Kingdom of the Happy Land
Kingdom of the Happy Land by Gary Carden. Acrylic on canvas, 36”x24”.
Sometime before the end of the Civil War, when “Father Abraham” had abolished slavery, thousands of African Americans found themselves facing an uncertain future. They were called “freedmen,” but how would they live? Where would they go? Many moved aimlessly through the ravaged South like nomads, living off the land, searching for direction and community. Their former owners were destitute and powerless to help them, and the very earth seemed hostile.
In this desperate time, a number of men appeared who said, “Follow me.” One such man was a slave named William. According to a nearly forgotten tale, he had once lived on a great plantation in Mississippi; however, he had been blessed by fortune. His father was a white man who had provided his son with advantages. William became a house servant and was taught to read and write. Blessed with a quick mind and a profound intellect, he became a leader at an early age, serving as a preacher and advisor to his people. He eventually married a slave named Luella. When freedom came, William, who had adopted the name of his former owner and father, Montgomery, called his freed brethren together and told them of his plan.
According to the story that has been passed down, William had heard of a land to the east. It was located at the foot of a mountain and encircled by a river. It could be reached by a great highway over which ceaseless multitudes passed—droves of cattle, wagons laden with meat and molasses, merchants, drivers and stagecoaches—moving back and forth between the Low Country and the mountains. William Montgomery told his people that their promised land lay in the valleys and coves of those mountains. “There, we can own land, till the soil and raise a family,” he said. “If we stay together and help each other, we will prosper. Remember, all for one and one for all.”
Approximately 150 freedmen cast their lot with Montgomery and departed Mississippi for a new beginning in the east. The ravaged land through which they passed provided meager sustenance. The ruined fields sometimes yielded chickpeas, potatoes and yams. As they moved across Alabama and into South Carolina, they sometimes caught half-wild mules and horses—animals that would be useful in the promised land. They often passed nights camped near streams and found shelter for themselves and their animals beneath trees or in abandoned barns. Everywhere, they encountered other freedmen and as their little caravan progressed, their numbers grew.
In the stories passed down about the “first comers,” when Montgomery and his followers entered South Carolina and found the fabled road that passed through places named Enoree River, Callahan Mountain and Winding Stair, they began hearing stories that verified the existence of their promised land, a place in the mountains to which the white folks made annual pilgrimages, somewhere up in the high country where tracts of uninhabited land stretched for miles.
At the North Carolina line, shortly after they had passed the wreckage of Union breastworks that had once blocked all travel on the road, they came to a place called Oakland, the home of Col. John Davis and his wife “Miss Serepta.” [Editor’s note: The property was located near the present town of Tuxedo, N.C., in Henderson County.]
Some of the freedmen Montgomery encountered in the area told him that the widowed Miss Serepta and her son Tom owned thousands of acres of farmland, now idle and unplowed. Miss Serepta’s former slaves were gone to seek their fortune elsewhere, and all of Col. Davis’ livestock and possessions had been swept away by marauders and the Union troops. The aging lady and her son Tom, now virtually penniless, were struggling to survive by providing food and lodging for the few random travelers, journeymen who were beginning to appear again on the great road, en route to North Carolina and Tennessee. For William Montgomery and his band, Oakland proved to be their heaven-sent opportunity.
Miss Serepta readily agreed to Robert’s offer: shelter and food in exchange for domestic chores. As winter turned to spring, the “first comers” began plowing, planting and repairing Oakland’s old slave quarters. The few animals that had survived the long journey were kept in a dilapidated barn. The mountainside yielded firewood and timber for log houses—each with a chimney constructed from chunks of granite dug from the surrounding hillsides. The Happy Land had begun.
There is no way of knowing the original population of “Happy Land,” but it is likely that their numbers grew after William Montgomery made a pact with Miss Serepta. He and his followers would assist the lady and her son in converting Oakland into a thriving lodging house, a place where travelers and visitors could stay throughout the summer and into the fall. The first comers would tend the gardens, raise the broilers and fryers, milk the cows, churn the butter, and do the laundry. Oakland flourished and eventually, William approached his landlady with a plan by which he could buy tracts of land at one dollar an acre. Miss Serepta agreed.
Weary freedmen continued to arrive for years. A group came from Coe Ridge, Kentucky; others came from devastated plantations in Georgia and lower South Carolina. There is evidence that suggests that by 1870, the total population of the Kingdom exceeded 400.
According to the descendants of the original settlers, Montgomery developed a “communal settlement” with himself and his wife Luella as King and Queen. Almost a century later, descendants of the original settlers would recall that their parents and grandparents had talked vaguely of William’s desire to recreate an African tribal village, complete with ancient rituals and customs. William and Luella had adjoining cabins, which contained thrones. Further, legend asserts that the “royal cabins” were constructed on the boundary between North Carolina and South Carolina with William’s cabin in North Carolina and Luella’s in South Carolina—a precaution that was designed to save half of the Kingdom should unforeseen events cause the loss of the other.
