One of USF’s most precious buildings is not located on campus, but in Hernando County just north of Brooksville. The university has preserved the large manor house atop Florida’s second-highest point, Chinsegut Hill. Planners made the site a conference center in 1958, two years before classes began here, and the manor house’s history dates back to before Florida became a state.
Recently, USF made comfortable cabins available for special events like conferences, retreats and weddings. But the site’s recorded history stretches back to the days when Florida was a loosely organized territory only recently surrendered by the Spanish.
In the 1840s, the U.S. armed forces wrested central Florida from the Seminole Indians, but American grip on the region remained tenuous. The Armed Occupation Act, passed by Congress in 1842, opened central Florida to homesteading by armed settlers.
The Florida frontier was still a violent place, and the Seminole Wars added to the natural dangers of wild animals and tropical disease.
Some sources indicate that a small blockhouse on the hill served as a refuge for settlers from Indian retaliation. In 1842, Col. Byrd Pearson was the first pioneer to settle the site, drawn by free grants of land from the government. Pearson claimed 5,000 acres and erected a house for his small family in 1846, now known as the East Wing of the manor house. He named the site Tiger Tail Hill.
Hailing from South Carolina, Pearson brought a pioneer’s rough and ready determination but also imported his slaves. Both the Spanish and the Native Americans in the area practiced slavery, including the Seminoles. By 1850, one-third of Hernando County’s population of 900 were African slaves.
Like other settlers in the area, Pearson depended on sugar as his staple crop, and built a mill to process the cane before shipping it to New Orleans. When sugar proved to be unprofitable, he turned to raising cattle and cultivated citrus, cedar, and cotton.
Pearson sold the property to fellow South Carolinian Francis H. Ederington in 1851, and the new tenant brought his family, slaves and livestock to the site the following year. He renamed the site Mount Airy.
Ederington expanded the manor to accommodate his ten children, and his additions constitute the majority of the house as it is known today. Some of the Ederington family are buried on a small plot near the house.
The Civil War may have disrupted life in Florida, causing widespread hardship and hunger, but it also freed the slaves here.
A Confederate veteran named Russel Snow moved to Hernando County in 1866, and married Charlotte Ederington shortly after. He proceeded to buy out each of Francis Ederington’s heirs, one at a time, until he was the sole owner of the property. He renamed it Snow Hill. Trained as a doctor and veterinarian in the armed forces, Snow set up a practice in the home. His dentist chair still stands in the manor house today.
The Snow family completed the manor house’s third floor late in the 19th century. Some time close to 1890, a violent storm blew the house off of its foundation, turned it at an angle, and laid it to rest at a steep tilt. The Snow family moved out and left the house in disrepair.
This was not the end of Chinsegut Hill’s manor house, however. Glorious renovations, famous new owners, and the redemption of its slave plantation past awaited the house after 1900.
For more information about Chinsegut Hill, visit http://www.auxsvc.usf.edu/chinsegut.asp