Castle Hayne: This Other Eden

BY Jamie Walker

Castle Hayne originally Castle Haynes is eight miles northwest of Wilmington on the northeast branch of the Cape Fear River.

Named for Roger Haynes 17-room castle-like plantation home that dominated the area in the 1700s John Burgwin builder of the historic Burgwin-Wright house in downtown Wilmington married Roger Haynes daughter in 1753 and subsequently acquired “Castle Haynes.” Burgwin renamed the plantation the “Hermitage ” and deemed it his country home. Expanding the plantation to include nearly 4 000 acres Burgwin groomed 10 acres of gardens and leisure grounds adjacent to the house built a 20-horse stable and made major improvements to the already grand home. The house and property stayed in the Burgwin family for generations.

The Civil War took a toll on the property and its occupants but it was not until 1881 when a house fire engulfed the majestic dwelling that Castle Haynes became little more than a name.

Around the turn of the 20th century entrepreneur and developer Hugh MacRae bought much of the Burgwin property.

“I believe the most beautiful thing in the world to grandfather is a herd of cows grazing in a nice pasture ” MacRaes grandson Hugh Morton told reporters in 1945.

MacRae was a dig-in-the-dirt down-on-his-hands-and-knees kind of farmer who was convinced that monoculturecorn cotton and tobaccowas depleting the soil. He believed that the temperate climate and subsequent long growing season could produce a larger variety of crops and livestock. He experimented on his farm Inversheil in Pender County near what would become the Dutch colony Van Eeden. There he had a dairy a herd of Angus cattle and an extensive garden. He experimented with different varieties of grass determined to keep the pastures green year round.

“The South will come into its own when its fields are green in winter ” MacRae was fond of saying.

MacRae was convinced that in order to properly farm the thousands of acres that he owned in the St. Helena area of rural Pender and New Hanover counties he needed knowledgeable laborers Hollanders and other northern European natives with unparalleled farming expertise.

With the help of physician poet philosopher and naturalist Frederick van Eeden of Holland MacRae was able to recruit hundreds of Dutch families to the area.

During the long period of colonization from 1905 until after the Second World War the MacRae-owned Carolina Trucking Company sponsored and compensated immigrants from Holland Poland Hungary Italy and Germany shuffling them into colonies by nationality.

Cornelius Casey Swart son of Cornelius Swart Sr. who emigrated with his family to the Castle Hayne area when he was just a boy says that a Van Eeden brochure promised the moon luring his grandfather and his family to the United States but the reality was a far cry from the dream. When they reached Van Eeden every few yards they found pine stumps the diameter of truck tires. The land lacked drainage and the pines had spoiled cultivation.

“The soil was so acidic you couldnt plant. It was disastrous farming ” Casey Swart said.

In the 1910s Dirk Swart II was a bridge tender near Zaandam Holland. He had little money. A small inheritance had afforded him a home in which he his wife Grietje and their eight children had settled. Swart sure that the political and economic situation in Holland would only worsen had considered emigration for some time. When he saw the Van Eeden brochure and finally spoke to Van Eeden himself Swart sold their home built in 1710 and still standing today to pay the $1 100 it would cost for the family to board The Rotterdam en route to Ellis Island.

In May of 1912 just weeks after The Titanic sank the ten of them traveled across the Atlantic sharing two rooms and four single bunks. From Ellis Island they took a train to Watha and days later settled into a three-room home on a 10-acre tract in Van Eeden in hopes that they could work off payments over the next few years. They made mattresses out of cornhusks slept off the trip as best they could. Then they began the work.

After two and a half years of clearing struggling to grow anything and working for Hugh MacRae building crossties the Swarts were overwrought.

Susan Taylor Block in her brochure XLI entitled Van Eeden writes of the Dutch settlers predicament:

Their affection for Dr. van Eeden and the allure of America caused them to leave damp farmland in a country filled with dikes and dams only to claim raw damp farmland in turn-of-the-century Pender county.

Although Van Eeden would eventually fail as a turn-of-the-century farming community and the Swarts would move on to pursue more self-sustaining endeavors in the richer Castle Hayne area soil June Tilden daughter of Dirk Swart III and Danie Swart said that without Hugh MacRae and Van Eeden the American dream may have never been a reality for them.

“The family needed someone to sponsor them. And Hugh MacRae did that ” Tilden said.

There were destitute years. The family wandered to Greensboro and then to Invershiel in search of sustenance but the situation went from bad to worse. Tilden says that while living on Invershiel in St. Helena that the family was hungry. Their cow had dried up and MacRae had forbid them to hunt on the property.

“If it hadnt been for the Joneses they really would have suffered.”

The Joneses were their African American neighbors in
St. Helena. They lent them a cow and taught them how to trap small animals and how to discern edible wild plants and berries. They taught them how to survive on otherwise infertile land.

“The African American community was key to our survival throughout the years ” Tilden said.

Later their thriving dairy and bulb businesses depended on skilled African American workers that were employed by the Swarts from the beginning to the end.

In 1912 after excessive work and serious penny pinching there was a tremendous shift. Swart frugal and keen and with the help of Grietje and his hard-working young children saved enough to buy dairy cows and to rent100 acres on the corner of Market Street and Kerr Avenue from W.B. McCleland. Eight years later he purchased land now known as Swartville in Castle Hayne. The dairy was a success and D. Swart milk bottles lined the stoops of many Wilmington homes.

Within a couple of years Swart was able to buy more land and by 1925 his budding bulb business began to bloom.

