Edgewood: Witness to History

edgewoodThe Southern plantation home that now sits on the campus of the University of South Carolina in Aiken is a traveler. Over the years, the house has had three different locations—and various occupants who figure prominently in history.

The house originally was built for Francis Wilkinson Pickens in 1829 outside the town of Edgefield, about 20 miles north of Aiken. It took about three years for Edgewood to be completed. More than 500 enslaved men owned by Pickens, built the house. Hand-forged nails held the house together, and the enslaved builders also crafted every hinge to secure the doors on their jambs. Edgewood has been called “the last and perhaps the greatest house of the Federal period built in South Carolina.” It sat on roughly 3,000 acres of land, with cedar trees lining its winding, mile-long entrance lane.

The Quintessential Southern Plantation

Over the next 28 years, Edgewood was the epitome of a southern plantation. Pickens grew cotton as a primary crop, but also cultivated a variety of food crops to sustain the needs of the large household. His first and second wives had both passed away by 1852, leaving him alone to rear four daughters. He was politically active, running for the State Senate in 1856 and being a vocal advocate of the secession movement, which was proposed by his mentor, John C. Calhoun.

In the summer of 1857, he met Lucy Petway Holcombe and instantly fell in love with the 25-year-old Texas beauty. Although Pickens was 52, Lucy agreed to marry him when she found out that President James Buchanan had appointed him as ambassador to Russia. They married in 1858. Lucy gave birth to a daughter, Douschka (Russian for “Little Darling”) soon after their arrival in St. Petersburg.Upon the Pickens’ return to Edgewood in 1860, Francis was appointed governor of South Carolina by the state Senate. Governor Pickens tried to defuse the rising anger over South Carolina's secession, hoping to avoid war.

Times Change: The Civil War

But On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces received the order to fire on the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter, and the Civil War officially began. Governor Pickens’ term ended in 1862 and he retired to Edgewood. Francis Pickens was one of the few Confederate leaders who never received a pardon for his part in the Civil War. He died in 1869 in debt and despair.

Lucy Pickens became famous for being a “quintessential Southern belle.” She sold her jewelry and finery to fund a Civil War company named in her honor and was the only woman whose image appeared on Confederate money. After the death of her husband, she was known as a free-spirited hostess who opened the doors of Edgewood to many friends and acquaintances. Lucy’s maidservant Lucinda was her constant companion and friend, helping to raise Douschka as if she was her own child.

Douschka became a famous figure to Reconstruction advocates as a result of her ride with the Red Shirts, a band of malcontents who intimidated freed-slaves attempting to exercise their new emancipation voting privileges in 1876. She died of a fever in 1893. Lucy died in 1899 and Lucinda passed away just six days after Lucy.

Suffrage Takes Root

Douschka’s daughter, Lucy Pickens Tillman, lived at Edgewood after her marriage in 1903. In 1909, while Lucy Tillman was incapacitated by illness her husband—with the help of his father, the infamous Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman—found a legal loophole allowing him to “deed” the couple’s toddler daughters away from their mother.

Women throughout the United States were incensed and outraged that a man could have total control over the fate of his children. Suffrage leaders and housewives alike joined together to bring Lucy Tillman’s plight to the forefront of the news. Eventually, she won back her rights to her children in a decisive victory in the South Carolina Supreme Court, but she had depleted all of her resources and Edgewood fell into disrepair.

The First Move

For 20 years Edgewood fell victim to vandals and neglect. Exactly 100 years after the house was built, a suffragist named Eulalie Salley bought Edgewood from the Tillman estate. She was one of the first female realtors in South Carolina and a dedicated proponent of women’s rights.

Although it was during the Great Depression, Eulalie found the money to move the house to Kalmia Hill in Aiken. She had it disassembled and personally numbered each board. Edgewood was reassembled on top of an existing antebellum wine cellar. Eulalie replaced the woodwork that had been stolen and tracked down the original crystal chandeliers that had been a gift to Lucy and Francis from the Tsar of Russia. Once more, Edgewood became the center of social activity.

The Second Move

After Eulalie died in 1975, her daughter rented some of the rooms to university students and professors. But upon the death of Eulalie’s daughter, Edgewood once again was in danger of ruin, despite the fact that it was added to the Historic Register of Homes in 1983.

A realtor bought the old house in 1985. He helped raise money to have the house moved to the University of South Carolina Aiken campus. Edgewood was moved for the final time in 1986. Today it has been restored and serves as the Office of the Chancellor at the University.

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Over the years, the house has had three different locations—and various occupants who figure prominently in history.

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