Pickens Court House and Old Pickens Presbyterian Church

Pickens Court House

By Annie B. Brown, November 26, 2012

The town of Pickens Court House, located in the northwestern corner of South Carolina, was founded in 1828 and named for the Revolutionary War hero Andrew Pickens. A review of the history of this area helps to explain both the founding of this town and its dissolution forty years later.

Before the Revolutionary War, there were few white settlers in the upstate of South Carolina. In his book The History of Bethel Presbyterian Church 1805 - 2005, Rev. Douglas Frank Strickland writes that in 1808, historian Ramsay records (in his book History of South Carolina) that in 1755, only 23 families lived in the area between the Waxhaws on the Catawba River and Augusta on the Savannah River. At that time, the only court was located in Charleston. Until a treaty was signed at Hopewell in 1785, all the land of present-day Greenville, Anderson, Pickens, and Oconee Counties belonged to the Cherokee. After the Revolution, because the Cherokee had sided with the British, they were forced to cede much of their land. When the war ended, many settlers began to find their way to this beautiful part of the state. The majority of these settlers were of Scotch and Irish descent, and they had traveled the well-worn Indian paths from Pennsylvania, through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and into North and South Carolina. By 1800, Ramsay estimates there were 17,828 settlers scattered across upstate South Carolina. In the 1820's, the influx of people to this large geographic area began to place a burden on the courts of the Pendleton District (which contained the lands that are now Anderson, Pickens, and Oconee Counties). To ease the problem with the courts, the state decided to divide the Pendleton District into two parts; these districts were named the Anderson District, in honor of General Robert Anderson, and the Pickens District, in honor of General Andrew Pickens. Both General Anderson and General Pickens were beloved Revolutionary War heroes who lived, worshipped, and raised their families in the upstate of South Carolina.

In the late 1820's, a delegation was formed to find a site for the county seat of the newly formed Pickens District. According to historian and writer Jerry Alexander, the commissioners, traveling on horseback, stopped for lunch on a knoll overlooking the beautiful Keowee River. Overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the area, they drove a stake into the ground and declared that this was to be the location of Pickens Court House.

Surveyor Thomas Garvin was hired to lay out the new town and to draw a plat. In his book Antebellum Old Pickens District, S.C., Jerry Alexander records that the plan was submitted to the S.C. General Assembly on October 23, 1827. Fifty-four lots were laid out on the western bank of the Keowee River near Robertson's Ford. The town was to run for eight blocks, starting near the river's edge, and it would be four blocks wide. Mr. Alexander writes that the lots ranged in size from one to three acres. Provision was made for the construction of public buildings, such as the courthouse and a jail, and land was reserved for a church. Other lots in town would be sold to the public at auction.

Mr. Alexander further writes that according to the historian George Welborn, Pickens Court House on the Keowee "adopted the Great War Path from Virginia as its Main Street." This path ran from Pennsylvania to Georgia. "Along the way, at Gap Hill, it crossed the ages old south-to-north Ninety Six Trading Path" ...This path came from the coast at Charlestown (sic) up through Ninety-Six, S.C. through this area into the Cherokee 'Overhills' towns in Tennessee." (Alexander, Jerry; Antebellum Old Pickens District, S.C.; p.12) Perhaps because of its location along these well- traveled paths, as well as its placement on the banks of the Keowee River, the town of Pickens Court House grew quickly. Mr. Alexander writes that by "late summer of 1827, all lots at Pickens Village had been sold for a total sum of about $5,000 and work was begun on a jail and courthouse." (p.13) The courthouse held its first session of court in March, 1828. The jail was completed in January, 1829, but only a few weeks later it burned to the ground in February, 1829. Because this was a frontier town, a jail was a necessity! Thus, a new jail was rapidly constructed. Records show that both the courthouse and the jail were busy places; many prominent South Carolina lawyers and judges worked at Pickens Court House. Numerous records survive describing court cases and the harsh punishments meted out to those found guilty. Many people traveled to Pickens Court House whenever court was held. These weeks were often as much a social occasion as they were a legal one!

For nearly forty years, Pickens Court House thrived as a vibrant town on the western frontier of South Carolina. About 1840, a Presbyterian Church and cemetery were constructed on the land that had been set aside for the church. Prior to the construction of the lovely, red brick church, religious services had been held in private homes and sometimes in the courthouse. For more information on the church, see the following section which records the history of the church. Besides the public buildings, the town boasted of numerous mercantile businesses, two hotels, a doctor's office, a dental office, an excellent private school (Pickens Academy), several lawyers' offices, and a newspaper (The Keowee Courier). Jerry Alexander's book contains excellent descriptions of the buildings and people who populated Pickens Court House. Many of South Carolina's most prominent families will find their ancestors had a connection to Pickens Court House.

