When early plantation owners in the 18th century began what they called “marooning” during the “sickly season” of malaria, on the site that became Summerville, their initial town houses were temporary, built of log planks.
According to our official history book, “Summerville,” these structures were known ironically as “mosquito houses” designed with wide center halls with two rooms on each side of the hall (the same plan on the second floor, if there was one, for cross ventilation, and with a fireplace in each room.
These homes were erected high off the ground, usually about eight feet to protect from insects and catch breezes.
The elevation also allowed for temporary vehicle storage under the houses for carriages and wagons. This was especially useful, particularly in cases of rain as the stables and carriage houses were initially as far from the main house as the lot would permit.
The Great Thoroughfare, now West Carolina Avenue, was the way into the village via today’s Five Points and extending about a mile to a mile and a half around St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Initially a village hall of about 30 by 50 feet was built on a bend of Carolina Avenue that no longer exists.
This was the site of public meetings, Fourth of July dinners and the many summer balls that were held each year.
Refreshments were that era’s version of pot luck with residents signing up to bring cake, ice cream, lemonade or sherbet.
Music was provided by servants from the village or those from local plantations, whose people brought violins and tambourines.
Cotillion dances of intricate patterns and steps were enjoyed and the evening ended with the Virginia Reel. Residents walked the few steps home from their entertainment, their way illuminated by light-wood torches.
It is said that when these early settlers came here to spend the summers, they brought their cows so the children would have milk.
They let the cows roam during the day and that would be the path they used to come home in the evening. And that’s why the streets were so winding: they were set on those early paths.
One writer remarked that for 10 years families here in the winter “might be seen as specters, creeping along the silent streets,” monarchs of all they surveyed.
They included, after our founder Captain James Stewart, Colonel Walter, Colonel Richard Perry, John Miles, Captain Joseph Waring, Mrs. Vaughn, Elias Scott Sr., John Sam Peake, Charles Boyle, John Boyle, Josiah Perry, Mrs. Boone, Mr. Schultz, and Doctor Charles DuPont, literally the first families of Summerville.
Plantation owners desire to leave their homes during the summer months — basically beginning in May and extending to or into October — was expressed by one Frederick Law Olmstead, who visited the area in 1854 and published an account of his travels quoting a Charleston resident as saying he, “would as soon stand 50 paces from the best Kentucky rifleman and be shot at by the hour as to spend a night on my plantation during the summer.”
At that time it was thought that malaria was caused by some sort of miasma, rising from low swampy areas. The mosquito connection was not made for years.
The fact was that the ridge on which Summerville stood was sandy and water drained away quickly.
There were no standing pools to breed mosquitoes, thus few malaria carriers. The pine’s tangy aroma was thought to be healthful and it was true that when planters’ families came to the pine forest during these months they were healthy.
Yes, they were healthy. But comparatively speaking: how comfortable? Remember this was the fashion era of fitted breeches and multitudinous petticoats. And there was no such thing as air conditioning.
One wonders if these people could have looked into the future and seen how many more ways we have to cope with the heat, they might have opted to join a future century.
For coolness at least.
Barbara Hill is a local historian and former reporter for the Summerville Journal Scene.