South Charlotte

Rawlinson Gardens predated Glencairn

Long before Dr. David Bigger opened Glencairn Gardens to the public, Joe Rawlinson's Rawlinson Gardens offered a view of thousands of azaleas, previously believed unable to withstand Upstate winters.

For years I was tantalized by Douglas Summers Brown's one-paragraph reference to the Rawlinson Gardens.

“The Rawlinson Gardens three miles west of the city were begun in the 1920s and now have more than forty varieties of azaleas,” Brown wrote in “A City Without Cobwebs,” published in 1953 but now, sadly, out of print.

From that single reference, Brown goes on to talk about Rock Hill's largest garden, Glencairn. We all know the history of that garden, developed by David and Hazel Biggers in the 1920s, open to the public in 1940 and sold for a pittance to the city in 1958.

Throughout her book, Brown gave a little history of the Rawlinson family. Some time after 1840, Joel Woodward Rawlinson and Jane Cynthia Moore Rawlinson moved from York to a 1,000-acre plantation along what is now S.C. 5, including the land that now holds York Road Elementary School, Rawlinson Acres and Rawlinson Woods. Joe Rawlinson was their grandson.

When Lynn Willoughby published her history of Rock Hill, “The ‘Good Town' Does Well,” in 2002, I immediately checked the index and, to my delight, found a reference to the Rawlinson Azalea Gardens.

But Willoughby's reference is also little more than a footnote to her information about Glencairn. She mentions that Joel (called Joe) Rawlinson traveled to Charleston with Dr. Biggers and Hiram White to collect samples of azaleas. (A “Rock Hill Herald” newspaper article from 1971 maintains that it was Hiram Hutchison who accompanied Rawlinson and Biggers.)

Willoughby also notes that the Rawlinson Azalea Gardens opened to the public in the 1920s and were operated more than 40 years. This was well before the 1940 public opening of Glencairn.

I spoke with a number of old-time Rock Hill folks through the years, trying to find out more about the gardens.

There are apparently no Rawlinson descendants living in Rock Hill. But last week, Dora Gaston directed me to Addie Mayfield Rutledge, who grew up on Oakland Avenue. Mrs. Gaston once served on a soil conservation board with Joel Rawlinson and thought Rutledge might know about the family.

“I remember (the Rawlinsons) as a child,” said Mrs. Rutledge, who I was happy to find was the great-niece of Joe and Nona Rawlinson. She said the Rawlinsons rooted thousands of azaleas from the original five plants brought back from Charleston.

Mrs. Rutledge described the gardens as a lush, colorful place, located just off Rawlinson Road past what is now a strip mall.

“We used to love to feed the fish there. There was such a pretty little pond.”

Photographs show a lily pond surrounded by azaleas.

Joe and Nona built a summer cottage on the property but loved it so much they eventually moved there full time.

Access to the gardens was free, but the Junior Welfare League held an annual show of the gardens as a fundraiser until 1965.

That year, the garden closed because of the declining health of Joe and Nona Rawlinson, who had no children. Joe Rawlinson died in 1967. His wife died in 1971.