Comingtee Plantation — Cordesville, South Carolina
SC Picture Project | Berkeley County | Comingtee Plantation
The ruins of this plantation home stand along the Cooper River in the 11,000-acre Bonneau Ferry Wildlife Management Area. The tract is comprised of acreage from Comingtee and Stoke, two distinct but associated parts of the same larger plantation.
Comingtee is one of South Carolina’s earliest plantations, established on land granted to Captain John Coming of England in 1669. The tract sits where the east and west branches of the Cooper River form a ‘T’, which gave the property the name of Coming’s T; the name was later altered to Comingtee. Following the death of Coming in 1695 and his wife, Affra, in 1698, Comingtee came under the ownership of Coming’s nephew, Elias Ball. Ball eventually built the plantation home at Comingtee in 1738 and later a brick addition, the ruins of which remain in the Bonneau Ferry WMA.
Comingtee was a rice plantation, and the growth of rice depended on a property’s proximity to a tidal river and the work of many slaves. The average cotton plantation used the labor of around 25 slaves, while rice plantations required about 225. Many plantation owners added rice mills to their property to aid in the production of the rice. The rice mill seen below was built in the late 1820s or early 1830s. It was in operation by the early 1830s and was built of three course common bond, which became prevalent in this part of South Carolina during that decade.
The mill and surrounding outbuildings – including a barn, a well, and slaves’ quarters – were referred to as “Stoke,” though the grounds were part of Comingtee Plantation, and the plantation house was called Comingtee. Stockentine Head in Devonshire, England – also spelled Stokentin Head – was Elias Ball’s birthplace. It is widely suspected that Ball named this section of Comingtee for his ancestral home, as geographical features near Stockentine Head are called “Stoke,” such as Stoke Ford.
Comingtee remained in the Ball family until it was purchased in 1927 by United States Senator Joseph S. Frelingheysen of New Jersey for use as a hunting lodge. In 1949 West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company (later Mead Westvaco) bought the property, and unfortunately, the plantation house was then left to decay. Mead Westvaco sold Comingtee to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in 2004. SCDNR still owns and manages the property, which consists of pine savannas, bottomland hardwood forests, and wetlands. The ruins of the rice mill (above) and the plantation home (below) are open to the public on days excluding scheduled hunts.
This composite image contributed by Tom Taylor shows the above Library of Congress photo of the main house at Comingtee with an overlay of how the ruins look present day.
This composite image, also by Tom Taylor, shows an old view of the Stokes Rice Mill at Comingtee with an overlay of the present day remains.
Comingtee Plantation is listed in the National Register as part of the Cooper River Historic District:
The Cooper River Historic District, which is a 30,020-acre section of the region centered along both branches of the Cooper River, is a remarkably intact historic and cultural landscape. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Cooper River served not only as a principal transportation route for plantation goods, services and people, but also played a vital role in the successful production of rice. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries most of the plantations in the district were acquired by wealthy Northerners looking for a warmer climate in which they could create hunting preserves for their own pleasure and leisure-time activities. These new owners left their mark on the landscape by building stately new residences but they also played an important role in preserving the earlier landscape. Many historic buildings, structures, and objects from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries are still standing, and archaeological remains of settlements, machines, barns, and other structures that supported agricultural activity are generally intact. In addition, landscape features such as rice fields, banks, canals, dams, reservoirs or reserves, causeways, roads, avenues, upland fields, fence lines, and cemeteries – many of them present on eighteenth and early nineteenth century plats and maps – can be seen on the ground today. Numerous outbuildings are also included with several of the properties.
The Robintation Tree
For centuries, a story of a haunted tree has been attached to Comingtee. Known as the Robintation Tree, it is said to have been quite feared by the slaves of the plantation. This description comes from Mortuary Customs and Beliefs of South Carolina Negroes, published in 1894 by May A. Waring in the Atlanta Constitution:
A trusty and reliable boy, called Josey, was sent one night to bring the doctor to see his mother, who was an old family servant. Josey, a fearless rider, was the “body servant” of his young master, took charge of his horses, and went hunting with him. Probably from this close companionship with an educated person he derived some of the fortitude which enabled him to disregard his natural fear and inclination to run away from the object he encountered.
He related that just after riding from the yard gate, as he was walking his horse through the heavy sand, he saw a dark object rolling and turning right in the middle of the road, directly in front of him. His first impulse was to turn and gallop back – then remembering his sick mother, he pulled his hunting-knife from his pocket, and cried: “I don’t care whether you are ghost or devil, but if you don’t get up out of that sand I’11 jump off this horse and put my knife into you.”
At this the ghost scrambled to its feet, and proved to be an old negro belonging to the plantation, who was out after hours – “on some rascality,” the narrator said – and had chosen this disguise, supposing that any one whom he might meet would be too frightened to investigate.
Owing to this fear of “dead people,” timorous Africans dislike to pass a graveyard at night, some of the younger ones doing so at full speed only.
