Thanks to the Thomasville Visitors Center and Pebble Hill Plantation for hosting my travels. We were very fortunate to have the opportunity to tour this preserved plantation.
There is not much of a view of Pebble Hill Plantation as you drive by on US Hwy 319. The true journey back in time begins when you turn off onto the plantation’s tree-covered drive. The narrow drive passes under a canopy of stately oaks gracefully dripping with Spanish moss. As we drove past stunningly beautiful grounds with countless, charming outbuilding I couldn’t help thinking there is something about Pebble Hill Plantation that appeals to all my fantasies about Southern charm and hospitality.
At the Visitor’s Center we received a gracious Southern welcome from our docent guide, Lori Curtis. She would guide us back in time to a period of opulence and benevolence on our tour of this 3000-acre plantation. We began our visit with a short video on the history of the plantation.
Pebble Hill is a home rich in both art and history and steeped in the South’s rich traditions. Over the years, it has changed owners, undergone significant structural changes, and been converted from a working cotton plantation to a winter home, a shooting plantation, and finally, to a popular tourist attraction with a world-class art gallery.
Early Days and Hard Times
The story of Pebble Hill Plantation begins in 1827 when the first owner, Thomas Jefferson Johnson, built his home on the property. The property passed to the daughter, Julia Ann Mitchell. In 1851, she built Wind House, a magnificent stately Southern mansion. It was about this time Pebble Hill got its name. Looking at this beautiful property today it is easy to forget it was once a slave-holding, cotton and sugar cane plantation.
Hard times during the Civil War and after the Reconstruction left the property run down and disheveled with Wind House in desperate need of major repairs. In 1896 the plantation was sold to a northerner, Howard Melville Hanna from Cleveland, Ohio. Mel Hanna made his money by investing in shipping and later in the oil business. He eventually sold his oil concerns to the Standard Oil of Ohio.
Mel Hanna made extensive repairs to Wind House then gifted the property to his daughter, Kate Benedict Hanna Ireland in 1901. This is the point in history where the current Pebble Hill story begins.
The Jersey Days
By the time Kate received the plantation the beautiful Wind House had been restored to much of its former beauty. It is Kate who is responsible for all the plantations other major buildings. The first building she had built was a replica of a southern dogtrot log cabin. It served as both school and playroom for her children while they were in south Georgia during the winter months.
The Visitor’s Center (along with a pictorial history of the plantation) is located in what used to be the lavish cow barns and dairy. It seems Kate became interested in developing a herd of prize-winning Jersey cows. She even went so far as to travel to the Isle of Jersey to select some of her breed stock. The herd grew and many of her cows won the highest honors at livestock shows. A byproduct of her hobby was Pebble Hill Dairy which sold the fine milk, cream, butter and cheese produced by her herd. Lori led us on a tour of the barns, stables, and the lovely courtyard area where Kate’s prized Jersey were paraded and judged during livestock shows held on the property. This area is known as the Stable Complex.
Fun Fact: Animals have always been a part of life at Pebble Hill Plantation. Even today it is home to home to two Percherons (King & Earle), two Tennessee Walkers (Amos & JellyBean), an Overo Paint Quarter Horse (MacyBelle), and one Belgian mule (Jeff). A Border Collie (Mandy), a Humane Society rescue dog, frequently comes to work with her owner.
On the tour of the rest of the plantation, Lori pointed out another of Kate’s building projects–the Plantation Store. It was completed in 1911 as a retail outlet for the dairy. The building was designed by a Cleveland architect and close friend, Abram Garfield. Abram Garfield (the youngest son of President James A. Garfield) would go on to design all the plantation’s major buildings. As we explored the 70 acres of the plantation open to the public, Lori pointed out many of the buildings that Kate had a hand in. There were gorgeous Georgian style horse stalls and paddock, a nurse’s station, a veterinary hospital, a fire house, several 3-bedroom homes for the employees, two schools (one for the employees’ children and one for Kate’s two children and other children who visited the family), a grass tennis court, and an outdoor swimming pool. The plantation also had its own cemetery. Pebble Hill had all the amenities of a small town.
In 1934, a disastrous fire totally destroyed the original Wind House. However, the newer loggia wing was saved, as the story goes, by a bucket brigade dipping water from the swimming pool. Kate asked Abram Garfield back to Pebble Hill and together they planned an elegant, new Main House. The magnificent, neo-classical structure provided for a total living space on two floors of 26,000 square feet.
Surrounding the Main House are lush manicured lawns, numerous camellia bushes, dogwoods, magnolias, azaleas, and Cherokee roses. At the back of the house is an arbor with a reflection pool, and a sundial. Spring has to be one of the lovliest times to visit. We had also just had a Georgia downpour the day before our visit so even the resurrection fern in the oak trees was lush and green.
The Days of Adventure
Two years after the fire the Main House was completed. Kate only lived in the home a few months before she died. Kate and her second husband, Perry Williams Harvey, are buried in the cemetery on the property. Her daughter, Elisabeth Ireland Poe (Miss Pansy, as she was fondly known) became the plantation owner. It was then that Pebble Hill Plantation entered a new era and became a shooting plantation.
Pansy was an accomplished horsewoman and became one of the country’s outstanding polo players. She brought her horses to her mother’s cow barns and made them into stables. Lori described Pansy as a tomboy, socially awkward, and shy. Pansy married late in life and she and her husband, Parker Poe, never had children. During Pansy’s lifetime many powerful and prominent guests visited Pebble Hill including President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mrs. Eisenhower, then governor Jimmy Carter, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as well as many artists and other notable visitors.
Like her mother, Pansy was a great animal lover and an inveterate collector. Her numerous collections pointed to her lifetime passion for the sporting life. The Main House is filled with fine art, antique furniture, fine china, crystal, and silver trophies. Two rooms have exquisite hand-painted wallpaper. There are 20 sets of china alone. The walls are covered with 33 James Audubon prints and in the upstairs gallery is horse portrait by Sir Alfred James Munnings, one of England’s finest painters of horses. Everything in the house is original.
Fun Fact: The ladies powder room, right off of the dining room is charming. With the door closed a woman had a 350 degree view of herself. The lighting was pink so as to be most favorable to a woman’s complexion.
There is a sense of timelessness about the home. All of the items on exhibit were in the house at the time of Pansy’s death in 1978. Lori’s description was that it was as if Pansy walked out the door and left the keys. In effect she did that—Pansy set up a foundation to maintain Pebble House and to open the plantation to the public.
Tips for visiting Pebble Hill
- Main House tours are guided tours. A typical tour takes approximately 1 hour.
- The tour of the grounds is a self-guided walking tour. 70 acres are open for visitors to explore. A map is furnished that points out the various areas of interest on the grounds. Be sure to wear good walking shoes.
- A picnic area with barbecue grills and picnic tables is available.
- Well-behaved pets on leashes are welcome on the grounds. Pets are not permitted in the Main House.
- Most of the plantation’s public buildings are wheelchair accessible including the two-story Main House. It has an original elevator.
Pebble Hill Plantation has been called a Georgia Belle. She stands proudly amid the magnolias and long leaf pines of south Georgia like an alluring southern belle. She has an appeal and beauty that is breathtaking. This stately architectural beauty is truly a must-see attraction.