on the latest English landscape design and the newly discovered plants going into them.
The second of the great forgotten estates that ringed the city was the plantation of George Alfred Trenholm (1807-1876). Simms also singled out Trenholm’s garden showplace as another of Columbia’s “beautiful country seat[s].” One of Trenholm’s nursery orders alone in the midst of war was for 72 plum trees, 76 apricots, 144 pears, 288 peaches, and 192 apples in 1863. The orchard at Trenholm’s great estate was particularly beautiful when its trees bloomed in spring. Most Columbians today only know Trenholm for the road and shopping center that bear his name. Researchers are currently attempting to chart the estate’s boundaries and the site of the great mansion house itself, said to be some distance from Trenholm Road.
Trenholm, a native of Charleston, was one of America’s wealthiest men. He was a merchant, financier, and owner of warehouses, ships, wharves, hotels, and plantations. The Liverpool, England, branch of his prestigious firm was the overseas depository of the Confederate Treasury. In 1864, he became the last Confederate secretary of the treasury. His interesting biography includes tales of blockade running and accounts of Margaret Mitchell’s using him as the principal model for Gone with the Wind’s Rhett Butler. After his imprisonment and bankruptcy, he returned to Charleston and regained wealth through his part in the state’s phosphate mining industry.
The third great estate that rivaled Hampton’s Millwood is the most difficult to document. It was owned by John C. Walker, a well-to-do Columbia lawyer, who owned many store buildings near the courthouse and city hall on Main Street. Simms reports that these were burned by Sherman’s Union troops in 1865. The extant Pomaria records show that Walker was the area’s most sophisticated gardener during this 4-year span. For example, he was one of America’s first gardeners to plant the Montezuma cypress. Pomaria did not even list the tree in its impressively large yearly catalogues, but records show that the nursery provided him one. Unfortunately, the Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum), a native of Mexico, is a beautiful tree still relatively unknown today by even America’s most accomplished gardeners. It is perfectly happy in central South Carolina, as a specimen in Aiken’s Hopeland Gardens attests.
In the span of just one year, Walker ordered Brazil pines, cryptomerias, banana shrubs, arborvitaes, Scotch brooms, weigelas, tea plants, quince, 50 English walnuts, 32 chestnuts, 35 almonds, 15 figs, 50 apricots, 100 pears, 300 apples, and 500 peaches. Research has yet to find the location of his estate. Walker served on the building committee of Columbia’s First Baptist Church in 1857, but little else is known of him. Both he and his garden need future research.
All three of these estates must have been truly impressive. Their gardeners were cultivating on a large scale what the gardeners at the Col. John S. Preston Mansion on Blanding Street were doing inside the city. Preston’s well-documented garden is being restored today under the direction of Messrs. Clements and Mearns, who are, in fact, using the Pomaria ledgers and catalogues as two of their guides.
While Preston’s city garden was more compact, the large country estates of Hampton, Pelham, Trenholm, and Walker allowed for extensive orchards and vineyards to play out from the ornamental landscape that surrounded the homes. The estate orchards provided a pleasing vista for the house grounds. The overall estate grounds were, owing to extensive acreage, likely following the lead of the finest estate gardens in England at that time. The picturesque English style was based on a looser, more relaxed landscape — a naturalistic planting that attempted to imitate nature. These Columbia suburban estates were on hilly terrain, which was the ideal landscape for the naturalistic style. Pomaria’s own proprietors recommended the English landscape design in 1860 as “superior to that so commonly used.”
By 1860, the Preston garden was considered “old-fashioned” because its design was geometrical, with tight angular walks in box-bordered parterres. In 1861, Pomaria’s Prussian-born, Munich-educated gardener called the grounds a “specimen of the ancient school … introduced in Europe several centuries ago.” This old-fashioned design in England had given way to the new style popularized by English landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown and his successor, Sir Humphry Repton.
The Victorian era of lush, exotic, and odd textures encouraged curiosities such as the monkey-puzzle tree, the Norfolk Island pine, the cunninghamia, deodar cedar, cryptomeria, the various exotic Italian and Oriental cypresses with varied forms and textures, and the curious rare bunja-bunja, all of which went into Columbia gardens on the eve of the war — as proved by the orders from Pomaria.
