HomeAbandonedOverhills: Former Rockefeller Estate Sequestered on Fort Bragg
Overhills: Former Rockefeller Estate Sequestered on Fort Bragg
Feb 17, 2016
For more than one hundred years the idyllic Overhills golf and hunt club in the foothills of North Carolina has remained hidden from the public eye. At the dawn of the twentieth century its private fox-hunting trails, golf course, secluded lake, and polo fields were quietly enjoyed by some of the most powerful families in America. This southern Arcadia was the antipode of Biltmore and a polar Pinehurst, content with a comparatively quiet opulent existence.
Overhills spent more than seventy-five years as a private estate of the Rockefeller family before it was eventually sold to the Army and incorporated into Fort Bragg. For the last twenty years it has been isolated on military grounds, fenced but not groomed or maintained. Wild fires have replaced thieves and vandals as the chief threats to the abandoned structures, most of which have retreated into vegetative overgrowth.
In this post we remember and tour the former Rockefeller estate, before it disappears under a canopy of longleaf pine forever.
In the mid-nineteenth century the vast rolling landscape that became Overhills was originally the family plantation of Daniel McDiarmid. Situated in the Sandhills region of North Carolina, McDiarmid’s 13,000-acre plantation specialized in the production of naval stores (such as pitch, rosin, tar, and turpentine) culled from the great longleaf pine forests of the area.
A series of financial burdens forced McDiarmid descendants to sell the plantation at auction in February of 1892. The buyers were officers of the Consolidated Lumber Company, a timber business with regional holdings approaching 20,000 acres. During the last decade of the nineteenth century, Overhills was timbered extensively.
Access to the remote area greatly improved in the late 1890’s after a reorganization of the Southern Railway by J.P. Morgan. Within a few years the Sandhills region of North Carolina was one day’s trip from New York.
At the turn of the century it was common for prosperous northerners to purchase large tracts of contiguous southern farmland and establish hunting clubs. These several-thousand-acre bucolic retreats were typically private, and funded by well-heeled families. An interesting corollary to the hunt club trend was the preservation of vast acreage of forested lands, deemed necessary to maintain a strong wildlife habitat. Foxes need forests.
In 1901 Consolidated Lumber sold its interest in the Overhills tract to Liverpool-based William Johnston, who envisioned building a hunting club named Arranmore on the property. While the Johnston family did use the property for hunts during their six years of ownership, the plans to build a grand hunt club lodge were never realized. There are no known surviving structures from this period.
Johnston’s plans would begin to take shape after his family sold the property in 1906. Business partners James T. Woodward and General John Gill purchased the 22,000-acre Arranmore for $32,500.
The two gentlemen were members of, and subsequently transferred the deed to, the newly formed Croatan Clubof Manchester. The club was founded by wealthy northerners interested in developing a high-end hunt club in the hill country of North Carolina. There were twelve initial investors in Croatan, each subscribing with a contribution of $5,000 toward capital stock.
Little is known of the improvements made to Overhills by the Croatan Club during its four years of ownership; however when the group sold the property in 1910 for $75,000, it more than doubled its return on capital. The sale was prompted by the death of Croatan Club visionary James Woodward and a fading interest in Overhills by his partner, General Gill.
The new owners were a partnership already familiar with Overhills. James Francis Jordan was a tobacco merchant and had served as the secretary of the Croatan Club. His partner Leonard Tufts, was the son of James W. Tufts, the developer of nearby Pinehurst. Through these connections the gentlemen would also land Pinehurst’s course designer.
Tufts’ involvement was fleeting; he quickly sold his interest in Overhills to California Congressman and real-estate magnate William Kent. This would launch the successful Kent-Jordan partnership in 1911, which ushered in an era of expansion and prosperity for the property they dubbed “Pinewild.”
Since the Johnston days the property was always a private club. Poaching was deterred by the scattered tenant-farms at Pinewild, established in the second decade of the twentieth century. These occupied farms began a nearly 70-year tradition of farming activities that provided income to subsidize operating costs.
While farming was an important part of Pinewild, the majority of the property remained covered in a thick forest. In 1911 the site was described as “thickly wooded, with pines and numerous other trees, and through all flow many streams and everywhere sparkling springs. Deer, partridges, wild turkeys and other gameare in abundance.”
