In the middle of the Clemson University campus is Fort Hill, a large Greek revival house that once belonged to John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), a South Carolina Senator and Representative. He was also Vice President to John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, Secretary of State to John Tyler and James Polk, and Secretary of War to James Monroe.
Fort Hill started in 1803 as Clergy Hall, the 4-room house of a local clergyman. It was subsequently sold to the mother of Floride Calhoun, wife of John. John and Floride lived there, enlarged it to the 14 room mansion it would become in 1825, renamed it Fort Hill, and inherited it after Floride’s mother’s death.
John Calhoun died in 1850, after which there were legal machinations involving the property, his wife and his children. But eventually, the house ended up with his daughter, Anna, who moved into the house in 1872 with her husband, Thomas Clemson. Clemson was an engineer and agriculturalist who became the first US Superintendent of Agriculture, during the Buchanan administration. Clemson outlived Anna and bequeathed the house and 814 acres of the Fort Hill property to the State of South Carolina, to established the Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina.
Part of Clemson’s bequest included the requirement that the house be kept by the university in good order, it’s structure and furnishings intact, and that it be open to visitors. For that reason, the university operates the house as a museum, and 90% of it’s furnishings are original to the house.
Anna and Thomas Clemson were married in the parlor of the house on November 13, 1838. The sofa came from Mount Vernon and the Windsor chair was used by George Washington as a camp chair during the Revolutionary War. The red chair was a gift to Clemson from King Leopold I of Belgium. Clemson had been US ambassador to Belgium (1855-1851).
The table and chairs in the dining room are c1820 Duncan Phyfe. The sideboard is called the USS Constitution sideboard because it is made of mahogany said to be taken from the frigate USS Constitution. Tradition has it that it was a gift from US Senator Henry Clay to John Calhoun, but the tour guide said that was doubtful.
That’s the Calhoun’s bedroom on the left and the Clemson’s on the right. Thomas Clemson was 6’6″, so the bed is 7 feet long. Early in their marraige, the Clemsons lived with the Calhouns at Fort Hill while Thomas managed the day-to-day operations of the plantation. The Clemson bedroom was Anna’s as a child and part of a suite of rooms they used for their family.
Fort Hill was a cotton plantation and the story of those who were enslaved there is told on story boards throughout the house. A New York reporter visited in 1849 and wrote: “The Calhoun slaves lived approximately one-eighth of a mile from the mansion. The houses are built of stone and joined together like barracks, with gardens attached, and a large open space in front. There are perhaps 70 or 80 negroes on and about the place.”
Fort Hill was an unexpected treat on our Clemson visit: an intact house with original furnishing that allowed photographs. The “tour” wasn’t really a tour. The guide gave an introduction and was around while we looked at the first floor, to answer questions. We were on our own on the second floor. And it was free.