Judy Shippey, Guest Columnist
On a terribly hot and terrifically humid August morning in 1989, I joined my friend Mrs. William Cox (hereinafter referred to as Gene) on a trip to an area of Liberty County so remote that I expected to see Pocahontas, Tomochichi, Osceloa, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, too, appear at any moment! We — Gene is a member of the Woodmanston Board and wanted me to see the progress being made on the restoration project — were taking a nature excursion to the site of LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation to view the recently completed nature trails. I was glad that Gene knew where we were going because I certainly did not!
When at length we arrived at our destination, it was with extreme reluctance that I turned off the car air conditioner and got out. I was totally unprepared for the visions of beauty that filled my eyes; here in this wilderness, with no other than the occasional visitor to admire them, were blooming hundreds of wild hibiscuses in riotous shades and colorings! The blooms were huge and made me wish at once to have some in my garden at home. I realize that I am telling this story from back to front, but that is the way it is spilling out from keyboard to computer screen. The Nature Trail is about one mile in length and was constructed along the ridge of one of many dams built by slave labor around 1770. The 3,354-acre Woodmanston Plantation was primarily an up-river rice-growing operation that used a gravity flow system to irrigate its fields of rice. These dams are the lone remaining remnants of 18th century engineering feats of astounding proportions, and they are reminders of an extinct agricultural culture that vanished into history more than a century ago.
Now, let’s reverse our storytelling and go back to the beginning to find out what happened. During the Colonial era, in 1760, John Eatton LeConte and his brother William (members of a family that immigrated from France to New York, via Holland and England) established an inland swamp rice plantation. Despite frequent Indian attacks and destruction by British troops during the American Revolution, by 1774 Woodmanston had grown to encompass over 3,300 acres, making it the largest 18th century rice plantation of Liberty County.
In 1810, control of the plantation passed to Louis LeConte (John’s son). Louis had an extensive background in botany, probably acquired during the time he was studying medicine at New York’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Louis conducted a number of experiments at Woodmanston, which resulted in important discoveries in vegetable physiology, timber succession, horticulture and chemistry, earning him the respect of America’s leading botanists and transforming the plantation into a model of scientific agriculture.
Around 1810, Louis began developing a small but excellent botanical and floral garden at Woodmanston. After the death of his wife, the development of the garden was therapeutic for him, and he devoted himself more and more to the attainment of horticultural perfection.
His especial pride and joy was a group of camellia japonicas, the first three plants of which he obtained from Prince’s Nursery, Long Island, New York. The nursery had imported them from their native China. These were the first camellias imported into this area. Two of the plants stayed at Woodmanston, and one was sent to the Middleton Plantation near Charleston, South Carolina. Quality, rather than quantity, was the hallmark of the LeConte garden.
One camellia of note was the double-white Alba Plena, originally brought to England by the East India Company from the Orient. The original plant grew to be the size of a tree, 15 feet high! Professor Joseph LeConte, Louis’ son (professor of geology at California’s Berkeley College and nationally of high repute; his brother John was the college’s first president), reported that he “had seen the largest of these, a double white, with a thousand blooms open at once, each blossom four or five inches in diameter, snow-white and double to the center.” This camellia continued to grow and to produce its myriad blooms year after year, amidst neglect and abuse, until it was removed by vandals. Yes, sadly. After Louis’ death in 1838, the gardens sank into neglect and eventually returned to a wilderness state and were lost.
For many years, efforts have been undertaken by various agencies to restore the lost gardens to something of their original splendor. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. In 1977, the Garden Club of Georgia, Inc. assumed control of 63.8 acres of the plantation and began to plan ways in which Woodmanston could be restored. At present, the restoration efforts are being guided by the private, non-profit LeConte- Woodmanston Foundation, Inc. It is to be fervently hoped that their efforts will be able to bring something back into our culture that should never have been lost!
Postscript: This is not all of the story by any means; there was another adventure that certainly bears retelling!