Because the structural build-out was exhausting to the partnership’s capital, the men occasionally did fundraising. In 1911, 650 acres of Pinewild were sold to the J. Van Lindley Nursery Company for use as a branch nursery. At the time the J. Van Lindley Nursery was one of the largest growing-operations in the country, supplying grapevines and fruit and nut trees to commercial farmers across the entire southeastern United States.
The nursery, which operated at Pinewild (and later Overhills) from 1911 until 1932, would eventually grow to more than 1,000 acres across the Sandhills of North Carolina.
In 1912 Kent-Jordan sold the nearly 1,000 acres occupied by the Long Valley Farm along the southeastern edge of Pinewild. Purchaser Robert Wall Christian expanded its farm operations and implemented experimental farming techniques until his death in 1927, at which time Overhills re-acquired Long Valley Farm.
Through strategic land sales and purchasing the Kent-Jordan partnership eventually owned more than 35,000 acres in Harnett and Cumberland counties. It was under Jordan and Kent that Pinewild began to take shape on “the Hill,” a high point on the property with scenic views. This became of the property’s hub of activity when the resort was re-named Overhills in 1913. According to the owners, the reason for the name change was the existence of too many nearby clubs with the word “Pine” already in the name.
By this time Overhills boasted constructed roads and trails throughout the property, a large lake stocked with fish, kennels for hunting hounds, and other support buildings. A clubhouse (pictured below, later demolished in 1945) was opened in 1913 as the centerpiece of a residential compound, surrounded by a hunt club, horse stables, and a nine-hole golf course.
By 1916 the back nine holes had been added to the course, along with additional barns and kennels, a kitchen, a passenger railroad station, and a tennis court.
The overgrown golf course at Overhills is something of a legend. It was one of the greatest courses of a bygone era, designed by a high priest of golf course design, with eighteen scenic holes inaccessible to professionals and public alike.
A 1917 Golf Illustrated article described the course as “one of the very finest golf courses in the country,” while another visiting golf professional claimed the course was “better thanany at Pinehurst,” another course coincidentally designed by the same person responsible for Overhills.
At the dawn of the twentieth century one man was behind the most brilliant golf courses in the country: Scotsman Donald Ross began his work at Overhills with the first nine holes in 1910. His orders, handed down from Mr. Jordan:
“Here, Mr. Ross, you have 3,500 acres of property to choose from. I want a golf course that will have no superior – you are the doctor and do anything you want to – and do not consider expense when making your plans, you have an absolutely free hand.”
Having Ross pen the design was a superb ingredient, but the unique topography of the Sandhills was the Ace in Kent-Jordan’s sleeve. The rolling pitch, elevation changes, and endless views of Overhills provided one heck of a blank canvas. If there was a golf mind capable of harnessing the capabilities of the site’s rolling hills, it was Donald Ross. Credit James Jordan with the sapience to combine the two.
The front nine were completed in 1913 and coincided with the opening of the Overhills Country Club in December of that year. Donald Ross completed the back nine over the next three years, finishing in 1916.
[ Did you Know? Donald Ross (1872-1948) was a Scotsman who relocated to the United States in 1899 to build and manage a golf course. From humble beginnings he developed a reputation as a talented designer who worked with the natural terrain to develop challenging yet deceptively simple courses. Ross had designed over 400 courses by his death in 1948, and his courses have been the site of over 100 U.S. National Championships. ]
Overhills golf was designed to take advantage of the undulating terrain provided by the topography. The 6,429-yard, par 71 course presented a challenging and scenic play, with its highest point being about 267 feet above sea level. It utilized an advanced underground irrigation system supplied by strategically placed water features, a purposeful trademark of Donald Ross courses.
When the course was first designed, Overhills was intended to become a major golf resort; however it never reached such prominence as the club’s members increasingly turned private. For decades the course received little publicity and remained a hidden gem of the Sandhills.
The back nine were sacrificed in the 1930s because gasoline rationing during World War II prevented mowing and general upkeep. For more than a decade the vegetation of the back nine holes was allowed to grow uncontrolled. During the 1950s the back nine holes were reconstructed with minor changes, and golf enjoyed a brief resurgence among the family and staff at Overhills.
In the fifty years since the course was operational, nature has reclaimed its land. Some maintenance has been performed over the years, such as controlled burning and trimming, however for the most part none of the openness from early photographs is present today. Vegetative overgrowth has camouflaged the fairways and greens while the faint outline of the course remains visible. Unlike most Donald Ross courses, Overhills has experienced few changes over the last one hundred years.
