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R.T. Wilson at Palmetto Bluff

Ruins of the R.T. Wilson Mansion at Palmetto Bluff
Ruins of the R.T. Wilson Mansion at Palmetto Bluff

Photograph taken by Hirsh

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Richard Thornton Wilson, Jr.
Richard Thornton Wilson, Jr.

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Campfire - Wilson's prized thoroughbred, the top money-winner in North America
Campfire - Wilson's prized thoroughbred, the top money-winner in North America

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Ruins of the R.T. Wilson Mansion at Palmetto Bluff
Ruins of the R.T. Wilson Mansion at Palmetto Bluff

Photograph taken by Hirsh

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R.T. Wilson and Palmetto Bluff - Audio
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Richard Thornton Wilson, Jr, knew how to live.  A wealthy New York banker, he owned champion racehorses and Palmetto Bluff, an 18,000 acre hunting retreat in South Carolina.  His wife, Marion, did not share his zeal for winters in Palmetto Bluff where her husband loved to ride, hunt, fish and raise cattle. She missed the social scene of her wealthy New York friends.  What was Richard to do? He loved his wife, He loved Palmetto Bluff. How could he enjoy his cherished plantation and keep his wife happy?  The answer, of course, was to build her a magnificent mansion at Palmetto Bluff so she could entertain in style and enjoy her society friends who came to party for weeks on end. The mansion was grand; the parties lavish; the riding and hunting spectacular.  Then disaster struck.  

You stand before the ruins of what was once the winter home of the wealthy New York banker, Richard T. Wilson, Jr.  Fans of the PBS series Downton Abbey, with its lavish soirees, formal dinners, and well-dressed hunting parties will appreciate the lifestyle of Richard T. Wilson.

So let me take you back to 1902 ... the year of the 1st Rose Bowl game; the opening of the 1st movie theater in the country; the year Cuba gained its independence from the United States; and the year Wilson married Marion Mason, and brought his new bride to “Palmetto Bluff,” his 18,000-acre plantation on the South Carolina coast for their honeymoon.

Wilson loved hunting, riding and spending time outdoors at Palmetto Bluff, but Marion loved the parties of New York.  Winters away from the social scene of New York City may have appealed to her sportsman husband, but if she was to accompany him south, she would need a “proper” home for entertaining. 

Eventually a four-story mansion filled what is now the Village Green. The palatial structure, and its beautiful gardens, overlooked the May River.  It was truly a grand estate. The gold-leaf ceiling in the ballroom was imported from Italy. Guests who wanted a quiet moment could escape to the library with its collection of rare first editions. An entire room of the house was devoted to for Wilson’s daughters from an earlier marriage. 

Visitors would stay for weeks, enjoying Mrs. Wilson’s extravagant parties, which even at the height of Prohibition, did not lack for wine and champagne.  The social pages of the New York Times, which noted the comings and goings of society’s elite, often mentioned those “leaving today to visit Mr. and Mrs. R.T. Wilson of Palmetto Bluff, S.C.” 

For Richard T. Wilson, Palmetto Bluff was not about parties. It was a refuge for hunting, growing vegetables, and raising cattle. Other livestock included Shropshire sheep and a prize Berkshire hog that his wife purchased as a gift for her “gentleman farmer” husband. 

Wilson’s true passion, however, was thoroughbred racehorses.  In 1916, his horse, “Campfire,” was the top money-winner in North America and the American Champion Two-Year-Old stallion.  In 1922, his horse, “Pillory” won two legs of the Triple Crown – the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. He even named one of his champion racehorses “May River” to proclaim his love of Palmetto Bluff.

It’s likely Wilson planned to retire to Palmetto Bluff with his favorite horses in the stables and beloved hunting dogs nearby (check out the cemetery for his dogs in back of the Inn by the fire pits), but disaster struck. 

On March 2, 1926, his idyllic retreat caught fire. A distraught Wilson had to twice be led away from the roaring blaze, which reduced his magnificent mansion to ashes.   Devastated by the loss of his elegant Southern home, Wilson escaped to New York, never to return.  He could not face rebuilding and sold the entire property to J.E.Varn a few months later.  

In 1929, at the age of 63, Wilson died in New York City without ever seeing his beloved Palmetto Bluff again.