One of the boys employed about the house on Comingtee plantation, Cooper River, and living about half a mile distant, had to pass on his homeward way the plantation “burying-ground” on one hand, and a certain haunted tree on the other. In his opinion travel by that dangerous road needed the escort of a younger brother, for even a child’s presence lent him protection.
This particular haunted tree is a large and very handsome live oak which stands beside the road that leads from the house down to the wharf and mill. It bears the peculiar name of the “Robintation tree.” Robintation, the apparition which gives the tree its name, is first seen in the shape of a small animal – perhaps a dog – then it increases to the size of a sheep, and afterward becomes successively a calf and an ox.
What other transformations it may undergo no one can say, for at this stage the beholder takes to his heels. This weirdly metamorphosed animal is a favorite kind of ‘sperrit.’ Two distinct ones dispute the sovereignty of the roads eight or ten miles above Comingtee – “Jingo’s Horse” and “Hampshire’s Horse.” These both undergo the same transformations as the Robintation, finally, as the names suggest, arriving at the shape of a horse.
An old servant tells the story of a young man who lived near the road haunted by Jingo’s Horse. One morning he was found lying insensible in the road. When he came to himself he described having seen the ghost of “de ting,” growing and growing, until the whole road became thronged with horses, which rushed on, knocked him down, and trampled upon him, so that he knew nothing more until he was found. After that he was liable to frequent fits — presumably epileptic; whether he had ever had them before is not known.
Walking along the road to the mill at Comingtee landing one April afternoon after sundown, I could see the flat, shining Cooper River in the distance, with here and there rows of small, dark, stiff trees along the nearer bank. Frogs were beginning to croak, a few belated “bird-minders” (negro boys employed to “holler” birds away from the rice fields) were shouting far away, evening primroses were opening, the great draped oaks, conspicuous among which was the Robintation tree, stood, sombre figures, by the roadside. As I walked under their boughs I would occasionally pass through a stratum of warmer air extending for some yards. According to African authority, this indicates the presence of a “sperrit.”
The tree apparently grows out of a huge stone which is very rare for the area. The peculiar growth and aura around the tree attracted root doctors from all around wanting a piece of the stone and tree, it became such a problem that the Ball family had to erect a gate around the base of the tree and forbade anyone to touch it. It is also noted in several sources that a Native American chief is buried at the foot of the tree and is responsible for the curse that has frightened so many. As long as the tree remains untouched, no serious harm would befall whoever lived on the property.
Buried Treasure Found at Comingtee Plantation
In 1865, as the threat of General Sherman’s march spread throughout the Lowcountry, the colonial sacramental plate of Strawberry Chapel was placed in Keating Ball’s possession. Ball had a trusted servant, named Friday, hide the silver for safekeeping, but after the war, the servant could not recall where he buried it.
Around 1946, equipped with knowledge from an old story, Martha Sullivan and her husband, Grover, set out to find it. With the help of the changing water levels of the Cooper River, the Sullivans noticed a sunken area under the old rice mill. With some digging, they discovered a rotting chest deep within the ground. When they opened the chest, there was the long lost silver set! Nearly 100 years after it was buried, it was finally found. The couple returned the silver to the vestry of Strawberry Chapel, and it is now on display at the Charleston Museum.
The following article was published in the Charleston News and Courier, Wednesday, June 18, 1947. It is transcribed below this image.
Caption: SAVED FROM SHERMAN – The communion silver of Strawberry Chapel, buried during the Confederacy to save it from Sherman’s army, and lost for 81 years, was found last December on Comingtee Plantation. Some 20 Lowcountry men and women, most of them Charlestonians, kept mum about the discovery until it could be announced to the nation in the current issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Shown above are the discoverers, Grover Sullivan (handing up the tankard from the trench), Mrs. Sullivan, John Worsham and Julian White, a helper.
Six months ago, in December, a group of Lowcountry men and women pledged themselves to secrecy, and kept the pledge. They had in their keeping the story of the discovery on Comingtee Plantation of the long-lost communion silver of historic Strawberry Chapel in Berkeley County. They want that story, and the reason why the silver had to be buried in the first place, spread before the whole country, through medium of a nationally known magazine.
A few persons, including staff members of the News and Courier, learned of it before the current issue of the Post, which contains the account, came out but in such instance a solemn promise was exacted, and kept, to keep it secret.
“How the Comingtee Treasure Was Found,” by Herbert Ravenel Sass and Charlotte Ball, tells the story. The silver was buried in 1865 by Keating Ball to save it form Sherman’s raiders. With the passage of the years, its hiding place became a tradition, and then a legend. Only Miss Ball believed that it was under a large rice barn at Comingtee Plantation, on the Cooper River.
Last Decemeber, when Milo King, of Fort Ticonderoga, NY, came to Charleston with his metal detector, a disklike instrument on a long rod. Miss Ball persuaded him to try it in the barn. After some old iron was found, the experiment was abandoned.
