The Rockefellers of the Sandhills
11/06/2014 02:37PM ● Published by Annette Winter
A family whose last name is synonymous with wealth and prosperity around the world roamed the outdoors in Cumberland and southern Harnett County, in what were the famed and exclusive Overhills. A few of them also made their home at Long Valley Farm which is now North Carolina’s newest state park, Carver’s Creek. This large family would be none other than the Rockefellers.
Nowadays, the wealthy are usually associated with having more luxurious hobbies like shopping and traveling to the South of France or other exotic locales. There is no doubt the Rockefellers partook in such, but they also enjoyed the lush, natural landscape the Sandhills had to offer for outdoorsy activities. Overhills served as a ritzy, yet rustic, hunting and outdoor club reserved for only the wealthiest industrialists and millionaires beginning in 1913.
Percy Rockefeller, nephew of the infamous Standard Oil tycoon John D., acquired Overhills prior to the Great Depression. Overhills was an oasis while others were suffering in pre-war America. The over 40,000-acre property featured a Donald Ross designed golf course and attractions that included: fishing, swimming, polo, tennis and foxhunting. (Donald Ross is also the same gentleman who designed the famed Pinehurst No. 2 course).
And foxhunting is what brought Rudolph Singleton Sr., a professional huntsman, to Overhills to work for Percy. If that name sounds familiar to you, it is because he is the father of Rudolph Singleton Jr., a longtime, prominent Fayetteville attorney. Rudolph Sr. moved to Overhills from Lexington, Kentucky. During the depression, he was attracted to the area not only because it was a job offer from a Rockefeller, but also because his wife was from nearby Sampson County. The senior Singleton served as the estate’s master huntsman, presiding over the foxhunting. The junior Singleton only spent two years there, from 1933 to 1935. However, he recalled that those were some of his best years, where he spent his days making mischief. Once, he even released 24 rabbits from their cages. “I was a daring four-year-old,” said Singleton Jr. He remembered how Percy and the rest of the Rockefeller clan plus influential guests would only spend a few weeks there out of the year. The rest of the time it was a private and a rather exclusive playground for those who worked and served the esteemed family.
Unfortunately, Percy died in 1934 and Singleton Sr. was faced with a decision. Though he had a job offer from other Rockefeller landowners in Old Chatam, New York, he chose to stay closer to his wife’s home. They eventually settled in a quaint home on General Lee Avenue, where their only child grew up in the Fayetteville community.
Though Overhills is long gone since it was acquired by Fort Bragg in the mid 1990s, memories of it still remain and are told by Fayettevillians like Singleton Jr. and Marie Darden Melvin whose father, Troy Darden, operated the dairy farm before and after Percy’s death until 1952.
Marie remembered that the Rockefeller family largely kept to themselves, but were always very kind to employees. Every Christmas, a large party was held and gifts were given to those who worked at Overhills and their children. “Most of the families had just one or two children, but my momma and daddy had SIX!” exclaimed Marie.
Crossing west over Highway 87 from Overhills is James Stillman Rockefeller’s estate, Long Valley Farm. The farm became a state park in 2013 after it was left in the will to The Nature Conservancy after his death at 102 in 2004. Stillman Rockefeller was quite the man. As an Olympic rowing gold medalist, founder of Citibank and U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, the farm served as a retreat for Stillman Rockefeller and his wealthy-in-her-own-right wife, Nancy Carnegie and their children.
During World War II, he was assigned to Fort Bragg and entertained many generals and other dignitaries at his Carvers Creek home. At the entrance facing the water, are two inactive mortars gracing the doorframe, beckoning any guest into the rustic retreat.
Stillman Rockefeller spent holidays and winter months at the farm. Melvin recalled attending a large Fourth of July gathering every year that was open to all who worked at Overhills, Long Valley Farm and those nearby. “There were fireworks… the most gorgeous I have ever seen, a big dinner, dancing, really the whole nine yards,” she remembered with a smile. “They had lots of dances there for the adults.” Though both Rockefeller men had a taste for earthy grandeur, Stillman Rockefeller seemed to be more of the “party animal.” The dining room at Long Valley Farm was capable of having large dinners for up to 50 people. He had a hard time throwing things away and kept a string from wall-to-wall with every wishbone from every turkey or chicken eaten for dinner. Over six decades, there were countless wishbones fossilized.
Indeed, much of the untapped history in this area is just as rich as the stories of the two estates.