A story of fame, fortune and tragedy
Story By Eddy Hoyle
Stories are passed down through generations. They become oral histories where facts get confused over time and assumptions are not always correct. Such is the intriguing story of the Wilson family and Palmetto Bluff. It’s a story that leaves more questions than answers.
It was the gilded age of high society. In the early 1900s the Vanderbilts, Astors, and Carnegies made their fortunes in banking, railroads and steel, and one lesser-known billionaire put the sleepy town of Bluffton on the radar of the elite. Richard Thornton Wilson Jr. was part of this privileged and influential group.
He was the president of the banking firm R.T. Wilson and Co., founded by his father, Richard Thornton Wilson, Sr., who died in 1910 and was the commissary general of the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
In 1902 R.T. Wilson, Jr., and his wife, Marion, discovered Bluffton and purchased an estate from John Holbrook Estill.
According to Dr. Mary Socci, archeologist and historian of the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy, wealthy Northerners would come South to buy land for hunting estates because land was cheap and the winters were mild. “We don’t exactly know how R.T. found Bluffton. He probably visited while looking for a winter place for stables and hunting. Estill already had a mansion on the site, but R.T. probably stayed in another home because he razed Estill’s mansion and built his own on the site, finishing it in 1915,” Socci said.
Wilson’s wife, Marion, loved to entertain in grand style, so she wanted a proper home for entertaining her socialite guests. “R.T.’s little sister, Grace, had married Cornelius Vanderbilt, and his brother married Carolyn Astor,” Socci said. “They all had great marriages; therefore, they had great connections.”
R.T.’s passion was very different from his wife’s — thoroughbred racehorses. His champion horses were his pride and joy. He was a member of the Saratoga Racing Association, a steward of the Jockey Club, and a director of the Winchester Racing Association. He was an excellent breeder and rider and owned stables in New York and Kentucky.
So a palatial estate was built to accommodate both of their interests. It included stables, a blacksmith, kennels, barns, elaborate gardens, a library and a huge ballroom. It had a school, an ice house, its own power plant, a sawmill and a water tower. The four-story mansion probably had 40 bedrooms for their out-of-town guests. The splendid structure and its exquisite gardens overlooked the May River, and visitors would stay for weeks,enjoying extravagant parties with great music, teas, riding, hunting and boat rides.
The massive estate, which R.T. named Palmetto Bluff, had considerable impact on the local economy of this small, rural, largely agricultural community. It required maids, cooks, carpenters, stablemen, carriage drivers, farmers and caretakers for livestock. Year-round workers were even provided housing.
Dan Crosby was one of the original workers. Hired in 1902 as a carpenter, he eventually became general manager of the estate. He and his wife had nine children, and his oldest daughter, Bertha, started working for the Wilsons as a teenager.
Ironically, today Crosby’s great-great grandson, Joe Brackin, now calls Palmetto Bluff home. Bertha is his grandmother. He and his wife, Roberta, lived in Atlanta and were looking for a place to retire.
“We were going down SC 46, and suddenly I recognized where I was and said, ‘The cemetery is down here on the right, and that’s where my great-great grandparents are buried.’ I remembered a family expedition to Bluffton to care for the cemetery, to clean things up. I was just a kid, and it was hot and buggy,” Brackin said. Distant memories began to form, and he realized he had a connection to Bluffton. “My grandmother grew up at Palmetto Bluff taking care of the mansion, cleaning, changing the sheets. She had good memories, and it seems like my family was well taken care of.”
Now he’s on a quest to gather the lost stories, historical details and family photos. His connection to Palmetto Bluff has inspired him to dig up the past. But it’s a challenge because disaster struck on March 2, 1926, when the Wilson mansion burned to the ground – along with all historical records and documents. The cause of the fire remains unknown. Some say it was struck by lightning, others suspect that an iron was left on, some surmise it may have been a candle knocked over.
Wilson tried to save his priceless art, books and belongings and twice had to be led away from the roaring blaze. The loss of his treasured Southern home devastated Wilson, and he returned to New York, never to return. Within months he sold the entire property.
The Wilsons had two daughters, Marion and Louisa. Marion was childless, and Louisa had two sons – one died at age four from pneumonia, and the other was killed in a car crash as a teenager. Wilson, therefore, had no heirs, and in 1929, at the age of 63, Wilson died in New York City without ever seeing his beloved Palmetto Bluff again.