Hightower Hall is the first house most visitors see when they travel to Historic Brattonsville.
The three-story, Italianate house with the four-story tower, was built for John Simpson Bratton Jr. and his wife, Harriet Jane Rainey Bratton, between 1853 and 1854. Family manuscripts indicate that the house was first known as “Forest Hall.” By the mid-twentieth century, the house had become known as “High Tower Hall” for its iconic tower; subsequently abbreviated to “Hightower Hall,” as it is known today. In 1958, the house was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. R. F. Draper, from the heirs of the Bratton Family. Mr. Draper’s estate sold Hightower Hall and its surrounding acreage to Historic Brattonsville for its preservation in 1995.
Hightower Hall has been a well-known feature of the York County landscape for years. In 1999, the house was used by Columbia Pictures for the major motion picture entitled, The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. Between 2006 and 2009, Culture & Heritage Museums of York County completed an extensive rehabilitation project to modernize amenities inside Hightower Hall for use as a rental venue for private and public events. Although Hightower Hall is not open to the general public with paid admission to Historic Brattonsville, it is periodically opened to the public as part of special programming and tours. If you are interested in renting Hightower Hall for your next function, please go to http://chmuseums.org/rent-hb/ for more information.
The History of Hightower Hall
The impressive Italianate house, known today as Hightower Hall, was the home of John Simpson Bratton Jr. (1819-1888) and his wife, Harriet Jane Rainey (1826-1912). John S. Bratton Jr., the second son of Harriet Rainey and Dr. John Simpson Bratton, Sr., was born in 1819. As a young man, John, Jr. studied medicine with his younger brother, James Rufus, at South Carolina College. Following graduation, the brothers returned to Brattonsville to continue their post-graduation studies under their father’s tutelage. However, the unexpected death of Dr. John S. Bratton, Sr. on April 27, 1843 without a will left the estate, and their education, in question. While James Rufus continued his medical studies after their father’s death, John remained at Brattonsville to administer the estate. Once the estate was settled, John had received a sizeable portion of the Bratton plantation upon which he, eventually, built his fashionable house.
In 1848, John married his cousin, Harriet Jane Rainey. Evidence suggests that the newlyweds moved into the ancestral Bratton house, known today as the Colonel William Bratton House, shortly after their marriage. The United States Census of 1850 indicates that the land, farming implements, and livestock of John and Harriet’s developing cotton plantation was valued at $9,560. John, as an aspiring planter, looked to make the majority of his fortune off the backs of his enslaved people. He owned 19 enslaved people that worked his 1,600 acres and produced 60 bales of cotton.
Of those 19 enslaved people, two men, Lewis and Henry, are known to have sought freedom from their enslavers. In June 1851, Lewis escaped and sought refuge from a local man named Able Jonas. Jonas was unable to keep Lewis’s whereabouts concealed and was sued by Bratton for harboring Lewis. Lewis was eventually returned to the Brattons. Henry, a 35-year-old man, about five foot, nine inches tall with a “heavy black beard” and a mixture of gray hair, also escaped in June 1851. There are no records to suggest that Henry was ever returned to the Brattons; plausibly, acquiring his freedom.
By 1852, John and Harriet were looking to build a fashionable plantation house. They liked the appearance of Colonel William Wright’s Italianate house that had been completed by master builder O.P. Cranford in York, South Carolina. The couple contacted Cranford and, in August 1852, they had developed a materials list for their own house. On May 13, 1853, Cranford agreed to “…erect and build for said John S. Bratton on his plantation in York District a mansion or dwelling house… done and finished in the same style, manner, and form… as the house built in Yorkville, So. Carolina for Col. William Wright…”
Although Cranford and his team of carpenters were highly skilled artisans, they were not architects. Master builders, like Cranford, often relied upon pattern books published by architects for the design of a building. The design for John and Harriet’s house was informed by the two-volume pattern book published by William Ranlett in 1851 entitled, The Architect. In the section on “Cheap Houses” of the second volume, the plan modified for John and Harriet’s house was originally conceived by Ranlett to accommodate two families. The Brattons also chose to build Ranlett’s two-story house on a full basement and to create a tower over the entry by adding a story.
The architectural details of the Brattons’ house also conformed to the Italianate style of architecture popular in the United States between 1840 and 1885. Cranford erected a prominent central tower with a low-pitched hip roof, deep eaves with large brackets, and single-story porches with square columns. By August 1854, Cranford had finished the construction of the Brattons’ three-story, Italianate house and its iconic tower.
By the eve of the American Civil War, John and Harriet’s plantation had grown to 4,000 acres of land valued at $24,000 and worked by 38 enslaved people. The field hands cultivated the land with mule driven plows to produce cotton for market and corn for consumption on the plantation as meal, flour, or hominy. The enslaved shepherds raised sheep, pigs, and cattle. To support the operations of Forest Hall, a kitchen, smoke house, and 12 slave houses were constructed on the plantation.
Unlike his father, but like his grandfather, Colonel William Bratton, John S. Bratton Jr. was politically active. Prior to the American Civil War, John, briefly served as Brattonsville’s postmaster after the death of his brother, Robert, in 1850 and postal services were discontinued at Brattonsville in 1852. Between 1848 and 1861, he served as an elections manager for voting held at Brattonsville. And, during the American Civil War, John was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, the Soldier’s Board of Relief, and served in the state militia.
In the spring of 1865, an enslaved man, leased to John, named James Williams, escaped from Forest Hall and joined the Union Army. Upon Williams’ return in 1866, he became an active civil rights leader in York County. Williams was eventually appointed captain of a local state-established militia. These activities drew the attention of the Brattons and many other Whites seeking to maintain the pre-war social and racial status quo. John and his brother, James Rufus Bratton, joined the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. According to sworn testimony at the South Carolina Ku Klux Trials, James Rufus led Ku Klux members on a raid on March 7, 1871 that culminated with the murder of Captain James Williams. In 1872, both John and Rufus fled York County to escape prosecution and imprisonment. After several years of exile, both men received pardons, and returned home. Though Capt. James Williams never received justice, his actions and the actions of other brave African Americans planted seeds of resistance that eventually grew into the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
John died in 1888 and his wife Harriet died in 1912. Forest Hall passed to their daughter, Sophia, and her husband, Robert Witherspoon, with the house being referred to locally as the “Witherspoon Place.” Following the deaths of Robert in 1930 and Sophia in 1937, their descendants rented the plantation out to tenant farmers. By the mid-twentieth century, Forest Hall had become known as “High Tower Hall” for its iconic tower. In 1958, Mr. and Mrs. R.F. Draper purchased Hightower Hall from the heirs of Bratton Family. Draper was an executive with IBM and obtained the property with the intent to reside at the farm once he retired. He continued adding property to the farm until his death in 1995; eventually, acquiring 1,285 acres. With the help of the Nation Ford Land Trust, the Friends of Historic Brattonsville, and the York County Council, Historic Brattonsville was able to acquire John and Harriet’s plantation house and 485 surrounding acres from the Draper estate. The remaining acreage of the Draper property was purchased by the State of South Carolina and became part of the South Carolina Wildlife Management system.