An abandoned Ross course is extremely rare. With few exceptions, the courses that survived were usually altered. Those that did not survive faced quick re-development. To find a Donald Ross course abandoned for fifty years – and still intact – is nigh indescribable, and adds to the legend of Overhills golf.
The course was designed by one of the world’s greatest, maintained by one of the world’s richest, and only played by several hundred people. There are few courses (if any) with such pedigree that are also in such a state of preserved abandonment. Overhills golf is a gift to us from our golfing forefathers, a time capsule from the early twentieth century. We are fortunate it still exists.
[ Golfex: For additional information about Overhills golf check outthis post on golfclubatlas.com, which has done a good job of compiling information and photos. ]
Between 1913 and 1915 visitors to Overhills rarely exceeded a few dozen. Guest invitations were limited to family and close friends of Kent and Jordan. This changed in 1916 when some new names began to appear in the guest register. Among them was Percy Avery Rockefeller (1878-1934), son of William Rockefeller Jr. and nephew of John D. Rockefeller.
Percy was a pivotal figure for the development of Overhills in the twentieth century, eventually becoming a significant benefactor, and primary owner. He was married to Isabel Goodrich Stillman (1876-1935), the daughter of banking and railroad tycoon James Stillman.
Like her husband, the benevolent Isabel Stillman Rockefeller – who inherited and managed her own fortune – also become instrumental in shaping Overhills for the next twenty years.
[ John D. Rockefeller might be the most well-known in the family, but Percy was an accomplished man in his own right. He served on the board of directors for the Air Reduction Company, American International Corporation, Atlantic Fruit Company, Anaconda Copper Mining Company, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Bowman Biltmore Hotels Company, Cuba Company, Chile Copper Company, Consolidated Gas Company, Greenwich Trust Company, W. A. Harriman & Co. & Brown Brothers Harriman & Company, Mesabi Iron Company, National City Bank of New York, National City Company, New York Edison Company, North American Reassurance Company, National Surety Company, Provident Loan Society, Remington Arms, United Electric Light & Power Company, and Western Union – and he still found time to hunt. ]
The Rockefellers were joined in 1917 by William Averell Harriman (1891-1986), the son of a railroad baron who later became an important United States diplomat and one of the six Wise Men.
Harriman was an expert polo player who became smitten with Overhills. He envisioned the grounds as a winter polo haven for his adroit comrades of the Orange County Polo Club in New York. The scenic Overhills provided an ideal training ground and home to the winter stables for his polo ponies.
W.A. Harriman decided to become an investor, and he began by building Harriman Cottage, completed in 1918. Under his guidance the country club converted and enlarged the nearby barns and stables for polo, and polo fields were constructed near the fifteenth hole of the golf course. Each season teams of laborers were required to keep the polo fields groomed.
Ultimately Harriman was Overhills’ only polo benefactor. When he abdicated from Overhills, all polo activity at the club ceased.
In addition to those already named, another entity that has indirectly shaped Overhills and deserves mention is the United States Army. The Army’s presence has coincidentally helped shield Overhills from public access and view for nearly a century, starting in 1918 when the Department of the Army spent $6 million acquiring large swaths of land just south of Overhills to establish Camp Bragg.
This field artillery training center – known today as Fort Bragg – has grown over the years and stands today as one of the largest U.S. military bases in the world.
By the early 1920’s the Rockefellers were regulars at Overhills. The family formally established their roots between 1921 and 1922 with the construction of the Covert Cottage family residence (pictured below). This was the first Rockefeller residence built at Overhills, and incidentally it was the only one to meet the wrecking ball during the country club’s operative years. By the early 1940’s the Rockefellers had built a newer, larger home at Overhills, and Covert Cottage was relegated to duty as a guest house; a decade later it was torn down.
Covert & Harriman Cottages
Covert Cottage (front)
Covert Cottage (back)
Harriman Cottage 1920s
W.A. Harriman and the Rockefellers were the only club members to ever build homes at Overhills.
As the Rockefellers got more involved with Overhills, the Kent-Jordan Company began to withdrawal its interest. William Kent physically disengaged and returned to California at the conclusion of his Congressional service in 1917; he eventually sold his remaining interest in 1921.
