Alabama plantations offer visitors a glimpse into the past, shedding light on the state’s history, culture and people.
These plantations in Alabama are not only about the historic agricultural estates but the families or individuals who owned and managed these farms. More importantly, studies regarding these plantation houses detail the black slaves who lived and labored here. On the lighter side, most of these farmsteads have become national historical landmarks. Up to now, tourists continue to visit the often renovated manors and farms.
Out of hundreds of plantation houses in this state, there are several historic estates that merit a second look. Then, you will know the reason for these so-called historic consequences. Most of these plantations are listed as National Historic Landmarks that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.
General Joseph Wheeler Plantation
This plantation has the moniker Pond Spring or General Joe Wheeler Home. It lies at the historic district of the Tennessee River Valley. This is at Wheeler in Alabama. The entire estate has a dozen noteworthy edifices which were put up from 1818 to 1880.
Pond Spring (1,760 acres in all) was developed by the family of John P. Hickman in 1818. They were among the first settlers of Lawrence County. After two years, Hickman had 12 family members and 56 slaves. In 1827, he sold the property to Benjamin Sherrod who brought along 300 slaves. Benjamin’s son (Felix) renovated the bigger dogtrot cabin which is now called the Sherrod House. The smaller house was used by the servants.
The son of Felix (Benjamin) inherited the plantation and married Daniella Jones from the Caledonia farm in 1859. However, Benjamin met an untimely death in 1863. Daniella got acquainted with Confederate Army General Joseph Wheeler who came from Augusta in Georgia. The two married after the end of the American Civil War and resided for four years in New Orleans. The couple returned to Pond Spring in 1870 and constructed a new residence close to the Sherrod Home.
Wheeler served multiple terms as Representative for Alabama starting in 1880 until retirement form the political world in 1900. Before this period, Wheeler even volunteered in 1898 for the Spanish-American War. The retired general was appointed by President William McKinley as Major General for a volunteer cavalry division and was given command of the unit including the Rough Riders of Theodore Roosevelt. The military officer also rendered service during the Philippine-American War a year later.
General Wheeler was made commander of the First Brigade under General Arthur MacArthur’s Second Division until January of 1900. The general was pulled out from the volunteer corps and commissioned once again as a brigadier general in the regular force. Wheeler finally retired in September 10, 1900 and lived in New York City until passing away in 1906.
Wheeler’s daughter, Annie returned to the plantation and lived there until 1955. The plantation was the property of the clan up to 1993 when it was donated to Alabama and put under the administration of the Historical Commission. Pond Spring is open to visitors from Wednesday to Sunday with designated visiting hours. It is closed from Monday to Tuesday and national holidays.
The Oaks Plantation is located in Colbert County. Sources say that the original log cabin was constructed in the 1700’s by a tribe of Native American Indians. There were plenty of oak trees on this terrain. It is also called the Abraham Ricks House, a planter who bought the 10,000-acre farm lot in 1808. Ricks and 30 other families moved to then Franklin County from Fairfax, North Carolina in 1822. The family stayed in the cabin for seven years while the plantation was being developed. About 300 slaves were employed in that estate.
The edifice was patterned after ancient Greek architecture. It consisted of huge hand-carved pillars that supported the covered entrance, stairway handrails, and engraved window covers. The house has numerous antique pieces that still exist up to this time. Construction of this abode was finished in 1832. The wealthy landowner also owned the Tuscumbia, Courtland and Decatur Railroad. It was the first rail system in the Southern United States. It served as the primary mode of transport when sandbanks in the Tennessee River hampered traffic in the waterway. Since Ricks was a devout Christian, the man helped the slaves to worship and grow spiritually without meddling. The landlord was buried near the Lagrange Mountain in Alabama.
Right now, the Oaks Plantation maintains the exquisite flooring made of pine wood, splendid chandeliers and classic fireplaces that you can see in the different rooms. It can accommodate at least 200 people inside for different events. For instance, the black covered entrance leads to landscaped terrain where you can easily set up chairs, gazebos, pergolas, and other embellishments. There are spacious glass dressing rooms for parties and other special events.
This plantation is also referred to as Cunningham Plantation. This pre-Civil war domicile was constructed for Armistead Barton during the 1840s close to Cherokee, Alabama. This white man fathered kids by a black woman (named Patsy) who worked as a kitchen helper for Armistead. This lady became free after the death of the landowner in 1847 through a probate grant.
The National Park Service has an interesting description for Barton Hall. “It is an unusually sophisticated Greek-revival style plantation house with small Doric entrance and limestone-paved rear courtyard. The interior contains a stairway that ascends in a series of double flights and bridge-like landings to an observatory on the rooftop that offers views of the plantation.” Barton Hall was proclaimed a National Historic Landmark in 1973.
This plantation is located in Watsonia, Greene County (Alabama). It was built in 1833 by US Colonel James Innes Thornton of Virginia. The manor house was designed by Allen Glover who was also responsible for planning Rosemount and Bluff Hall. This is a colonial type of residence perched atop a lofty hill and sheltered by regal trees. The dwelling overlooks an expansive stretch of abundant land. Slave laborers built this edifice sawing and carving fine lumber by hand.
