Mulberry Grove Foundation, Georgia Ports disagree over access to historic site

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A historical marker stands nestled in the treeline east of Georgia 21 in Port Wentworth, the Target Distribution Warehouse glowed white and red through the branches. The marker announces that Mulberry Grove – the oldest plantation in the state – is less than two miles away.

Once, Mulberry grove encompassed much of the land northeast of Port Wentworth, including properties now hosting warehouses for Ikea, Wayfair and several logistics companies between I-95 and the Effingham County line. A 50-acre parcel is all that remains of the historic plantation. It now belongs to Georgia Port Authoritywho restricted access to the site several years ago.

And while GPA has no plans to develop the historic property, a local advocacy group is seeking to develop the site into an educational and cultural center allowing locals and tourists to connect with a place steeped in local significance. and national.

“It’s part of American history and it shouldn’t be covered up,” said Marty Barnes, historian for the Mulberry Grove Foundation. “There have been good things and bad things, but that’s part of the story.”

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Mulberry Grove Plantation was built in 1736, making it the oldest plantation in Georgia. Originally built to fulfill General James Oglethorpe’s dreams of a Savannah silk trade – the only source of food for the silkworms is the mulberry leaf – the plantation is the site of the history of the War of Independence and the invention of the modern cotton ginwho improved the efficiency of cotton farming, causing slave populations in the South to increase by more than 300% and making those who owned other people immensely wealthy.

The land that once housed the plantation – which was burnt down by General William T. Sherman’s army during the Civil War – is now a tangle of underbrush, wildlife and wetlands.

Except for the historical marker and a pile of ruins, there is no evidence that the land helped shape the very foundations of America.

History of Mulberry Grove

Founded in 1736, just three years after Oglethorpe founded the colony of Savannah, Mulberry Grove was originally owned by a Scot named Captain John Cuthbert. He died unmarried and childless, so the plantation passed to his sister Anne.

“She becomes the first woman in Georgia to own land and the first woman to run a plantation, and she keeps it going through two husbands,” said Mulberry Grove Foundation historian Marty Barnes.

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By the time the Revolutionary War broke out, the man living on the plantation was a loyalist to the King of England, so he abandoned Mulberry Grove. The British army took it over, using it as a prison for settlers captured in Revolutionary War battles, according to Barnes.

After the war ended, Mulberry Grove became the property of Nathanael Greene, a Revolutionary War general known for his tactical genius in the Southern campaign against the British. The country’s first president, George Washington, was known to have visited Greene and his wife, Catherine, on the plantation at least twice. The general was also close friend of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary who shot to fame after the 2015 premiere of “Hamilton,” the musical.

Greene died in June 1786 on the plantation, given to him for his work in defeating the British army in the south. He died of heatstroke while wearing wool in the scorching Georgia heat.

Seven years later, a promising Massachusetts lawyer named Eli Whitney was staying at the plantation as a guest of Greene’s widow, Catherine. It was at that time Whitney invented the modern cotton ginforever changing plantation economics by improving efficiency and increasing the demand for the backbreaking labor associated with growing cotton.

“Where it would take a slave 10 hours to extract the fibers from a cotton ball, with his invention he could do 50 a day,” Barnes explained.

Although the invention allowed cotton farms to increase their efficiency and profits, it meant a higher demand for slaves in the fields. The cotton gin marked a turning point in the young nation’s southern plantation economy, increase profits and intensify the transatlantic slave trade, since the demand for labor skyrocketed as a result of Whitney’s invention. Whitney’s invention marks the dawn of the darkest period of the slave economy: the number of slaves in the South grew from 700,000 before Whitney’s invention to over 3 million people in 1850, according to the National History Education Clearinghouse.

Mulberry Grove’s historical significance does not end there.

It was burned when General William T. Sherman marched toward Savannah. A healed foundation is all that remains of the house that once stood at the center.

The last enslaved man to be born in Mulberry Grove was Christmas Moultrie, a local celebrity known for his moonlighting, duck hunts, and well-connected connections in town.

The land now stands empty, with about 50 acres of the former plantation protected under the National Register of Historic Places, according to the Georgia Ports Authority. An additional 440 acres surrounding the Mulberry Grove parcel are also owned by GPA and protected by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

“The Georgia Ports Authority does not intend to develop this parcel,” a statement from the authority said. “The grounds are patrolled by Georgia Ports Police to protect against encroachments.”

But the members of Mulberry Grove Foundationa nearly 30-year-old organization aiming to preserve and protect the plantation, wants to see the land open to the public for education and enrichment, as it once was.

How to honor Savannah’s darkest history?

The cotton and rice plantations along the banks of the Savannah River were dangerous places to be a slave, but were among the most profitable operations in the country, generating enough money to boost the newly formed American capital after the war. of independence.

At least three other plantations existed around the same area as Mulberry Grove: Drakiys, which was owned by Scots, Oak Grove and Gowrie.

Gowrie was a rice plantation built in the middle of the Back River and owned by a Charleston family named the Manigaults. Rice cultivation was extremely dangerous, and conditions on the plantation were among the deadliest in the country; 90% of children die before they reach their 16th birthday, according to “Dark Days” a book on the rice culture of pre-war Georgia and South Carolina.

Modern land uses that once housed plantations have continued to evolve over time; several warehouses and distribution centers now sit on properties once encompassed by Mulberry Grove, but Barnes and his colleagues believe the history of dark places should not be forgotten.

“(We want) people to learn about the past and for local people to understand their connection to the site,” said Simona Perry, a member of the foundation’s board of trustees.

The foundation’s ultimate goal would be to see the property transformed into a “living, learning” center for people to reconnect with their history, especially those who may have family ties to the land. And while the foundation sees a vision to introduce crowds to the Mulberry Grove story, they said the lack of cooperation from GPA has stopped all planning.

“The people of Savannah have a particular interest in preservation and history. And here is something right under your nose that is being destroyed by the Port Authority for no particular reason,” said Melvyn Galin, president of the Mulberry Grove Foundation. “I mean, yeah, they bought it and they paid for it. But there are so many other places to build warehouses.”

Zoe covers growth and its impact on communities in the Savannah area. Find her at [email protected], @zoenicholson_ on Twitter and @zoenicholsonreporter on Instagram.

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