James Jordan died unexpectedly in 1919, which opened the door for Rockefeller – who consequently purchased Jordan’s interest and became Overhills’ majority shareholder. Commensurate with such an investment came a greater level of control. By 1920 Percy Rockefeller had assumed a central role at Overhills and led the club through its most prosperous decade.
The 1920’s were the golden years at Overhills. Elite membership formed a “wealthy syndicate of sportsmen,” who spent winter seasons chasing foxes, fishing, golfing, hunting, and playing polo. The Rockefellers continued to acquire land surrounding Overhills, both to expand hunting lands and to further insulate the grounds from outside development.
A rail freight station and miles of new track were added to the Atlantic Coast Line to ease shipping of dry goods, farm produce, horses, and nursey stock.
While there are no written records of who designed the hunt courses and bridle trails at Overhills, a popular version of events recalls the landscaping being the work of Beatrix Farrand, one of the eleven founding members of the American Society for Landscape Architects. Her association with Overhills came by way of a friendship with Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.
In 1921 the final 46 tracts of the Kent-Jordan holdings were sold for $200,000 to the newly formed Overhills Land Company (OLC). The OLC was established by Rockefeller to formally manage the operations at Overhills and the oversee maintenance of its grounds.
Also established was the Shooting Syndicate, a very exclusive and limited membership hunt club. Comprised of fifteen men (including Harriman and Rockefeller), the Shooting Syndicate enjoyed exclusive hunting privileges at Overhills in exchange for $500 per year in membership dues. Activities extended beyond hunting and polo; golf, horseback riding, tennis, and skeet shooting had also become popular activities during the 1920’s.
Farming also continued at Overhills throughout the 1920’s. The 1925 Farm Census for Harnett County reflected 30 tenant farms across 3,034 acres at Overhills. Cotton was the most common crop, followed by corn and tobacco.
The 1,000-acre Long Valley Farm was re-acquired by Overhills from the Christian estate following Robert Christian’s death in 1927. This time Rockefeller partnered with Cleveland, Ohio-based Windsor T. White (of White Trucking Company) to buy the property. The OLC owned and operated Long Valley Farm until 1937, when it sold the farm to Percy’s nephew, James Stillman Rockefeller.
The Hunt & Stables Complex
One of the most notable Percy Rockefeller additions was the Hunt & Stables Complex. Situated roughly one mile east of the Hill, the hunt and stable complex consisted of an arrangement of kennels and stables around a “Grand Circus” (pictured), an oval-shaped riding and training area with jumps.
The ceremonial arena was bisected by a clay avenue, lined with hedges. Privet hedges bordered the oblong pen, which was entered and exited through one of several pairs of concrete columns (most of which still stand today).
Extending from one of these sets of concrete piers is a pine allée (pictured), which stretches westward toward the Hill. Particularly ideal for fox hunting, the beautiful allées were not maintained beyond the 1930’s.
The kennels were designed by Joseph Brown Thomas, an expert foxhound breeder from Virginia and an authority on the matter. Coincidentally Thomas had been an Overhills guest in 1920; at Percy’s request, Thomas designed the kennels at Overhills.
“The cry throughout was wonderful; the pack work excellent; hounds ran well in the open, also on the bare, burnt ground. They went through the briers, cane, and water of the swamps, as if there was nothing to stop them, and ran withterrific dash and drive . . .”
– Captain Adamthwaite, Overhills fox hunt diary entry, January 1926
When the earlier hunt stables burned down in a March 1927 fire, new kennels and stables were built in 1928. These were nearly identical to the earlier structures, both still sitting across from each other and encircling the Grand Circus.
The era of Overhills as a sportsmen’s retreat ended several years later; hunting would continue in earnest, primarily by the Rockefellers and Overhills staff, until the last fox hunt was held in 1937.
From Private Hunt Club to Rockefeller Estate
Percy and Isabel Rockefeller completed Croatan Cottage (pictured) in 1929. It is a stately two-story red brick Colonial Revival residence, originally commissioned by Isabel and designed by New York firm Hiss and Weeks.
Croatan was more of a lodge than cottage, appropriately large to accommodate a family such as the Rockefellers, who would use the lodge for decades and help the building become an iconic structure of Overhills. When it opened, Croatan featured a flagstone terrace, an informal garden, and sweeping views of the golf course.
Together Croatan Lodge, Covert Cottage, Harriman Cottage, and the original Clubhouse formed an arc around the first and ninth holes of the golf course. This “ring” completed the Hill complex, and would serve as the centerpiece of the Rockefeller family estate at Overhills for the next seventy years.
