LeConte Botanical Garden

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Clarissa Chevalier as part of her SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein Ph.D., 2019.

The LeConte Botanical Garden historical marker was dedicated in 1954. View the LeConte Botanical Garden historical marker listing.

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  1. John Eatton LeConte Jr., Image Source: Courtesy of Hargett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries.

2. Joseph LeConte, 1898, Photo by G. L. Wilcox, call no. 13:69, Courtesy of Bankcroft Library, University of California Berkeley Museum of Paleontology.

3. Map of original layout of LeConte Woodmanston site, image taken from Marilyn Pennington, Form Preparator for the Georgia Historical Commission, National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form PH0023272, United States Department of the Interior National Park Services, 1973.

4. LeConte Pear Illustration, image taken from U. P. Hendrick, The Pears of New York (New York: New York Agricultural Experiment Station, 1921).

5. Jane LeConte, Image Source: http://www.leconte-woodmanston.org/history-lecontewomen.html

6. LeConte Botanical Gardens Historic Marker, Erected 1954, Georgia Historical Society, Image Source: Georgia Historical Society Website

7. Woodmanston Plantation Historic Marker, Erected 1996, Liberty County Historical Society, Image by Author, April 2019.

8. Recreated Slave Quarters, LeConte Woodmanston Plantation and Botanical Gardens, Image by Author, April 2019.

9. LeConte-Woodmanston Site Guide, June 2010, Image by Author, April 2019.

10. Signage Being Taken Over by Lichen and Moss, LeConte Woodmanston Plantation and Botanical Gardens, Image by Author, April 2019.

11. Overgrown Recreated Botanical Gardens, LeConte Woodmanston Plantation and Botanical Gardens, Image by Author, April 2019.

12. Picture of Author with Abandoned Welcome Sign, LeConte Woodmanston Plantation and Botanical Gardens, Image by Author, April 2019

13. Abandoned Gardening Area, LeConte Woodmanston Plantation and Botanical Gardens, Image by Author, April 2019

14. LeConte Pear Trees, Image by Author, April 2019.

15. Illustrated Timeline of the LeConte Woodmanston Historic Site by the Author

16. Collage inspired by the LeConte Woodmanston site history, created in collaboration with a Susie King Taylor Community School 5th Grader

The Abandoned LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation and Botanical Garden

The following essay is by SCAD student Clarissa Chevalier, 2019. 

Part 1: The LeConte Family Plantation and Botanical Garden, circa 1770-1856

“No family stands higher in the intellectual world of America than the LeContes. So much so that whenever we meet the LeConte strain, we find a brilliant mind with distinct scientific attainments.”[i] This excerpt from a 1923 issue of the Georgia Historical Quarterly gives a sense of the prominence that the LeContes held in the 18th and 19th centuries. The LeConte family name was first brought to Georgia in 1787 when John Eatton LeConte, Sr. (1739-1822) became the owner of a 3,356-acre plot of land that would soon become the Woodmanston plantation.[ii] However, it should be noted that there was a house on the plot of land prior to John Eatton’s arrival. While it is not known who inhabited this house or when it was built, historical records do state that there was an original structure on the Woodmanston plantation site which was burned down in a 1779 raid by British troops under the command of Lt. Col. Prevost, eight years before John Eatton Sr. arrived in Georgia.[iii] Whether or not the original house was rebuilt also remains unknown, but in 1789, two years after John Eatton, Sr. acquired the land, the residence was up and running with the “appearance of a fortified frontier station.”[iv]

John Eatton, Sr. had three sons: William, Louis, and John Eatton, Jr. (Figure 1) At the death of John Eatton, Sr. in 1822, the family property was divided, and it was decided that the Woodmanston plantation would officially be passed to Louis, who had been overseeing the property since 1810.[v]

