History in towns: Madison, Georgia


In the first decades of the nineteenth century men of substance arrived in Morgan County, acquired thousands of acres, planted them in what came to be known as white gold, and made sizable fortunes. However, contrary to the popular notion of the antebellum South, there were many more modest farms of several hundred acres in the country around Madison than there were great plantations. The farmers built well-crafted, unadorned, durable houses in what is now called the plantation plain style.

An attractive example is Cedar Lane Farm, built in the 1830s by Henry Hilsabeck, who moved from the Moravian area of North Carolina to Georgia and, in 1812, acquired some two hundred acres in Morgan County. The two-story clapboard house has three bays, with massive chimneys at each end (Fig. 2). The interior walls are sheathed with heart pine, and the mantels are bold versions of the Greek revival style (see Figs. 3, 4). Hilsabeck prospered, and at his death in 1845 he owned five hundred acres. He left the farm jointly to his widow and a cousin. Item five of his will stipulates that "my son Martin Hilsabeck [b. c. 1817] be supported out of the proceeds of the plantation by my wife and cousin, so long as he shall abstain from the use of spirituous liquors and deport himself as a good and worthy citizen."6

Jane Symmes and her late husband John acquired the house, with two hundred acres, in 1966; and they meticulously restored it and furnished it appropriately. They also created an elegant garden with boxwood planted in concentric circles, a design with antebellum precedents (Fig. 5).

Unlike Hilsabeck, who managed his farm himself, the more affluent planters hired overseers for their plantations; and it was these planters, as well as the doctors, lawyers, and clergymen whose services they required, who built the impressive houses in the town. Most of them were constructed during the three decades from 1830 to 1860 that have been called Madison's golden years. In the 1830s John Byne Walker built the handsome house known as Bonar Hall (Fig. 6), one of the few brick houses built in Madison before the Civil War. Evidence suggests that there was originally a neoclassical entrance, replaced, probably around 1880, by the large ornamental porch on the first floor and the smaller second-story porch. The brick was made on Walker's plantation. In subsequent years he supplied the brick for a courthouse, a depot, the Georgia Female College, and the Madison Baptist Church.

From 1827, when he began farming on land his father gave him, until 1864, Walker kept what he called his plantation book.7 In longhand he recorded births, marriages, illnesses, and deaths as succinctly as he reported the agricultural production of his several plantations. In 1832 he wrote: "August 20th begun to pick Cotton &...made 76 bales average 300 lbs & sold it for 9 ½ & 10 cents/August 29th Married this night E S Fannin at the House of Adam G Saffold Esq/corn plenty & wheat and oats."

His bride, Eliza Saffold Fannin, was an heiress, whose dowry, Bonar noted in the plantation book, included some sixteen hundred acres and fifty-one slaves as well as, among numerous other items, "a side board, 1 clock, 1 Book case, 1 Bureau, a lot of Books...& Stock of chickens Ducks Turkey."

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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