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The Nicholls-Crook House

120 Plantation Drive, Woodruff, , 29388 , Property Website Dated Posted: June 23, 2017

$725,000

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Circa 1793

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About This Old House

THE NICHOLLS-CROOK HOUSE CIRCA 1793
This magnificent merger of Georgian and Federal styles creates a unique example of an 18th century plantation house.  The two-plus acre site overlooks the challenging Three Pines Golf Country Club, a 18-hole private golf course.  The grounds are enhanced by its surrounding professionally designed formal gardens with a boxwood parterre garden within the open work brick wall; herb garden; pergola a “secret” camellia garden; multiple pathways and it is further screened from the road by many mature pecan, oak and hickory trees.  All of this greenery is nurtured by a sophisticated irrigation system fed by a five hundred plus foot well and serves, as well, to obscure views of the necessary equipment storage outbuildings.  The Nicholls-Crook gardens were featured in the Spring 2012 issue of At Home magazine.  This striking remnant of a 1,000 acre plantation was operated for a time as a Bed & Breakfast and Special Events venue by the current owners, but has proven to be a wonderful home for their family to grow up in and enjoy.

The house itself, fully restored and decorated to maintain periodic authenticity while incorporating modern mechanical bones within its fortress-like 22 inch brick walls, has three floors of varying usages as well as a basement (with fireplace and floored with paving bricks) that would make an ideal man-cave, workshop or media room and an ideal site for a wine cellar. The main floor has a library with two fireplaces, a formal living room with a fireplace and its incredible Adam-style mantel, a powder room, a tavern-style combined kitchen and dining room with an enormous fireplace and the beverage center.  This floor is completed at the rear by the master suite with French doors leading to an intimate porch overlooking a courtyard that is defined by an open-work brick wall. The second floor has two comfortably-sized bedrooms that share a full bathroom and is completed by a large hall-closet that is plumbed for a second floor laundry.  The third floor is an open plan office/bedroom completed by a bath with large stall shower and several attic storage areas; plentiful light and wonderful views of the grounds are provided by multiple dormer windows. In February, 2017, a new roof of architectural shingles (covered by a transferrable fifty year warranty), new chimney flashing and shingleover edge vents was installed (all roof labor has a transferrable ten year warranty).

Located within easy commuting distance to the rapidly growing I-85 economic corridor between Greenville and Spartanburg in Spartanburg County, in an excellent school district with low taxes and only 20 minutes to the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport.  Greenville is on many of the Top 10 lists of places to live. This property presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to own a beautiful and fully functional piece of history!

HISTORY
The Nicholls-Crook House sits on high ground between the two branches of Ferguson Creek. The house was built on a large tract that included land originally granted in 1756 to Alexander Ferguson as well as land granted in 1770 to James Brewton of Charleston. The Brewton family is perhaps best known today for the Miles Brewton house in Charleston. Such grants were designed to increase settlement in this back-country, frontier region. Settlement had only begun to increase modestly in the 1760s with the arrival of Scots-Irish settlers, mostly coming from the north. Prior to European settlement, the area had been Cherokee hunting grounds. 

The house was built by Thomas Williamson. Thomas Williamson was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1736, of Scots-Irish heritage. Before the Revolutionary War Thomas had moved to Granville County, North Carolina, where he and his wife, Anne, aided the war effort by bringing food and supplies to their son William’s regiment. After the war the family moved to what is now Spartanburg County, South Carolina. In 1785 Thomas bought two tracts of land, one over 400 acres on Fairforest Creek and the other over 900 acres on Ferguson Creek. He initially lived on the smaller tract, which shortly afterward came to include the court house site for the newly-created Spartanburg County. The Williamsons lived there for several years, getting a tavern license to serve the growing number of visitors to the court house, but also beginning work on a substantial brick home, now known as the Nicholls-Crook House, on the larger tract of land, to which they moved in 1793. 

