The Herald reported on Nov. 7, 1896 – “Mrs. S. A. Owens and family of Elko, in Barwell Co., have move to Rock Hill. At present they are occupying one of the Cherry
Houses in Whiteville.” (Mr. Cherry was a principal in the Rock Hill Land and Town Site Company and constructed numerous houses around the town.)
OAKLAND – Contributed and written by Paul M. Gettys, 2014
The development of the Oakland section of Rock Hill can be credited to a group of investors who formed a corporation named the Rock Hill Land and Town Site Company in 1891 during one of the greatest periods in the growth of the community. The President of the Company was William Blackburn Wilson II. The other officers were R. T. Fewell, Vice-President, William Lyle Roddey, Treasurer, J. M. Cherry, Secretary, and John J. Hemphill, board member. These men were preeminent leaders in the business life of Rock Hill, being involved in investments in textile mills, banks, and the cultural life of the community. The idea for Oakland seems to have come largely from W. B. Wilson, so it may be interesting to see how it developed.
William Blackburn Wilson, II was from York. Following the Civil War, York County was a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity. Many of the leading citizens were involved, and Wilson was one of them. In the early 1870s, occupying federal forces began cracking down on KKK activities, and many citizens of Rock Hill and York were arrested and sent to the county jail. To avoid this fate, a number of men went into exile. Wilson and a cousin Ernest Lowry left and spent some time in Texas, where he worked as a cowboy and developed a fascination for the West. After a few years, most of the exiles returned, and Wilson came home and entered his father’s law firm. He married in 1875 and opened a branch of the firm in Rock Hill. In 1890, with seven children in tow and his wife and her sister, Wilson set out on a vacation. Perhaps remembering the carefree days as a cowboy in Texas, he led his family on a tour of the West. Their last stop was Oakland, California. Wilson was greatly stuck by the beauty of this young city, with its wide, tree-lined streets. Also making visits to Oakland were James M. Cherry and William Joseph Roddey (son of William Lyle Roddey), who visited on his honeymoon. The men all agreed that the development practices in Oakland should be emulated.
Wilson had already received an option on several hundred acres to the northwest of the existing town of Rock Hill. The Rock Hill Land and Town Site Company was organized with a capital of $100,000. Within a few months, an expansive new community was put on paper and began to take shape on the ground. The central features would be Oakland Avenue, connecting the community to the downtown of Rock Hill and Oakland Park, a beautiful park in the center of the development. Oakland Avenue was to be 100 feet wide (considered by many a waste of good land) and lined with willow oak trees. The park featured a lake, roads and walks, a pavilion (also called a “casino”) bandstand, baseball fields, and landscaping. Many of the local streets were named for counties in South Carolina.
Recent research by Historic Rock Hill has revealed that the 30-acre Oakland Park at the heart of Oakland was designed by a British-born landscape designer named Joseph Forsyth Johnson (1840-1906). Johnson came to America in 1885 and was employed at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York. He came south in the late 1880s and was involved in designing streetcar suburbs and parks such as Inman Park and Piedmont Park in Atlanta and Latta Park in Charlotte. On May 27, 1891, The Herald reported that “Prof. Jos. Forsyth Johnson, landscape designer and garden architect, ex-curator of the royal botanic garden, Belfast, and late horticultural director Alexander Palace, London, came to Rock Hill last Monday and is now engaged in laying off the park and beautifying the gardens in Oakland belonging to the Rock Hill Land and Town Site Co. Professor Johnson is distinguished in his line.” Unfortunately, Oakland Park has disappeared, as it was chosen for the site of Winthrop.
In terms of today’s landscape, Oakland stretched all the way from the Oakland Avenue bridge over the Southern Railroad near downtown to beyond Cherry Road, and from Charlotte Avenue to West Main Street. In terms of the lots to be placed on sale, it dwarfed the existing city, with about 1,300 lots on the original plat. This was land speculation on a grand scale!
The Herald reported on Nov. 12, 1890 – “the R.H. Town and Site Company has contracted for the erection of a $5,000. residence in the new suburban town.”
By the summer of 1891, the Land and Town Site Company was ready to market its new community, and a public auction of lots was held on July 3 and 4. The lots on Oakland Avenue began to sell quickly, and it became Rock Hill’s most fashionable address, as large and impressive homes were built along it in the 1890s and early 1900s. “Going out to Oakland” soon became a popular excursion for citizens from the older part of Rock Hill. There were concerts at the bandstand, picnics in the park, and dances at the “casino.”
Oakland’s impact on Rock Hill has been significant. For a time, the Rock Hill Land and Town Site Company seemed to overshadow the town itself. It controlled the city’s water supply, electric lights, and street car system. Street cars were installed so people could easily get to Oakland Park from the older neighborhoods. The line ran down Oakland Avenue to Railroad Avenue (now Dave Lyle Boulevard), then down to Main Street and out East Main for a distance. The car was at first pulled by a small steam engine, which was called the “Dummy.” It didn’t have enough power and often failed to climb over the railroad bridge. The Dummy became a local joke. It was later replaced by Rock Hill’s version of the “electric” street car, pulled by two mules named “Lec” and “Tric.”
One of the most important impacts of Oakland was its role in attracting Winthrop to Rock Hill. The establishment of a college for women had been approved by the Legislature, and Winthrop Normal and Industrial School was established in 1891 in temporary quarters in Columbia. As the college grew, the state began a selection process for a location for a permanent campus. Rock Hill entered the competition, which included older towns with larger populations and more clout in Columbia. The selection committee, including Governor Ben Tillman, came to Rock Hill and toured possible sites. One was the Oakland Park, and another was a rival site owned by the Iredell Land Company on the eastern side of town. Rock Hill competed vigorously, offering the 30-acre Oakland Park site for $5. The city voted a bond issue of $60,000 to help build the campus, and offered 375,000 bricks. While the vote on the bond issue was pending, the officers of the Rock Hill Land and Town Site Company guaranteed the $60,000 donation. Winthrop came to Rock Hill, creating a tremendous impact on the city and helping to spur development of the Oakland project.
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