Note- the following is only a very brief history of Rural Hill. Much more research and information is available at Historic Rural Hill. To view these materials, simply stop by the Rural Hill Offices. To set up an appointment for research, please email info@RuralHill.net
Rural Hill is the historic homestead of Major John and Violet Wilson Davidson. John was a Major in the Mecklenburg County Militia prior to and during the Revolutionary War and was also a signer of the May 20, 1775 Mecklenburg County Declaration of Independence, commonly known as the “Meck Dec”.
In 1752, 16-year-old John Davidson moved to Mecklenburg County with his sister and recently widowed mother from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. John, trained as a blacksmith, began to acquire land as soon as he reached maturity (21). After marrying Violet Wilson in 1761, John bought 250 acres of undeveloped land from his father-in-law and built a two-room log cabin (called “Rural Retreat”) for his small family in 1765.
After the Revolutionary War Major John began a land acquisition spree that would last 20 years, eventually owning a total of 995 acres. After building the mansion house “Rural Hill” in 1788, Major John would soon enter the burgeoning Iron Industry of nearby Lincoln County, forming Brevard, Davidson & Co. with his two sons-in-law in 1792. This investment would make all men involved very rich and prominent members of the community. In 1804 Major John sold his interest to his sons-in-law. At that time the business owned 5,000 acres, nine slaves, had over $8,000 in cash and had other property valued at $5,000.
At the age of 88 Major John retired, telling his son-in-law William Lee Davidson, Jr. to sell all but three of his slaves, all but two of his horses (he was still an avid horseman even into his 90’s), and all of his cattle, provisions, furniture, tools and farming equipment. William was to distribute the proceeds from this sale according to Major John’s Will of 1823. Major John soon went to live with his daughter and son-in-law William Lee Davidson at nearby Beaver Dam Plantation. Major John would die at the age of 98.
After Major John’s retirement, Rural Hill continued to grow and prosper greatly as one of the largest plantations in Mecklenburg County. Major John’s son Jacky took up residence at the age of 44, managing the property with his 21-year-old son Adam Brevard, known as A.B. Davidson. Jacky retired at the age of 58, turning the plantation over to A.B., who would go on to add a very large grist mill to the property, which already boasted a saw mill which provided the lumber to construct near-by Davidson College (named after Major John’s Cousin, General William Lee Davidson). A cotton gin was constructed as well in order to process Rural Hill’s cash crop. All of these mills were located along the river near present day Mountain Island Lake.
Slavery was a fact of life, including at Rural Hill. The enormous amount of labor performed on a near-daily basis would not have been possible if it weren’t for a large group of slaves working on the property. According to census records, it can be determined that there were usually about 30 enslaved persons living at Rural Hill from 1790 up until the Civil War. Typically, about half of this number were female and about one-third were children under the age of 14. Most of what we know about the African Americans living at Rural Hill during this time comes from the farm journals of A.B. Davidson, which have recently been transcribed in their entirety. Historic Rural Hill is continuing efforts to research and highlight the lives of these former inhabitants.
The Civil War brought and end to slavery and claimed or altered the lives of many, including the Davidsons. Three of A.B. Davidson’s six sons fought in the war. Robert Augustus died at the age of 23 shortly after returning home from being a Prisoner of War. A.B. moved to Charlotte after the War, leaving the property under the management of his oldest son, John Springs, who lived in the Rural Hill mansion until it burned in 1886. After the fire, the small family moved into the original Rural Retreat cabin, which had been expanded and improved upon over its long history. In 1898 the cabin burned as well, leaving only the kitchen house to the mansion as an inhabitance.
When John Springs died in 1899, the property was passed on to his second son Jo Graham, who gradually improved and modified the kitchen house so that he and his wife could raise their four children, none of whom would marry or have children. Rural Hill remained in the Davidson family until 1992, when the last surviving children (John Springs, Elizabeth, and Annie May) sold the property to Mecklenburg County.
Historic Rural Hill is now a non-profit historic site, farm, and events center dedicated to protecting Rural Hill for generations to come through a combination of research, educational programs, community events, and land preservation.
As stated above, this is a very, very brief synopsis of the full history of Rural Hill. With over 350 pages of researched history and transcribed documents, it is impossible to share it all online. Much is owed to local historians Jim and Ann Williams, who have published the Rural Hill Farm Journals of Adam Brevard Davidson. The Williams’ continue to research the Davidson family of Rural Hill, and are hoping to publish the definitive history of Major John Davidson and Rural Hill soon. Visitors are welcome to stop by the Rural Hill office to view copies of the journal and other researched material.