Coastal Georgia History
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Retreat Plantation

House Sketch  
1904 Survey Map  

RETREAT PLANTATION, on the south end of St. Simons Island, was the property of Major William Page, a friend of Major Butler, who had come from Page's Point, South Carolina, and had purchased island and mainland acreage along the Georgia coast in the early 1800's.  The St. Simons plantation which he called Retreat was formerly the Orange Grove Plantation where the Thomas Spaldings of Sapelo had lived when they were first married.  Major and Mrs. Page had only one child, a daughter Anna Matilda, and the little family lived in the house that was a replica of General Oglethorpe's old Frederica place, Orange Hall, a roomy eighteenth century English style cottage sturdily built to stand the West Indian gales that sometimes blew in from the sea.  The Pages planned to build a larger house overlooking the water of channel and sound, but the years went by and they were comfortable in their picturesque home.

As young Ann Page grew up she shared her mother's love for home-making and gardening, and inherited her father's genius for managing the affairs of the great plantations.  Pretty, gay, and lovable, she was a favorite with everybody and a sought-after belle of the coastal region.  In 1823 a young lawyer from Massachusetts, Thomas Butler King, came South on a visit, and was so charmed with the coastland that he decided to make his home in Georgia.   

Within little more than two years after their daughter's marriage, Major and Mrs. Page both died, and Ann Page King inherited the coastal property.  After spending a few years at Retreat the Thomas Butler Kings and their growing family lived on one of the mainland plantations, Waverly, near the present town of Kingsland.  Young Mr. King was alreadv becoming interested in the statesman's career that was to be his life's work; and when a depression in cotton prices made operation of their several plantations impractical the family disposed of most of the mainland propertv and moved to the St. Simons place.

Like the Pages before them, the King family lived in the house built in the 1700's by the Spaldings, the charming English cottage of handhewn timbers with shuttered veranda and gabled roof.  They set out an avenue of liveoaks leading to the site selected for the plantation mansion, and a drive bordered by water oaks led to the cottage, which stood some distance to the right of the intended house site.  One can imagine the plans Thomas and Ann King must have made for a larger house, but the years at Retreat were too filled with living to leave time for the building of mansions.  Meanwhile there was a guest house for overnight visitors, the daughters were happy in their dormer-windowed bedrooms, and the sons had their own "Grasshopper Hall." Clustered around the cottage, besides the annexes for extra sleeping quarters, were hothouses, summerhouses, the customary detached kitchen, and the schoolhouse where lessons were taught until the children were old enough to go East to study - the girls to finishing schools, the boys to Yale and Princeton.

Other buildings in the little settlement around the dwelling were the plantation hospital and the famous four-storied cotton house that was used as a guide for ships during the years when there was no lighthouse on the island.  There was the tabby bam, and there were the servants' quarters.  Favorite among the younger servants was Neptune Small, who although not much older than the boys themselves kept a stern eye on the young gentlemen in Grasshopper Hall.  There were Juno, Minerva, and Adelette, and Naynie who reigned supreme at Retreat.  Navnie, who had taken care of Ann Page King when she was a baby, was to live to help "raise" the third generation and to be an honored guest at the wedding of the Kings' granddaughter.

The real beauty of Retreat was in its surrounding gardens.  The spacious grounds were laid out in formal gardens in which bloomed almost every flower and shrub known to the region; there were nearly a hundred varieties of roses, but never a flower without a fragrance.  A "cedar pleasaunce" formed a windbreak between house and beach, and shell walks led through the delightful maze of the Kings' famous arboretum.  A "plantation" in the English manner, the arboretum contained specimen trees and rare shrubs, many of which had been brought in tubs on sailing vessels from foreign parts, gifts from friends of Thomas Butler King.

