Godfrey Barnsley’s dream: A southern Eden in the wilderness, its collapse, and a modern-day rebirth (Part 1)
By Jamil Zainaldin
Before there was a resort, there was a story.
Before there was a hotel, there was a home.
At the root of Barnsley Gardens is a dream.
Today we know Barnsley Gardens as a world-class resort tucked into the rolling hills of north Georgia, 90 minutes from downtown Atlanta. On the edge of the resort are the ruins of an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind southern manor. Its namesake, Godfrey Barnsley, is tightly woven into the fabric of Georgia’s history.
It would not be easy to find a more extraordinary figure in Georgia’s first century of statehood than Barnsley, whose life in this state was made successful by his profits from the cotton industry and whose downfall was due to the war that freed the slaves who made those profits possible. From the coast to the uplands he took advantage of what this new territory offered to those ambitious, opportunistic, and intrepid enough to see the possibilities. He traveled between seaports and his uplands home with the vision of putting down roots for generations to come.
If the story of the Barnsley family is fascinating in itself, it is also striking in the way it tracks the ups and downs of Georgia’s history. The family’s personal events over three generations intersect with and cannot be separated from major events in Georgia history, throwing personal and dramatic light onto these historical themes.
I first encountered the Barnsleys in Clent Coker’s self-published book, Barnsley Gardens at Woodlands: The Illustrious Dream (2000). I also had the great pleasure of meeting him in the Barnsley Gardens museum, where he is often in residence, greeting visitors and answering their questions.
It is because Coker, who was born and raised in the shadow of this historic estate, was so curious about this piece of local history that we know such detail about this fantastic place. As a child, Clent sat at the knees of his grandmother whose stories inspired him to seek out others who could “tell of the old days.” Their tales of the Barnsley empire entered his soul, and he grew up with a passion for preserving them.
Godfrey Barnsley was born in 1805 into a well-to-do British family of lawyers and merchants. With the limited inheritance prospects of a second son (primogeniture was the rule in Britain), at the age of 21 he cast his lot with the New World, landing in Savannah in 1824. A thriving port city, the community welcomed with open arms this newcomer of refined manners and excellent education.
Barnsley proved himself a natural salesman. He was industrious, too, known for his work ethic and integrity. He quickly found his place as a merchant on Savannah’s “factor’s walk.” Within a few years he was successful enough to open his own company, specializing in commission sales of cotton in transatlantic markets. He was on his way to becoming the wealthiest cotton merchant in the South.
At a ball hosted by William Scarbrough II, Savannah’s “merchant prince,” Barnsley met the love of his life — Scarbrough’s daughter Julia. As it happens, William Scarbrough, who was president of the Savannah Steamship Company, was both friend and mentor to the young man, and enthusiastically welcomed him into the family — literally. After their marriage, Julia and Godfrey took up residence in the Scarbrough mansion, or what was known locally as “the Castle” (today it serves as Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum). They would have six surviving children together.
If the marriage was made in heaven (and indeed it was), the in-law relations most definitely were not. From the start, Julia’s mother resented Barnsley’s English ways, his refusal to take part in the local militia (he was after all a British citizen), and most of all, his perpetual kindnesses toward the family’s black servants (he was in the habit of giving them money). This latter practice of his, she believed, made the Scarbroughs a laughing stock in Savannah’s polite society. Julia’s elder sister, unmarried, resented his presence and generally made life unpleasant for the married couple.
By now, in his mid-‘30s and one of the wealthiest men in the South, Barnsley had other housing options. He and his wife’s first choice was to resettle in his home country of England, which Julia had visited on two occasions and adored. But the business prospects there plummeted with the Panic of 1837, which left banking markets in chaos.
Barnsley then learned of the evacuated Cherokee lands in north Georgia, a sprawling upland country of forest, field, springs, and foothills. The removal of the last vestiges of Georgia’s Native American population (forced upon them by a treaty of dubious legality) meant hundreds of thousands of acres were now available for purchase through the state’s land lottery. The discovery of gold in north Georgia only added to the swelling land fever in the state.
In the early 1840s, after a reconnoiter with some Savannah friends, who themselves were buying land in the cooler clime of the upcountry, the Barnsleys made an audacious decision to relocate.
It was not simply removing themselves from the torments of Julia’s mother (and sister) that motivated the Barnsleys. Julia suffered from a chronic respiratory ailment, and the cooler weather of the north country, it was hoped, would aid her recovery.
Such a move also gave full vent to Barnsley’s budding dream of building a sort of paradise for himself and his beloved — but not of the cotton plantation variety. A botanist at heart, Barnsley read widely in landscape architecture. He had become an avid follower of an emerging icon in U.S. circles, Andrew Jackson Downing, and observed his landscape work in his business travels through New York (where Downing lived) and New England.
Midway between today’s Adairsville and Kingston in today’s Bartow County (formerly Cass County), they cited a plot among their newly purchased 3,000 acres where they would landscape and build their perfect place in the wilderness — a place they named “Woodlands.”
Next week: Tragedy, Ghosts, and a Restoration
Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides Jamil Zainaldin with editorial assistance for his SaportaReport columns.