The high-flying era of the Overhills Hunt and Country Club came to an abrupt end concomitantly with the stock market crash of 1929.
Affluent members of private hunt clubs were not immune to the pangs of the ensuing Great Depression. Visitation at Overhills languished after the 1929-1930 season, with the final guests signing the visitor’s book in 1932. That year, a local newspaper referred to Overhills as “the Carolina estate of Mr. Percy A. Rockefeller.”
Economic hardships created by the depression also forced the Lindley Nursery annex to close. In 1932 the nursery’s 1,224 acres were sold back to Isabel Rockefeller, who converted the Lindley structures into a private health care complex for tubercular and mal-nourished children.
Known as the Hope Farm Preventorium, it operated only briefly – from 1932 until 1936, a year after the death of lsabel.
By the time Percy died in 1934, the Rockefellers had amassed close to 40,000 acres for Overhills. When Isabel passed away in 1935, the estate experienced a generational shift within the family. The Overhills Land Company and its acreage were divided among the five Rockefeller children: Isabel Lincoln, Avery Rockefeller Sr., Winifred Emeny, Faith Model, and Gladys Underhill.
Percy’s son Avery emerged as the patriarchal figure of the estate, and guided Overhills through a long and successful period as a private resort for the family.
Avery Rockefeller (pictured) approached the remaining Overhills Land Company shareholders and suggested their shares be turned over to the estate to settle debts to his father.
Once shares were consolidated to the Rockefellers, the Overhills Land Company was dissolved. In 1938 all shares were transferred to Overhills Farms, Inc., a new corporation established for the ownership by the Rockefeller children.
Period of Contraction
An enormous estate tax bill forced Avery to undo much of his father’s land acquisition work during the decade of prosperity. Between 1935 and 1938, approximately 75% of the Overhills acreage was sold as Avery pared the family retreat from 40,000 acres to 10,000 acres.
Strategic land sales would continue for several decades to fund property maintenance and reinvestment. By 1942 the estate had been reduced to 8,000 acres.
The younger Rockefellers did not share their father’s passion of fox hunting or Harriman’s fancy of polo. After the hunts stopped, the dog kennels were mostly neglected (and later demolished in the 1950s). The polo fields had already been neglected, and would be buried further in overgrowth. Another victim to the cost-cutting were the back nine holes of the golf course, also abandoned in the 1930s.
Overhills encountered more headwinds during World War II, which effectively shut down the golf course. Rationing of gasoline prevented the usual maintenance and upkeep of the estate – including mowing. During the war the Rockefellers granted the Army maneuvering rights on their surrounding grounds, especially if it meant Overhills wouldn’t be claimed for base expansion.
[ Did You Know? In 1939 president of Overhills Farms, Inc., Avery Rockefeller invested in a startup Georgia-based grocery store chain named Piggly Wiggly. Returns on this investmentwere so profitableit was able to subsidize the Overhills farm operation for decades. ]
It was out of economic necessity that operations at Overhills shifted from hunt club to commercial farm. Tenant farms were reduced, and eventually abolished altogether, as the Rockefellers got more involved.
The increased focus on agriculture resulted in changes to many of the buildings at the estate. Horse stables were converted into a dairy barn, although the dairy didn’t last long and was closed by 1942. Commercial timbering returned to Overhills for the first time in more than fifty years.
The original Overhills Clubhouse, no longer in use and carrying a significant maintenance cost, was demolished in 1945. The hunt kennel met the same fate after 1949, and Covert Cottage in 1954. Harriman’s Cottage remained, and until 1960, was the primary residence of the farm manager and long-time site caretaker W.B. Bruce. That year a new Estate Manager’s residence was constructed just south of the Hill; Bruce and his family moved in.
While in charge of Overhills Avery Rockefeller designed and built three ranch-style family cottages: Sycamore (1949, map), Cherokee (1955, map), and Bird Song (1963, map), which became his personal winter residence. Sycamore and Cherokee sat in thick brush between Croatan and Harriman Cottages. Sycamore was the smallest of the three ranch cottages and built adjacent to Covert Cottage at the end of the garden lane. Appropriately named, it was surrounded by several specimen sycamore trees.
