Monday, September 29, 2014

Abbeville, History in every brick and board

Approaching Abbeville Square.
Drive up to Abbeville's square and you want to find a parking spot. Whether to sit on a bench in the shady park, to see what's showing at the Opera House or to explore what is inside the antebellum and early 1900s buildings, it calls to you.

Pull in and stay awhile.
There never seems to be enough time to do Abbeville justice which requires shifting your pace back 100 or so years.

Abbeville Opera House
Take the Opera House. Since 1908 Broadway's best have sung, danced and acted on its 7,500-square-foot stage. At the turn of that century, road shows traveled by train from New York to Richmond to Atlanta with an overnight stop in Abbeville. City fathers saw an opportunity and had the grand Opera House built. When movies began, it featured those, too, complete with orchestral accompaniment.

Imagine you imagine seeing plays from one of two stage-side boxes?
Today it has been restored to its 1908 glory with two additions, rocking chair seats and air conditioning. Stagehands still use the same rope-pulled rigging as in 1908. Named the official State Theater of South Carolina, Abbeville's Opera House is on the National Register of Historic Places, not to mention showcasing a year-round schedule of live productions.

I hope ghosts are still wandering around the Belmont Inn.
On one side stands the Courthouse and City Hall, across the street on the other side is the Belmont Inn, where those Scandals and Follies performers stayed, although they knew it as The Elysium. The venerable hostelry has been renovated by new owners since I spent a night there and I have to wonder if the ghosts stayed on.

The most notable was the chorus girl who wandered through the rooms looking for her favorite bracelet. She died never knowing it had been taken by another chorine. A colleague swore she had seen the apparition in her room during the night.

Burt-Stark Mansion
There isn't really anything left by the French Huguenots who founded Abbeville in 1764, but the town is rife with Civil War reminders.  It is, in fact, known as the cradle and the grave of the Confederacy. A tour of the Burt-Stark Mansion will explain.

On a hill now known as Secession Hill, the meeting that launched the state's secession from the Union was held on Nov. 22, 1860. According to our guide, the Articles of Secession were written at the Greek Revival mansion which had been built in the 1830s by David Lesley, a planter, lawyer and district judge.

Five years later, April 9, 1865, as the surrender of Richmond was expected any day, Varina Davis, wife of Confederacy President Jefferson Davis, and their children fled and took refuge in the house of their old friends, Armistead Burt, a former U. S. Representative, lawyer and Major in the Confederate Army, and his wife, Martha.

They left at month's end and around noon, May 2, Jefferson Davis arrived with his entourage. After eating, Davis, four of his cabinet members and five Brigade Commanders gathered in the gentleman's parlor for the last Council of War. Davis thought to gather the remains of the army and continue to Texas where they could raise more money and soldiers to fight on. His generals knew better and in the end, Davis was convinced that "All is indeed lost."

Did Judah P. Benjamin hide the Great Seal of the Confederacy here?
Also lost was the Confederacy's Great Seal. One theory has it being buried on the grounds around the mansion.

The Adam fan light of fleur de lis Burt had installed in the 1860s to honor his wife's Huguenot heritage; the red shows she was not of royal descent.
In all, Davis spent about 12 hours here, but they were decisive ones. Following the war, Burt, who had risked his life sheltering the Davises, was broke and in 1868, sold the house. In 1913 it was bought by cotton broker James and Ann Miller Stark. Their daughters were the last residents; in 1987, Mary Stark Davis willed the house to the Abbeville County Historic Preservation Committee.

We  ran out of time and couldn't see the Abbeville Historical Society's 1888 Queen Anne style McGowan-Barksdale House.

Anyone who claims there's nothing worth seeing in these smaller towns has never taken the time to visit one.

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