Places in Time:  Notes on Wormsloe History

Drew Swanson

Live Oak Avenue, present day

Wormsloe Avenue
Wormsloe’s mile-long entrance avenue lined with live oaks is a classic image from the moonlight and magnolias Old South.  However, this grand drive following the historic road leading to Noble Jones’s fortified house was not planted until four decades after the Civil War.  In the 1890s, Wymberley Jones De Renne laid out the live oak avenue, and later a massive concrete and iron entrance gate, to celebrate the birth of his son.  Family tradition records that De Renne took the idea from an old French custom.

Whether in the French tradition or not, De Renne envisioned the live oak avenue as a key component of his plan to transform the plantation into a country retreat where he could escape the hustle and bustle of his business in Savannah and the Northeast.  The avenue was also part of a concerted effort to celebrate Wormsloe’s history, as it took visitors to the ruins of the colonial fort rather than directly to the De Renne residence.  The avenue’s modern visage differs from its planner’s vision.  During its first four decades of existence, open agricultural fields planted in fodder crops and sweet potatoes flanked the oak-lined drive, resulting in a landscape feature that stood out even more than the still impressive avenue of today.

The Wormsloe Big House, 1895. 

De Renne Family Papers, Hargrett Library, University of Georgia.

Since 1828, the main plantation house has served as the nexus of agricultural and social life on Wormsloe.  George Jones’s home on Newton, one of his nearby plantations, burned to the ground in 1825, and he decided to build a replacement on his Isle of Hope property.  Noble Jones’s old fortified house was too small and outdated, and so George Jones built from the ground up.  The new frame structure fronted the Skidaway River and was centrally located on the plantation.  Portions of the new home’s foundation came from tabby rubble taken from the colonial fort.

The plantation house’s appearance has changed a great deal since the early nineteenth century.  The original home was a modest two-story structure facing the river.  Antebellum additions expanded the house to three stories, and moved the main entrance to the north side of the structure.  Following the war, the De Renne family continued to enlarge the home and added Victorian trappings, including a spired tower, elaborate trim, and an entirely new servants’ wing as tall as the main house.  The house as it appears today is largely the product of a remodel that took place around 1940, which removed most of the Victorian adornments in favor of a simpler facade.

Sea Island Cotton ~1880

Craig Barrow Family Papers, Hargrett Library, University of Georgia.

Sea Island cotton was Wormsloe’s main agricultural crop from the late eighteenth century until the 1880s.  This coastal variety of cotton produced a longer, silkier floss than the upland cotton that grew throughout much of the rest of the South, and as a result the fiber brought a high price on domestic and foreign markets.  As its name implies, only plantations situated close to the ocean could produce high-quality Sea Island cotton, as the plant demanded salty air.  The work of raising, harvesting, cleaning, and packing cotton on the plantation fell to African Americans.  Slaves worked the fields prior to the Civil War, and, following Emancipation, freedpeople toiled on Wormsloe as wage laborers, sharecroppers, and renters.

Sea Island cotton cultivation along the Georgia coast withered and died during Reconstruction, as increased foreign competition and freedpeoples’ rejection of agricultural wage labor made the crop less profitable.  While Wormsloe’s residents raised cotton, the crop dominated the daily rhythms of plantation life.  Life on Wormsloe was regimented by the task system of labor management, in which laborers performed a given task – be it planting, hoeing, or picking – on a predetermined piece of ground, and were free to garden, hunt, fish, or socialize once the task was complete.

Wormsloe Dairy, ca. 1930s

Cattle ranged Wormsloe from the very first days of the Savannah settlement, but it was not until the antebellum era that the Joneses made concerted dairying efforts on the plantation.  George W. Jones imported Devon, Newport, and Alderney cattle in the 1850s.  More significant operations came after the war.  By the turn of the century, the family ran a modest dairy on site, which supplied cream, cheese, and butter to the Savannah market.  To meet the needs of an expanding dairy herd, the De Rennes built a brick dairy house and a concrete silo to store silage for feeding the cattle.

Foremost Dairy Company, which operated dairies in several southern states, leased the Wormsloe dairy herd and facilities during the 1920s and 1930s.  Foremost continued to supply dairy products to Savannah, and the arrangement persisted until around 1940.  During these years Wormsloe’s fields grew a variety of fodder crops, including peas, beans, and corn.  Today little remains of the plantation dairy; only a portion of the foundation and the walls of the silo bear testimony to this era of Wormsloe’s history.

Drainage ditches on Wormsloe

Photograph by Sarah Ross, 2010.

