Coastal Georgia History
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Hamilton Plantation


HAMILTON PLANTATION, ON THE BANK OF THE FREDERICA along the southwestern side of St. Simons Island, was the property of bachelor James Hamilton, prominent planter and shipper of the coastal region.  When he and his friend John Couper chose, near the turn of the eighteenth century, to live upon their island plantations, the two estates formed a nucleus for a community of gentlemen planters which was to develop into one of the leading social and cultural sections of the South.  Although there were already a few large estates on St. Simons, most of its acreage had been divided into numerous smallholdings, and the following decade saw these properties merge into some twelve or fourteen plantations which were devoted almost entirely to the cultivation of cotton.

James Hamilton's property included land originally granted to Captain Gascoigne of His Majesty's Hawk, and this plantation was recognized as one of the first where long-staple sea island cotton was grown along the coast soon after the Revolution.  On this property, too, the Government cut liveoak timbers that went into that famous fighting ship, the Constitution, "Old Ironsides," pride of the Navy.

Described as a Georgia planter and shipper, a South Carolina merchant-planter, and a London merchant, James Hamilton's various business connections took him away from his island home for a part of each year; but in spite of his wide interests he helped to build the early life of the community.  He served as one of the first vestrymen of Christ Church, and took an active part in civic affairs of island and county.  His wharf at Gascoigne Bluff where the British fleet had anchored in Oglethorpe's day was the main shipping point for the island; here ships from other ports came for their cargoes of cotton and lumber.  Perhaps more farsighted than some of the planters, James Hamilton, having made a fortune from his Southern plantations, disposed of a large part of his coastal property and moved to Philadelphia where he was married and where he lived for many years.  When he died it is said that he left an estate valued at more than a million dollars.

After James Hamilton left St. Simons, the plantation on the Frederica became the property of his namesake James Hamilton Couper, and for a number of years was managed by Captain John Fraser, husband of James Couper's sister Ann, the Frasers with their large family of children making a gay and hospitable home of the beautiful estate.  Set well back from the river, the plantation residence was not a mansion, but a house of simple colonial architecture with shuttered front veranda and high, latticed foundations.  Surrounded bv a hedge of flowering yucca, it overlooked the broad Frederica and the great expanse of marshland.  The wide lawns sloped down to the banks of the river, and shell walks led through formal gardens to rose garden, cutting garden, and herb garden-all divided by picket fences and boxwood hedges.  When the voung Pierce Butlers were in Georgia in 1839 thev were entertained by Captain and Mrs. Fraser, and Fanny Kemble described Hamilton Plantation as "by far the finest place on the island."

The property was later managed by James Hamilton Couper's youngest brother, William Audley, whose descendants still cherish a silver pitcher which commemorates the part their ancestor played in the rescue of survivors of an explosion that occurred in 1850 on a steamer near the Hamilton dock.  Most of the passengers were thrown clear of the boat, as they happened to be gathered along the rail enjoying the pleasant sight of the Couper children playing on the lawn with a pet fawn.  Dozens of survivors, many of them badly burned, were brought to the plantation where William Audley Couper turned the cotton barn into an improvised hospital, using bales of cotton for emergency beds.  In appreciation of the kindness and hospitality shown them, the grateful passengers sent their host the engraved pitcher which has been handed down as a treasured heirloom through the generations.

In the sixties, Hamilton, like other coastal plantations, suffered the brutal indignities of war, but the following years brought a new era to the splendid old estate.  Bought by a lumber company in the 1870's, the old plantation saw a settlement of newcomers move into the vicinity of the mills which were built along the banks of the Frederica.  In the forests of St. Simons and neighboring islands great oaks and virgin pines crashed to the ground under the axes of timber crews, and for more than a quarter-century the river echoed to the raucous buzz of the saws, while barges, loaded with lumber at old Gascoigne Bluff, busily plied the waters of the Frederica.

The new community was known as The Mills, and its story is told in a remarkable unpublished scrapbook which is treasured by the St. Simons Library.  Made by a former resident of the island whose family divided their time between New England and St. Simons during the mill era, the scrapbook tells how Norman W. Dodge, soil of philanthropist William E. Dodge of New York City, and Titus G. Meigs also of New York, bought the Hamilton plantation for the Dodge-Meigs Lumber Mills.  A church and a schoolhouse were built, and houses for the officials and workers of the mill colony included quaint Ivy Manor and charming Rose Cottage with its thousands of roses.  There were cottages with scrollwork and gingerbread trim, and latticed summer-houses, and rustic arbors covered with wistaria and honeysuckle vines.  There were pomegranate hedges, chinaberry trees and fig trees, white shell walks, flower beds, and tall picket fences.