The Civil War brought many changes to South Carolina. It is believed that at least 3,000 men from the Pickens District fought in the War Between the States. Pickens Court House served as the mustering point for many soldiers. Orr's Rifles are reported to have mustered there, and Jerry Alexander reports that Company H of the 4th South Carolina Infantry organized at Pickens Court House on April 14, 1861. (p.203) Life became even harder for those living in rural districts in South Carolina with so many men away at war. Many young men left for the war and never returned; those who did return were often injured or greatly changed by their experiences. Life did not get any easier for the residents of Pickens Court House when the war ended. Even food and basic items were in short supply. Many residents hoped the railroads would be the answer to the poverty plaguing this area.

As more people settled in upper South Carolina, The South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1868 divided the Pickens District into two counties; each county would have a new county seat near its geographical center. The German settlement of Walhalla (founded1850) was chosen as the county seat of Oconee County, and the new town of Pickens was created to be the county seat of Pickens County. Both of these towns hoped that railroads would help them prosper. Thus, the old Pickens District was divided between the two new counties; the Keowee River marked the boundary. (Ironically, the site of Pickens Court House is located on the Oconee County side of the Keowee River.) The old courthouse was dismantled and rebuilt in new Pickens; a new courthouse was constructed in Walhalla. One of the two beautiful wrought iron stairways that were originally on the (Old) Pickens Court House can be seen today at Liberty Lodge just outside of Walhalla. These steps were used for a time on the new courthouse in Walhalla; they were later sold. The other set of iron steps went to Pickens County.

Merchants and residents carefully chose whether they wanted to move to Oconee or Pickens County. The Keowee Courier moved to Walhalla where it is still published. Lawyers, doctors, and other professionals moved from Pickens Court House. Entire houses were taken apart and rebuilt in one of the new towns. Thus, piece by piece, the old town gradually disappeared. Only the Old Pickens Presbyterian Church remains to remind visitors of the beautiful and thriving town that once graced the banks of the Keowee River.

In 1868, no one could have imagined the changes that would occur in the Keowee Valley a hundred years later. In the 1960's, the Keowee Toxaway Nuclear Power Project was begun. Much of the land surrounding Pickens Court House was flooded by the waters of Lake Keowee. Many old home sites lie under the lake. The site of the old courthouse itself is now near the main entrance to the nuclear plant. Through the years, Duke Energy has proved to be a loyal friend to Old Pickens Presbyterian Church and to the Historic Old Pickens Foundation. We are grateful for their support.

Old Pickens Presbyterian Church

Because early church records have been lost, no one knows exactly when Old Pickens Presbyterian Church was built. It is believed to have been constructed sometime between 1830 and 1847 with construction probably occurring sometime after 1840. According to Presbyterian records, since no "House of Worship" existed in Pickens Court House, a commission from Anderson District Presbytery was sent to organize a church in Pickens. The Reverend Joseph Hillhouse, his son Joseph Hillhouse, Jr., and David Humphries organized fourteen people into Pickens Presbyterian Church. Samuel F. McCall and James George were ordained as elders. Although the church was organized (in about 1830) as a Presbyterian Church, it served the people of all denominations in the area. It is believed that members met in private homes, the school, and even in the courthouse until the church building was completed. On October 11, 1847, the Presbytery of South Carolina took over the care of Pickens Church. Families on the roll include those of Joseph Reid, William Steele, Pleasant Alexander, L.C. and William Craig, and J.A.Doyle, as well as the Hagoods, the Keiths, the Nortons, and the Prices.

Located on Main Street, on top of a hill overlooking the Keowee River, Pickens Presbyterian Church quickly became a beloved part of Pickens Court House and the Keowee Valley. According to Greenville architect Kirk Craig, "The brick used to build the church was fired of riverbank clay found in the bottoms of the Keowee River..." Mr. Craig said the builders were wise to choose the cross-pattern type of natural ventilation underneath the floors as this helped the original pine floors and poplar pews to survive. (According to Mr. Craig, the foundation fence omitted bricks every few feet to allow for ventilation.) Mr. Craig believed that the first roof was probably made of wood shingles laid across wooden slats. (Foothills Mission and News Report; "Old Pickens Presbyterian Church"; Sue Stull; January/February, 1996.) Most of the lumber used in the church was sawed from trees that grew on the property. Visitors often notice the wide poplar boards used to make the pews.

