Jan. 8, 2017

CARY, Miss. – The Georgiana plantation house, which stands on the banks of Deer Creek a few miles south of this small Mississippi Delta town, has been empty for 65 years, yet it would still no doubt be recognizable to George and Anna Hunt, who owned it before the Civil War.

It would likewise be recognizable to the approximately 150 slaves who farmed the surrounding fields, for whom it was an icon of the power the Hunts held over them. It would be recognizable to Union Admiral David Porter, whose flotilla of gunboats tied up at its landing during the Civil War; to the man who later found refuge inside its rooms from a lynch mob; and to the multitude of sharecroppers who rode out the infamous 1927 Mississippi River flood on its upper floors.

Throughout its history, the two-and-a-half story house has been a key landmark for a diverse cast of characters, many of whom were involved in episodes of high drama, and despite significant wear and tear, its overall appearance is largely unchanged. Yet today, a traveler along the back road between Cary and Blanton could easily pass Georgiana without noticing it at all. For all its momentous history, it stands empty and forlorn, like a weathered, abandoned barn.

Charles Weissinger, whose family owns Georgiana and who farms the surrounding land, hopes to find a way to bridge that gap, to preserve the house as a valuable remnant of the Delta’s long and complicated history — and avoid the fate suffered by so many other vanished historic structures in the area. In Weissinger’s view, “Georgiana is the number-one unaddressed house in Mississippi” when it comes to endangered historic sites.

Because Georgiana and the last of its adjacent slave cabins are deteriorating, Weissinger said his family has decided to offer the structures and surrounding acreage to an individual, agency or group that will restore and protect them – for free. “My father talked to family members about restoring the house, but no one had the money,” Weissinger said. “If someone agreed to preserve Georgiana in perpetuity, we’d be willing to donate it,” he said.

Anyone with experience restoring and maintaining historic buildings knows that “free” is a relative term, but there is no question that Georgiana is worthy of preservation. The house and its outbuildings are the only surviving antebellum structures in the area, and fill an otherwise empty niche in the state’s architectural inventory: That of a rustic, absentee plantation home with matching slave quarters that illustrates the workings of an antebellum cotton empire in its original context and setting.

Though large, Georgiana is unadorned, reflecting its role as a wealthy slave owner’s secondary investment in the slave-based cotton economy. Many planters in the Delta had primary homes elsewhere, such as in Vicksburg and Natchez, but maintained seasonal homes on their plantation lands that were more spartan than their showplaces in town. Georgiana is essentially a more grandly scaled expression of the simple log building style of its ancillary structures, which were built at the same time, when much of the Delta was a wild frontier.

Weissinger’s late father recognized Georgiana’s importance and labored for decades to keep it intact, he said. “My father had a long, deep and abiding love for these old structures,” he said. “He felt it was his duty to be a steward.” In the 1960s and 1970s, the elder Weissinger rebuilt Georgiana’s roof, patched its foundation and covered its gaping windows with wood and tin to keep out the rain. He also re-roofed the slave cabin next door and preserved another cabin under a farm shed down the road. But the roof of the nearest cabin has since caved in, and a third, identical slave quarters, which floated away during the 1927 flood and was later moved back, eventually collapsed; its cypress timbers are stacked nearby, awaiting reconstruction.

Meanwhile, all of Georgiana’s peers have literally fallen by the wayside, including an identical sister house that faced the Mississippi River a few miles away, which, like Georgiana, was originally owned by cotton planter David Hunt; it was destroyed by a tornado around 1970. Other nearby antebellum houses, barns and cabins, which could have been preserved as a significant rural historic district, have in recent decades fallen in or been demolished or salvaged for lumber. Among them was the Onward plantation house, which stood a few miles down Deer Creek and retained a complete set of outbuildings, all of which its owner razed in the 1980s, though the structures were in good condition. Today, all that’s left of the Onward plantation house site are an old live oak, a field of daffodils and a state historical marker on Highway 1.