Pomaria could satisfy its patrons’ needs for effect with the latest introductions from the Orient, South America, and their own American West. The Western natives included the coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and the California incense cedar (Libocedrus decurrens). Pomaria’s catalogue descriptions in 1860 used desirable words such as “picturesque,” “striking,” “unusual,” “charming,” “curious,” “unique,” and “distinct” to describe the new plants they were offering. These were words his sophisticated patrons evidently wanted to hear, and the nursery was providing plants to satisfy them.
The favorable climate of Columbia allowed for plants that the English gardener could only grow under glass. Columbia gardeners could thus better satisfy their broadly exotic tastes. The redwood could overlap a magnolia, hemlock, or live oak. The rare Mount Atlas cedar could grow by a Spanish cork oak, a cedar of Lebanon, Irish yew, or pyramidal cypress. The tea olive and camellia could share space with the favorite deodar cedar from the Himalayas, a California incense cedar, yellowwood, native stewartia, a Japan lustre leaf holly, or Florida torreya.
As proved by the ledger orders, Columbia gardeners were buying plants for their growing “collections” in the English manner of the pinetum, a word the Victorians used to describe their landscape collections of various and curious textures, colors, and forms. The sheer variety of the evergreen trees alone in a Columbia garden would have created a virtual wonderland — like an English Victorian conservatory freed from glass and turned outdoors.
It is clear from the evidence of Pomaria Nursery that Columbia, and central South Carolina as a whole, had many fine gardens in 1861, both large and small. The world has celebrated the gardens of Charleston for more than a century now; however, few realize the rich history of garden sophistication of the state’s central region.
The best of these Carolina gardens were ambitious, highly refined landscapes unlike any found elsewhere as a result of temperate climate, an exceptional large nursery importing the latest plant discoveries worldwide, and the nursery’s proprietors, who guided their patrons in essays in the three journals they edited. It was a golden garden era, and it may be true that the gardeners of today have yet to reach the degree of sophistication shown by their predecessors a century and a half ago. A better knowledge of central South Carolina’s impressive garden heritage can encourage and inspire a new golden age in gardens. It happened then, so, one might reason, why not again?
At least five eyewitness accounts by soldiers or newspaper reporters entering Columbia in February 1865 attest to the city’s beautiful gardens, famous for what one called “flower gardens that savored of Oriental luxury and ease” (New York Herald, 13 March 1865). At least one of these visitors reported that he regretted the contrasting view as he left the burned town, where ashes and blackened vegetation replaced the lush and “luxurious” foliage only three days before. Columbia’s foliage was lush and luxurious even in the dead of a harsh winter. It must have included many broad leaf evergreens and conifers. Photographs of the burned skeletons of Columbia’s double rows of willow oaks on Main Street are haunting images of ecological loss.
The concept of total war apparently included gardens, and many of the burned plants had no doubt come from Pomaria. The estates of Pelham, Trenholm, and Hampton were sought out and torched several hours before the city itself went up in flames. The proprietor of Pomaria Nursery’s Columbia branch, the German national William Rudolph Otto Bergholz (1832-1901), who sold these men their plants, had moved north during the war. There he consulted with President Lincoln, General Grant, and General Sherman on the importance of Columbia to the Confederacy, and he was paid for his services. Bergholz joined Sherman in Savannah, Georgia, in late December 1864 as a U.S. Army captain of engineers for the march through South Carolina beginning in January 1865. He was the only engineer to be so attached. The great irony is that it was his patron, Secretary George A. Trenholm, who wrote Bergholz his pass north through the Confederacy. One may surmise that it was through “agent” Bergholz that Sherman’s men knew the precise locations of these estates. In Columbia in 1860, Bergholz had advertised himself as a landscape designer. He, in fact, may have laid out the estates that were the first properties to be burned before the city itself was destroyed.
Today, the ruined colonnade of Millwood and a few place names are but scant reminders of four “beautiful country seats” that stand as ghost gardens, providing context to a reborn Preston garden, reclaimed by the state from concrete and asphalt during its tricentennial celebration in 1970.
Dr. James E. Kibler is editor of Taking Root: The Nature Writing of William and Adam Summer of Pomaria, published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2017.