Casey Swart born in 1929 said that in Swartville most of the 37 grandchildren worked at a young age.

“By the time I was 5 years old I was milking cows after school.”

The family had become so successful by the late 30s that Dirk and Grietje purchased a car shipped it to Holland and toured their homeland. They visited Zaandam the old home place and reunited with family and friends.

“They were like celebrities ” Tilden said.

Through the 30s and into the 40s when everyone around them was struggling to survive the Swarts were self-sustaining. Tilden said they had everything they needed: cows chickens a large flourishing garden fields of corn for feeding the cattle and no debt.

Acutely aware of their good fortune the Swarts spread it around. The dairy continued to deliver milk to customers who could no longer pay during The Depression period. Later during World War II shoes clothes and other non-perishables were collected from customers and often purchased by the Swarts and sent to communities in Zaandam.

“They sent so many packages that the post office eventually gave them a special rate ” Jeff Simmons great-grandson of Dirk Swart says with a quiet laugh.

Near the start of the war Dirk Swart Sr. died leaving the land and farm to his sons and daughter. Grietje died soon after. Prices increased during the war putting a strain on the dairy business. Shortly after the war the family closed the dairy and expanded its bulb business. D. Swart Sons Bulb Company became one of the most successful bulb producers in the area.

The brothers and their sister Helena known as Talene (Tanta Lena) closed the bulb business in 1973 and finally retired.

Sitting at the kitchen table of the beautifully restored old home place surrounded by photos and memorabilia Simmons says “My great-grandfather had nothing when he came over but the pursuit of the American Dream.” And pursue it he did. By the time the family retired the Swarts owned close to 1 500 acres of land dressed by tapestries of colorful daffodils and gladiolus.

A few of the 37 grandchildren with innate green thumbs went on to pursue careers in the nursery and small-scale farming business. June Tildens cousin Ernie Swart sets up a booth most Saturdays at the Downtown Riverside Farmers Market and Tildens brother Dirk Bunky Swart owned and operated Swarts nursery on Castle Hayne Road until his death earlier this year. Swartville is still spotted with the nine or more houses built for the family and their children as they married. Swart descendants inhabit all but three estates.

Although the Van Eeden colony did not shine as brightly as MacRae and van Eeden had predicted other colonies established by MacRae were successful and nationally recognized. Castle Haynes was one of them. By the time the Swarts and other Dutch settlers arrived in Van Eeden Castle Haynes was a thriving immigrant farming community.

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Horticulturist Eelco I. Tinga born in the Netherlands also immigrated to the U.S. in 1906. 


My granddad was working in a nursery in Long Island when he read the advertisement in the paper John Tinga says one of the current owners and operators of Tinga Nursery. Eelco Tinga headed south almost immediately. Although known for their thriving nursery the Tingas initially partnered with Hugo Van Nes grew vegetables and cut flowers as well as trees. 


Eelco Tinga rode his bicycle to his land everyday and cleared his property with a mule and dynamite Aggie Henriksen wrote in the Porters Neck HOA News in April 2011. 


Eelco Tinga jumped in with both feet and never looked back. The rocky soil of the north made the loamy black Castle Hayne soil seem like gold. His business grew fast and by 1912 he bought 30 more acres in Castle Hayne. Tinga married in 1917 built a house on the farm now Tinga Nursery where his descendants still live today.


A nurseryman at heart Tinga began to phase out the flower business in the late 40s and by 1955 Tinga Nursery was established with the help of his three sons and four generations later Tinga Nursery operates on Castle Hayne Road and Holland Drive.


Like the Swart and Tinga families from Holland the Peti family from Hungary found their way from Europe to Ellis Island and eventually Castle Hayne.


When the Petis arrived at Ellis Island in 1905 they changed their name to Pete and were sent to work in the Ohio coalmines until the early 20s. Life was grueling says descendant and Castle Hayne resident Charlene Pete. 


When my grandfather saw the brochure for Castle Haynes he jumped at the chance to come. 

James Pete and three of his children all in their teens and twenties were given 10 acres that they paid for in installments. Through the Carolina Trucking Company MacRae offered financial incentives to marry and have children.


Clearing the land was the first and biggest challenge they met when arriving in Castle Haynes.  Once the way had been cleared though Pete says the soil was black soft could grow anything.


They had hogs cows chickens horses and mules to work the field. 


We never went hungry. We were poor but we never knew we were poor.  


When Charlene was 4 the nuns came around recruiting farm children to come to St. Josephs Catholic School in the St. Helena Rocky Point area.  Not long after she was put to work after school wiping down cucumbers. 


The cucumbers sweet potatoes zucchini squash and lettuce were shipped through the Castle Hayne Farmers Association. The association had a picnic once a year. They all brought their wares to be shipped then theyd feast and dance and play games late into the evening. 


I looked so forward to that picnic all year long Pete said. Every now and then Pete and her sister and brothers would visit neighboring farmers to share vegetables or pork from a slaughtered hog.


By the 1950s the Petes had to switch gears. Grocery stores were popping up everywhere and the soil was tired. Farming had become an unreliable source of income for them and they had little choice but to work off the farm. 


Charlene Pete eventually returned to Castle Hayne where she lives in her familys homeplace and began to farm the land again. Although she has since stopped her sister still cultivates and manages a large garden. Castle Hayne has grown up around them but the Petes neck of the woods remains largely unchanged. 


When I was in high school I can remember thinking that if I ever got off this farm Id never come back. Then I had to go to work in Raleigh and I thought:  If I ever get back to the farm Ill never leave.