But a spade succeeded where the modern instrument had failed. Two of those who had watched the gadget at work, Grover Sullivan, superintendent of the plantation, and Mrs. Sullivan, wouldn’t take no for an answer. Five nights later, accompanied by a friend and a helper, they found the six silver vessels.
The six vessels, valued by Sass at $8,500 or more, a tankard, a paten, two chalices and two alms plates, were taken from a rotting mahogany chest under the floor of a rice-pounding mill on the estate. They were turned over to I.G. Ball, senior warden of Strawberry Chapel.
Tradition says the tankard, paten, and one of the chalices were gifts from King George I. They bear the inscription “St. John’s Parish, in South Carolina, in America.”
The two alms plates are of a somewhat later date, according to Sass.
The other chalice is silver-gilt, of French design, and before it was presented to St. John’s Parish had been used by Huguenots during the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
Sass and Miss Ball tell the story of the sacrament plate under the title “How the Comingtee Treasure Was Found.” They relate it was buried in the old mill by Keating Ball and his manservant, Friday, in February, 1865.
Although Sherman’s troops looted houses in the area, they did not destroy them. But when Ball later tried to recover the mahogany chest containing the silver vessels, neither he nor Friday could locate its hiding place.
At a luncheon in Charleston last December, Miss Ball, daughter of Isaac Ball, Keating’s cousin, revealed the belief of the family that the treasure was still under the floor of the rice mill. H. Jermain Stocum, host at the luncheon, was immediately interested. He had helped in finding old cannon used in the restoration of Fort Ticonderoga, New York, and was expecting a visit from Milo King, general manager of the fort.
Mr. Sass said last night that what determined him to write the article for the Post, together with Miss Ball, was the opportunity to say what he thought of Sherman, whose widespread policy of burning made it necessary for the treasure to be hidden. Readers will find that he has marched through Sherman.
The article is illustrated by photographs, one of which shows the silver being handed up from the hole dug under the rice barn. They were made by Gus Pasquerella, who is in Charleston now, to illustrate another article by Mr. Sass, about birds, not treasure.
The silver was taken yesterday to the Charleston Museum by I. G. Ball, for exhibition. It will be placed on display this afternoon, E. Milby Burton, director, said.
Reflections on Comingtee Plantation
The following reflection and photo detail Brandon Coffey‘s visit with the woman who helped discover the communal silver. Brandon works for the South Carolina Picture Project and is an excellent photographer and primary-source researcher.
“My friend Rebeccah wanted to see some sights around Berkeley County one day in the summer of 2017. I got together a few places to show her and we set out. I contacted the owner at Strawberry Plantation in Cordesville for an impromptu visit, to which she happily agreed. I had been to Strawberry Plantation a few times before and knew that the owner, 97-year old Martha Sullivan, was the woman who found the silver at Comingtee Plantation. I had never talked to her about it before but decided to see if she minded a little visit this day.
“When we arrived, we knocked on the door and were told that they were on the front porch so we walked around the house. (The front porches of older homes always face the water because visitors arrived by boat. Now, in the days of the automobile, people situate their front porches toward the road.)
“We talked to Mrs. Sullivan and her niece for a moment – essentially to just let them know we had arrived. She invited us to sit down awhile, so we did. The stories that unfolded on that front porch over the next hour were deeply fascinating.
“She and her husband Grover Sullivan purchased the property in the 1940s from Senator Joseph S. Frelingheysen, who owned neighboring Rice Hope Plantation and Fish Pond Plantation, as well as Comingtee. The property has been their home ever since. She told us she was born on Encampment Plantation in rural Charleston County and has lived at nine different plantations over the years: Airy Hall, Richmond, Strawberry, Wappoolah, Hutton, Prospect Hill, Encampment, and most notably, Tibwin.
“She and her niece told stories of how pristine Tibwin Plantation was at one time. The house was surrounded by a white picket fence and had two large magnolia trees. Family members were married in the house making it a special place for them. Hearing these personal tales of Tibwin being a pristine place make the current state of disrepair all the more troubling to think about.
“She also talked of outbuildings on the property at Strawberry originally being at the railroad crossing in Cordesville and how they were utilized as places to receive goods from Charleston by rail. She is walking history, and it was amazing to hear firsthand.
“She finally went on to tell about the silver found under the old mill at Comingtee so many years before. She relayed the story that is printed above and told us about how exciting it was to have found it. Even more exciting, she said, were the articles that featured her and her husband, Grover, not only in the local paper but also in the Saturday Evening Post. She had an original copy inside and smiled as she recounted her many wonderful memories of Comingtee – where her husband was the manager – and also life in general. It was truly a treasure to sit and speak to her.”
More Pictures of the Comingtee Plantation Ruins
Comingtee Plantation Info
Address: Comingtee Road, Cordesville, SC 29434
GPS Coordinates: 33.078414,-79.924649