Typically, when we think of rice cultivation, we think of Asia. When we think of pre-Civil-War slave plantations in the American South, we think of cotton. However, at the turn of the nineteenth century, the southeastern coast of the United States was the location of several massive rice plantations, one of which was Hofwyl-Broadfield in southeast Georgia.
The shore of the Altamaha River, just north of the modern town of Brunswick and not far from the southern Georgia coast, was once a thick cypress marsh. It is difficult to imagine facing a malaria-infested cypress marsh and crafting a plan to denude the marsh of cypress and establish a rice plantation—especially when the only tools available were hand-powered—but that is indeed what numerous entrepreneurs of early nineteenth century Georgia undertook.
William Brailsford hailed from a wealthy, rice-plantation-owning family from South Carolina. Given his family background, one can understand how Brailsford would look upon the thousands of acres of cypress swamps that he had purchased in the early 1800’s and named Broadfield and envision a thriving rice plantation.
Brailsford and his son-in-law James Troup brought in over three hundred and fifty African slaves to work the land. The hellish environment in which the slaves labored cannot be overestimated. Overheated in the sweltering Georgia sun, sinking in muck, swarmed by mosquitoes, dodging snakes and alligators, and falling victim to sickness, the slaves were forced to log the dense cypress marsh by hand.
Only once the cypress had been cut could the process of rice cultivation begin. Utilizing the nearby Altamaha River and its tidal-influenced flow, a canal-and-dike system was constructed that enabled the rice fields to be flooded and drained as needed. By Troup’s death in 1849, the plantation had expanded to over seven thousand acres and was successfully producing annual rice crops, but Troup had incurred roughly $70,000 in debts to make this a reality.
Rice cultivation continued at Broadfield after Troup’s death, with the family striving to reduce the debts which they had inherited. The property passed to Troup’s daughter Ophelia and her husband George Dent, who continued to run the Broadfield property as a rice plantation. At the beginning of the 1850’s, construction began on the plantation home that still stands today, and George Dent added the name Hofwyl to the property in honor of the school in Switzerland which he had attended.
Profitable rice cultivation continued at the site, and the family’s debts continued to shrink until the plantation’s operation was halted by the Civil War. At this time, George and his son James joined the Confederate Army, and Ophelia and her younger children evacuated to a refugee camp further inland near the town of Waycross. The crops were left untended, and much of the property was looted.
Following the Civil War, the Dent family opted to rebuild their rice plantation. Unfortunately for the family coffers, this involved incurring even more debt. Additionally, the post-slavery South was no longer conducive to turning a profit through rice cultivation. Plantation owners were required to pay a salary to their former slaves, many of whom chose to leave the plantations for more lucrative work elsewhere. The salaries for the former slaves who remained were low, and many found that they were now spending their meager earnings on room and board in an environment which had changed little since the days prior to the Civil War. It is no wonder that those who could leave, did.
Over the years following the Civil War, the Dent family was forced to sell much of the property to pay taxes and in an attempt to cover other debts. In 1880 James Dent found an age-old solution to his financial woes and married heiress Miriam Cohen. Her substantial family wealth brought a needed infusion of cash to Hofwyl-Broadfield, and as a result the estate was nearly debt-free within a few years.
James and Miriam continued to operate Hofwyl-Broadfield as a rice plantation, although the profitability of the crop declined steadily, year by year. The lack of cheap labor was only one factor which led to the increasing unprofitability of rice cultivation in southeast Georgia. Modern rice cultivation was becoming ever more mechanized; however, the marshy bogs of the area could not support heavy mechanical equipment. Such machines would literally sink into the thick Georgia mud, and be rendered useless. American rice cultivation moved farther east to Louisiana, where modern equipment could be operated, and one by one the remaining rice plantations of Georgia ceased production. The final rice crop was harvested at Hofwyl-Broadfield in 1913, the year that James Dent died, leaving the family once again in debt.
Miriam and her surviving children, son Gratz and daughters Miriam and Ophelia, continued to live at the plantation. The family was faced with the choice of selling the property or finding another way to make the property profitable. The younger Miriam took the lead in transforming the property into a successful business for the twentieth century. Assisted by her siblings and a small number of local employees, Miriam opened a dairy farm.
The dairy operation was fairly small, with only thirty-five cows, but the yield of 100–150 bottles of milk per day turned a tidy profit for the Dent siblings. The dairy remained in operation until 1942, at which point the estate was out of debt, and the surviving siblings, Miriam and Ophelia, had enough money to live off of for the remainder of their lives. Miriam died in 1953, and Ophelia continued to reside at Hofwyl-Broadfield until her death in 1973.
Upon her death, the nearly 2,000 remaining acres of the Hofwyl-Broadfield plantation, including 1,268 acres of land and approximately 700 acres of marshland, were willed to the State of Georgia with the stipulation that the property remain intact and be used for educational and historical purposes. Her will also required that the State provide employment to her longtime employee, Rudolph Capers. The property is now a Georgia State Historic Site operated by the Georgia State Parks. Before his death, Rudolph Capers was employed as a guide at the site, taking visitors through the plantation home and sharing stories of his time working for the Dent family.
The Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site is open Wednesday–Sunday from 9:00am to 5:00pm. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for youths, and children five and under are free. The admission fee includes a guided tour of the plantation home, which remains furnished as it was upon Ophelia’s death, and access to the various buildings and trails on the property, as well as the Hofwyl-Broadfield Museum.
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