Summerville, circa 1776
There was no Summerville as such in 1776, but as we observe our country’s Declaration of Independence this weekend, we can also observe the sowing of the first seeds of Summerville some 237 years ago. And it all began with pine trees and mosquitoes.
James Stewart, a local rice planter and militia captain, loved his overnight summer hunts, but he had a problem. Like everybody else in this area, he was plagued by mosquitoes. Captain Stewart was determined to find a better campsite. One day, going out to explore, he left his Beech Hill Plantation about four miles from our current town. When he got here, he found what he was looking for. It was a relatively high ridge so thickly forested with pine trees that the sun was barely visible.
The ridge was some 70 feet above sea level and high enough to catch sea breezes from the ocean 22 miles away. The forest’s density was a heat buffer from the lower lying Charleston coast. Captain Stewart found the area intensely aromatic with pine scent, relatively cool – and mosquito free. He shared his find with friends and militia colleagues and they began camping here too.
The pine filled campsite had sandy soil which drained well, leaving no standing water and thus did not attract mosquitoes – which were then the cause of the seasonal malarial scourge. This annual outbreak spread from rivers and lakes in the Low Country. It’s hard to believe now when we spend our summers swatting at these insects, but in colonial times here, there were scant impervious surfaces. The landscape was almost totally natural with few buildings and roads.
Captain Stewart didn’t know then that pine scented air would be found to be good for the lungs – which is what a century later lured people from around the world with pulmonary problems to Summerville. This led to the building of sumptuous inns, inspiring our first tourist boom.
But in the late 1700’s came a slow migration from near the camp site, seeking out this ridge. People built rough summer camp houses. More came “marooning” from plantations along the Ashley River during the sickly season –May to October. There was no malaria here.
As our country declared independence, won the Revolutionary War and continued to prosper, so did our campsite evolve. It went from a seasonal respite to a summer settlement to a tiny but growing summer village of all-year residents. By the time of Summerville’s incorporation in 1847, the United States had been independent for 71 years. Summerville had become an official town with a population that thrived, in the beginning, mainly because of a railroad transportation system. This brought an increase in population and prosperity.
In fact, we grew so fast and so many pines were cut – for business and home construction, to make way for more railroad tracks and for fuel – that leaders of our new town had to act. They passed as one of their first ordinances, one to protect trees of a certain size. It’s believed to be the first of its kind in America. It came with a stiff penalty. Still does.
Summerville was a colonial town in one of the original 13 states. Like our country, we have continued to grow and also like our country, we have a rich history. And it’s a lot more than pines and mosquitoes.
This needs celebrating too.