A tall chimney, virtually alone in a field denuded of pine trees just days before, stood silhouetted against the winter sun.
Fifty trips down this stretch of South Carolina backcountry had never afforded me the above view, or even knowledge of the structure, or rather, what was left of it.
My first thought was that it was one of the increasingly rare but still extant examples of the havoc wrought by Sherman’s troops during their march through South Carolina in the early months of 1865.
Research shows that the structure, built by Thomas Wadlington in 1858, was indeed consumed by fire, but the conflagration took place some 124 years after Sherman’s bummers laid waste to much of the Palmetto State.
Known as the Keitt House, it was located eight miles east of Newberry, S.C., and was rented and used by the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity chapter of Newberry College from the early 1970s until Oct. 8, 1989, when it fell victim to flames.
Afterward, trees and undergrowth grew around what was left of the structure, mostly just the brick foundation and 30-foot-tall chimney, almost certainly built by slaves in the period just before the War Between the States.
At one time, the house anchored a 500-acre cotton plantation, one of the largest in the state.
It’s original occupant was a descendant of one of the area’s founding families. Wadlington, the grandson of a Continental Army officer, graduated from South Carolina College in 1842. and lived at the house until his death in 1882.
Ellison Keitt would survive the war and later work to help elect Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton governor, a key factor in ending Reconstruction in South Carolina.
Keitt eventually served two terms in the South Carolina House representing Newberry.
One of Keitt’s sons, Thomas, taught at Clemson before returning to the old house, where he farmed the land. It was after Thomas Keitt moved in that the place became known as the Keitt House.
Today, there is little left of the old Keitt House except for several hundred handmade bricks, some whole, others in pieces, all weathered and worn.
Some 100 feet behind the house was what appeared to have once been a well in the form of granite blocks that formed a square four feet around and two feet high.
An old barn still stands about 200 feet to the right of the ruins, and 200 feet past that, a small family graveyard, dating back to at least the early 1800s. It’s difficult to tell, though, because the wording on the oldest tombstones have been worn down to the point that they’re no longer legible.
An indication of how thick the trees and undergrowth had been prior to the recent clear cutting was evident from the fact that just a month earlier I’d actually been inside this very same barn, having fought through vines, brambles and branches to enter it from the opposite of the house by way of a 245-year-old Baptist church, yet saw nothing of the chimney or the foundation and never discerned that they existed.
What the future holds for the ruins of the Keitt House is difficult to say.
The historian in me has hopes that the structure will be allowed to stand, a testament to the long-dead individuals who built it and the people who once lived there.
The realist in me knows that there’s a market for old bricks and it would only take a day or two for workers to load up what was left of the handiwork of who knows how many slaves and truck it off to be sold.
For now, though, I’ll enjoy the view of what’s left of this old house, and try to think about what life in it must have been like many decades ago.