Shortly before John Eatton, Sr.’s death, Louis married Ann Quarterman in 1812, and together they had seven children, one of whom died during infancy.[vi] Their six surviving children were four boys: William, John, Lewis, and Joseph; and two girls: Ann and Jane. All of Louis and Ann’s children went on to live relatively successful lives—the boys all received prestigious college degrees and the girls married physicians. However, Louis’s most renowned children were John and Joseph. John was an acclaimed scientist who went on to become the first president of the University of California, Berkeley, between 1869-1870, and then again from 1876-1881.[vii] Joseph was an equally successful scientist who studied at Harvard under the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz before moving to California to work alongside John. Joseph was also an early board member of the Sierra Club alongside founder and friend John Muir.[viii] (Figure 2)

The years of Louis LeConte’s residency at Woodmanston between 1810-1838 are perhaps the most well-known years for the site. This is largely due to the fact that Louis, a medical doctor and acclaimed scientist, started the world famous LeConte botanical gardens at the plantation in 1813.[ix] (Figure 3) During his time there, the Woodmanston plantation would reach peak operation, primarily growing rice and cotton, and with labor provided by roughly 200 enslaved  people at the time of Louis’s death.[x]  In the 19th century Woodmanston was the largest plantation in Liberty County.[xi] It is important to note here that the Woodmanston site existed on the backs of slaves—skilled craftspeople who functioned as the resident shoemakers, blacksmiths, masons, carpenters, and who tended the crop that allowed Woodmanston to churn a profit. Without them, the plantation would have ceased to exist.

Tragically, Louis’s wife Anne died in 1826. Louis’s son Joseph argues that this was the inciting event in his father’s life, prompting him to create the botanical gardens and a laboratory in the attic of the house which would eventually lead to the creation of the famous LeConte Pear.[xii] (Figure 4) After Anne’s death, Louis was left to raise six children and manage the plantation on his own. A letter by Joseph details the heartbreak that his father felt, which Joseph believed compelled Louis to dive into his work. Joseph wrote,

In the early part of [Louis’s] lonely life, in order to divert his thoughts from his grief, he fitted up several rooms in the attic, especially one large one, as a chemical laboratory. Day after day, and sometimes all day, when not too much busied in the administration of his large plantation, he occupied himself with experimenting there. I remember vividly how, when permitted to be present, we boys followed him about silently and on tiptoe…although these experiments were undertaken in the first instance to divert his mind from his sorrow, yet his profound knowledge of chemistry, his deep interest and persistence, certainly eventuated in important discoveries.[xiii]

Louis’s garden became world-renowned, known in particular for bulbs and camellia plants. For example, the London’s Gardener’s Magazine wrote in 1832, “The gardens of Louis LeConte…is decidedly the richest in bulbs I have ever seen.”[xiv] In an additional testament to the beauty of Louis’s gardens, Joseph wrote, “his special pride was four or five camellia trees—I say trees because even then they were a foot in diameter and fifteen feet high. I have seen the largest of these, a double white, with a thousand blossoms open at once.”[xv] In addition to bulbs and camellias, Louis also developed a new hybrid strand of pear during these years, called the LeConte Pear. Tragically, Louis fell into bad health with no clear cause, and in 1838, on the day that Joseph, John, and Lewis were all set to leave for college, Louis suddenly died of blood poisoning.[xvi] His death marked the beginning of the end for the LeConte Woodmanston plantation and botanical garden. After Louis’s death, his daughter Jane and her husband Dr. J. M. B. Harden lived at Woodmanston until 1843, before moving to a different house a mile west of the site. (Figure 5) After Jane left, the plantation and botanical garden were abandoned. Roughly a decade later, the site was dilapidated and overgrown, as noted in a letter by Jane’s friend Miss Mary Sharp Jones in 1856.[xvii] The LeConte family was gone for good. Over the next century and a half, the land would be passed from owner to owner, used for a multitude of purposes, and many attempts would be made to turn the site into a historic attraction.