Although they are hardly the most dramatic features of Wormsloe’s landscape, the drainage ditches that cut across the peninsula were among the plantation’s most important foundations.  Wormsloe lies on low, marshy ground, and drainage was essential to making a productive agricultural estate.  Throughout the early and mid-1800s, and perhaps earlier, the Jones family worked to ditch and drain the land.  Slaves and hired laborers dug these extensive drainage networks by hand, carving miles of ditches through Wormsloe’s woods and swamps.

Ditches were essential to creating well-drained cotton and corn fields, but they also served another purpose that made Wormsloe more inhabitable.  The mosquito varieties that transmit malaria to humans breed in standing fresh water, a habitat found in abundance along the marshy coastline.  Although eighteenth and nineteenth century Georgians did not realize the connections between mosquitos and malaria, they did associate swamps with disease, and as a result they worked to create dry landscapes.  Wormsloe’s ditches, which carried water from the plantation’s low spots to the surrounding estuary, reduced mosquito breeding sites and must have made life more pleasant (and longer) for the land’s residents.

Confederate Earth Works

Craig Barrow Family Papers, Hargrett Library, University of Georgia.

Some of the most prominent features of Wormsloe’s topography are the earthen embankments located at the plantation’s southernmost point.  These fortifications, known as Fort Wimberley, were part of Savannah’s Civil War defenses.  Wormsloe’s fort guarded a watery approach to the city, a potential invasion route that troubled Confederate officials just as it had colonial leaders who worried about Spanish forces.  Although Wormsloe’s earthworks never saw combat during the war, Confederate troops were garrisoned at the facility for much of the war.

Wormsloe’s soldiers retreated without a battle in 1864, and the abandoned earthworks were never used for military purposes again.  The Confederate troops may have escaped immediate harm, but the plantation economy was not so fortunate.  Union cavalry vandalized the Joneses’ home, burned Wormsloe’s cotton, and carried off horses and mules.  The forest has reclaimed the military works, but the impact of the earthworks continues to affect the landscape.  Today plants that favor well-drained soils, such as hickories, grow on the abandoned fortifications, botanical testaments to the lasting imprint of war.

Ruins of Noble Jones’s Fortified House, 1934.

Photograph by Branan Sanders, FSA/OWI collection, Library of Congress.

When Noble Jones and his family settled on the Isle of Hope in 1736, they needed a house that would not only provide shelter, but also one that would also serve as a deterrent to potential Spanish soldiers intent on approaching Savannah from its watery backyard.  The Joneses built their home using the abundant natural materials of the Georgia coast, on a site that overlooked a strategic stretch of the Skidaway River.  They combined sand, water, oyster shells, and lime into a rough cement known as tabby, and they poured this material into wooden forms to harden.  The resulting structure was both house and fort, with living quarters, an enclosed yard, and openings for firing through the walls.  Rude wattle and daub huts surrounded the house, where they housed colonial marines and later slaves.

The tabby house served as the main living quarters on Wormsloe for three generations of the Jones family.  A portion of the fort was demolished in the 1820s, and the tabby rubble was used in the construction of a new frame plantation house north of the original settlement site.  During the 1880s, the De Renne family stabilized the remains of the fort to preserve them in their contemporary state.  In the 1960s, archeological excavations led by William Kelso revealed the original plan of the fortified house, and recovered a number of colonial artifacts.  Many of the objects from Noble Jones’s day can be seen in the Wormsloe State Historic Site museum.

Formal Horticultural Gardens at Wormsloe, ca. 1930s. 

De Renne Family Papers, Hargrett Library, University of Georgia.

From its English settlement in the 1730s, Wormsloe has continuously been the site of practical and ornamental gardens.  Noble Jones experimented with tropical and subtropical plants on his new plantation.  He cultivated pomegranates, oranges, grapes, white mulberry trees, agave, apricots, and other exotic species.  The succeeding generations continued this horticultural experimentation, planting camellias, roses, azaleas, and ornamental trees across the plantation landscape.  Around the turn of the twentieth century, Wymberley J. De Renne launched an extensive campaign to landscape a substantial portion of the plantation with botanical specimens.

De Renne also designed the formal gardens pictured above.  His son, Wymberley, and daughter-in-law, Augusta, expanded these formal gardens behind the main house in the 1910s and 1920s.  The De Rennes built brick walls, a dove cote, iron fences, arbors, gazebos, and fountains to complement neat beds and borders of flowering plants.  Wymberley’s and Augusta’s landscaping drew attention from visitors and the press, and the formal gardens served as the centerpiece of Wormsloe Gardens tourist attraction, which opened in 1927.  Portions of the walled garden remain today.

