A beautiful Federal-style brick structure looms up from behind a massive magnolia tree as one zips down South Carolina Highway 56. Even from a distance it’s apparent that this antebellum edifice likely has a storied history.
Called Belfast, it was built around 1785 by Col. John Simpson, a native of Ireland who named the elegant home for his birthplace. Simpson even had the bricks shipped from Ireland, according to the Palmetto Conservation Foundation.
It would become the home for generations of South Carolina political, military and legal luminaries.
The structure remains relatively unchanged from when it was constructed and demonstrates a commitment to both functionality and craftsmanship.
“The original nine-over-nine windows are evenly spaced across the main facade with simple sills and lintels,” according to a Historical and Architectural Survey of Eastern Laurens (SC) County done in 2003. “The double entry door is crowned with a fanlight and stone arch detail.”
Today, Belfast, which includes more than 4,600 acres, is owned by the state, having been purchased by the SC Department of Natural Resources and the state Conservation Fund within the past few years from International Paper, according to the Newberry Observer.
The structure sits near the border of Newberry and Laurens counties, along thick stands of pine trees, about 10 miles north of the city of Newberry. In its early days, the structure was home to the only post office between Newberry and Laurens, which are a good 30 miles from one another.
Simpson came to America in the 1780s and was said to have had his first home burned by Tories loyal to Great Britain. Later, he rebuilt, using bricks painted white. Belfast retains that same color today.
Over the next two centuries, members of the Simpson family held numerous important public positions, being elected to the SC General Assembly, the US Congress and the Confederate Congress.
One served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Confederate army, leading troops at such pivotal battles at First Manassas, Fredericksburg and Antietam, and later became governor of South Carolina and chief justice of the SC Supreme Court.
The Simpson family’s venture into public service began with John Simpson, who was both a planter and merchant. He served in the state Legislature and was a colonel in the militia before his death in 1818, according to Yates Snowden’s 1920 History of South Carolina.
Simpson’s son, John Wells Simpson, a planter and slaveholder, was educated at South Carolina College and graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. He also served several terms in the SC General Assembly.
John Wells Simpson had two sons: J. Wister Simpson and William Dunlap Simpson.
Both graduated from South Carolina College, as the University of South Carolina was then known, and both entered Harvard Law School afterward. Upon returning to South Carolina, they went into practice together.
William Dunlap Simpson was a prominent member of the state Senate when South Carolina seceded and he enlisted in the Southern army at the beginning of the war, rising to Lt. Colonel of the 14th SC Infantry Regiment.
Simpson fought in several important battles between 1861 and 1863, including First Manassas, Gaines’s Mill, Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg and Antietam.
He was elected to the Confederate Congress in 1863.
Like most elites, William Dunlap Simpson was ruined financially by the war. He returned to Belfast and resumed practice with his brother J. Wister.
He was elected to Congress in 1868, but was refused a seat in that body when Radical Republicans kept several Southern Democrats from taking office, according to Snowden.
Without his knowledge, according to Snowden, William Dunlap Simpson was nominated for Lt. Governor in 1876.
He proceeded to work closely with Gen. Wade Hampton in what would ultimately prove to be a successful effort to end Reconstruction in the Palmetto State, and won the post as second-in-command in 1876 and again in 1878.
When Hampton resigned as governor on Feb. 26, 1879, to take a seat in the US Senate, Lt. Gov. Simpson succeeded him.
However, he resigned the position the following year after being appointed chief justice of the state supreme court, a position he held until his death in 1890.
J. Wistar Simpson’s son, Stobo J. Simpson, was elected to SC House in the mid-1880s, marking the fourth and final generation of Simpson men to hold public office in South Carolina.
He later attempted to secure election to the state Senate in 1892, running in opposition to the platform put down by his opponent, a supporter of virulent racist Ben Tillman, but failed.
It’s not entirely clear when the family sold the home, which was owned by Champion Paper until it merged with International Paper a few years ago.
Today, the 4,600-acre site is a SC Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Management Area, and is home to a variety of game, including deer and wild turkey.
DNR has utilized the historic structure as a venue to educate South Carolinians on natural resource issues and as a key area for promoting outdoor activities for youngsters.
So while Belfast is no longer home to political movers and shakers, public service is still part and parcel of the venerable structure and the land that surrounds it.