Is it just me, or is there something about leaves changing colors that makes a person want to get outside and go somewhere? Journeys to the mountains, or even to a local park to have fun stomping through crackling leaves; there’s just something about the fall of the year. Hunters take to their stands, farmers bring in the harvest, grandmothers begin to knit, and everything feels…different.
Something else that happens to me this time of year is that I get more interested than ever in our unique local history. It’s the most agreeable weather for visiting the grounds of historic churches and cemeteries, taking a leisurely drive to check out historical markers, or just to enjoy the natural beauty of Sumter’s city, county and state parks.
One of these local historic sites is particularly special, because until a few years ago, it was a strictly private paradise. Off SC 261, near the town of Pinewood and just behind Poinsett State Park, stands one of Sumter County’s most storied plantation homes.
Milford (or Millford, or “Manning’s Folly”) Plantation was built between 1839 and 1841 by Governor John Lawrence Manning as a gift for his bride, Susan, on land that he inherited from his grandfather, Brigadier General Richard Richardson, who fought alongside Thomas Sumter in the American Revolution. The Greek Revival mansion, an imposing 10,000 square feet, was at the heart of a cotton plantation that once encompassed 4,000 acres. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1973.
There are several versions of the story of how Milford came to be saved from the famous destruction wrought throughout the South in the final days of the Civil War. In April 1865, Milford came perilously close to the well-known torches of Sherman’s troops, when General Edward Potter arrived at the door with every apparent intention of burning it to the ground. Governor Manning, helpless to prevent him, observed that “the house was built by a Potter, and it looks as though it will be destroyed by a Potter.” See, the original architect was a gentleman by the name of Nathaniel Potter. By the most incredible coincidence, it turned out that the two Potters were brothers—and General Potter not only refused to burn the house, but promised that it would be protected.
Despite the well-known hardships suffered by Southern plantation owners following the war, the Manning family managed to retain Milford until 1902, when it was sold to Mary Clark Thompson. Ms. Thompson willed the property to her nephews, and it remained in the Clark family until financier Richard Jenrette purchased it in 1992.
Richard Jenrette has a particular fondness for old homes and has purchased and refurbished several, including Edgewater in Barrytown, NY, which had belonged to novelist Gore Vidal. Although his collection of homes is legendary in some circles, he has singled out Milford as “the Taj Mahal of my dreams.” Mr. Jenrette devoted several years to restoration, including reclaiming and/or restoring as many of the homes original furnishings, paintings and objets d’art as possible.
The result is Sumter County’s own Tara, a plantation home that recalls an era of incomparable luxury. Upon entering the main house at Milford, it’s entirely possible to look around and think, “Now, this is what Scarlett O’Hara was fighting for.” I won’t embarrass myself with a feeble attempt at describing this glorious place, but instead will include a couple of helpful links:
For many years, Richard Jenrette enjoyed Milford as a private home, relaxing there when he could take time from his career on Wall Street. Most Sumterites knew of Milford only by reputation, since it cannot be seen from the road.
A close friend of mine was a friend of the caretaker when the Clarks owned it, and he told incredible stories of playing there as a young adolescent, one of a very few to have enjoyed the privilege. His wife is a Richardson, a direct descendant of the family that left the Milford property to Governor Manning—and she has never seen the house to this day! So as incredible as it seems, this “come here” (as non-Sumter natives are still called by some) probably had more of an idea what Milford was really like than many who were born and raised here!
In 2008, Richard Jenrette donated the home to the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, which has opened it as a house museum. Tour fees and scheduling can be found online here.
As a special treat for guests, or just to experience the Old South in all its classic glory, Milford is an experience that is not to be missed. No, it’s not Biltmore House—but it’s ours, and Sumter is proud to be home to such a wonderful landmark!