Wormsloe Library, 2010. 

Photograph by Drew Swanson.

Wymberley J. De Renne hired African American workers to build a library on Wormsloe, completed in 1908.  The impressive structure, modeled on classical Greek architecture and incorporating the latest in fireproof technology, housed the family’s expansive collection of Georgia historical materials.  Among the library’s holdings were eyewitness accounts of Colonial Georgia, materials from and about the colony’s Trustees, and a copy of the original Confederate Constitution.  In 1938 the University of Georgia acquired the majority of the De Renne collection, which today forms the core of the univ ersity’s Hargrett Special Collections Library.

Wymberley’s library was part of a long family tradition of collecting and preserving Georgia’s history.  George Wymberley Jones compiled an impressive library of rare books and manuscripts during the antebellum era, much of which was destroyed in the Civil War.  After the war, he worked to rebuild his collection, a labor that his son Wymberley expanded around the turn of the century.  Today, the Barrow family continues to support Georgia scholarship, aiding projects as wide-ranging as the University of Georgia Press and the Wormsloe Institute for Environmental History.

Long Island and Wormsloe, 1875

De Renne Family Papers, Hargrett Library, University of Georgia.

Long Island, lying east of Wormsloe across the salt marsh and Skidaway River, has historically been a part of the plantation.  Noble Jones acquired the island as part of a royal grant during the colonial era, and, after inheritance and sale separated the two tracts, George W. Jones purchased the island and reunited the properties in 1856.  Like Wormsloe proper, Long Island grew Sea Island cotton on its low fields, and its soil was some of the estate’s most productive ground.

Following the Civil War and Emancipation, Long Island served as the site for an aborted experiment in African American landownership.  Wartime Union orders granted freedpeople rights to certain coastal lands, including Long Island.  Four men claimed plots on Long Island (three of whom may have been former slaves on Wormsloe) where they cultivated the land for themselves rather than for a master.  In 1867, the federal government returned ownership of the land to the Jones family – who had changed their name to De Renne the previous year – and Long Island’s brief African American masters faded from the historical record.

Rice mill at Wormsloe, 1934. 

Photograph by Branan Sanders, FSA/OWI collection, Library of Congress.

Although Wormsloe contained a rice mill and the Joneses grew rice on their Newton plantation along the banks of the nearby Little Ogeechee River, there is no conclusive evidence that the family ever raised the cereal on their Isle of Hope plantation.  Instead, Wormsloe’s rice mill cleaned grain from neighboring plantations.  Instead of being a rice estate, Wormsloe was perfectly suited to raising another Lowcountry staple: Sea Island cotton.  This long-fibered cotton produced handsome profits without the elaborate earthworks and water control devices required by rice culture.

Wormsloe’s rice mill demonstrates the interconnected nature of the Joneses’ Lowcountry plantations.  At various sites scattered across the region, the family raised rice, corn, livestock, Sea Island cotton, indigo, and short staple cotton.  Each plantation specialized in a particular crop or two best suited to the soil and climate, yet each unit was part of an economic whole.

Slave Cabins on Wormsloe Plantation, ca. 1870s. 

De Renne Family Papers, Stereograph, Hargrett Library, University of Georgia.

Wormsloe’s first slave dwellings were rude huts near Noble Jones’s fortified house, probably the same structures that the fort’s marines had used in their watch for Spanish invaders.  Noble Jones’s great-grandson, George Wymberley Jones, built eight frame slave houses during his agricultural improvement campaign of the 1850s.  Jones arranged the new cabins in a double row roughly halfway between the mansion house and the historic fort, with an overseer’s house located at the northern end of the slave village.

These slave houses existed at the edge of the plantation’s work and wild spaces.  Wormsloe’s slaves lived next to the quarters field and in close proximity to the old fort field and the Jones mansion.  Their homes also bordered the rich estuarial marsh of the Skidaway River and the mixed pine and hardwood forest that covered much of the southern end of the Isle of Hope peninsula.  Each cabin was surrounded by a paling fence that enclosed a kitchen garden and a few chickens.  Slaves labored in the cotton fields and farm buildings most mornings and early afternoons, and hunted, fished, and tended their own small gardens in the evenings and on Sundays.

Following Emancipation, some of Wormsloe’s former slaves continued to live in the plantation’s cabins and farm the land, first as sharecroppers and then as renters and wage laborers.  During the early twentieth century the De Renne family dismantled all of the cabins save one and used the salvaged materials in other construction projects.  The family remodeled the remaining cabin for historical reenactments in the 1930s park, and the structure survives today.