In the 1850s a southern tobacco farmer completed his home in what is now south-central Scotland County, North Carolina. Using virgin growth long-leaf pine from the surrounding land and primitive tools, the builders constructed massive beams held together with mortise and tendon joints and wooden pegs to create a Greek Revival, nine room mansion. Located just about five miles from South Carolina, the location proved to be most fortunate a few years later.
General William T. Sherman had just finished punishing South Carolina in the War Between the States. The stories of burning buildings, homes, plunder, and pillage under Sherman’s guidance became legendary. After all, South Carolina started the War by firing upon Fort Sumter in 1861, and the sentiment from the Union forces were to make them pay, and pay dearly.
As the Union army moved into North Carolina the orders from General Sherman to his troops were for them to tread lighter. North Carolina was one of the last states to join the Confederacy, and possibly only did so because they were completely surrounded by four Confederate states and the Atlantic Ocean.
If the beautiful plantation known as Oaklawn were in South Carolina it would have been left burning. Instead, it was plundered and the Union soldiers moved on toward “Old” Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church in early March, 1865.
In 1881 Hector McLean purchased Oaklawn from the McNair family.
Mr. McLean raised his family at Oaklawn, and upon his death the home was left to his unmarried daughter. Upon her death Oaklawn had fallen into hard times and was later purchased by Hector’s grandson, Jonathan or “Jonnie” and his wife Mary Faith. They began a restoration and improvement program that continued for years.
Jonnie had previously served with the US Army during World War II, and was described by a fellow soldier as one to the politest men he ever met. “Red (as Jonnie was then called) and I were trapped in a fox hole during the Battle of the Bulge. German shells and bullets were flying overhead when I heard Red say, ‘Excuse me!’ ‘Excuse you for what?’ ‘I farted.’”
Mary Faith was from Marlboro County, South Carolina, and her ancestors owned a plantation there as far back as colonial America. Much of the furniture from that plantation was used to furnish Oaklawn. Even the original jury deliberation table from the old colonial Marlborough County courthouse was still being used at Oaklawn — but not by juries.
Over the years they added a tennis court, beautiful gardening, a pond with a cabin, and a vineyard to the Oaklawn.
Mary Faith unfortunately died of cancer in the mid 1980s. In the words of Jonnie’s grandson, Jonnie became one of the most eligible bachelors in North and South Carolina.
It was during this time that one of Jonnie’s cousins and a friend of the actress Elizabeth Taylor tried to play matchmaker with the pair. Miss Taylor reportedly told Jonnie’s cousin that “such a wonderful man cannot exist!” The planned meeting never happened, but having heard so much about Jonnie, Miss Taylor sent Jonnie an autographed photo to commemorate what could have been.
Johnnie could best be described as educated, well read, happy-go-lucky, an intellectual, and a man who never met a stranger. His favorite pastimes ranged from canoeing rivers and conservation efforts to drinking fine Scotch and conversations with his close friends.
A mid-June, late afternoon storm blew a centuries-old hickory tree onto the north side of Oaklawn. The roof and walls in an upstairs bedroom were punctured by the massive limbs, as well as the roof of the lattice room on the first floor. The massive framework onto which Oaklawn was built was not compromised: A point Jonnie was more than happy to acknowledge. The remaining tree was removed from the house and grounds and a tarp was placed over the roof to prevent further damage.
Jonnie did not live to see Oaklawn restored. He was admitted to the hospital on June 25 and passed suddenly on June 28.
That afternoon I met with Mary and Mike, Jonnie’s daughter and son-in-law, at Oaklawn where Mary shared her desire for a celebration of Jonnie’s life. Jonnie was a Presbyterian, but not regular in his church attendance. His favorite blessing and prayer was brief and simple: “Much obliged, Jesus!” Mary wanted the service to truly reflect on Jonnie’s life, and she was uncertain about having a minister or not. Later, realizing that Jonnie was friends with the associate pastor at a local church, Mary asked her to officiate the service.
We walked into the backyard to the tennis court to survey the proposed location for his service. Two large, shading pecan trees were on the side of the tennis court and an adjacent area was opened and in full sunlight. That would be the ideal location for the service.
The large white tent should be placed in the open area and the service would be conducted there. A caterer would feed everyone after the service, and the dining tables could be perfectly be set under the shade of the pecan trees.
The weather is always a concern when planning any outdoor activity, and fortunately service day forecast was for temperatures in the low 90s with low humidity. That is perfect early July weather in the North Carolina sandhills.
By noon about 150 family and friends had arrived and the Pastor began the service. Strangely, as the service began a black cloud suddenly appeared overhead and a cooling breeze blew from the west, and that was followed by a few raindrops for perhaps 30 seconds. A few minutes later an Air Force jet flew loudly overhead, to which I heard someone remark, “For God’s sake, Jonnie. Quit trying to interrupt your funeral!”
Keeping with Jonnie’s musical tastes, a jazz rendition of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” was played, and that was followed by some real and humorous stories of Jonnie’s life given by a friend and cousin, the Hon. J. Dickson Phillips, his daughter, Mary and his grandson, Lee.
“I see trees of green … red roses too
I see ‘um bloom … for me and for you
And I think to myself … what a wonderful world …”
The last musical selection was Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”
The words seemed to touch upon everyone that knew Jonnie and his love of the outdoors, and the first tears of the service flowed freely.
The pastor then concluded with William Sloane Coffin’s famous benediction:
“May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May God’s face shine upon you and
be gracious unto you.
May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short;
grace to risk something big for something good;
grace to remember that the world is too dangerous
for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.
So, may God take your minds and think through them;
may God take your lips and speak through them;
may God take your hearts and set them on fire.
After that benediction grandson, Lee McLean led in the closing benediction popularized by his grandfather: “Much obliged, Jesus!”
Oaklawn, with over 164 years of heritage, lives on in the possession of yet another generation.