In a brief history of the church written by Dot Sherard in the 1990's, Mrs. Sherard wrote that the "building was constructed by volunteer labor, (using) donated materials". She described the church as being "a one-story, rectangular building with a gable roof...on a solid brick foundation pierced by regularly spaced openings." She further explained that there are "paired windows and a transom with sidelights at the double-door entrance. Simple brick pilasters frame the entrance and extend from the foundation to a brick belt course above the gallery window. Each side elevation contains three sixteen by sixteen windows..." Mrs. Sherard added that the inside of the church has changed little from its early days. The walls are made of plaster over brick, and the original, unpainted poplar pews and the built-in pulpit survive. The old slave gallery is still there; it is accessible only by an outside door. Worshippers in this balcony probably sat on the floor as the ceiling is low and there are no pews. Heat for the church was probably provided by a wood stove. There are no restrooms, and it is reported that electricity was not added until the 1940's.

The cemetery adjoins the church and contains approximately 217 graves. Some graves are marked with a simple fieldstone, while other graves have elaborate marble and granite markers with lengthy engravings. The earliest gravestone is that of Lt. Joseph Reid (1756-1825) who fought in the Revolutionary War. Several veterans of the Civil War are buried there, including Jesse Richard Ross (1846-1903). Many residents of Oconee and Pickens Counties have ancestors who are buried in Old Pickens Presbyterian Church Cemetery. (Today there are two other cemeteries that adjoin the church cemetery. One is the Craig Family Cemetery, and the other has graves that Duke Energy moved from various family cemeteries to prevent them from being flooded when Lake Keowee was built.)

Following the Civil War, when South Carolina divided the Pickens District into Pickens County and Oconee County (in 1868), the town of Pickens Court House ceased to exist. Both counties had new county seats, and most of the former residents moved to either Walhalla or (new) Pickens. When Presbyterian Churches were built in both Walhalla and Pickens, the Presbytery let the Methodist Church use the building at "Old Pickens". Thus, for a number of years, the church at Old Pickens was supplied by the Methodist Church. At some point in the early 1900's, the Methodists decided to leave Old Pickens, and the church once again became Presbyterian.

In 1930, the 100th Homecoming Celebration was held at Old Pickens Presbyterian Church. This was a wonderful gathering for the hundreds who attended. It has been said that many people came to the celebration early and stayed late! A worship service was held, and speeches were made by prominent local citizens such as Col. R.T. Haynes. (Part of Col. Haynes' speech can be found in Jerry Alexander's book on Old Pickens.) Each family brought well-filled baskets to share, and the delicious food was enjoyed by all those in attendance.

In spite of the joyous service held in 1930, Old Pickens Presbyterian Church continued to be used only intermittently. The church never had a full-time minister; in later years, services were usually held every other week with a supply minister traveling from one of the neighboring Presbyterian churches. As the years passed, the number of parishioners continued to drop. In 1968, when Duke Power was building the nuclear power plant in the shadow of the church, Old Pickens Presbyterian Church was dissolved by Piedmont Presbytery. The presbytery transferred the remaining members to other churches. Because the church was located so close to the nuclear plant, it could no longer legally be used as a regular church. Those who loved the church were grateful that Duke Power agreed to allow the church and its cemetery to remain on its original plot at the site of Pickens Court House.

When the church was dissolved in 1968, Mr. and Mrs. F. Lawrence Whitmire were the last members. Having lived most of their lives in Old Pickens, the couple loved their church and did all they could to keep the church building and grounds in good shape. With no church money to pay for repairs, this faithful couple, their son Ferber Whitmire, and a few loyal, former church members did all of the work themselves. Whether it was cutting trees, painting, or repairing the roof, the Whitmire family saw to it that this beautiful church was protected. Eventually, the Whitmires sold their land at Old Pickens to Duke Power and moved to Seneca. Even after they moved, the Whitmires and their children continued to maintain Old Pickens Presbyterian Church.

In 1984, a Perpetual Care Committee was formed to take care of the church. Vandalism was rampant, and it was feared the beautiful little church would be destroyed. Members of the committee were selected from various Presbyterian Churches in Oconee and Pickens Counties. Although Foothills Presbytery did not provide any funds for restoration, many local congregations and individuals donated to help save the church. According to Dot Sherard, they did some repairs to the cemetery and improved the grounds. Perhaps most importantly, they ensured that Old Pickens Presbyterian Church would survive to see the 21st century!