Part II: The History of the Site, circa 1930-2019

In 1930, after presumably sitting empty since Jane left in 1843, the LeConte Woodmanston site was acquired by Liberty County resident C.B. Jones, who used the land to graze cows and cut timber.[xviii] None of the records from 1930 onward make mention of any structures on the property, so it can be assumed that by now, the LeConte family home was no longer standing, having deteriorated sometime in the 87 years that the site was abandoned. In 1953, Jones leased the land to the Brunswick Pulp and Paper Company. Just one year later, the Georgia Historical Commission erected the LeConte Botanical Garden historical marker in 1954.[xix] (Figure 6) The close proximity of dates suggests that this was possibly in reaction to the reality that the site could very well be clear-cut by the Brunswick Pulp and Paper Company. In 1972, Gordon Midgette , an archaeologist for the Georgia Historical Commission, began visiting the site on the weekends in May and June, scraping and recording a 200 sq. ft area located 100 yards from the LeConte family house.[xx] Reflecting on his finds, Midgette noted that the site was much deserving of further archaeological research, writing, “under the rampant covering of vegetation, much physical evidence of the structures at Woodmanston remains waiting archaeological interpretation.”[xxi] To date, no further archaeological digs have been performed at the location. The site was again left alone until 1982, when a group of Liberty County businesspeople came together with the local garden club in an effort to create a master plan to turn the site into a historic attraction. The plan never came to fruition.[xxii]

The 1990s held some promise for the site. In 1993, the LeConte-Woodmanston Foundation Inc. was established to take over as the site’s guardians.[xxiii]  In 1996, the Woodmanston Plantation historical marker, independently of the Georgia Historical Marker Program, was erected by the Liberty County Historical Society. (Figure 7) Unfortunately, the LeConte-Woodmanston Foundation Inc. was headed by state senator and local business giant Glenn Bryant, whose 1999 death also ended funding and plans for the newly formed foundation.[xxiv] The site was then abandoned until 2007, when a new organization took over the LeConte-Woodmanston Foundation, headed by Mary Beth Evans.[xxv] This new organization decided to revise Bryant’s original plans for the site in order to be more inclusive of all who inhabited the Woodmanston plantation. For example, the new organization recreated original slave quarters on-site for educational purposes. (Figure 8) They held promising plans for the future that included recreating the original garden, and engaging community members in regular activities and events at the LeConte Woodmanston site.[xxvi] They succeeded in realizing some of these goals—the recreated slave quarters still stand, and the garden was reconstructed. Sadly, their goal to create a successfully operating historic tourist attraction was never realized. In a newsletter written by the organization in 2010, they note that, unless sufficient funds are received to employ a full-time director, groundskeeper, and development director, the gardens would have no other option but to close to the public by July 2010.[xxvii] The last line of their newsletter reads, “When people realize what an asset this site can be to the Southeast, as an educational resource and as a tourist destination, and when the economy is a little brighter, hopefully, Woodmanston won’t stay lost forever.”[xxviii] The site has since been abandoned, but remains available for hiking or picnicking by intrepid day-trippers.

Changing Views on the LeConte Family in the 21st Century

The legacy of Louis LeConte and his sons lives on in many ways. In regard to their discoveries and inventions, a pear, a turtle, a sparrow, and a thrasher all bear the LeConte name.[xxix] Louis’s sons John and Joseph, due to their prestigious careers at UC Berkeley, have been memorialized within the university’s history; one campus building is still named LeConte Hall. However, the way that the LeConte family is remembered in the 21st century is changing. The LeConte Memorial Lodge at Yosemite National Park, named after Joseph LeConte, a foundational member of the Sierra Club, has been renamed in recent years to the Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center after Joseph’s theories of racial inferiority resurfaced. In an article discussing the renaming on their website, the Sierra Club states, “in the 1880s and 1890s, LeConte adopted and elaborated on theories of racial inferiority that he used to rationalize the disenfranchisement and segregation of African Americans.”[xxx] Similarly, in 2018, the Building Name Review Committee was founded at UC Berkeley to consider renaming some of its buildings in an effort to be more inclusive—LeConte Hall is among the buildings being considered.[xxxi] As we continue to move towards a more inclusive view of history, a careful reassessment of the writings and beliefs of figures like Joseph LeConte is necessary.

