Looking Back On Yesteryear
Summerville could just as easily have been called Treeville, but the town gets its name from the first settlers, who built rough, summer-village-type homes.
This high sandy ridge, crested with an abundant pine forest, was well known to the Native Americans who lived in this area for hundreds of years. Records show that residents of the nearby, then thriving town of Dorchester on the Ashley River, established a saw mill and tar and turpentine business in 1699 just a block away from the site of what later became Azalea Park in the center of downtown Summerville. After the first people came to camp out - or as the phrase was then "to maroon" - on this relatively high site around the late 1700s, it didn't take long for the word to spread that Summerville featured cool nights and a lack of mosquitoes during the day.
According to the late local historian, Beth McIntosh, by 1828 there were some 28 families here, many of whom were descendants of the Dorchester settlers. Those early Ashley River Planters came to the new settlement of Summerville to get away from what as then perceived as harmful gases - the "miasma" - rising from the low-lying riceland swamps and causing malaria. It was not known then that the mosquito was the malaria carrier. The belief was that the healthy climate from the air passing through the pine trees.
In order to catch those breezes through the pine woods those first summer camp residence were not lined or plastered. The style of home at that time as known as the mosquito house, with a floor plan of two rooms on each side of a wide hall on two floors if there was a second story, and with a fireplace in each room.
By 1830 the South Carolina Railroad came through Summerville and a new town plan was laid out with regular streets parallel and perpendicular to the tracks. This was referred to as "new town" and became the site of choice for summer resident trying to escape the fevers of Charleston as well as its congested business atmosphere. They built homes close to the tracks to have easy access to board the trains for their frequent commute. Old Summerville, the original settlement, was just east of the new plan and continued to be home to Ashley River planters.
The railroad originally purchased the Summerville land because of the timber it contained that could fuel the trains. When they began to sell off the land for lots, each parcel sold with a covenant to protect the trees. Those new deed holders to the one-acre lots had to agree to preserve not less than 15 pine trees on each parcel. Specifications on size and circumference were included with the purchase.
In 1847 the town was incorporated to include both the old and new settlements, under the name of the Village of Summerville. That same covenant that protected the trees in the lots for sale became one of the first ordinances of the newly established village. This is said to be the oldest tree ordinance in South Carolina and perhaps the United States.
The town continued to grow at a placid pace until the War Between The States. Summerville's progress was retarded then, but the town came through the war less physically damaged than many others in the area. Plantation owners who had summered in town now remained here permanently, and did not return to their plantations.
McIntosh noted it was the town's "wonderfully tall pines," that captured international attention at a Congress of Physicians in Paris in the late 1880s and caused the town to grow again. Medical experts claimed that Summerville was one of two most healthful places in the world for victims of lung disease and the "pine scented mild climate" as most beneficial.
By the latter part of the century Summerville had a new spirit of growth and entered into what has become known as the town's Golden Age. Again the town's history was affected by the pine trees. A building boom ensued with many inns being erected to augment some already-in-place hotels.
Visitors could stay at establishments with such names as Wisteria, Carolina, Halcyon, White Gables and Squirrel. The latter is the largest of the old inns still standing. It has been converted into a condominium. Built in 1912 the Squirrel Inn peaked in the 1940s and in 1957 was named on the best 40 rural inns in the nations. Visitors could enjoy continental cuisine, a well-stocked wine cellar and extraordinary camellias raised by the inn's owner. It welcomed its last guest in 1970.
A typical advertisement to entice the visitor to Summerville during that time read: "Charleston's Suburban Resort: 'Among the Pines," Summerville, South Carolina, United States of America, The Unsurpassed Health Resort and Winter Homes, the Greatest Sanitarium in the World."
The town had become a major health retreat as well as a refuge, this time from the hard winters of the north. This, plus Summerville's already well-known beauty and serenity, drew tourists as well as recovering patients. Summerville was where many of the then rich and famous pursued their lifestyle. Residents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were guests at one of the most famous inns, The Pine Forest, and celebrities from all fields, including music, the theater and literary arts came to enjoy Summerville's favors.
Two acts of nature in this Golden Age did considerable damage to the town and its trees. In 1886 the earthquake rocked the town damaging and demolishing many of the residences. Seven years later a severe hurricane robbed Summerville of more than 1,000 pine trees. The era of prosperity as a tourist site and the age of the inns came to a close with the onslaught of the Great Depression. (Real estate sales, however, continued to be steady in Summerville in the 1930's.)
But this was a depression and McIntosh tells us that them Mayor Grange Cuthbert proposed that the land bordering Summerville drainage canals be used to construct an azalea park. Government agencies with the WPA, agreed to furnish funds to give work to the town's many unemployed.
The 1940s brought World War II, and Summervillians joined the rest of Americans in supporting the war effort. In 1941, as the result of a local contest to give the town a nickname, Summerville was dubbed "Flowertown in the Pines." Main Street was only 20 feet wide at that time. Near the corner of Main and Highway 78 an arch spanned the roadway with the new nickname printed as a greeting to all visitors.
Natural disasters struck again in the fall of 1959 with Hurricane Gracie followed a few months later by a severe ice storm. One resident recalls that "Gracie" did so much damage to the town's trees because "at the time we still had so many to lose."
Summerville's boom began in the 1970s and the town has grown rapidly in an upward spiral since that time. McIntosh led the town to a reconstruction of Azalea Park as Summerville's Bicentennial project in 1976. (The latest census puts Summerville as the 14th largest town in the state with a population of 22,519.)
In 1981 Summerville as first named a Tree City USA. This project of the National Arbor Day Foundation is sponsored in cooperation with the USDA Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters. To become a Tree City USA, a community must meet four stands: a tree board or department, a city tree ordinance, a comprehensive community forestry program, and an Arbor Day observance. Summerville has received this honor for 11 consecutive years. During the 1980s Town Council put even more teeth into its tree ordinance, tightening up on the sizes ad rules for cutting trees as well as increasing the fine. However, these efforts were thwarted by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. More than 300 century-old trees were toppled, one-third of those in the 12-acre Azalea Park itself.
Summerville has a tree replacement project which enables citizens to purchase trees and have a memorial plaque installed with the tree to honor a loved one. This program has added many new downtown trees, including flowering varieties.
Summerville will always protect its pines because of their contribution to the town's heritage as well as its beauty. It's no wonder this is a town whose motto is "the Pine is Sacred."
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