Pontheolla Abernathy has a treasure trove of stories about Clevedale Historic Inn & Gardens, the bed-and-breakfast just west of Spartanburg that she and husband Paul have operated since 2013. Perhaps her most fitting tale, though, speaks to the philosophy that the couple adopted when they opened the century-old house to guests.
Soon after completing a year's worth of upgrades and renovations, the Abernathys had a special visitor: Elisabeth Cleveland Welch, 99-year-old sister of Conrad Pierce Cleveland Jr., the last Cleveland to have lived in the home, from 1945-85. Mrs. Welch was brought by her caretakers that day to see the couple's handiwork.
"She told me that the night she was born, a train broke down nearby," Pontheolla says. "And her father, Conrad Sr., in the middle of everything, walked to the train and invited passengers to the house for tea.
"She told me he always said, ‘This is supposed to be a house of hospitality.'" Pontheolla smiled. "I always try to keep that in mind."
That welcoming graciousness exudes throughout Clevedale, with many past guests choosing to return multiple times.
Visitors enjoy the quiet, four-acre wooded and manicured tract, just far away enough from Spartanburg's bustling downtown, and its elegant accommodations - not to mention the gourmet breakfasts that Pontheolla creates.
"We have about a 65 percent occupancy rate," says Paul, an Episcopal priest originally from St. Louis, "with our busy season from April to September. But we also have people who stay in the ‘shoulder season' en route north or south. We've had a German contingent who booked the whole house around Christmas."
Pontheolla tells of corporate clients with BMW and other industries who are regulars, some staying 2-3 months at a stretch. "Most who come," she says, "become part of our family."
That makes sense, since for the Abernathys, owning Clevedale is a labor of love and the realization of a dream - especially for Pontheolla, whose name is Cherokee for "she who wears the flower."
A former reporter with WLTR, Columbia's National Public Radio outlet, the Bishopville native wanted to run a B&B since she was a student at the University of South Carolina. Doing so was actually her second career ambition: "I wanted to be the first black woman to own a radio station," Pontheolla says, "but that didn't happen. So running a B&B was it."
In 2012, the couple was living in Washington, DC, and searching online for their perfect place in South Carolina. "This popped up, and I called our consultants here and said, ‘We've found something, meet me there,'" Pontheolla says. "As soon as I stood on the porch, I knew this was it." The property dates from 1798, and the house from 1913. The house has long and interesting history - past owners include the founder of Cleveland, Ohio, and two-time US President Grover Cleveland.
Says Paul with a laugh, "I didn't see it until we closed, but when I did, I said, ‘I can live here.'" Guests often depart with a similar feeling.
Besides the antique-filled downstairs public areas - a sunlit dining area and a comfortable parlor with piano and fireplace - the home's three upstairs bedrooms are a blend of classic architecture (high ceilings, large windows, crafted woodwork) and modern luxuries, including 1,000-count Egyptian cotton bedding and contoured pillows.
The Wren Suite - named for South Carolina's state bird and for the St. Christopher Wren Chapel at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., where Paul studied - has a king-size bed, flat-screen TV, access to a second-story porch overlooking the gardens, and a sleek bathroom with walk-in shower featuring a Rain Head shower head. Across the hall, the Ohana Suite - the word means "family" in Hawaiian, and was inspired by a trip to Maui - is similarly appointed.
The Westmoreland Bridal Suite, which includes a shower and Jacuzzi bath, plus a separate bedroom for children or other family members, is named for Gen. William Westmoreland, the SC-born commander of US forces during the Vietnam War. Pontheolla says Conrad Cleveland Jr. and Westmoreland were high school classmates in Spartanburg and later at The Citadel. "He was also Westmoreland's adjutant general and best man at his wedding," she says.
At breakfast time, Pontheolla indulges her creative instincts to produce unique offerings. On two recent mornings, she served her take on eggs Benedict, featuring a Charleston crabcake on a bagel with egg, spinach and delicious sauce; and, the next day, French toast using Panettone bread and fresh fruit. Besides coffee, Paul mixes up a blend of fruit juices that varies "depending on the day I make it," he says.
"We want you to have a luxurious stay," Pontheolla says. "You won't get a buffet-style breakfast, and we offer you a glass of wine at night."
Clevedale is also popular for special event photography and for weddings. A stone courtyard is ideal for outdoor nuptials, while others have taken place indoors or on the expansive front porch. Paul on occasion officiates at weddings, too. Talk about full service.
Not so many years ago, visitors to Spartanburg were content with "sterile" hotel rooms and fast-food eateries. But the Upstate city has dramatically expanded its repertoire, and Clevedale has its own special place in the hospitality picture.
It's a family tradition, after all.
Clevedale Historic Inn & Gardens
1050 Willis Road
Spartanburg, SC 29301