A new day dawned in 1996 when Mr. and Mrs. Paul Ritts joined the efforts to save the church. Mr. Ritts had wonderful ideas and plans for Old Pickens Presbyterian Church. He was tireless in his efforts, and his enthusiasm was contagious. A wide range of talented individuals joined the committee, and inspiring plans were made to repair and update Old Pickens Presbyterian Church. Dorothy Sherard, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. F. Lawrence Whitmire, undertook the task of having the church placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This recognition was received on April 4, 1996. The church was also placed on the American Presbyterian/Reformed Historical Sites Registry in 1996. Once more, the Whitmire family came to the aid of Old Pickens!

In spite of much hard work, Paul Ritts' hopes and dreams for Old Pickens were slow to materialize. Successes included the eradication of the termites that were eating away at the pews, floors, and supports of the church; much of the rotten wood was replaced. Since many of the old, flow glass windowpanes had been broken by vandals, skilled carpenters carefully removed the unbroken panes and placed them in the more easily seen windows above the door and in the two windows on either side of the pulpit. New glass was placed in the less obvious side windows. Shutters that could be closed were placed on the windows so that vandals could not easily break into the church. Raising money to fix other problems remained a priority. With gratitude, the group received a large grant from a private donor that allowed the work to continue. Unfortunately, Mr. Ritts' health began to decline, and he resigned from the board.

The committee was fortunate that Dr. Robert Dendy was a member and agreed to lead the group in its efforts. Dr. Dendy was very helpful to the group. He had many connections with Presbytery and the local community. The work to maintain and preserve Old Pickens Presbyterian Church continued. The committee was blessed that Mr. Jim Holmquist agreed to be the financial adviser. Mr. Holmquist provided much advise and practical help to the treasurer, Annie B. Brown, and his expertise is much appreciated by the board.

In 1999, Foothills Presbytery decided to remove Old Pickens Presbyterian Church from its care. Although they had never provided funds to preserve the church, presbytery had covered Old Pickens Presbyterian Church in their Insurance policy. They had also provided support and suggestions of people who might serve as members of the care committee. Thus, in 1999, the Historic Old Pickens Foundation was formed to care for the church, cemetery, and grounds. It was set up to be a 501c corporation so that it could receive charitable donations. Lowell Ross and Bill Hagood provided excellent legal help. Dr. Charles Dougherty provided expertise in guiding the foundation through this transition; his compassion, interest, verbal skills, and sense of humor were invaluable during his years as president. Several memorable events have been held in the church. When the first vocal group performed, all in attendance were amazed at the acoustics in the sanctuary, and everyone loved for Dr. Dougherty to speak from the pulpit!

The Foundation has been fortunate to have great leadership during the past thirteen years. Dr. Robert Dendy and Dr. Charles Dougherty did an outstanding job, as did Dr. Jay Pence who followed Dr. Dougherty as president. Dr. Pence and his wife were skilled workers with the committee; their work did much to involve the surrounding community in the efforts to preserve Old Pickens Presbyterian Church. For several years, the foundation partnered with the Architecture Department at Clemson University. Several groups of students studied the church and grounds and made excellent presentations of their findings to the public. In recent years, three beautiful weddings and one funeral have been held at Old Pickens Presbyterian Church. In 2011, Joyce Brickett served as president with energy, enthusiasm and skill until Jack Parris assumed the presidency of the foundation following his recovery from surgery. Mr. Parris is a descendent of some of the earliest residents of the Pickens District. In 2004, Mr. Parris and his family donated materials, many hours of work, and much skill to restore and clean part of the long unused interior of the church. Their work included restoration and painting of the pulpit and the interior columns; they also repaired parts of the floor and pews. His experience, knowledge, and long service on the board make him an excellent leader as the foundation directors continue to strive to preserve and restore Old Pickens Presbyterian Church, cemetery, and grounds. Mr. Parris is assisted by an enthusiastic group of board members who use their talents to maintain and promote this beautiful old church and cemetery.

(Much of the information in this article comes from my memory of events and from stories told to me during my years on the board of HOPF. I am indebted to the many excellent historians and writers who have written articles, pamphlets, and books about Pickens Court House and Old Pickens Presbyterian Church. These sources include Jerry Alexander, Hurley Badders, Ashton Hester, Sue Stull, Dorothy Sherard, Dr.D.H.Brown, Rev. Frank Strickland, and Ferber Whitmire. Information can also be found in church archives stored by the Presbyterian Historical Foundation.)



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