A German family settles in Walhalla

Posted by | July 16, 2015

The Keil Farm is significant as an example of the evolution of an antebellum farm house from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century, and also symbolizes the role that a German immigrant family played in the settlement and development of Walhalla and Oconee County in SC.

John Henry Keil, Sr. (1817-1900), was born Johann Heinreich Keil, in Stotel, Germany, and spent almost 10 years in Charleston after migrating there in the late 1830s or early 1840s. He was listed as a grocer in the City of Charleston directory in 1842. His naturalization papers also list this occupation. He and his family were members of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church of Charleston. Keil married Margurethe Henrietta Sahlmann in 1847 there, and all of their three children (Katherine Sophia, born July 24, 1848; Johann Heinreich Keil, Jr., born June 12, 1850; Gessina Sophia, born September 21, 1852) were baptized there.

The German Colonization Society of Charleston, led by John A. Wagener, purchased a large tract of land from Col. John Grisham of West Union and laid out the town lots and agricultural area of Walhalla in 1850. Getting to the frontier of settlement in Oconee County (then part of Pickens District) in 1852 from Charleston required a seven hour ride on the SC Railroad to Columbia, another long train ride to Honea Path or Anderson, and finally a seven or eight hour carriage ride to Pendleton and Walhalla.

Keil Farm in Walhalla SCJohn Henry Keil and family, about 1853, took up residence in the Bear Swamp area of Wagener Township. In 1857, he purchased 203 acres of land in the Bear Swamp area from J.F. Leopold for $1,015. Part of this purchase contains the current property. Keil, his family, and their pioneer friends initially must have labored in near isolation in the area in which they settled.

When the family moved to Walhalla, they began by 1855 an active association with the newly formed St. John’s Lutheran Church. The family was active in Sunday School and Keil Sr was active as a vestryman from 1878 until his death in 1900.

J.H. Keil Sr planted a variety of legumes and vegetable crops as well as having “milch” and beef cows, swine, and sheep.

Economic resources diminished during the Civil War and during Reconstruction, but by the turn of the century, conditions had improved to the point where the residence had been expanded from its original 700 square feet downstairs and another 400 feet in the loft to usable space measuring over 2000 square feet downstairs and 1000 feet upstairs.

The initial expansion, sometime between 1894 and 1900, was an addition to the west and south of the original house. It provided additional bedrooms and expanded the dining area. The final addition came about 1900 in the form of a large parlor and entrance hall. By that time, J.H. Keil, Jr’s family had taken over the house and farm from Keil, Sr. The elder’s wife had died in 1884, and he had already moved into his town house, which he had purchased in 1879.

John Henry Keil, Jr. died in July 1914 after a team of mules dragged him across a field. His widow, Margaret Jane Keith Keil, took over active management of the farm until her death in 1939. Her records contain agreements with sharecroppers William W. Brewer and Winfield Morton dated 1884 and another with Isaac Allen dated 1887.

The Keil Farm tenant house, also known as “Merrit’s House” in the 1930s and 1940s, was likely used for the purpose of providing housing to sharecroppers and may date to 1884 or before. Margaret J.K. Keil’s records contain a receipt for a new buggy purchased in 1905 for $80. As late as 1940, a buggy shed stood several hundred yards from the main house.

By the Depression, John & Margaret’s children had moved away from Walhalla. But when hard economic times spread throughout the country, the Keil Farm provided the haven to which many of these children, spouses and their children returned, for various periods of time.


From National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1998


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