Amateur plays were given in the old Hamilton warehouse at the end of the wharf at Gascoigne Bluff, and the great plantation barn became the general store for the mill community.  The old Hamilton house was occupied by various families, and at one time was a boarding-house; and its enclosed basement floor was used for dancing classes.  The old place burned about 1885.  Over the years the mills on the Frederica passed to other owners, and eventually there were four different mills, the Big Mill, the Planing Mill, the Cypress Mill, and the Lower Mill.  As the timbers were cut out, the lumber supply diminished until finally in the early 1900's the St. Simons mills were shut down.  After the mills were closed, some of the old fields were put under cultivation by a produce dealer; but the buildings had fallen into disuse and the grounds, overgrown and neglected, were littered with rubbish and debris and with rusting pieces of discarded equipment when, in 1927, the place became the property of Eugene W. Lewis of Detroit.

Like his close friend Howard Coffin, a pioneer in the development of automobiles and aircraft, Eugene Lewis was also the founder of the Industrial National Bank of Detroit.  The Lewises had become interested in coastal Georgia on their annual visits to the Coffins on Sapelo Island, and when they bought the St. Simons property they planned to restore and enlarge a house built in the mill era, to clear and beautify the surrounding grounds, and to enjoy the place as a winter home.  The rambling two-storied white clapboard house, remodeled and furnished with early colonial pieces, made a charming and appropriate residence; but as the new owners learned more about the history of their property they came to feel a sort of responsibility to the old place-a compelling urge to re-create something of its proud past.

The former name of Hamilton Plantation was restored, and, as Eugene Lewis writes in his Yesterday on Hamilton and St. Simons Island, Georgia, although he "had no idea of engaging in agriculture when the property was purchased, tradition, precedent, and the sentiment in the locality" induced him to try the experiment.  And so the Lewises labored mightily, he to restore the land to its former productiveness, and she to restore the lawns and gardens to their former beauty.

Since it was decided to limit the crops to vegetables, the fields where some of the original sea island cotton had been grown were planted in Boston head lettuce, peas, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, cabbage, and cauliflower.  An irrigation system was installed to pipe water from the artesian wells, and the fertile land yielded abundantly.  At harvest time a hundred workers were employed-many of them descendants of former slaves on the plantation-and twelve to fifteen thousand crates of vegetables were shipped to Northern markets.

While the master of the plantation concerned himself with what he called his vegetable acres, the mistress was busily superintending the restoration of the grounds.  A quantity of ancient ballast discovered in the sand and mud near the dock provided historic stones for a delightful rock garden.  Handmade English brick by the thousands, reclaimed from the ruins of old buildings, were used in garden walks, terraces, and for the floor of a slave cabin built in 1805, which was refinished and furnished as a recreation room.  A rustic bridge across a shady brook led to a picturesque bamboo corridor, while flowerbordered gardens surrounded lily pools and swimming pool.  The spacious lawns with their spreading trees were further beautified with palms and shrubs, and with masses of oleanders which were all propagated from seven original bushes found still, growing upon the plantation.  Old Hamilton, rescued from oblivion, was again one of the finest places on the island.

Another opportunity to be of service in preserving the early history of his plantation was presented to Eugene Lewis in connection with the final rebuilding of Old Ironsides.  When the historic ship went into dry dock in 1927, its restoration was made possible by funds raised by popular subscription, the greater part contributed by school children throughout the United States.  Lewis, with his deep personal interest in the ship which contained timbers cut a century and a half before upon his Georgia property, took a leading part in the project in his home state of Michigan.  Twice during the rebuilding of the ship he visited the yards in Boston where he was told that some of the original liveoak was still sound and would probably be good for another half-century.  When the reconstructed frigate made a tour of the coast she received an enthusiastic welcome in her home waters in Georgia.

The first few seasons were prolific ones for the fields of old Hamilton Plantation.  Then came the depression, "an era," says Eugene Lewis, "which was no time for a banker to be a gentleman farmer." Cultivation of the Hamilton fields was still carried on, but on a smaller scale, and shipment to distant markets was discontinued.

For a score of years Hamilton, part-time home of the Lewises, dispensed the gracious hospitality of ante helium days until war again brought an end to its plantation life.  Once more labor conditions made the operation of large estates impractical, and in 1949 the plantation house with its surrounding grounds became a conference center for the Methodist Church.  Called Epworth-by-the-Sea after Epworth, England, birthplace of John and Charles Wesley, it is a beautiful and appropriate memorial with its spacious lawns, its shady brooks and lily pools, its bamboo walk and grassy retreats, its chapel, its palms and flowers and moss-draped trees.

The approach to the walled estate winds through a grove of spreading liveoaks and gnarled old cedars past the grounds of the Cassina Garden Club where two restored slave cabins stand in a picturesque nineteenth century garden.  Nearby a county park offers tables for picnicking and a marina for boating and fishing.  On holidays water traffic on the Frederica is congested along old Gascoigne Bluff, the favorite course for racing boats, just as it was when slaves manned the oars of the dugouts and their rowing chanteys rang across the marshes.



  Jim Bruce Collection