Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles on LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation and the family that established it.
During the early to mid-19th century winters, the rice fields at LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation formed a splendid sheet of water two miles long and a half mile wide. Sometimes, three of the LeConte children, John, Louis and Joseph, and Primus, a slave on the property, piled into their canoe made from a large cypress log and "sailed" the area. Often they ended up "shipwrecked" in two or three feet of water, which only added to their enjoyment.
Joseph became an expert in using a paddle to manage the canoe. He also became an excellent swimmer. The boys loved to use the canoe for duck hunting.
There were three very old slaves on the plantation who could remember their African homes. Sessy was a little old man almost bent double. Nancy was an old woman with filed teeth and Charlotte left Africa at the age of 12. They all stayed on the plantation and did not have to work, but were well cared for.
Sessy loved alligator meat and the LeConte boys brought ’gator tails to him. They shot gators because they destroyed the fish and interfered with the boys’ swimming. The largest one they killed was 14 feet long. It was drawn out of its hole during low tide in the swamp by a hook attached to a long pole. It took about 25 slaves pulling on the pole to force that gator out. It was a great sport. Sessy had plenty of alligator meat that day.
The LeConte boys liked to participate in happenings around the plantation. They delighted in watching the slaves work together as they drove big timbers down into the rice dikes. The huge poles had to be driven down in unison and the slaves sang or chanted songs as they worked. One such tune went like this: "Yea, man, ugh! Yeah, man, ugh! My old uncle, ugh! Had a house, ugh! Sixteen stories high, ugh! Every story in that house, ugh! Full of possum pie, ugh! Yeah, man, ugh!" And they’d keep on like that until they had driven those pilings down perfectly.
The children were educated in a neighborhood country school supported by four or five families. Male and female students in every grade were educated under the same roof. Joseph said he had nine different teachers in nine years. One teacher, Alexander H. Stephens, influenced Joseph greatly. Alexander was just 20 years old and had graduated from Franklin College. He later became governor of Georgia, served as a representative in Congress and became vice-president of the Confederate States.
When he was a child, Alexander tried to join the kids at recess, but he was frail. He never weighed more than 100 pounds in his life. Alexander detested meanness, lying and deceit. He later encouraged self respect and honor in his students. Once, Louis LeConte thrashed a boy at school who called him a liar and Alexander approved of it. As a poor boy, Alexander went to college with financial help from a church society of women.
Alexander Stephens said his association with Louis LeConte profoundly influenced his own character and career.
The schoolhouse was a one-room shanty put up by planters. It was on Sandy Run Road, within walking distance of LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation. The curriculum was simple — the "three Rs" were taught along with Greek, Latin, algebra and geometry. Big boys, 12 and older, were allowed to study outdoors when the weather was nice. The LeConte boys loved studying outdoors by themselves. Joseph was prepared for college when he was just 14, but his father would not let him go until he was 15.
The three boys and one sister walked a mile and a half to school each day. A slave accompanied them and carried their tin dinner bucket filled with food. The slaves enjoyed this honor. Whoever was chosen to make the trip waited on the LeContes at school and played games and sports with them at recess. School was from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with one hour at noon for lunch and games. In the spring, the boys hurried home after school to go hunting, fishing or swimming.
Louis and Joseph were ready to go to college in 1838. John had already been in college for three years, but his two brothers had never been more than eight miles away from the plantation. On a Monday morning, Jan. 8, 1838, Louis and Joseph packed their clothes and prepared to leave for Franklin College in Athens. However, at 4 p.m. that day, their father, Louis LeConte Sr., died from a blood infection he got after lancing his son-in-law’s finger. Louis was in his prime of life — just 55 years old. Their father’s death delayed the boys’ departure for a week.
The three brothers traveled together in a stagecoach and it took a week to get to Athens. As they approached the city, older college students got aboard and realized Louis and Joseph were freshmen. The older students delighted in telling them dirty jokes and singing obscene songs.
Louis and Joseph graduated college in August 1841. Joseph was nearly 18 and a half years old and Louis had just turned 20. Anne, 16, graduated from Macon Female College at about the same time. She arranged for the three to tour the northern states. They left from Athens and visited Washington, D.C., Mt. Vernon, Va., Baltimore, Md., Philadelphia and Boston.
They met in New York at Uncle Jack LeConte’s home and stayed for six weeks. Many members of the LeConte extended family were there, too. Sister Jane and her husband, Dr. Harden, and their two children were also visiting. Brother John had just graduated from medical school and gotten married, so he and his new wife were there on their honeymoon.
Joseph had long ago learned to play the flute thanks to another relative, William. Joseph practiced frequently and became an excellent flutist. While in New York he bought a fine eight-keyed flute and played it until he was nearly 50 years old. He played along with his wife, who played the piano. He enjoyed hearing her play so much that he finally quit playing the flute. He always said he must have received his musical talent from his mother.
Love is a history buff and writes Liberty lore periodically for the Courier.