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Down on the farm… with the Rockefellers: The rustic charms of their one-time vacation home


By: Catherine Pritchard

The paint is peeling and the rooms are bare.

But there’s still plenty at Long Valley Farm to excite the imagination about the fabulously wealthy Rockefellers who owned the 1,420-acre property outside Spring Lake for nearly 70 years and vacationed there, particularly when the weather was cool.

“They usually came down the day after Christmas,” says Colleen Bowers, a ranger at Carvers Creek State Park of which the farm is now a part.

James Stillman Rockefeller and his family would then hunt, fish, hike and even swim in the millpond if the weather was nice.

And from photos and stories collected by the park, it’s clear they had a wonderful time.

The house, which is opened for tours at least once each month, is a memorial to those heydays.

James S. Rockefeller, whose grandfather and great uncle founded Standard Oil, bought the Long Valley Farm property in 1937. Then about 35, the Yale graduate already had plenty of accomplishments to his own name, including an Olympic gold medal (he captained a winning rowing crew at the 1924 games in Paris); he was married (to a great-niece of Andrew Carnegie); he had four children; and he was well-established at the bank over which he would eventually preside (you know it today as Citibank, or Citicorp).

Rockefeller was well-acquainted with the Long Valley Farm area. Percy Rockefeller, his uncle, owned the Overhills estate, based just a few miles away and which had included the farm property among its thousands of acres. But Overhills, originally an exclusive club, was much grander than John S. Rockefeller’s house at the farm would be. Overhills boasted elegant brick homes and grounds, a clubhouse, a golf course designed by Donald Ross, a polo field and stables.

In contrast, Long Valley Farm was a working farm and would be anchored by the sprawling traditional Colonial Revival home that John S. Rockefeller had built for his family. Completed in 1938, the 6,000-square-foot, six-bedroom home overlooks a large millpond where Rockefeller reportedly liked to go skinny-dipping. Bowers said holly trees were planted to provide discretion.

Rockefeller had the home built with practicality and conservation in mind. While window frames, shutters, door jambs, porch ceilings and columns and the like were painted – and now are peeling – the home’s exterior was clad in wood-grained asbestos siding that never had to be painted and thus never was.

Paint was used sparingly inside as well. Instead, most of the walls, floors and ceilings are clad in plain pine planking, giving a visitor the feeling of walking through huge wooden boxes. The planks aren’t uniform in size. That’s because they were repurposed from a hardware store in Pittsboro. Bowers said the reuse of materials pleased Rockefeller, who was an ardent environmentalist. Some of the planks are extremely wide and clearly were once the heart of giant old pine trees.

There are exceptions to the expanses of wood. In the kitchen, for example, the green Formica countertops and the brick-printed linoleum on the floor and one wall are proof both of a long-ago update of the room as well as the fact that even the Rockefellers fell prey to ‘70s-era décor.

But the home was also built for comfort and enjoyment. Two expansive one-story wings that extend from the two-story main body of the house contain the dining room and the family room, each equipped with its own massive fireplace. A sign with “damper opened” on one side and “damper closed” on the other still hangs by the dining room fireplace.

Visitors might also take note of the strings that still hang like festoons along the top of the walls in the dining room. When the state took possession of the property in 2010, park rangers found dozens of unbroken wishbones from past Rockefeller meals hanging on the strings. It had apparently been a Long Valley Farm tradition. The strings were kept. The wishbones, though, live on only in photos. “It was a little gross,” Bowers said.

Across the hall from the dining room is the room that John S. Rockefeller used as an office. Back in his day, it was decorated with like tobacco leaves from the farm; spurs, beards and feathers from successful turkey hunts; fishing poles and lures; duck decoys; arrowheads; and souvenirs from Rockefeller’s days in the military – during World War II, he served as a lieutenant colonel on the staff of the U.S. Airborne Command, which, conveniently, was based at Fort Bragg.

He appreciated security – demonstrated by three closets in the home that were each equipped with five different kinds of locks. He kept his guns and ammunition in one of those closets.

And he apparently appreciated the value of a secret hidey hole. When rangers explored the home, they found the built-in bookshelves in the den had false backs that could be opened to reveal hidden storage space. That came was news to Rockefeller relatives who’d stayed at the house many times over the years, Bowers said. (Nothing was found in there.)

The house has six bedrooms, each with its own bathroom and its own unique fireplace. Hand-carved bay leaves adorn the wooden mantel legs of the fireplace in the master bedroom.

The house has some unusual amenities, including two wash closets off the upstairs and downstairs halls. The closets are just big enough for a sink where people standing outside the closet could lean in and wash their hands.

There’s also an early version of a motorized lift chair attached to the wall beside the sole staircase. That was put in for John S. Rockefeller’s wife, Nancy. Bowers said Rockefeller installed cabinet-type handles along the wall of the staircase so he could grasp them, along with the bannister on the other side, as he went up and down.

The Rockefellers spent plenty of time outdoors at Long Valley Farm as well as in. Besides hunting, fishing and hiking, John S. Rockefeller had metal hooks placed in a tall pine so he could climb high up, find a good spot to sit and then read whatever book he’d brought with him.

He didn’t feel the need for a lot of talk. Bowers said he and his uncle Percy, the owner of Overhills, would reportedly get together and just sit, not saying anything. They were perfectly happy.

John S. Rockefeller made regular visits to Long Valley Farm from his grand home in Greenwich, Connecticut, into his 90s. He was 102 when he died in 2004. Long Valley Farm was bequeathed to the Nature Conservancy, which in 2010 gave the land to the North Carolina state parks system for inclusion in the newly created Carvers Creek State Park.

Long Valley was still a working farm when Rockefeller died and several longtime employees still lived there. In his will, Rockefeller made sure those workers would be able to remain in their homes for the rest of their lives. One still lives in his home on the park property.

The farm, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, is being used for conservation as well as recreation. There are hiking trails, picnic grounds and fishing areas. Plans call for some of the farm’s outbuildings to be renovated and opened to the public to interpret the land’s agricultural history, which dates back to the 1800s.

Plans also call for the Rockefeller home on the property to be renovated and turned into a multi-use educational and community center, with exhibits interpreting the park’s natural history and cultural lore, as well as the history of Long Valley Farm and the nearby Overhills estate. The latter is now part of Fort Bragg and is off-limits to the public.

The home has been given a new roof but further work was stalled when the millpond dam breached in 2016, causing a dramatic flood on the property and necessitating repairs. That work is nearly done.

“It’s going to take quite a bit of money,” Bowers said.

But money from the N.C. Connect Bond package has been set aside for the work. As part of Carvers Creek State Park, Long Valley Farm will continue to provide a haven for people who enjoy the outdoors and also for those who appreciate the story of this area’s Rockefellers and their generosity.

To find out the schedule of tours of the Rockefeller home at Long Valley Farm, check ncparks.gov/carvers-creek-state-park.