Saving a 1850s cabin in Lower Richland built for slaves

dhinshaw@thestate.com January 12, 2013 

— A bright blue door showing through thick gray underbrush gave preservationists their first glimpse of a rare slave cabin behind an abandoned plantation house in Lower Richland.

Now the simple structure of heart pine, built in the mid-1850s, is nearly restored.

Since the work began in October, the cabin — built for slaves, then used by sharecroppers — has attracted unannounced visitors and curious onlookers, many with a connection to the place.

“It needed saving, and we agreed to save it,” said owner Jeremy Thomas, whose British accent adds an intriguing layer to the purely Southern story of Laurelwood Plantation.

Thomas expects to make the cabin available to the public in ways that aren’t entirely clear to him yet.

“If we restored it and just let it sit there, it would be a travesty. It’s South Carolina’s history, it’s not my history, but it’s great to have an opportunity to be part of it.”

Over the years, hunters had used and abused the cabin in the woods. “If it would’ve lasted another five years, it would’ve been a miracle,” said the contractor on the project, Grant McDonald.

Thomas and McDonald found just a few artifacts as they pried the cabin apart, salvaged every bit of the materials and then pieced the structure back together.

Before the crumbled firebox was rebuilt, they found three marbles in the rubble.

Between floor boards, the stub of a pencil, whittled to the last remaining lead.

A religious trinket embossed with the sacred heart of Jesus.

McDonald said missing wood siding was replaced with period materials from a barn on the property. Carolina Ceramics donated brick for the fireplace. The original had crumbled.

The Richland County Conservation Commission contributed $25,000 toward the cabin’s restoration, a telling part of Lower Richland’s history, said conservation coordinator Nancy Stone-Collum.

While beautiful plantation homes have endured, the cabins where slaves lived typically were moved or destroyed.

Stone-Collum said that, as far as she knows, the cabin on Laurelwood Plantation is one of four remaining in Lower Richland. “They are rare,” she said.

Two are on private property and have been renovated by the owner, she said. A third awaits attention.

“It’s quite possible there are still a few scattered around that are being used as sheds, I absolutely don’t know,” Stone-Collum said.

Plans to move and stabilize a slave cabin on the property of Kensington Mansion are still in the works, though corporate owner International Paper has no money allocated for the project, spokeswoman Samantha Hood said this week.

She said the project is estimated at $60,000.

Two years ago, Thomas and his wife, Jacqueline, were living in Shrewsbury, a small town in England, when they saw a posting that Laurelwood was for sale. They became enthralled with the weather-ravaged plantation house on 28 acres near Eastover.

“There was just something romantic about it,” said Thomas, 39.

The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation was looking for someone to save the place from ruin.

The Thomases have set out to do just that.

The cabin will be done in a couple of weeks, allowing the couple and Palmetto Trust to show it off this spring.

By June, they hope to move from their rental house in Columbia out to the country, to Laurelwood.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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