The third of the Carolina Vernacular blog series is designed to offer insights into three skilled antebellum artisans from York, S.C. Each of these individuals contributed to the area’s fine body of architectural work, some of which unfortunately has been demolished. It is rather fascinating that S.C. entrepreneur and York County resident, Hiram Hutchison, wrote Columbia builder Charles Beck for suggestions as to whom his brother should hire in York County, S.C. to frame his antebellum dwelling. Though no return correspondence has been uncovered, it seems strange that someone from Hamburg, S.C. would be inquiring of a Columbia builder on advice of this nature. It makes it very peculiar in that numerous contractors of skill lived in the region, any one of whom could have easily framed the Hutchison’s new house. Three of these were: Henry Alexander, Thomas B. Hoover, and Thomas Hyde Smith. These are only a few of numerous contractors, carpenters and mechanics working in and around Yorkville, S.C. just prior to the Civil War.
Each of these men provided different construction experience and technics of construction than their counterparts. Henry Alexander (1772 – 1845), was chosen by Dr. John S. Bratton to originally construct his Homestead House, on his massive cotton plantation in the Bethesda Community. It began as a simple double hall and parlor style frame dwelling, which evolved with the later addition of a Greek Revival piazza, flanking wings and the semi-detached brick entertainment area to the rear of the house. Mr. Alexander used the traditional construction methods of the era, utilizing a hewn-mortise and tenon structure, “timber-framed” on a rock foundation to build this important house. This same timber-frame style house could be found on hundreds of local plantations. Along with his three or four skilled carpenters (identified but not listed here), Mr. Alexander completed his contract work using finished designs commonly found in pattern books of the period.
Mr. Thomas B. Hoover of York, whom we have written about previously, was a highly successful contractor and brick manufacturer. As early as the 1820 census he was listed as a massive manufacturer of brick in the region and successfully constructed or supplied brick to important buildings in the region including: The White Homestead, the York County Jail, and the Latta House-Store. All three of these were beautifully executed structures of community pride that remain standing in 2017.
The third featured contractor of the period is Thomas Hyde Smith. He was a prolific coffin maker and payments made to him for elaborate walnut coffins far exceeded the regular $10-15.00 payment made by most clients. However, T. Hyde Smith went well beyond the construction of fancy coffins and furniture, he also built several of York’s outstanding mansions. Unfortunately for us, little documentation has survived to tell the story of all his accomplishments. One of his best known construction projects was that of York’s First Presbyterian Church. The Wilson-McNeel House was demolished to make room for commercial expansion of downtown York, but remains one of Smith’s most interesting projects.
These three contractors helped build one of S.C.’s most attractive antebellum villages, each having left their own mark on local architecture. Knowing that these were only three of the dozens of successful carpenter-contractors from the region entices R&R to continue digging deeper into their histories. So do share your knowledge of these and other artisans who created the antebellum architecture we so admire: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: It is our experience that church histories often offer significant insights into 19th century construction trade history. Churches kept extremely good records and they frequently discussed contracts for building and repair of properties owned by the congregation. In some rare cases they also posted information on other outside construction projects that might have related to a church member. When you have the opportunity you can help in R&R’s ongoing search for details on historic artisans by researching your own community records; church session books, newspapers, probate judge records and family archives. Each holds a key to expanding our knowledge and data on artisans who contributed to our communities, which we now wish to preserve. And don’t think for a minute that just because it is on a sign out front, that the story is complete or the research has been exhausted. You can make a real difference!