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Sunday, July 8, 2001

Army urged to preserve Rockefeller retreat

By Matt Leclercq
Staff writer
An Army study that will consider ideas offered by the public will determine the fate of the Rockefellers’ former golf course and hideaway in southwest Harnett County.

Staff photo by Steve Aldridge
The Overhills Lake, once a part of the old Rockefeller estate north of Spring Lake, is now part of Fort Bragg.

The Army bought the family’s Overhills estate in 1997 to use as training grounds, paying $29.4 million for about 11,000 acres.

The federally mandated study will determine future uses of the land, including “the Hill” -- a cluster of estate buildings dating to 1918. A golf course built by famous designer Donald Ross is on the southwest part of the property.

The Army says it will consider all possibilities: It could decide to use the property strictly for training; designate part of the Hill for youth golfing, horseback riding and hiking; or the property could accommodate both training and recreation.

The Army conducts training on the property with units of 100 soldiers.

“The consideration runs the gamut,” said Lt. Col. Roger King, a Fort Bragg spokesman.

“We get a variety of comments,” he said Friday. “They’re all looked at and considered, they’re all balanced against the Army’s needs.”

About a third of the Overhills tract is in Cumberland County. The rest is in Harnett County. More than three dozen people, including those who live next to the property, attended a public meeting June 5. The meeting allowed the Army to hear comments about how to use the land.

A second meeting is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Cumberland County Headquarters Library on Maiden Lane.

Old times remembered

Athena Belton, whose land borders the Overhills property, remembers going to the estate as a girl for barbecues, Easter egg hunts, Christmas parties and other events for employees’ families. Her mother did laundry for the Rockefellers.

graphic “They would have a big Christmas tree that reached almost to the top,” Belton said, thinking back to parties inside the mansion. “They would have gifts for every child that was present.”

Belton’s son attended the June 5 meeting on her behalf. Belton, now 78, says she would like to see the estate preserved.

“It is really some place that you would hate to see torn down and trampled down,” she said. “You would just love to know it was there, even though you weren’t participating in anything with it.”

Percy Avery Rockefeller, a nephew of industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, bought 30,000 acres of Overhills in 1917 -- around the same time the Army opened Camp Bragg.

Averill Harriman, a former New York governor who made his fortune in the railroads, was also a party to the purchase.

The land became a winter playground for the families, where they golfed, fished, hunted fox and played polo.

Five Rockefeller children inherited the estate in 1938, after Percy Rockefeller and his wife, Isabel, died. The family continued to use the land as a resort until the 1990s.

In 1993, Congress appropriated $15 million for the Army to buy 11,000 acres of Overhills and 102 acres east of Simmons Army Airfield.

Sen. Jesse Helms stalled the deal a year later, saying the federal government needed to give more money to Harnett County for schools.

About 7,000 acres of the Overhills property is in Harnett County, which stood to lose $24,000 a year in tax revenue when the land became part of Fort Bragg.

The sale went through in 1997 after further negotiations with the Rockefellers, in which the Army agreed to pay $29.4 million.

The Army gave Harnett County $1 million and 157 acres for schools, and promised to help with construction projects.

History cited

The historical significance of the estate has attracted attention from across the region.
Contributed photo
Percy Rockefeller at the Overhills Fox Hunt Club in 1919.

Herb Stiles Jr., a Fayetteville resident who owns an industrial cleaning company, spoke at the June meeting about the importance of local families’ ties to the Rockefeller estate.

“They had their place in history,” Stiles said Friday. “And here we have an opportunity to take just a small section of the Hill and to make some type of historical place where people of all ages can come to learn a little bit about North Carolina history and this wonderful family.”

Stiles and others want to raise money to bring the First Tee program to Overhills. First Tee teaches golf to disadvantaged children.

Stiles said he also imagines hiking down old walking trails that cut through longleaf pine forests.

The Donald Ross Society is interested in the fate of the golf course.

John Waugh of Pinehurst represented the group at the June meeting. He and others said the course is like a rare work of art.

“I understand the needs of the military and respect the needs of the military,” said Waugh, who is retired. “But I also learned at the first meeting that they’ve been doing light training. Surely that can coexist in some way.”

Donald Ross designed some of the best courses in the country, but many of them have been modified or destroyed over the years, Waugh said. Before bulldozers made it easy to sculpt courses, Ross’ design followed the natural terrain.

“It’s like a painting. You like the painting or you don’t,” Waugh said. “Hang around enough paintings or golf courses and you can tell the difference. This man must have had the gift.”

Harnett County Manager Neil Emory said he plans to send a representative to Thursday’s meeting.

“I think we’ve always had an interest in seeing that golf course preserved,” Emory said. “That’s just part of our heritage.”

Staff writer Matt Leclercq can be reached at 486-3551 or

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