After nearly three years of renovations, local developer James O’Neal is almost ready to unveil to the public the architectural masterpiece that is North Augusta’s historic Hammond House.
A little over a mile away from the downtown district, in the midst of Martintown Road’s collections of modern subdivisions, sits the Hammond House. Built around 1775 by Revolutionary War patriot Charles Hammond, the home is a rare survivor of suburban sprawl.
Hammond House was placed on the National Historic Registry in 1973, but few at the time knew the full history of the house itself. According to O’Neal, it was placed on the registry to prevent the widening of Martintown Road which would have destroyed the two giant Magnolia trees that occupy the front lawn.
The house has a rich history and is connected not only to the founding of the United States as well as present day North Augusta, but it is also connected to an infamous murder that occured in 1800 and that is considered Augusta and North Augusta’s first “scandal.”
Charles Hammond (1716 – 1794) was originally from Richmond County, Virginia. Hammond found himself politically at odds with the Royalists in Richmond, and due to political pressure, he and his wife decided to move the family to South Carolina where he built his house and plantation.
Hammond’s son, John (1745 -1800), would go on to found the settlement of Campbelltown in 1780, which would later become what is now the city of North Augusta.
According to historian Dr. Mark Newell, Charles Hammond operated a cotton plantation that would have stretched from the Hammond House location on Martintown Road all the way to present day I-20.
“If you look closely, you can still see the mounds that formed terraces for growing cotton in the present landscape,” Newell said.
Meanwhile, Charles Hammond’s son, John, operated what was known as Hammond’s Ferry, a business that transported people and goods such as cotton and tobacco across the Savannah River. His direct competitor in the ferry business was Ezekiel Harris, for whom the Harrisburg neighborhood in downtown Augusta is named, and the feud that developed between the two men would become legendary.
Over the years, the two rivals would accuse one another of burning each other’s ferries in the middle of the night.
On the night of May 21, 1800, Hammond was found shot with a musket, and he died from his wounds three weeks later. He never identified his attacker. Harris certainly was the prime suspect in the crime, but it was never proven that he was the assailant. The newspapers of the time were curiously mum on the high profile murder.
It is almost certain that Hammond was not involved in a duel. In the early days of the 19th century, dueling was frowned upon, but not illegal. Many duels that occured during that time did not end in a combatant being killed as duels were more considered a symbolic act to protect one’s honor.
Also, because of the symbolism involved, almost all duels had witnesses. No one came forward as a witness to Hammond’s shooting, so the crime remains unsolved to this day. John Hammond was buried near his father in the cemetery adjacent to Hammond House.
As for Harris, he would later claim bankruptcy and leave the city of Augusta.
The original heart of pine and clapboard Hammond home was built in the boxy Federal style. It was later enlarged, and massive porches in the Greek Revival style were added around 1830.
The house stayed in the Hammond family for decades with many descendants joining their ancestors Charles and John Hammond in the family cemetery. The house then changed hands, and for a time during the 1950s and 1960s was converted into apartments.
In the 1980s, the home underwent renovation by the Eubanks family, but by the time it was put on the market nearly 30 years later, it was badly in need of a full restoration.
Such a project is not for the faint of heart.
“What can I say? My OCD kicked in, and I just kinda obsessed over every little detail. It really became a labor of love,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal says he fell in love with the house when he was a teenager, and when the opportunity arose, he immediately bought the property. According to O’Neal, he never had the intention of fixing up the property for resale, but rather, he wanted to restore the house properly back to its mid-19th century glory and then find a way to open it up to the community.
A proper restoration meant the house would have to be stripped down to its skeleton. Siding from the 1980s had to be removed, and the crumbling porches had to be stripped bare and rebuilt by hand.
Once the house was stripped to its bare bones, O’Neal discovered something amazing. The majority of the house had been constructed without the use of nails.
“When we removed the siding, we found that the house was constructed using mortise and tenon joints. The craftsmanship is just incredible. They were able to put the house together pretty much without using nails!” O’Neal said.
The mortise and tenon method of building involved using logs almost a foot in width that are hand cut into massive timbers and the ends are cut specific to fit like a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece was numbered by deeply etching into the wood so that the builders would know which pieces fit together.
The wood was left partially unseasoned so that some sap would remain in the veins. When the pieces were placed together, a wooden peg was driven in with a mallet and over time, the sap would seep into the joints creating a natural glue, eliminating the need for nails.
None of the original frame shows any signs of decay despite being over 200 years old.
There were more surprises inside the house. As the layers of wallpaper were carefully removed in the dining room, remnants of the original wallpaper were found. O’Neal said that he wanted to try to recreate that wallpaper that hung against the heart of pine walls but found it impossible.
“I have had experts come in, and no one can figure out how the original builders got the wallpaper to stick properly,” O’Neal said.
Instead, O’Neal chose to preserve and frame a piece of the original wallpaper and stain the original wood to a deep red, which would have been a prime color choice for the federal period.
In the front sitting room, O’Neal opted to leave the ornate textured wallpaper, but painted it Prussian Blue, a favorite color of George Washington and other wealthy people of the era.
“Colors such as blues and reds were harder to come by, and so they were a symbol of status, and this home was definitely a status symbol, so I think that color is perfect,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal is the first to admit that he is not a historian with a PhD, so over the period of renovating the home, he reached out to noted historians such as Dr. Newell, Eric Montgomery from Historic Augusta Inc. and Dr. John Leader of the University of South Carolina to assist.
Leader brought out his team of students from USC and conducted several archaeological surveys including a magnetometer scan that found remnants of buildings around the area near the house.
“There are remnants left all over the property that tell us so much about the people who lived there and the people who worked on the house. There are even fingerprints and palm prints left by the African-American slaves that shaped the bricks which form the foundation of the home,” Leader said.
Now that the restoration of the Hammond House is nearing completion, O’Neal says he has no plans to move his family into the house. Rather, he wants to open the house to the community, and he feels the best way is to allow the property to be used, on a very limited basis, as a bed and breakfast mainly for wedding parties.
“This is not a commercial venture, not at all. But I also don’t want the house to be just a museum. It needs to be a place where people in our community can come and experience the history and feel like they are almost transported back to the 1830s with modern conveniences available,” O’Neal said.
Leader agrees and says the property tells a “plethora” of stories, and he credits O’Neal for having the vision to undergo a proper restoration of the home, no matter the cost.
“Mr. O’Neal’s work is extraordinarily commendable,” Leader said.
…and that is something you might not have known.