Although we tend to think of plantations as only colonial in nature, they actually date from Roman times and remained a cornerstone of agriculture from that time forward. But the rise of a class of small, successful farmers tends to make us forget plantations in history until we hit eighteenth and nineteenth century America. And then you can’t avoid them. It is especially impossible to discuss the South without including the plantations that made up the backbone of its economy. Trees, rice, indigo, sugar cane, cotton, and tobacco built not just wealth for the planter class but helped a nascent nation stand on its own after emerging from colonial rule.
Unfortunately, most of these plantations didn’t survive the Civil War or ran to ruin afterwards. But of those few that are accessible today, Pebble Hill Plantation in Georgia stands out because, unlike most others and from the very beginning, she was kissed by good fortune.
In the 1820’s Thomas Jefferson Johnson built the first house on land he called “Pebble Hill” in the newly formed Thomas County in southwest Georgia, bordering Florida. His daughter Julia Ann inherited the successful tobacco and cotton farm. She later married and replaced the original house in 1850 with one designed by John Wind, an English architect. Her husband, John H. Mitchell, was also a gifted planter and transitioned the crops to include rice.
The years after the Civil War ended were a struggle for everyone but the wealthiest, and Pebble Hill remained well-off. Its location had saved it from battle devastation and Sherman’s March during the War—and by who knows what stroke of fortune? Perhaps it was something similar to the narrow escape of Millford Plantation in Sumter County, South Carolina, which owed its survival to the remarkable fact that its designer was the brother of the Union General who planned to burn it.
By the 1880’s, southwest Georgia had become a playground for wealthy Northerners, not least because of aggressive campaigning by the town of Thomasville. Boosters enticed winter-weary folk to the clean piney air and provided the urbane pursuits Yankees liked such as golf and bicycling, baseball, and lawn tennis.
And then there was the South’s bountiful game and fowl hunting, especially pheasant. The horseback riding was energizing and yet another way to enjoy the outdoors. Indeed, even picnicking became a high art. With the abolition of slavery and other end-of-the-war economic forces, the plantation economy had been forced to evolve into a tourist economy and Pebble Hill, by now called “Pebble Hill Plantation,” adapted beautifully.
With Thomasville just down the road a piece and abundant wild game on the plantation, building well-appointed guest cabins throughout the property allowed Pebble Hill Plantation to make the most of their guests’ desires for good hunting, fine accommodations, and warm weather.
The Howard Melville Hanna family of Cleveland, Ohio—wealthy from oil, shipping, and racing—enjoyed vacationing in the Thomas County area so much, they bought thousands of acres and several moribund cotton plantations in the area, ultimately buying the continuously thriving Pebble Hill Plantation in 1896 to create their own private retreat.
The place had been a successful nineteenth century plantation, been through a war with nary a scratch, and never lost a step transitioning to the winter home/hunting resort model funded by Northern riches. Although the railroad, which had ended at Thomasville for many years, pushed on through to Florida taking the wealthy-seeking-warmth with it, things were about to get even better for this lucky spot.
Mel Hanna willed Pebble Hill Plantation to his daughter Kate Benedict Ireland Hanna Harvey, who continued hosting hunting parties and every manner of well-heeled, important visitors throughout her ownership of the place (1901–1936). When she took over, Kate infused the mansion with the taste in furniture and furnishings of the day—English Empire and late Victorian. The plantation embodied the fine living lifestyle, inside with exquisite linens and china, outside with manicured gardens and well-managed grounds, woods, fields, streams, and acreage.
Kate went on to build the major buildings at Pebble Hill Plantation, most of them designed by her Cleveland, Ohio, friend, Abram Garfield. Like her ancestors, she had a knack for making the plantation successful, especially where her beloved Jersey cows were concerned; the Cow Barn she built spun off a retail dairy operation serving the area.
Kate willed the 10,000-acre plantation to her daughter Elisabeth (Pansy) Ireland Poe. The stables at Pebble Hill Plantation under Pansy became spectacular. She was very successful in all matters equestrian, including breeding and racing horses, and she, like her forebears, improved the property. She added several area plantations and other properties elsewhere to the plantation’s holdings.
In 1956 Pansy formed the Pebble Hill Foundation anticipating the creation of Pebble Hill Plantation as a museum open to the public. This transition happened following her death in 1978; the foundation has managed and maintained the plantation ever since.
Today a tour of Pebble Hill Plantation is like seeing the very best of plantation life in its several iterations as polished and pretty as is possible. There are no slave cabins, no burned out ruins, no sense of defeat or diminishment from the glory days in spite of the fire that claimed most of the main house in 1934. The two-story, 26,000-square-foot rebuild, completed in 1936, was spectacular because this place has never known hard times—not even during the Depression years.
Pebble Hill Plantation has only seen blue skies and sunny weather. It’s like going to Biltmore, only it’s not a castle and it’s in the piney woods of southwestern Georgia instead of the mountains of North Carolina. Being there is being in high cotton, in every sense of the words.
You can tour the house, the grounds, or both, with expert docents who know how to tell a tale and are well-versed on every aspect of the showcased magnificent collections. You can rent a guesthouse—a year’s lease is suggested so you can immerse yourself in the plantation experience. Weddings are favorite events here, as are retreats and other reasons to gather together in a beautiful, beautiful place favored by good fortune and caretaking owners.
SEE MORE PEBBLE HILL PLANTATION PHOTOS HERE