The H-shaped Cherokee Cottage is the only one of the three ranch cottages still standing today. It was constructed on the former site of Covert Cottage, between Sycamore and Harriman Cottages. Today, two juniper trees and one boxwood hedge are all that is left of the original entrance drive to Covert cottage.
Bird Song was the largest of the three cottages, with fourteen bedrooms and an indoor pool. It had a garden comprised of remnants of the former Lindley Nursery, which were excavated and relocated to the Hill. Bird Song was located southwest of the original Clubhouse site, situated between holes 1, 9, 10, and 18 of the golf course. The largest cottages were Croatan and Bird Song, which faced each other at either end of the Hill’s semi-circle.
The primary family activity during this time was horseback riding. From the 1940s until the 1990s, the estate maintained nearly 200 miles of bridle trails. A paddle tennis court was built behind the Croatan Cottage, the remnants of which are still visible today under some overgrowth. An asphalt tennis court was erected nearby, just southeast of the Hill.
For a brief spell in the late 1950’s there was a renewed interest in golf at Overhills, which finally saw a return of the back nine after decades of overgrowth.
In the 1970’s Overhills became more of a cattle, hog farm, and timber operation. Additional agricultural production included corn, hay, row crops, and tobacco. The Rockefellers maintained administrative control of the farming operations over the years.
Avery Rockefeller ran Overhills and planned to have his son Avery Rockefeller Jr. take over, until his death in 1979. Christopher J. Elliman, Avery Rockefeller Sr.’s grandson, would lead Overhills Farms during its final years in the family.
End of the Rockefeller Era
By the early 1990s the estate was seeing less of the Rockefellers every year. The reasons for the eventual decline of Overhills were rooted in a lack of a common vision between the family members, which led to unfortunate conflict over how best to utilize the property. When the family failed to reach a consensus, they began to entertain the idea of selling the family estate.
In 1992 Overhills Farms’ James Stillman Rockefeller entered negotiations with the U.S. government about incorporating the estate into the greater Fort Bragg Military Reservation. The mammoth Army base northwest of Fayetteville, North Carolina, is home to the U.S. Special Operations Command and the 82nd Airborne. Army officials were interested in expanding the buffer zone around the encampment and increasing the size of its training area.
There were two major roadblocks to completing the deal with the Army: A moratorium on Army land purchasing had been enacted in 1990 (coincidentally enough by Dick Cheney). The moratorium was eventually lifted in 1993, and Congress appropriated $15 million for the Army to buy 11,000 acres at Overhills.
However in 1994 Senator Jesse Helms blocked the Army’s plan to buy the Overhills tract, highlighting the budgetary deficit to county schools and tax rolls created by the sale. Helms argued if the land was sold to the Army, “the countywould lose approximately $25,000 per year in tax revenue and create a significant funding deficit for the public school system.”
The last Rockefeller to stay at Overhills was Avery Lincoln Chappell Smith, the great-granddaughter of Percy and Isabel Rockefeller.
Sixty-seven years after the first name was signed in the Croatan guest book, she wrote its final entry:
“Even though we did not stay here in Croatan, I just had to write one last thing. Goodbye beloved Overhills, Croatan, and all of the most wonderful people in the world.
– Avery Lincoln Chappell Smith, November 14th-17th, 1996
The delays in closing were expensive for the buyer. Fort Bragg officially acquired the Overhills estate in 1997 for $29.4 million – nearly twice the amount originally appropriated by Congress in 1993. In order to overcome Senator Helms’ objections the Army agreed to give Harnett County $1 million and 157 acres for schools, and promised to help with construction projects.
Today the 10,580-acre Overhills tract is part of Fort Bragg’s Northern Training Area. It is only sparingly used for military training, and the Army has erected fencing to protect and respect the boundaries of the Overhills Historic District.
Long Valley Farm stayed in the Rockefeller family until James Stillman Rockefeller’s death in 2004. In his will, James left Long Valley Farm to the Nature Conservancy.
Archiving & Preserving Overhills
In the early 1990s historian Davyd Foard Hood was hired by the Rockefellers to aggregate information in order to secure a nomination for Overhills on the National Register of Historic Places. Hood deserves a mention for his meticulous and exhaustive compilation of history at Overhills, much of which was used for this article.
Long Valley Farm was independently listed on the National Register in 1993. The North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office offered a favorable preliminary review of Hood’s Overhills nomination, however for reasons unknown the owners did not submit the bid for consideration at that time.