Many stories are handed down of houseparties and dances, of amateur theatricals, of banquets and musicales and weddings of the daughters of the household.  With the King family of nine children, the sons handsome and gallant, the daughters beautiful and talented, life was gay and charming at Retreat.  And truly a retreat his home must have been to Thomas Butler King.  Son of a family of Massachusetts statesmen, the master of Retreat became a prominent figure in affairs of government, affairs which often took him across the continent and to foreign countries.

A member of the House of Representatives for more than a decade, and chairman of the House Naval Committee at the time that Old Ironsides was first rebuilt, Thomas Butler King was presented with an ornamental vase made from some of the ship timbers that had come from St. Simons Island.  Fashioned in the design of the famous Warwick Vase the handsomely carved um is still treasured by the Kings' descendants.  When California was ceded to the United States by Mexico, Thomas Butler King was appointed by President Taylor to inspect the territory.  Later he served for a time as collector of the port of San Francisco.  In his absence the management of the plantation fell into the competent hands of his wife, who was as well known for the superiority of the cotton grown in the fields of Retreat as for the perfection of the roses grown in her famous gardens.

What an amazing woman this Anna Page King must have been!  With her large family of children, the management of the vast acres of the plantation, the personal care which she gave to her many slaves, the hours spent with her flowers and shrubs, her home still had a reputation for an ease and grace of hospitality which has long outlived the house itself.  Prominent men of this and other countries, friends and associates of Thomas Butler King, were frequent visitors at the beautiful estate.  When Audubon visited there he was "fain to think he had landed on one of the fairy islands said to have existed in the Golden Age."

The years at Retreat were gracious and happy ones, an existence almost ideal until 1859 when the eldest son, Butler, and the mother died within the year.  When the clouds of war began to gather and the storm broke over the nation, it shattered the very foundations of Thomas Butler King's life.  Here was a war between the government to which he had given a lifetime of service and his beloved Southland in which the happiest moments of that lifetime had been lived.  A heartbroken father saw his remaining sons go to war, one never to return.  At the same time an important mission for the Confederate Government required his presence in Europe.  Small wonder Thomas Butler King's health failed, and he was laid to rest in 1864 beside his wife in Christ Church Cemetery.

The other members of the household had refugeed to their place "The Refuge" in Ware Countv, and Retreat stood deserted during the war years.  In the nightmare days of Reconstruction the old homestead was confiscated by an individual of carpetbagger fame.  When it was finally restored to its owners the fields were unplanted, fences down, livestock and equipment gone.  But the Mallery Kings decided to come with their familv to live at Retreat in an attempt to bring the old place back some of its former productiveness.  The Kings' three voung daughters, Mary Anna, Frances Buford, and Florence'Page, were just the age to find high adventure in their life on the neglected plantation.  There were other young people whose families were trying to restore their property, and there were boys and girls at The Mills on the old Hamilton Plantation.

Of course Neptune and some of the other servants had come back to the island with the family, and the three girls never tired of hearing them tell about life at Retreat before the war.  They shuddered delightfully over tales of the "Ghost With the Long Arms" that used to walk beneath the liveoaks and of the dire calamities that befell those to whom it beckoned.  They thrilled over the romances of the four lovely daughters of the household: of Hannah who married William Audley Couper and was for a time mistress of Hamilton Plantation on the Frederica; of Florence, for whom the youngest of the three girls was named; of Virginia, whose pet name was Appeleeta; and of Georgia, who sang like an angel.  They liked to hear how visitors approaching the river landing would silence their boatmen's songs to listen with delight to the sweet girlish voice drifting over the water.

The girls liked to hear, too, the stories Neptune told of the war years.  Like so many faithful servants of the Old South, he had gone to war with Lord King, and when the young captain fell in the battle of Fredericksburg, Neptune had carried him in from the battlefield and had brought his body back to Georgia.  Then the loyal Negro had made his way back to the battlefront to be with the voungest son, Cuyler, whom the family called "Tippecanoe." The two were together throughout the war, both homesick for their peaceful island, and when the moon was full Neptune would remind the boy "High water on the bar, Marse Tip."