Georgiana, which was built around 1840, is an early house by the standards of the Mississippi Delta, which was settled primarily in the late 19th century, and faces Deer Creek, the main transportation link in the era before good roads. The structure’s brick ground floor elevates the main living areas above what were once seasonal inundations, and its second floor is constructed of the same hewn, dovetailed cypress logs that were used in its 26 original slave cabins. The third floor, a half-story, is framed. The entire structure was originally whitewashed, traces of which remain on the inside walls, and the ground floor is divided by an open breezeway that incorporates a large underground cistern.

The house has its problems: Two massive double chimneys that rose perhaps 50 feet from the ground floor to the peak of the roof have long since collapsed in a heap inside the lower level rooms, and fractures have developed in the two-foot-thick brick foundation walls. But it is otherwise sturdy, and aside from the metal roof, lacks any modern alterations, including plumbing or electrical wiring.

The property on which Georgiana stands was part of a land patent granted by President Andrew Jackson to Joseph Dunbar and Samuel Mason in 1835. Soon after, the two men sold the property to David Hunt, who built the main house and cabins simultaneously as part of an expanding cotton dynasty. At the time, the south Delta was sparsely inhabited, its plantations confined to higher ground along navigable waterways. Not long before, the area had been frequented by bandits preying on travelers along the Mississippi River and further inland on the Natchez Trace. Weissinger believes one of the bandits was the father of Samuel Mason, because he had the same name and operated from a Mississippi River island nearby. The elder Mason was a Revolutionary War veteran whose base of criminal operations was initially a cave on the Ohio River and later Stack Island, near Lake Providence, La., a few miles west of Georgiana.

Hunt, who was nicknamed “King David” due to his wealth and extensive land holdings, was a New Jersey native who owned about 1,000 slaves and 24 plantations on both sides of the river between Greenville and Natchez. He was among a small group of millionaires in the U.S. at the time – by some estimates, there were about 35, of whom 12 were Natchez area cotton planters. Hunt was a major benefactor to Oakland College (now Alcorn State University), the Rodney Presbyterian Church and the Fayette Female Academy. He was also a member of the American Colonization Society, which was set up to “repatriate” freed slaves to what is today the West African nation of Liberia, in a colony known as Mississippi in Africa.

At least two of Hunt’s former slaves recalled for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration’s “slave narratives” oral history project what were, not surprisingly, sometimes harsh experiences. One of the men recalled frequent slave whippings and heated arguments between Hunt and his wife over the severity of the punishments.

Hunt’s involvement in the colonization society puts Georgiana in the same historical context as the similarly endangered Prospect Hill plantation house, which was built downriver in Jefferson County by the grandson of Revolutionary War veteran Isaac Ross, who arranged for the largest group of slaves to be freed to immigrate to Mississippi in Africa. The Archaeological Conservancy, which owns Prospect Hill, is likewise looking for someone to restore that house, which is on the Mississippi Heritage Trust’s 10 Most endangered list.

Hunt gave Georgiana and two other plantations to his son George and daughter-in-law Anna upon their marriage in 1848, which explains the name they chose for it: “George” + “Anna”. Weissinger said it is his understanding the house was never intended to be a primary residence, but was used periodically, when the family visited the plantation. In general, he said, the Hunts spent more time at the sister house facing the Mississippi River and at their primary home plantation in Jefferson County, which was known as Huntley.

According to the 1860 agricultural census, 147 slaves lived in 26 cabins on Georgiana plantation, with more occupying the Hunts’ other holdings. During the Civil War, in April 1863, five ironclad gunboats, three troop transports and two tugboats under Union Rear Admiral David Porter stopped at Georgiana, Weissinger said. The flotilla, which also stopped at Onward plantation, was involved in what was known as the Steele’s Bayou Expedition, a joint operation by Porter and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the Vicksburg Campaign. Notably, George Hunt died in September 1863, at age 35, though Weissinger said he does not know the cause of his death; one account says he died in the Confederate army, though he is not listed in the soldiers’ database and another account describes him as a staunch Union sympathizer who opposed secession.

