The geology of Kalmia Gardens is quite unique for this area of the state, and the 60-foot drop in elevation from the house to the creek is the essence of the Gardens. If it were not for this terrain, we would not have the diversity of plant and animal life that goes with it, including our namesake.
Hart Family & Plantation Life
At the time of human settlement in the area, this land was very much like it is today. When the land was being divided for the pioneers seeking out new land, this area was under the auspices of Cheraw County. King George III granted Benjamin Davis 200 acres in 1772, which included the acreage where we are now. The land was subdivided, changing hands many times with many owners. In 1817, a young Society Hill native, Thomas Edwards Hart, obtained the property.
Thomas Hart built his house near the bluff overlooking the flood plain of Black Creek around 1820 with timber cut on the property. He brought his wife, Hannah Lide Hart, to the new home. The dwelling is typical of farmhouses of the era; one room deep with a central hall upstairs and down. This design allowed effective heating and cooling. Each of the four original rooms contains paneled wainscoting and mantels carved by the young Hart.
The Hart family grew to eight children and the plantation grew to 1,223 acres of cotton, tobacco and other crops, as well as wild lands. Thomas Hart was the first postmaster of the area, a merchant, justice of the peace and a captain of a local militia company. The town became known as “Hartville” or “Hartsville” as early as 1837. The area was soon to grow even faster with the arrival of more settlers, including Major James Lide Coker, who was instrumental in transforming the young community into a city.
Captain Hart suffered a great financial loss in the panic of the late 1830’s. He died in 1842 at the early age of 46, which many believed was hastened by his financial reverses. He was buried in Lowther’s Hill Cemetery near Cashaway Ferry. John W. Lide, Captain Hart’s brother-in-law, held the holdings in trust for Hannah Hart, who continued to live in her accustomed manner there until 1859.
Coker Family & Laurel Land
Around the turn of the century, the property changed hands many times, with many different residents in the house. By the 1920s and early 1930s, it had become a neglected dump site. Meanwhile, Major Coker’s son, Dr. William Chambers Coker, head of the Botany Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had written many books, including The Plant Life of Hartsville, S.C. He described in great detail the area around the Thomas Hart House, known then as “Laurel Land,” because of the abundance of mountain laurel that grew down the bluff along Black Creek. Dr. Coker obtained the property and presented it to his sister-in-law, the wife of David Robert Coker, another of Major Coker’s sons and the founder of the Coker Pedigreed Seed Company.
Mrs. Coker was an avid gardener and humanitarian and proceeded to turn the neglected site into a scenic attraction.
Mrs. Coker was the former May Roper of Washington, D.C. A gracious lady, she quickly became a well-loved member of the community and was called “Miss May” by generations of Hartsvillians. She was known for her love of gardening in town at her residence on Home Avenue and for her new project at Laurel Land. It promptly became known as “Miss May’s Folly,” for no one could see how this lovely lady could carve a public garden from such neglected wilderness on a high, steep bluff three miles from town! But despite their skepticism and the hard times of the Great Depression, she did it.
Kalmia Gardens & Coker College
A new gate was dedicated to Miss May by her family in 1992, and serves as the main entrance to her great labor of love.
This land continues to hold its centuries-old fascination for the next generation, who will surely keep it as a respite from the busy world that hurriedly passes by its gates.