The 2,600 acre property is surrounded by a formidable stone wall made of cedar and chestnut banisters. It was intended to shield the deer park. One of the favorite sports in this place was hunting. Situated in Thornhill Plantation is the Free Hope Church where the slaves used to worship. Colonel Thornton’s children attended the Saint Mark Episcopal Church which was four miles away. These kids were educated in a school that stood on the hillside and used as weaving/spinning facility for soldiers’ uniforms during the War Between the States.
This plantation was acquired through the Homestead Act.
“The Homestead Acts were several United States federal laws that gave an applicant ownership of land, typically called a “homestead”, at little or no cost. In the United States, this originally consisted of grants totaling 160 acres (65 hectares, or one-quarter section) of un-appropriated federal land within the boundaries of the public land states. An extension of the Homestead Principle in law, the United States Homestead Acts were initially proposed as an expression of the “Free Soil” policy of Northerners who wanted individual farmers to own and operate their own farms, as opposed to Southern slave-owners who could use groups of slaves to economic advantage. The first of the acts, the Homestead Act of 1862, was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862. Anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government (including freed slaves and women), was 21 years or older, or the head of a family, could file an application to claim a federal land grant. There was also a residency requirement.” (Source: Wikipedia)
This refers to160 acres of land where the house was built with the balance forestalled and a small portion of the area bought in the southern tip from Allen Grover. Thus, the plantation became a four-sided lot.
Colonel Thornton was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia in the 1800s. James had an elder brother by the name of Harry. The siblings studied law under the tutelage of an uncle, Judge Harry Innes of Richmond, Virginia. The Colonel became Alabama’s first Secretary of State and held this position for 13 successive years.
Forks of Cypress Plantation House
Forks of Cypress was situated at Florence in Lauderdale County. The plantation abode was designed by popular architect William Nichols who migrated from England to the United States. It was intended for the couple James Jackson, Sr. and Sally Moore McCullough. Nichols is known for early Neo-Classical architecture commonly found in American buildings in the South specifically state houses in Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina. The construction was finished in 1830. The unique name came from the Big Cypress and Little Cypress Creeks that surrounded the property and came together in the vicinity of the main house.
Jackson was one of the pioneering settlers and planters in Alabama. The man was born in Ballabay, County Monoghan, Ireland and moved to Philadelphia in Pennsylvannia in 1799. Jackson joined relatives in Tennessee and become involved in the surveying business. During the 1814 land sale, the Irishman was part of the Cypress Creek Land Company and purchased huge lots in Lauderdale County. Jackson was one of the originators of Florence. The plantation owner became active in state politics beginning 1822 and served in the Alabama Legislature. In 1839, Jackson assumed presidency of the Alabama Senate but died the following year at the “Fork.”
Some of the ancestors of writer Alex Haley were slaves on Forks of Cypress plantation, and this served as a setting for his books, Queen: The Story of an American Family. The plantation was owned by Hugh Scott in 1935, and he, in turn, sold it to Rufus Dowdy in the 1940s who restored the house and grounds.
The agricultural estate was used by invading troops as a camp during the Civil War. This was the time when it was owned by the widow of James. The whole house was razed to the ground in June 6, 1966 after it was struck by lightning. Columns from the house and the family cemetery remain to date. It was placed under the National Register of Historic Places on October 10, 1977.
A mock-up of the main home was erected in 1983 right at the town of Florence in N. Seminary Street. It is five miles away from the actual location. Another replica was also put up in 2005 near the Natchez Trace Parkway in the County of Western Lauderdale. The building remains a private home which is not open to the public.
The Alabama Plantation
According to archives, the hub of the Alabama plantation was a cluster of edifices arranged intentionally to sustain production and processing of products such as cotton. Of course, there is no plantation that remains a hundred percent intact today. But, there has been a lot of effort to preserve these agricultural estates.
There are several of these plantations such as “Preuit Oaks and Johnson’s Woods, both in Colbert County; Thornhill in Greene County; Spring Hill, also known as the John Fletcher Comer plantation, in Barbour County; Orange Vale in Talladega County; the Lewis Alexander plantation in Macon County, and the Webb plantation.” (Source: EncyclopediaofAlabama.org)
The matter of slavery is very touchy. Slavery has turned to tenancy. A lot of the old affiliations between landlords and workers persisted. “Yet gone were the comfortable profits that had sustained an expanding if exploitative economic system and built the columned houses of popular imagination. Eclipsed and challenged by the state’s nascent industrialization and growing economic diversification, the planter way of life—if not its aristocratic mystique—slowly waned.” (Source: EncyclopediaofAlabama.org)
What do all these mean?
The Alabama plantations include the General Joseph Wheeler Plantation; Oaks Plantation; Barton Hall; Thornhill Plantation; and, Forks of Cypress Plantation House.
These have a sense of history and moral values as well.