Accounts also vary about another death at Georgiana, of its plantation overseer, G.W. Johnson, who some say was killed during the Union occupation but others allege was murdered by free blacks after the war (based on historical accounts, it appears to have been a sort of hybrid of the two). Weissinger said he was told the overseer’s death came “at the hands of Yankees,” which he interpreted to mean some of Porter’s men, and that a missing stair step that marked the site of his death was reportedly never replaced, to preserve the memory (he isn’t sure which stair). But, Weissinger said, he was also told that Johnson was killed in a shootout with black troops during Reconstruction, at a time of white pushback against federally enforced black Republican rule. He said a group of white men, “the Democrats,” had formed a militia, “and the freedmen in charge here sent word to Vicksburg, which was the headquarters of the occupational army, saying they were having some trouble and needed help, so they sent a small army of free black soldiers and there was a shootout in Blanton. A lot of people were killed. The Democrats won. There was a rumor that the foreman got killed in that scrap, but who knows?”

Two episodes documented in separate historical accounts shed light on the subject. In Volume 1 of the Mississippi Historical Society’s Centenary Series, published in 1916, Col. W.D. Brown recounts a series of attacks on white landowners and overseers along Deer Creek by black Union soldiers in August 1863, a month prior to George Hunt’s death. The raiders allegedly committed several murders downstream, and, Brown recalled, “Continuing northward they next came to what is known as Georgiana plantation, then the property of Mr. George F. Short [actually George F. Hunt]. There they shot to death Mr. Johnson, the overseer of the plantation.”

The transcripts of a series of congressional hearings focusing on Mississippi’s Reconstruction-era elections in 1876 include testimony about a second series of murders by black vigilantes, as well as race riots, threats of attacks on plantations and towns, and white revenge killings, which prompted residents along Deer Creek to hold a biracial convention “for the purpose of quieting the public feeling on the part of the whites and blacks.” Among the white signatories to the convention was David Hunt (not the same David Hunt who originally owned Georgiana, who died on the eve of the Civil War, in 1861). Several black residents of Georgiana plantation also signed on.

Included in the congressional record is the testimony of a Georgiana sharecropper, David Cameron, who said that after hearing that white vigilantes would be moving through from nearby Rolling Fork, he went to David Hunt’s Georgiana home late one night seeking protection. Cameron recalled that “Mr. Hunt came out with his slippers on,” and after hearing his concerns, invited him inside to stay the night. Hunt reportedly told Cameron he could do nothing to help others who lived on Georgiana plantation who had been involved in racially motivated crimes, and in fact, a group of white men rounded up several black men from Georgiana’s former slave quarters who had allegedly been involved in local attacks, at least two of whom were later killed. At the time, according to another sharecropper’s testimony, about 100 black residents lived and worked on Georgiana plantation, but David Hunt was the only white resident.

The Hunt family held on to Georgiana through the economic crash that followed the Civil War, but by 1927, the year the Mississippi River broke through its levees and flooded 27,000 square miles, the plantation’s manager occupied the main house, Weissinger said. The manager evacuated from the flood, enabling scores of sharecroppers to find refuge in the home’s elevated floors, he said. Weissinger still has the boat that his great grandfather, who was sheriff at the time, used to rescue flood victims from roofs and trees.

Around 1930, Weissinger’s great grandfather and his brother-in-law bought Georgiana, and his son (Weissinger’s grandfather) later bought the uncle out. In the 1940s, when rural electrification came, his grandfather decided that wiring Georgiana would be an insurmountable task, so he had two of the log cabins moved together to create a dogtrot in which the farm manager lived until the structure burned. “My daddy cried when that house burned,” Weissinger said. No one has lived in Georgiana since about 1950, he added.

Given that Georgiana has survived so much tumult, and is of obvious historical, architectural and cultural importance, Weissinger said he is hopeful the family can find someone with the means to save it. “It’s such a unique place,” he said. “It needs to be preserved.”

Toward that aim, he said, the family will donate the house and approximately seven surrounding acres and the remaining outbuildings to anyone who will agree to restore the property.

Georgiana is open by appointment only; Weissinger asks for serious inquiries only.