This new home was reminiscent of some Virginia homes the Williamsons had likely been familiar with earlier in their lives, but was quite unlike other homes in the region. The architecture is a combination Georgian and Federal styles. Distinctive exterior features include exceptionally fine, plantation-made bricks laid in Flemish Bond, and a rare, very wide, tied chimney that serves three fireplaces on three floors and has the unusual feature of two windows between the two chimney stacks that rise out of the first-floor tied chimney. The below-ground portion of the raised basement is large field stones, with the above-ground portion beginning the twenty-two-inch-thick solid brick walls. The basement, with its large fireplace, likely served as the winter kitchen, with a single entrance to the outdoors. The ground floor was one large room, likely the parlor, with two smaller rooms, perhaps a warming kitchen, and dining room or office. All three rooms had fireplaces. The original Adam-style mantels are of exceptional quality.  The original configuration of the second and third floors is unclear, but the second-floor room with a fireplace was undoubtedly the master bedroom. The house is today the oldest brick house in Spartanburg County, with the only other brick house from this early period being owned by the Spartanburg County Historical Association. 

Thomas’ fine home reflected his status as one of the wealthy men of the county. Thomas’ land purchases resulted in a thriving cotton plantation of over 1300 acres, but a better measure of comparative wealth in this period is probably the number of slaves owned. Using the 1800 and 1810 censuses, Thomas’ slave holdings placed him the top 2-3% of householders in the county. Thomas died in 1813. The subsequent inventory of his personal property (not including land) indicated a value of $8,000 ($120,000 in current dollars), with his 17 slaves comprising half the total.  

After Thomas’s death his personal property and land were auctioned so that the proceeds could be divided among his designated heirs. The land was purchased by his son-on-law, Col. John Means, with Thomas’s wife freeing her slaves and moving with them to Ohio to join her son William. After William served in the Revolutionary War, he had become a Presbyterian minister in up-state South Carolina. His opposition to slavery, however, had led him to move to a state without slavery, where he became part of the Underground Railroad. It took several years to settle Thomas’ estate, after which, in 1819, his son-in-law sold the property to Maj. Jesse Crook and moved to Ohio, where his wife joined her mother and brother and also participated in the Underground Railroad. 

Jesse Crook had been born in Virginia in 1774 and had moved with his parents to Spartanburg County after the Revolution. Jesse was married to Katie Barry Crook, whose mother was the Revolutionary War heroine Kate Barry. During the war Kate had secured the young Katie to a bedpost while she rode off through the countryside raising the Patriot militia and warning of Tory raids. The Crooks had eight children, and it was during their ownership that the plantation reached its height.  It was no doubt sometime during this period that the house was “modernized” with the addition of a covered front porch that wrapped around one side of the house and adjoined a new two-story addition on the rear that likely included a kitchen and additional bedrooms. These additions survived into the 1940s, but no longer existed by the late 1960s. Jesse Crook died in 1844, leaving an estate that included seventeen slaves. 

Following Jesse Crook’s death, the house eventually passed to the husband of his youngest daughter, Catherine. In the year before her father’s death, Catherine had married George Nicholls, a descendant of one of the original Scots-Irish settler families and a man of some prominence. Nicholls served two terms as sheriff of the county, but died suddenly in 1849. A pregnant Catherine was left with three young sons, giving birth to her fourth son four months later. Catherine depended heavily on her unmarried brother, Col. John Moore Crook, who was her husband’s executor and lived with them on the plantation. Tragically Catherine herself died five years after her husband, leaving her four sons, ages four to ten in the care of her brother, who continued to manage the plantation. In 1860, before the Civil War began in 1861, the plantation had twenty-one slaves. By the time of the Civil War the three older Nicholls brothers were old enough to serve in the army. All three returned, but the plantation had seen its best days. In 1871 the youngest son, George, having reached the age of twenty-one, petitioned the court for settlement of his mother’s estate. The case was not settled until 1879, with George acquiring the plantation. George had become a lawyer, with a growing practice in the economically expanding county seat of Spartanburg, where he became the Probate Judge. When he moved to Spartanburg he brought an overseer from neighboring Union County to manage the country estate. The Nicholls-Crook House became more like a country farmhouse and would not be owner-occupied for nearly another century. 

