The Rock House (part 2)

The Rock House (part 2)

The Man Who Built the Rock House

by John Robert Young

We conclude our look at the Rock House with the story of its builder, Thomas Payne Tolbert, as told by his great-great-nephew.


As one travels southwest of Greenwood into the Mount Moriah section of the county, one will find a road marked “Rock House Road.” A rock house, the wayfarer thinks. That sounds fascinating, and it must be if a road was named for it. He turns onto the road and drives for a few miles into the Breezewood section. Even with houses sprouting along the roadside, the traveler can see where the section got its name. Thick stands of trees, the kind which stir a welcome breeze, still line the road for long stretches.

A few miles out the Rock House Road, if one keeps a sharp eye on the right-hand side, he will catch a glimpse of the Rock House itself. He must look closely, as trees and vines have grown up in front of it, blocking a clear view of the house from the road.

The land is private, still owned by family of the man who built the Rock House, but lack of ownership has not hindered people from trekking through the bushes to get a good look at the house. Some of them, however, have not been satisfied to look at it. Some have broken out its windows, ripped tiles from the roof, scribbled on its walls, and removed the staircase.

The view from the front of the house. The hole in the ceiling was once the location of a spiral staircase.

As the hands of vandals and years of neglect have ravaged the Rock House, people’s interests and imaginations have grown. Who built this unusual house? Why did he build it? Being in an isolated location, surrounded thickly by trees and brambles, looking like a sad relic of a happier time, the Rock House began to spawn ideas of ghostly haunting and past tragedy. Fascinating though these fables be, the true story of the Rock House and the man who built it are equally interesting and entirely of this world.

The man who conceived the idea of the Rock House was Thomas Payne Tolbert, called Tom. He was the eldest son of John Robert Tolbert and Elizabeth Pope Payne Tolbert, known as Bettie. Both his father and his mother were from families which had long been in this part of the country.

Tom’s father’s family came to America in 1773. Robert Tolbert and Nancy Red were the first. They came most immediately from County Antrim, Ireland, and they arrived on the same boat, but they had not known each other before the journey. After settling in Newberry District, South Carolina, they married. Nancy had seven younger brothers in her care, a family in themselves, but the couple were ready to begin a family of their own.

By 1800, Nancy Red and Robert Tolbert had migrated to the southwestern part of Abbeville District, in what is now the Phoenix section of Greenwood County. They had one son, Robert Red Tolbert, whom they reared near Rehoboth Methodist Church. When the old church moved to another location nearby around 1860, it would be Robert Red Tolbert’s son, John Robert, father of the builder of the Rock House, who would give the land for the new building.

Although the Tolberts’ son would give land to Rehoboth and despite its proximity to their home, they did not worship at the Methodist church. They attended Smyrna, a Presbyterian church off the Five Notch Road, near White Hall. It was here that Nancy Red and Robert Tolbert were buried. Many years later, when the site of the old and long extinct church was in the middle of a pasture, the Tolbert family moved their tombstones to the cemetery behind the present Rehoboth Church, where they stand with those of their son, grandchildren, and later descendants.

Nancy Red and Robert Tolbert’s son, Robert Red Tolbert, married Elizabeth Henderson, of the old family which settled in the Mount Moriah section. They had nine children: John Robert, Joseph Warren, Elias Lake, Nancy Ann, Walter Red, Elias Lake, Dan Paden, Thomas Nathaniel, and George Whitefield. The first Elias Lake died in infancy.

John Robert Tolbert married Elizabeth Pope Payne, known familiarly as Bettie, who also came from a family which settled early in the area. Their eldest son was Thomas Payne Tolbert, builder of the Rock House.

Born in 1859, Tom Tolbert would grow up in a time of hard feelings which would make him want to build a house which would not burn—a rock house. The United States was breaking at the seams. Disagreements between the North and the South, which had simmered for decades, had reached the boiling point. The War Between the States was at hand.

Beginning in the 1830’s, when political leaders debated states’ rights, Tom’s grandfather supported the strength of the Union over individual states. When division became reality in 1860 and when war came in 1861, Robert Red Tolbert sent his four living sons to fight for the Confederacy. It was their duty. Then, he told them something that sounds odd coming from a parent whose sons are leaving for war. Knowing their father’s feelings against secession and his sense of justice, though, these boys may have understood the curious words. It was their duty to go to war for their country, now the Confederate States of America, he said, but they would lose because the cause for which they would be fighting was wrong.

John Robert Tolbert, Tom’s father, and his three brothers, Elias Lake, Thomas Nathaniel, and George Whitefield, fought the entirety of the War Between the States, and all four brothers returned unharmed. John Robert took home with him the rank of captain, an honor he earned for gallantry in action.

The South Carolina to which the soldiers returned was a state which would soon be under Radical Reconstruction. Under this forced rule, local citizens no longer governed themselves, and they had little voice in selecting the men who would make their laws. The men in control were from the North, and all of them were members of the Republican Party. Alone, one of these facts provided sufficient reason for the people of South Carolina to hate them. Outrageous taxes, rampant embezzlement, and rigged elections enraged the people, but they were powerless in a Democratic party which had lost any real authority.

Continued on next page.


review of the Rock House story

I have really enjoyed reading your information on the Rock House. Although, I have only been there 2 times in the 42 years I have lived in Greenwood, SC. I was scared both times. Once as a teenager and later as an adult, but even as an adult I had an uneasy feeling being there. If I ever go back, I think I will have a completely different feeling when visiting the house now that I have read this history.

Thank you for your review of this local story and history was very good reading.

Thank you,
Margie Parks