In the year 2000, a subsequent study by Mattson, Alexander and Associates, Inc., officially outlined the 5,700 acres of the Overhills Historic District. Southeastern Archeological Services, Inc., completed testing of fifty sites at Overhills and concluded that twenty-one were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Due to the property’s relatively minor disturbances over the years, Overhills was said to offer a “higher level of integrity of archaeological sites” than other regional artifacts.
In 2001 fifty structures (built between 1906 and 1938) and 5,700 acres of the Overhills Historic District officially earned eligibility for the Register.
Throughout 2005 the Army Corps of Engineers conducted an extensive survey of the Overhills Historic District. The archival research expedition took eleven months and provided historians with the greatest level of Overhills documentation to date. More than one hundred structures and landscapes on the property were independently evaluated and recorded.
As might be expected with a large forested property, fire played a large role in the history of Overhills. Somewhat surprisingly, of all potential fire threats, arson was lowest on the list at Overhills. Greater hazards were lightning and the dried resin on box-cut pine trees, susceptible to sparking in the proper conditions.
Whether it was brush clearing, controlled burns, or lightning strikes, fire was a part of life for the residents of the Sandhills region. A drought from 1931 through 1932 dried out a swampy portion of the Overhills property and resulted in wild fires burning 3,090 acres.
To limit potential damage, fire lines were established and fire protection associations formed. Fire towers were built, and farm laborers were contracted to fight fires when necessary. When maintained, the system worked well. However in the years after Overhills was sold to the Army, there was no active maintenance to the systems nor laborers to fight fires.
A firebreak was added to the golf course in 2002-2003 after an August 2002 wildfire burned the White Servants’ Quarters and came perilously close to the Bird Song house and Croatan Lodge. Unfortunately the firebreak could not save Bird Song, which burned down to its foundation in a February 2009 fire.
[ Did You Know? Only about two million acres of longleaf pine forest remain in the United States. The intact woodlands of Overhills contain thesecond-largestsurviving forest of longleaf pine. ]
A railroad once bifurcated the Overhills property. Now the tracks are long gone, leaving a conspicuous corridor void of trees slicing through the Sandhills. The old line’s embankment is identifiable as it peeks from overgrown pine forests on its way past Overhills Lake toward the Entrance Compound. To the north of the Hill, the rail corridor doubles as a dam for the west side of the Overhills Lake.
The Entrance Compound still has nearly a dozen abandoned buildings, including some pre-Rockefeller structures, although they are in various stages of decomposition.
North of the Entrance Compound is Lillington Road (map), once used to access the Overhills Lake and dam to the east. The remnants of Croatan’s gardens on the north and south side of the house are overgrown; the once manicured sand paths are now grass.
A garden path bordered by bricks that once extended from Croatan to Sycamore is slowly disappearing into the terrain. The golf course itself is severely overgrown, but mostly intact. Sporadic controlled burns over the years have maintained a modicum of course integrity.
A stand of pine trees hides the shops complex of cottages, shops, and support buildings along the north side of the Hill today. Some of these are still used for storage and training exercises by the Army. Of the four pairs of columns that once ringed the Great Circus, one is invisible behind a grove of volunteer pines.
Each of the Overhills structures have succumbed to vegetation. It’s a peaceful existence here now, largely void of the typical copper thieves and taggers. Aside from the military, visitors at Overhills these days are rare: The infrequent hikers, off-roaders, or unlicensed poachers. Occasionally the sounds of artillery will reverberate on the grounds, courtesy of nearby military exercises. But most of the time, only the birds and wind disturb the solitude enjoyed at Overhills.
The only visual disruption is a chain-link fence, erected years ago by the Army to protect the Overhills Historic District. It’s not foolproof in stopping trespassers and vandals, but it’s a start. Ultimately what has really protected Overhills is what helped keep it a secret for nearly a century: Its location.
[ Behind the art: Animal wall art still visible today at Overhills was the work of Ethel Peterson (known as “Miss Pete” to the Rockefeller family). A talented artist, she began working for Isabel Rockefeller in the 1920s. One of her gifts to the family: Painting the children’s bath and bedrooms in Croatan and Bird Song Cottages. ]
Buildings and Maps
Overhills is dissected by NC 87 (a.k.a. “Old WesternPlank Road”), a four-lane highway that carries traffic north-south from Fayetteville toward Winston-Salem. It intersects with Nursery Road, an Overhills avenue that serves as the spine of the property. Nursery Road extends from the former Lindley nursery complex in the northwest quadrant of the property and crosses the old railroad corridor southeast of the Hill on its way to Vass Road.
