Saturday, February 7, 2015


An Antebellum Treasure

Any old house, especially one of the wooden clapboard variety, has a tale to tell, or many tales to tell.  But, since walls can't really talk, we will just have to use our imaginations. There are stories of life and death, laughter and despair, and triumph and tragedy. Though many of the accounts of life in an old house were never preserved, a few have been documented.  Architects design homes and carpenters build them, but a home is shaped and molded by those who live in it.  This is the story of Whitehall, the seat of the White family of Laurens County for many a decade and one of the county's oldest surviving homes.

Joseph McKee White migrated to Laurens County, Georgia about the year 1846.  White, a native of South Carolina and son of John and Dovey White, grew up on a plantation in the Sumter  District of South Carolina on the Black River.    His close friend Daniel G. Hughes believed that Joseph actually came from York County.   Before moving on, White completed his higher educational studies at the University of Georgia.   

Members of the White family were always told that White came through central Georgia on his way toward Mississippi, where he hoped to establish a thriving plantation in the lush delta regions of that state.  According to the family lore, White was so impressed with the fertility of the soils of Laurens and Pulaski counties that he ended his search and settled along the line dividing the two counties.

Joseph White, a man with a fine physique,  was described by Dan Hughes to be " a man of marked intelligence and sense of logic."   White's first recorded purchase of land came in 1847 while he was still considered a resident of Sumter County.  He purchased 900 acres from Mary Wilkinson for the not so paltry sum of $ 1700.00.  This land would form the nucleus of his plantation which he would call "Whitehall."  Though his real estate holdings would eventually encompass ten thousand acres or more, most of his purchases were recorded.  Located on the waters of Crooked Creek on the Old Uchee Trail, Whitehall was considered to be a part of the community known as Laurens Hill, which was centered a few miles to the northwest.  

White used his higher educational skills in an attempt to master the science of agriculture.    A frequent contributor of letters and articles in local papers, White wrote of the problems facing the state and nation on political issues as well as the problems which faced the farmers of the state.  His writings showed his readers that he was no ordinary man, but one of superior intellect and one whose opinions were weighty and valuable.

Just down the road on an adjoining plantation lived one of the most beautiful young ladies Joseph White had ever met.  Cherry Coley, a daughter of Cain Coley, accepted Joseph White's proposal of marriage.  The couple were married in 1850 and moved into White's new home.  

Large plantations were communities within themselves.  Though White's land holdings were large, he surprisingly owned relatively few slaves.  In 1850, White is shown as the owner of 39 slaves, 29 of whom were under the age of 14.  In 1860, the number of slaves rose to 50, with only forty percent of them being under the age of 14.  Many of the larger plantations were served by a local physician.  One such physician, Dr. J.W. Woods, a relative of Joseph White and recent salutatorian of his medical class, was invited to remove himself from his home in South Carolina in hopes of establishing a lucrative practice in the Laurens Hill Community.  Woods, an avid hunter, returned from a hunting trip, only to find himself somewhat ill.  As his own physician, Woods administered a dosage of what he thought was quinine.  A momentary lapse in vision resulted in his consumption of a fatal quantity of morphine.  For three agonizing days, the comatose doctor was beaten with wet towels and walked through the walls and around the porches of Whitehall in a futile attempt to revive him.  Dr. Woods once breathing body was laid to rest in the corner of a large field about a mile northeast of the main house at Whitehall.

Another short term resident of Whitehall was W. H. Mobley.    Mobley, a nephew of Georgia congressman Charles Crisp, married a daughter of Sen. John H. Reagan of Texas.  It will be remembered that is was Sen. Reagan, who as the Postmaster of the Confederate States of America, led the caravan of Confederate President Jefferson Davis as he made his way through Laurens County in an attempt to escape capture by Union forces in 1865.  Mobley served as his uncle's secretary in Washington and moved to Palestine, Texas to practice law.  He removed to Cochran in 1892 and lived with the White family until his return to Texas two years later.  Mobley, like his father actor who was killed in an Atlanta theater,  died a tragic death when he consumed a fatal dose of morphine in 1901.  

During the Civil War, Joseph White served as a major in the Confederate Provisional Army.    Too old to engage in combat, Major White was commissioned to help raise food and gather war materials for the cause of the Confederacy.  White may have commanded a small Confederate commissary, which was located just beyond Laurens Hill next to the Harvard family cemetery.  Several years after the end of the hostilities, Major White was granted a  full pardon by President Andrew Johnson for his acts of war against the United States.

Architectural experts have likened Whitehall's straightforwardly simple design of well proportioned square columns as representative of the best of a number of similar houses and buildings of the period, among them the cottage behind the President's House at the University of Georgia and the Davis-Edwards House in Monroe.   The house has been defined as hybrid mixture of indigenous architecture with the dignity and clarity of Greek  designs, which Thomas Jefferson so ideally sought in his classical designs. 

Students of architecture will recognize the details of the frame clapboarded t-shaped rectangular  house with a five-bay front, a hipped roof, two interior chimneys and three end chimneys.    Surrounded by a grove of ancient cedars, Whitehall features a porch on three sides.  Guests entered the home through a double door entrance into a central hall.    Grand houses like Whitehall often attracted the most prominent and highly erudite visitors.  Reportedly, thirteen governors of Georgia have slept in the guest bedroom, located in the northwest corner of the house.  

During the the late 1950s and early 1960s,  the home was occupied by  John Richard Staley, major renovations were put in place including transoms with radiating muntins, all new plaster and woodwork.  Staley, the president of Quaker Oats Company, purchased Whitehall as a birthday present  for his wife, the former Miss Carolyn Flemming, who had always admired the stately old home.   A car port was added and a breezeway between the house and kitchen was so enlarged to  merge into the house itself. Modern wiring, heating and plumbing were installed under the direction of the chief engineer of Quaker Oats Company. 

Architect Jackson Lamb, a native of Montrose, purchased the house in 1966 and undertook a major and complete restoration of the home, where he married his wife Nancy Ragsdale.  Lamb sold the house to Henry and Martha Cannon in 1970.  Henry, a long time executive with the Georgia Forestry Commission, and Martha, sister of Marion Folsom, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare during the Eisenhower administration, continued to make improvements  on the inside and outside.  

In the mid 1980s, Bill Holmes, a great-great grandson of Major White, purchased Whitehall and much of the original plantation lands.  Holmes  made improvements to the property, especially on the grounds.  Today, the property is owned by an investment firm and is not open to the public.