In 1817 Thomas Edwards Hart, a planter from nearby Society Hill, purchased around 900 acres of land in the area that would later bear his name, Hartsville. His tract included the property where he and his wife, Hannah, built their farmhouse in 1820 and established a cotton and tobacco plantation, Kalmia Plantation. The plantation’s name is derived from the unusual abundance of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) that grows here due to a bluff between 60 and 80 feet high along the Black Creek. This bluff served as the ocean’s fall line millennia ago, when the sea extended to the Pee Dee.
The Harts built their two-story I-house from timber harvested on their property. The I-house was a common nineteenth-century architectural design for farmhouses, made popular in the midwestern states whose names begin with an ‘I’ (hence the name). The farmhouse built by the Harts is one room deep with a central hallway and four bays wide.
Thomas Hart was made Post Master in 1837, and from that point the town was called Hartsville. Hart died in 1842 and left his home and property to his brother-in-law, John W. Lide, who held it in trust for Hart’s wife, Hannah. Hannah remained here until 1859, when she sold it to her son-in-law, Thomas Law. The estate changed hands many times and was subdivided over the years, during which time the house and surrounding land fell into disrepair.
In 1932 the head of the botany department at the University of Chapel Hill, Dr. William Chambers Coker, developed an interest in the mountain laurel and other vegetation that grew on the bluff in Hartsville. Dr. Coker, a native of Harstville, purchased 44 acres of the former Hart property and gave it to his sister-in-law, Mrs. May Roper Coker. “Miss May,” as she was called, was an avid horticulturalist and immediately began restoring the farmhouse (including an addition in the rear) and cultivating the grounds. By 1935 Miss May had opened Kalmia Gardens to the public. In 1965 she donated 28 acres of the property, including the Hart House, to nearby Coker College. Today, the gardens are used as an outdoor classroom and remain open to all.
The Hart House is listed in the National Register:
The Thomas E. Hart House is significant as an excellent local example of an early nineteenth century I-House and for its association with Thomas Edwards Hart (1796-1842), the prominent Darlington County planter for whom Hartsville was named. The house is a central feature of Kalmia Gardens (ca. 1932), which is significant as a designed botanical garden of the early twentieth century and is the only known such garden in South Carolina.
The house was built ca. 1817 by Hart, soon after he moved to this site on Black Creek and acquired a tract of some nine hundred acres. The house is of heavy timber frame construction with weatherboard siding. It is two-stories with a rectangular plan, lateral gable roof, and exterior end chimneys. A one-story, hip roof porch extends across the full façade and wraps to the right elevation. A one-story addition was made to the rear ca. 1932. The property immediately surrounding the Hart House includes a ca. 1932 frame, hip roof contributing building. Kalmia Gardens consists of 28 acres of natural and planted flora, and designed features such as a pond and paths. The garden is located on an eighty-foot bluff on Black Creek. This unique topography creates the setting for the indigenous growth of mountain laurel (kalmia latifolia), which is the main theme of the garden.