Nursery Road provides access to Highway 87, the Hill, the Hunt Stable Complex, Jumping Run Creek, the Lindley Nursery Complex, and Vass Road. South of the NC 87 intersection, the gravel Nursery Road is part of the Historic District and not accessible to the public. North of Highway 87, Nursery Road is paved and public.
The 2000 and 2005 surveys of Overhills numbered the structures and geographically sorted places of interest into six groups, outlined below. For the history buffs we have assembled the available public information about the structures at Overhills.
For those we could find, we included a link to each structure’s Historic American Buildings Survey report for the Overhills tract (HABS NC-407). If you see one online that’s not listed here, please let us know.
The Hill: The Hill was the central focus of the Rockefeller estate. Located on the west side of the former Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and north of State Route 1117/Nursery Road, it served as the main residential compound with six cottages, a servants’ quarters, and an 18-hole golf course. If you stumble across old electrical boxes in the ground, those were used for recharging golf carts.
Building 13:White Servants’ Quarters (c. 1913). This wood-framed rustic-style cottage was destroyed by fire March 17, 2002.
Entrance Compound: The entrance compound is located on the north side of State Route 1117/Nursery Road, and on the east side of the former Atlantic Coast Line railroad corridor. It consists of eleven buildings along the former railroad corridor. The principal buildings include the passenger and freight stations, log hunting lodge, riding stable, and former polo barn.
Shops Complex: The Shops Complex is located on the north side of State Route 1117/Nursery Road and on the west side of the former Atlantic Coast Line railroad corridor. It sits north of the golf course and the residential compound of the Hill, southwest of Overhills Lake. Today a stand of pine trees hides the complex of cottages, shops, and support buildings. Some of these are still used for storage and training exercises by the Army.
Building 41:Worker House No. 2 Wood Shed (c. 1950)
Building 42:Worker House No. 2 Chicken House (c. 1950)
Overhills Lake: Overhills Lake is located on the north side of State Route 1117/Nursery Road and borders the former Atlantic Coast Line railroad corridor to its east. The lake is north of the Entrance Compound and includes a concrete dam, bathhouse, walking trail, and recreational area on the edge of Overhills Lake. The lake was created when engineers dammed Muddy Creek with an earthen berm in the late-nineteenth century. The lake’s bathhouse features a red roof and was built into the dam. A picnic and swimming area overlooked the lake and its bald-cypress swamps. A concrete dam with steel gates was built in 1938 to stabilize the earthen dam. The dam, gates, and a brick bathhouse are still intact.
Building 22:Overhills Lake, Dam, and Gates (late 19th/early 20th century, rebuilt in 1938, map)
Building 26:Bridge over Muddy Creek (c. 1960, map)
Building 27:Railroad Bridge (c. 1935)
Hunt & Stables Complex: The Hunt & Stable complex is located on the south side of State Route 1117/Nursery Road, east of the former railroad corridor and west of N.C. 87. It includes the hunt stables, the ruins of the hunt kennels, the Great Circus, and an unkempt pine allée. Four pairs of concrete columns are sited around a grassy area that was once used for jumping and parading horses and hounds. One pair once had gates attached, but they are now missing. Another pair of columns is located across the grass yard at the ruins of the hunt kennel. The columns on the west side function as an entry into the pine allée. And another pair of columns sit 450 feet to the west, in the middle of the pine allée. Today the Hunt Stable Complex is being encroached on all sides by a forest, and the hunt kennel ruins have been swallowed by the surrounding tree canopy.
Lindley Nursery: The former Lindley Nursery was located on the north and west sides of State Route 1117/Nursery Road, about one mile east of the junction with N.C. 87. It comprises two distinct building complexes: “Lindley Nursery Complex North” and “Lindley Nursery Complex South.” Nursery Road, an asphalted striped highway, dissects the former Lindley Nursery property. The road gave the nursery access to the freight rail station at Overhills, where nursery plants were shipped to market. The Lindley Nursery Complex North is more remote and experienced a less intensive agricultural use after the nursery closed in the early 1930s; this area was used by Isabel for her Preventorium. Today the nursery complexes are both abandoned. The north complex is unused and overgrown, while the south complex has been mostly razed after its structures were beginning to collapse.