Shaffer: Searching for Rockefeller at Carvers Creek, newest state park

— Until he was an old, old man, James Stillman Rockefeller would climb his favorite pine next to a millpond, spread himself out on a wooden platform and watch the planes fly over from Fort Bragg – a millionaire in his treehouse.

In real life, he was a bank president, an industry captain, a Yale graduate bunking in a Connecticut mansion with 12 fireplaces and an elevator, enjoying the privileges that come with having America’s most-famous surname.

But very nearly to the end of his 102 years, Rockefeller returned to his retreat in North Carolina’s sandhills, the place where he’d once been a soldier. He escaped the board meetings in Manhattan’s cab-honking canyons, swimming with the turtles every day, watching for woodpeckers and bobwhites.

On Friday, I got to climb the same tree, walk the same trails and look out over the same millpond – likely the only experiences I’ll ever share with an aristocrat.

Rockefeller left his estate to the Nature Conservancy when he died in 2004, and it opened last week as North Carolina’s newest state park: Carvers Creek.

The celebrated banker’s land, known as Long Valley Farm, makes for pleasant walking and good fishing. A loop trail hugs the 100-acre pond and a cedar swamp, pushing through a forest of longleaf pine and finishing at the white-columned house where the Rockefellers stayed.

You can find fox squirrels and red-cockaded woodpeckers in the Army’s backyard. Superintendent Jane Connolly showed me around the park, and as we walked, she picked up a discarded black rat snakeskin at the same time a C-130 roared overhead.

In a few years, you’ll be able to camp on the old Rockefeller land, and maybe hold a wedding reception where the family lived its version of “On Golden Pond.”

But for me, the most intriguing thing about this park is already available: the chance to walk through an atypical millionaire’s playground and imagine the eccentric Ivy Leaguer who relaxed there.

His resume was dazzling. But James Stillman wasn’t best-known for his banking acumen or even his grand-uncle: John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil.

When he died, Rockefeller qualified as the oldest living Olympic gold medalist – captain of the 1924 rowing team that included Dr. Benjamin Spock. The accomplishment landed him on the cover of Time magazine, head cocked to the side, a Y for Yale on his sweater.

His wife Nancy was heir to the Carnegie steel fortune. They raised four children on the Greenwich land he inherited, building a 19,000-square foot Georgian mansion. All this would seem to place him several social strata away from Cumberland County.

Here’s a man who could winter anywhere: in the Florida Keys, on Hilton Head or a dozen other locales with more exclusive possibilities. Why pick the outskirts of Spring Lake, a town that all but the most loyal residents would describe, in generous terms, as scenery-challenged?

Rockefeller already had family there on the much-larger Overhills estate, complete with a Donald Ross-designed golf course.

But the military culture that dominates the region must have appealed to Rockefeller, who spent World War II in Airborne command, using Long Valley Farm as wartime digs. Connolly told me that he would take a two-way radio up the tree with him when he visited Long Valley Farm, listening to the air traffic. He lived an orderly life: breakfast at 8, lunch at 1, dinner at 7, one rye-and-water each day for cocktail hour.

It’s a humble house for a man with Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller in his family tree – all wood paneling inside, no grand staircases or chandeliers. The Rockefellers had linoleum floors in the kitchen and no air-conditioning. Tenant farmers stayed on the property year-round, living in houses the banker built them. Once the house is restored and opened to the public, it will provide a very anti-Biltmore experience.

I guess that’s why I like it. I’ve never felt comfortable visiting rich people’s homes. I went to Versailles when I was in college and skipped out on the tour halfway-through.

But I can identify with a man who, weary of stock-tickers, just wants to sit in a pine tree.

Thanks, old bean, for sharing your hideaway. or (919) 829-4818

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