For centuries before settlement of the earliest land grants in the area between 1789 and 1799, the “Great Flat Rock” was a gathering place for the Cherokees for trading and socializing among themselves and other tribes. The area was a wilderness with nothing more than foot trails along streams, in gullies and over and around ridges. In 1793, John Earl (Earle), an early land grantee, was paid to open a road from upstate South Carolina through the Saluda Gap to Flat Rock, where he had a grist mill on what is now Highland Lake.
The later completion of the Buncombe Turnpike over Indian trails and drovers’ roads through Flat Rock and into South Carolina around 1820 led to trade between the two areas.
In 1827,Charles Baring, a wealthy rice planter from near Charleston, was looking for a place to provide relaxation and cool summer air for his ailing, English-born wife, Susan. He found what he was looking for in Flat Rock. He was immediately enthralled by its beauty and climate. He bought 400 acres and erected the first estate – a summer residence called Mountain Lodge. The Barings also built a private chapel on the estate which in 1836 becameSt. John in the Wilderness, the first Episcopal Church in Western North Carolina and an active parish today.
In 1830, Judge Mitchell King, another Charlestonian, came to Flat Rock and renovated an old trace mill into a residence that he named Argyle.
Baring and King bought tracts of land at prices ranging from 25 cents to one dollar an acre. Eventually, they acquired much of the Flat Rock area and then sold the tracts to other affluent coastal South Carolinian families. Within 20 years, Flat Rock became a colony of elegant estates and luxurious summer homes.
Today, the Village of Flat Rock retains the quiet sophistication of its Charleston heritage interwoven with the delightful flavor of the mountains. Still a community of graceful homes with many of the original mansions still standing, Flat Rock in recent years has begun to blossom ever so carefully as an attractive commercial center as well. With a nod to Charleston’s popular Rainbow Row district of pastel colored historic townhouses, Flat Rock’s Little Rainbow Row along Hwy 225 includes several brightly painted cottages, offering art, distinctive wares and eateries. Also on Hwy 225, Flat Rock Square is home to professional offices, retail businesses and the Flat Rock Cinema.
Historic Flat Rock, Inc. was formed as a nonprofit in 1968 and has celebrated more than 50 years of preserving and restoring properties of note in Flat Rock. The organization through the years has offered home tours, benefit parties and a Heritage Tree Program to help protect Flat Rock’s rich architectural history and cultural landscapes.
Flat Rock also is home to the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, a property administered by the National Park Service, and the Flat Rock Playhouse, the official State Theatre of North Carolina.
Another highlight of the community is The Park at Flat Rock which is located in the French Broad watershed on the site of a former golf course. The park features open fields, reforestation areas, a variety of flora and fauna, a walking trail that meanders around the perimeter of its 66 acres, a welcome center with a community room meeting space, handicapped-accessible restrooms, an open-air pavilion and a playground.
Residents also carry on the tradition of celebrating summer each year at Flat Rock’s Ice Cream Social. Held the first Saturday in June, residents and visitors gather that afternoon at Village Hall to enjoy cool, sweet treats and camaraderie.
Although growth to such an attractive area is inevitable, the government and villagers of Flat Rock are vigilant about maintaining woods, green spaces and the calm pace of life – keeping Flat Rock just as charming and compelling a place as it was when Charles Baring first laid eyes on it.