In 1919 George and his son Sam, also a prominent lawyer in Spartanburg and member of Congress, sold the then some 1,000 acre property to the Bryson family of Woodruff. The Brysons had several businesses, including banking, in the nearby town of Woodruff, where they continued to live. A succession of overseers managed the farm and lived in the house. Cotton had been the major cash crop during the nineteenth century and remained so into the twentieth. The Brysons continued raising cotton well after many other landowners in the county had shifted to peaches. The descendants of former slaves who chose to remain on the old plantation continued to live there, primarily as tenant farmers, but in gradually decreasing numbers. The earliest plat to include structures is 1928, showing fifteen tenant houses. By the 1950s the Bryson’s son Lyn was transitioning some of the property from cotton to cattle. After Lyn died in 1957, his son Robert stopped growing cotton altogether, but by the early 1960s had decided it was time to sell. The property was divided into parcels and auctioned, with the majority becoming a golf course with residential lots around much of it. The third hole of the 18-hole Three Pines Country Club course is across the street from the Nicholls-Crook House.  For the land auction the Nicholls-Crook house was maintained as a separate parcel with 2.25 acres. The house had been unoccupied for years by the time Bob and Bedie Overman of Spartanburg purchased it and undertook a major restoration in the early 1970s.

The Overmans objective was to restore the home to its original appearance and add additional living space to the rear. The work was undertaken under the supervision of Henry D. Boykin, AIA, of Camden, SC, perhaps the leading historic architect in the state at the time. He was the Consulting Architect for the South Carolina Archives Commission and served on the Board of Review of the National Register for Historic Sites and Buildings. They paved the floor of the raised basement with brick and added interior access to the basement; all the chimneys were made useable; plumbing, electricity, and heating/air conditioning were installed; and the roof was restored to its original height and pitch, creating an excellent third-floor dormer room. The addition of plumbing in the original house included a powder room on the first floor and full baths on the second and third floors. To the back of the house a hyphen-design addition provided a kitchen, large dining room with fireplace, and a first-floor bedroom with bath, all featuring old materials and wrought iron hinges. The wainscoting came from a Spartanburg County cabin, the exposed beams were from an old barn in eastern North Carolina, and the kitchen cabinets are made of distinctive, rare wormy pine. French doors in the bedroom open onto an intimate porch overlooking a courtyard. They surrounded the courtyard with an open-work brick wall designed after a similar wall that had survived into the mid-twentieth century at the site of the home of Revolutionary War heroine Kate Barry. On the grounds the Overmans added many boxwoods, including two grown from cuttings taken at Mount Vernon, home of George Washington. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places March, 1973.

In 1987 the house was purchased by the current owners who ran it for a time as a Bed & Breakfast. They have added historic-architect-designed bookcases in the library, put new flooring on the third floor, re-done bathrooms, and created an open-concept dining room/kitchen with island, all while maintaining the house’s eighteenth-century character. They have painted the house with period-appropriate colors, including a color study by historic architect Martin Meek of the parlor mantle. It is now painted its original Spanish Brown color and maintains its original gold-leaf decoration. They have also accomplished a major transformation of the landscaping. The plan, which took the landscaping team some two and a half months to complete, was designed by Dabney Peeples, of Pendleton, SC, one of the Southeast’s leading historic landscape designers with Clemson University currently creating a garden names in his honor in their arboretum. The objective was to create a period-appropriate landscape that could be easily maintained, and the result was a great success. Features of the design include a boxwood-parterre garden within the open-work brick wall; a more informal terrace off the kitchen that backs up to another boxwood parterre; an herb garden; a pergola in the rear;  and a “secret” camellia garden down a meandering path behind a tall hedge. The low stone wall in the front between the large boxwoods that flank the circular drive is typical of up-country plantations, creating a more level planting area. Descendants of daffodils planted nearly a century ago still bloom in the spring. Towering pecan, oak, and hickory trees (including one of the largest pecan trees in the state) create a shaded, almost park-like setting. To keep everything nice and green, a 500+ foot well was dug for the new irrigation system. The garden also includes period-appropriate hand wrought gates by renowned, southern sculptor Berry Bate of Asheville, North Carolina, as well as Berry’s inspired design for a hand-crafted metal sculpture designed like roots to raise and cradle the pre-historic petroglyph found on the plantation. The landscape lighting includes three “moon” lights high in the big pecan tree over the boxwood court yard and the petroglyph sculpture garden.  

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