The stables that had housed the carriage and saddle horses were empty now, so the girls persuaded Neptune to show them how to yoke Tom and Jerry, the team of gentle oxen.  There were places they wanted to go and an ox cart was better than walking, and soon the three pretty girls in their strange equipage were a familiar sight on the island.  The unusual conveyance often brought excitement - such as the time one of the oxen decided to lie down while the girls were attending church, and it took the efforts of most of the men of the congregation to haul him to his feet, get the yoke and reins untangled, and start the young ladies on their way home.  Another time when the girls were visiting some young people on a neighboring plantation the oxen were tied to the porch railing.  The visit lasted too long even for the patience of Tom and Jerry, and a crash brought everyone to the porch to find that the oxen had determined to pull loose and go home, carrying part of the railing with them.

And so for a few years gay young feet again danced over the mellowed old floors of Retreat; Japanese lanterns flickered over the lawns; song and laughter drifted over the water.  But although the King girls had some happy times in the years they spent on the old plantation, these were heartbreaking years for Mallery and Eugenia.  Their youngest child, little Thomas Butler King, III, died when he was scarcelv more than a baby.  And the difficulties of restoring the plantation were proving insurmountable.  Adequate help was not to be had; the crops were disappointing, with cotton prices low.  Finally Mallery King reluctantly gave up the attempt to revive Retreat, moved his family back to the mainland, and took up other interests.  After standing empty a few years the plantation house and the cotton house went up in flames one night as the wind blew in across the channel.  In 1928 a part of the old plantation became the Sea Island Golf Club, and the spreading acres of Retreat again offered gayety and pleasure to visitors from far and near.

A quarter of a century after the romance-haunted old house burned, the last chapter in its history was being written in faraway New England in the native state of Thomas Butler King.  In the town of Attleboro, Massachusetts, in 1929, an antique dealer bought at auction an old clock with wooden works that had a card inside its back cover which read "U.  S. S. Ethan Allen on blockade Jan. 10, 1863." The G. A. R. Dining Club of Attleboro undertook to trace ownership of the clock.  With the help of Charles C. Cain, Jr., publisher of the Attleboro Daily Sun, Navy Department records were searched, and it was discovered from an old ship's log in the Washington Archives that the Ethan Allen on that date in 1863 had been at St. Simons Island, Georgia.  Subsequent investigation established the fact that the clock had been taken from the Kings' house at Retreat Plantation.  It was arranged for a delegation of citizens from Attleboro to make the trip to Georgia to return the clock to descendants of the King family.

In May 1930 the group from Massachusetts arrived by boat at Savannah, where they received a hospitable welcome.  They proceeded by car to Brunswick where they found the city decked out in bunting and holiday mood to greet them.  As the motorcade of visitors and their Georgia hosts reached the grounds of old Retreat, Navy cruisers and Coast Guard boats, with flags waving and pennants flying, steamed into the harbor.  Congressman Martin of Massachusetts eloquently presented the clock, and Senator George of Georgia, with equal eloquence, accepted it for the King family.  Howard Coffin was master of ceremonies, and music was furnished by descendants of slaves of the plantation.  The beautiful bass voice of old Neptune's son Clarence and the high sweet soprano of his daughter Cornelia drifted over the water, and the old clock ticked the minutes away as serenely as though it had not been gone from its island home for nearly threescore years and ten.

The approach to the Sea Island Golf Club skirts the original avenue of trees, leading past the rliins of the slave hospital.  The central part of the club house itself is the old tabby barn.  In a shady grove by a lily-covered small pond is the little cemetery where plantation slaves and their descendants have been buried since 1800.  The inscription on the bronze tablet which marks the tombstone of Neptune Small tells its own story of the devotion of this man to the family which held him in the highest affection and esteem all of his long life.  Looking up the grass-grown avenue between the ancient liveoaks, one half expects to see the gardens of old Retreat Plantation through the spreading moss-hung branches.



  Jim Bruce Collection