Ascent of McCormick County High Point on 2012-12-23

Climber: Tom Layton

Date:Sunday, December 23, 2012
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:McCormick County High Point
    Location:USA-South Carolina
    Elevation:620 ft / 188 m

Ascent Trip Report

After visiting the anonymous hill that tops McCormick County, I discovered that it not only has a name, but also a fascinating history that ripples across the COHP map as far as Alaska.

I tracked down Bob Edmonds, McCormick’s resident historian, who confirmed that the county high point is the site of Cherry Hill, an antebellum plantation that was home to two SC governors and other influential figures in Southern history. The old bricks and other relics that COHPers can find atop the hill are ruins of the plantation house.

According to an email I received from Edmonds, Cherry Hill was originally owned by Ezekiel Noble, followed by Patrick Noble, who served as SC governor (1838-1840). The brick-walled Noble family cemetery is nearby.

Cherry Hill was then home to Moses Waddel, a Presbyterian preacher who founded an extraordinary frontier school called Willington Academy, about a mile NE of the COHP. Willington became known as "The American Eton" for producing so many leaders--including 11 governors, dozens of congressmen, and Vice President John C. Calhoun. Dr. Waddel's secret? He required boys to memorize long passages of Greek classics every day.

After leaving Willington in 1819, Dr. Waddel was instrumental in establishing the University of Georgia. Calhoun's son-in-law, Thomas Clemson, was the father of Clemson University. So two of the South's foremost universities--not to mention two top-20 football teams--have roots here on Cherry Hill.

One of Dr. Waddel’s former students, George McDuffie, bought Cherry Hill in 1820. The original house had burned, and McDuffie built a built sprawling two-story home. The son of poor Scottish immigrants, he increased the plantation to 5,000 acres, worked by 200 slaves. Their toils probably account for some of the terracing that is still evident around the COHP.

McDuffie was elected SC governor (1834-36) and US senator (1842-46). His daughter married Wade Hampton III, who became a Confederate cavalry general, SC governor (1876-79), and US senator (1879-91).

Gen. Hampton may very well have been a peakbagger. He was certainly a legendary bear hunter in the mountains around Cashiers NC, where his family had a summer home amid some of the most dramatic cliffs in the Southeast. High Hampton is now an exclusive resort.

Across the nation, COHPers will find at least 23 counties (and equivalents) named for men whose lives were shaped here at Cherry Hill: 11 for Calhoun (AL, AR, FL, GA, IL, IA, MI, MS, SC, TX, WV), six for Sen. William Crawford (AR, GA, IL, IA, MO, WI), two for Hampton (AK, SC), as well as McDuffie GA, Gilmer GA, Walker AL, and Butler KS. Another 21 are named for President Andrew Jackson, who admired Dr. Waddel but probably never studied under him, at least not at Willington; plus two named for for William Bibb, the first governor of Alabama, who patronized Willington.

Nowadays, Cherry Hill is history. Once-prosperous Willington is a ghost town. The academy and the railroad are long gone. So are King Cotton and Cyrus McCormick (the county's namesake), who was attracted by a 19th-century gold rush. The Dorn Gold Mine in the town of McCormick played out in the 1930s, though on occasional weekends it is still open for tourists.

You can read a lot between the lines of the signs on SC 81 that say, "Welcome to Willington. Proud Heritage. Hopeful Future." As for the present, there’s not much to speak of—not even a gas station. Several brick stores stand empty. The only two businesses I saw were a Thai restaurant and a bookstore, where presumably you can buy Edmonds’ books, including "The Making of McCormick County" and "George McDuffie: Southern Orator."

However, the Willington dream isn't dead. The website envisions Willington becoming a "Book Town", following European examples: "Our vision is to have Willington once more become a center for learning as it was in the early 1800s. We believe we have a bright and promising future ahead. ... Willington is on the way to becoming a center for book lovers, history buffs, culture seekers and tourists! Dr. Moses Waddel would be proud!"

Though Cherry Hill is not named on the map, it is easy enough to find. From SC 81 in the Willington community, follow the signs toward the Leroys Ferry boat landing on Lake Thurmond. After a little over 2 miles on paved Willington Academy Drive, turn R on graveled Forest Road 563-A, continue 0.6 miles and park at a fork. The top of Cherry Hill is about 100 yards to the SE. This is public land, managed by the SC Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Returning toward SC 81, you can find the stone monument for Willington Academy on the R side of Willington Academy Drive, about a half-mile after returning to pavement.

McCormick is my 112th COHP and 12th in SC.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:40 ft / 12 m
    Round-Trip Distance:0.5 mi / 0.8 km
    Trailhead:Forest Road 563C  580 ft / 176 m
    Route Conditions:
Open Country

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