Historic Georgia landscapes in bloom
In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week guest columnist GLENN T. ESKEW, a professor at Georgia State University, explores historic landscapes and their spring blooms.
For the second time, the inclement weather had passed north of Atlanta, and I found myself heading south to attend yet another history conference. The academic year was in full swing, and scholars like the winter months for symposia. Rather than take the interstate, I prefer riding back roads and drove down Georgia Highway 15 through the old Cotton Belt.
Suddenly off to the right I spied several bright nuggets strung together like a necklace, and my spirit soared with thoughts of William Wordsworth’s couplet: “I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills, / When all at once I saw a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils.” While my sons have learned Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s at Gettysburg, I regret they have not memorized as much poetry as I did in school — no doubt a consequence of the digital age!
The warm and wet December had stirred the bulbs buried deep in the ground that now showed forth their blossoms even as the recent cold had kept the showy magenta of the Judas trees tightly bound away. Spring was upon us.
Unlike the Carolina jasmine and trumpet vine that the wind propagates, most bulbs require the loving hands of a human, so an outburst of jonquils beside the blacktop betrayed an abandoned farm site and the eye for beauty in the heart of someone who planted the flowers. I turned onto Donovan Road near the old Jackson home place and stopped where the owners had unintentionally divided clumps of daffodils when preparing the land for planting longleaf pine. A field of yellow beckoned to be picked.
Georgia has several landscapes noted for their drifts of gold such as the famous Barnsley Gardens. Professor of landscape architecture John Linley identifies others in his Architecture of Middle Georgia. On Friday afternoons in the 1980s, Dr. Linley often met with graduate students and history faculty at O’Malley’s in Athens, where we drank draft beer beside the Oconee River and talked about the historic landscapes now lost to time. We used his book as a field guide of sorts. Although the art photographer (and attorney) Anderson Scott warned me against trespassing, the lure of locating such sites as Hancock County’s Rockby, the famous school run by Richard Malcolm Johnston, or Sunshine, the plantation owned by Methodist bishop George Foster Pierce, proved too enticing.
The Jenkins House in Eatonton, with its landscape designed by P. J. Berckmans’ famous Fruitland Nursery, which Linley described as “an experience in itself,” almost fell to development until my then-wife and I started a restoration. Its eastern meadow boasted saffron waves of stellas and pools of butter-and-eggs. The Southern Garden History Society newsletter Magnolia featured this “bulb lawn” in daffodil expert Sara Van Beck’s analysis of such sweeps.
Some of the properties noted by Linley appear in the Garden History of Georgia that the Peachtree Garden Club published in 1933. Yet so many others across the state never made it into that groundbreaking book. Championing the need for a more complete survey of Georgia’s historic landscapes, James R. Cothran, vice president of Robert and Company and one of the world’s leading authorities on southern antebellum gardens, advocated new fieldwork be done and marshaled those capable of the monumental task. Cothran had the connections to accomplish the project. He recruited students from historic landscape classes he taught at the University of Georgia and Georgia State University, members of garden clubs, and the Southern Garden History Society.
Tragically, Cothran died of cancer in 2012, but he left behind several significant, beautifully illustrated works of scholarship, such as Gardens and Historic Plants of the Antebellum South and the renewed — but unfinished — Georgia Historic Landscape initiative. He had centered his efforts through the Cherokee Garden Library at the Atlanta History Center, and its director, Staci Catron, has taken up the charge. She will give a free talk on the subject, reporting on the completion of 180 surveys since 2002, at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia’s annual Friends meeting in Athens on March 18.
With the heady scent of a handful of lemon-petaled orange-capped narcissus, I got back in my car to complete the drive to Savannah. Soon I spotted a row of snowbells, and my thoughts returned to the changing of the seasons as I accepted never having gotten my fair share of winter’s icy blast. “And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils.”
Register for the State Botanical Garden of Georgia Friends meeting by March 11.
Glenn T. Eskew is a professor of history at Georgia State University.
Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.