IN MY OPINION Finally, my visit to a special place The late Daniel Stowe’s Seven Oaks Farm, with its chateau, is a treasure There it stood in the woods on a hill overlooking Lake Wylie.

The big house I’d wanted to see for so long. A 16,000-square-foot French chateau that textile executive and philanthropist Daniel Stowe built in 1972 on his Seven Oaks Farm.

Construction took 3 1/2 years. The house had Tiffany glass along with old-style Charleston brick; a metal roof and antique copper lamps from Edinburgh, Scotland. Inside, treasures came from all over Europe and the United States. Local history was included: wooden beams in the kitchen came from Belmont’s Chronicle Mill, built in 1901 by Stowe’s father, textile pioneer Robert L. Stowe Sr..

My hope had been to interview Daniel Stowe at his castle-like home where the Catawba and South Fork rivers come together.

But I never got the chance. Stowe’s health declined after he suffered a stroke in 2002, and he died July 24, 2006, at 93. My first look at his house was last week when I went there with Stowe’s nephew, Robert L. Stowe III.

By then, the house was empty and had a faded look.

“It’s been going down,” said Stowe, who has many family memories wrapped up in the house. “It doesn’t take long.”

I’d come at a historic time. Stowe said a contract is in progress with Crosland Charlotte to develop about 700 acres of Seven Oaks Farm. No definite plans have been announced, but Robert Stowe said it will likely be a mixed-use residential community.

The riverfront house will be included in the package, and the developer may or may not keep it, Stowe said.

Either way, the landscape will change. One of the Carolinas’ prime locations will take on a new look.

The whole region is changing, but I’ll be watching the Seven Oaks property with special interest.

Not only is it where two major Carolinas rivers meet, but it’s near a major regional tourist attraction: Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.

In 1991, Stowe donated $14 million and about 400 acres from his farm for the garden.

Money from the Seven Oaks land sale would go to the garden, possibly creating an endowment to cover operating costs, Robert Stowe said.

Keeping the garden financially sound is important. It’s one of Gaston’s biggest assets. The garden also preserves a large and diverse chunk of the land Daniel Stowe loved so much.

`Continuity of life’

Cicadas droned in the woods the morning I walked the Stowe property. In the distance, you could also hear the faint hum of boats. There was probably a good breeze out on Lake Wylie. Where I stood, the air hung musty and heavy and was full of gnats.But I was glad to be there. Seeing the house and trees and lay of the land helped me understand Daniel Stowe better.

“I have always felt the South Fork area is where I belong,” he wrote in his book, “By the Waters of the South Fork.”

He’d discovered that fact early in life. Stowe’s father bought an 82-acre farm in the area in 1901, the same year he founded what would become an N.C. textile empire. It was an exciting time for the region. That same year, the Catawba Power Co., forerunner of Duke Energy, dammed up the Catawba River, creating Lake Wylie.

As a child, Daniel Stowe rode the South Fork area with his father, soaking in its sights, sounds and history. He remembered passing the hillside where he would one day build a dream house.

Stowe put together his Seven Oaks Farm piece by piece, beginning in the 1940s.

Eventually, he’d buy about 1,200 acres. Seven Oaks was a working farm. Stowe took pride in not only preserving the land but restoring it to a healthier condition. Erosion damage was widespread and decades of cotton farming had drained nutrients from the soil.

In 1947, Stowe built a weekend retreat on the property. When the house burned in 1963, he began thinking about something bigger, a permanent home at the site. Not only for himself, but all the nice things he’d collected in his world travels.

The new house was “my finest opportunity to express my concept of the continuity of life,” Stowe wrote.

Viable garden

As we stood in front of the empty house, Robert Stowe III remembered his uncle’s place in better times.

He told me about big family dinners there at Christmas and interesting games that kept the kids entertained.

Sleeping over was always fun because bedrooms were full of cameras and gadgets his uncle collected. Stowe also enjoyed spending time in the library among the many volumes of art, travel and biography.

“The house was really spectacular, ” Stowe said. “But I can’t say it was real homey. The library and bedrooms were homey. But the rest was very formal.”

Preserving the big house on the hill would be nice. But it’s the land that matters. I hope the development that goes there will complement and strengthen the botanical garden.

Stowe, who is on the garden board of directors, said the family has worked hard to include conditions in the contract to ensure that happens.

“This development will make the garden viable and assure its future,” he said.

Daniel Stowe was a textile magnate who did things first class. He also had vision. I’m glad he loved the land, and made a notable contribution to our area.

Joe DePriest: 704-868-7745; jdepriest@charlotteobserver.com

Source article: http://www.charlotte.com/gaston/story/224463.html