The Rock House has been a source of mystery and ghost stories for generations of Greenwood residents. It was included in John Boyanaski’s book More Ghosts of Upstate South Carolina, though the incidents he describes were more just spooky happenings than a description of an actual haunting. The house now sits abandoned off of Rock House Road, its red tile roof missing and the stone walls covered in graffiti and grounds littered with beer bottles and trash.
As late as 2019 descendants of the Tolbert family owned the property. Riley Farms Holdings now owns the Rock House and surrounding farm and leases the property to a local gun club.
As previously mentioned, Thomas Payne Tolbert built the Rock House to withstand fire. So many of the Tolbert residences had been torched in the aftermath of the Phoenix Election Riot that he just didn’t want to see another one burn. A news article from 1925 about completion of the house described it as being like a “baronial castle of old.” The article goes on to describe the house’s construction.
The unique feature of the estate, and the center of interest, is the massive rock house, built entirely of huge slabs of stone blasted right there from Mr. Tolbert’s own land. There is not a single nail in the entire structure and not a piece of wood save for the tiny bits to which the locks and hinges are attached. The coloring of the rock is unusually beautiful shading from granite-gray to pale earth-tints of tan and rose brown.
The window casements and door facings are of steel and the windows class and the glass in the doors is of grand glass on one side and plain on the other and between these layers of glass fine mesh wire is inlaid.
The architecture of the house is very plain having two stories perfectly square with four rooms downstairs and four upstairs and through the exact center of the house form the front to the rear runs a wide hallway and in the middle of this is a great spiral staircase of iron and steel.
The flooring is made of steel reinforcements criss-crossed and filled in with rock and cement. The walls which are eighteen inches thick instead of being plastered are cemented smoothly over the rock.
The top of the house weighs thirty-five tons with its rafters of steel, its 12 steel beams going across the top and a red tile roof, which adds a quaint, old-English touch.
There is a wide open fire place in each of the eight rooms and no room opens into the other, each having its entrance into the wide central hall. The front of the house is flanked by a porch the length of the house and supported by four huge rock columns.Margaret Wright, Tolbert Rock House Is Nearing Completion, The Greenwood Index-Journal, September 6 ,1925
As grandiose as the house is described, Thomas Tolbert never lived in it. Instead, he lived in a small kitchen structure separate from the main building. The house was never occupied.
Over the years the Tolbert house faded into obscurity and became a landmark that county residents used to find other places. In 1952, twelve years after Tom Tolbert’s death, his fireproof home proved its worth. A wildfire devastated the surrounding woodlands but the Rock House held firm. Tolbert’s old residence, the separate kitchen structure, was consumed in the fire.
The land recovered and the Rock House once again sank into the undergrowth. A 1965 news article said that it “Stands deserted among vines, undergrowth.”
The first time I drove past the Rock House was years ago. It was obscured by trees and undergrowth and not easily seen from Rock House Road. When I returned in 2020 logging operations had made the house more visible.
This time the house was even more visible with no leaves to obscure the view. We parked across the road and made our way up to the house, ignoring the No Trespassing signs. What we found was truly sad. Just about every inch of the interior walls were covered with graffiti. The grand steel spiral staircase was long gone, having either been removed by the owners to prevent theft or actually stolen, depending on which source you read. All that remained was a circular opening in the ceiling.
The steel beams that once supported a red tile roof were most visible in the entryway.
Over the entryway one can still make out an inscription, though it’s now obscured by black graffiti – “Tolbert 1922”.
We wandered out back to look around the grounds. Steel roof beams poked over the edge of the walls.
Even the chimneys weren’t free from the ravages of the graffiti “artists”.
Rather than feeling haunted, I felt a profound sense of sadness. I would have loved to have seen this place in its prime, before it was abandoned and desecrated.
We left the Rock House and drove back to the Benjamin Mays Historic Site to retrieve Dwight’s car. Chris Thomas had finished with his tours and was joined by Loy Sartin and a construction crew working on the old birthplace house. We chatted a bit more, then headed on our way back home.
The Election Riots of 1898, the Tolberts and Ethridges, and the grandeur of the old Rock House may have faded into memory, but there are still reminders of the legacy of Phoenix. There are still lots of Confederate flags adorning farm houses. The name “Phoenix” even pops up several places in Greenwood.
This MLK Day Ramble turned out to be a success on multiple levels. We were able to learn about a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., and I was finally able to put to rest a blog post that had been plaguing me since June of 2020.