As both Oakland and Montgomery’s Kingdom prospered, William’s followers sought employment as craftsmen and laborers throughout the region. Often working for as little as 10 cents a day, the first comers gave their earnings to William who always accepted the money restating his old admonishment, “All for one and one for all.” Montgomery deposited the funds in a common treasury. In time King William began dispensing money at his discretion. He established communal gardens, developed a network of storage barns and bought more land. By 1873, the Happy Land Kingdom had become an independent, self-sustaining community.
As commerce thrived throughout the region, Happy Land developed a diversity of trades and crafts. Taking advantage of the great road that had brought them to Oakland, the Happy Landers became teamsters, sending wagons loaded with produce to the surrounding towns and cities. Carpenters, weavers and basket-makers thrived, and with the approval of the King and Queen, the skilled craftsmen sometimes sought employment and lodging in nearby places. However, they returned at intervals to the Kingdom with their earnings, committed to the dream of owning their own land, a communal tract where married couples could build a cabin and raise a family.
One of the old tales concerns a popular product called “Happy Land Liniment,” a concoction of herbs and unguents that was provided by the King and Queen to their followers for the treatment of rheumatism and aching muscles. Other potions with curative powers were also available, including a Balm in Gilead that was made from catnip, which purportedly improved appetite and general well-being.
In time, the original founders of the Kingdom, including William Montgomery, died. Consequently, many of the details of the Kingdom’s origin and history were lost. One of several conflicting stories notes that William had made careful plans for his succession, and that his brother, Robert, had been prepared to take his place. One of the details that has survived regarding King Montgomery’s death is a fragmented account of a Happy Land ceremony in which the mournful chant, “The King is dead” is replaced by a triumphant “Long live the King,” as the new ruler took his place in the vacant throne chair.
Although information about daily life in the Happy Kingdom is scant, there are a few tantalizing details. After the Kingdom broke up about 1900, former residents moved to nearby towns where they acquired employment as tradesmen and servants. In later years they told stories and anecdotes about their lives in “an earthly Eden.” They remembered an old granite stepping stone that marked the site of a chapel in which children were trained and weekly religious services were conducted. Oral tradition in the region recalls the “Kingdom Singers,” organized by Queen Luella, which traveled throughout the settlement and beyond each summer, performing musical programs.
Although there are few surviving documents that verify the existence of the Kingdom, a careful search of county records verifies the existence of a few deeds for tracts of land near Oakland.
One of the most interesting tales deals with a black, itinerate minister, Rev. Ezel, who appears to have been a self-appointed recruiter for the Kingdom. Preaching in small towns throughout South Carolina, Ezel acquired many faithful followers in the vicinity of Newbury, Union, Cross Anchor and Enoree, where he sometimes assumed the role of a 19th century Moses who led the chosen to the Happy Land. Apparently, Rev. Ezel did not become a resident himself but continued to preach in remote villages. In 1957, an 85-year-old resident of Hendersonville, Ezel Couch, vowed that he was born in 1872 and was named for a traveling minister. Couch stated that his family lived in Union, S.C., and he was brought to the Kingdom by his parents when he was one year old.
Why did the Kingdom of the Happy Land vanish? Ironically, its demise was largely due to changes in the great road which had brought them to Oakland and provided them with a market for their wares and produce.
With the coming of the railroad, the region discovered a new and more efficient means of transporting commercial produce. Happy Land’s wagons, the life blood of the Kingdom, became obsolete. By 1900, virtually all of the residents had departed, and within a decade the majority of the original structures had fallen. Today, visitors find nothing but a few chimneys and the collapsed gravestones in the cemetery—none of which retained the names of the deceased.
In 1910, a portion of the land where the Kingdom had once thrived (now called Stanton Mountain near Greenville, S.C.) was bought by a local farmer, Joe Bell. In time, he dismantled and removed most of the original homes. In 1985, Joe’s grandson, Ed, and his uncle Frank, agreed to be interviewed about their memories of the Kingdom and made a return trip to the original site with a group of students from Northwest Middle School in Traveler’s Rest, S.C.
Standing in the rubble of a cabin, the two men pointed to the location of William and Luella Montgomery’s cabins, the remains of a graveyard, and what may have once been the location of a schoolhouse and a chapel. Nothing remained except a shattered chimney and a wilderness of lush undergrowth. When asked, “What was here in 1900?” Frank Bell said, “I remember standing on this hill.” He then pointed to the wilderness before him and said, “As far as I could see down that valley, there were corncribs— hundreds and hundreds of corncribs.”