Conclusion

Today, the LeConte Woodmanston site is still accessible via a logging road but has been abandoned since 2010. The recreated slave quarters, a small office, public restrooms, two recreation shelters, and the overgrown garden still stand. Scattered around the site are a plethora of informational signage which have now been overgrown with moss and lichen. Various overrun trails on the original plantation dykes are still walkable, and there is a small orchard filled with LeConte pear trees near the recreated garden. A few old posts in the ground map out where the original house would have stood. Even in its abandoned state, the site is beautiful. While the overgrown gardens and rotting shelters are certainly a tragedy, there is also something undeniably poetic about the idea that for the past century and a half, nature has slowly, patiently, and ultimately successfully, been working away at reclaiming the site of a famous botanist.

My Connection

The moment I stumbled upon the LeConte Woodmanston plantation and botanical garden historic site, during the early stages of research for this class, I knew I had found my project. The LeConte Woodmanston site seemed to be the perfect nexus of my scholarly and personal interests. As an aspiring art historian with a passion for ecological and environmental art, and as someone whose apartment looks more like a jungle than a living space due to a childhood spent gardening with my grandmother, the idea of mapping the history of an abandoned plantation and botanical garden seemed incredibly fitting. And so, Google Maps in hand, I decided to take a day trip to the abandoned site, located roughly 41 miles south of Savannah. It seems to me that what this site needs most is a chronological recounting of its history; a story that stretches roughly 250 years. I decided to do my best to note the defining points in the site’s history, and how the LeConte family legacy has changed in the 21st century, pulled together from a wide array of historic documents. I have also created an illustrated timeline to provide a visualization of this history. Unfortunately, the story of the LeConte Woodmanston site has a tragic, albeit all too familiar, ending: abandoned due to lack of funding. The history of the LeConte Woodmanston plantation and botanical garden is best understood in roughly two parts: the first part stretching roughly the first century of the site’s history—the time when it was a working plantation inhabited by various generations of the LeConte family; the second part being the second century of the site’s history—the fate of the site after the LeConte family left.

[i] William W. Gordon, “Georgia’s Debt to Monmouth County, New Jersey,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. VII., Published by the Georgia Historical Society. 124.

[ii] Lester D. Stephens, “LeConte Family,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, January 22, 2003, accessed May 3, 2019, https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/leconte-family.

[iii] Marilyn Pennington, Form Preparator for the Georgia Historical Commission, National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form, PH0023272, United States Department of the Interior National Park Services, 1973, accessed May 3, 2019, https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/d18f2956-a1b5-4bca-847e-e1fcee405834.

[iv] Pennington, National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form.

[v] Ibid., 127.

[vi] Stephens, “LeConte Family.”

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] LeConte Family, LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation and Botanical Gardens Website, accessed May 3, 2019, http://www.leconte-woodmanston.org/history-leconte.html.

[ix]  Ibid.

[x] Pennington, National Register of Historic Places InventoryNomination Form, 2.

[xi] African American History, LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation and Botanical Gardens Website, accessed May 3, 2019.  http://www.leconte-woodmanston.org/history-africanamerican.html.

[xii] Joseph LeConte, quoted in Pennington, National Register of Historic Places InventoryNomination Form, 5.

[xiii] Pennington, National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form. 5.

[xiv] Alexander Gordon, London Gardener’s Magazine, 1832. Quoted in “What Will Be the Fate of Georgia’s First Botanical Garden?” Rice Paper: The News Letter of the LeConte-Woodmanston Foundation (Riceboro, GA), July 2010. Accessed May 3, 2019. http://www.leconte-woodmanston.org/pdf/Newsletter July 2010.pdf, 1.

[xv] Pennington, National Register of Historic Places InventoryNomination Form, 2.

[xvi] Ibid., 7.

[xvii] Ibid., 2.

[xviii] Ibid., 3.

[xix] Georgia Historical Society, LeConte Botanical Garden, Historical Marker, erected 1954.

[xx] Pennington, National Register of Historic Places InventoryNomination Form, 4.

[xxi] Ibid., 4.

[xxii] Denise Etheridge, “LeConte Leader Worries for Future,” Bryan County News, June 7, 2010, accessed May 3, 2019. https://www.bryancountynews.com/lifestyle/leconte-leader-worries-for-future/.

[xxiii] “What Will Be the Fate of Georgia’s First Botanical Garden?” Rice Paper: The News Letter of the LeConte-Woodmanston Foundation, 1.

[xxiv] Ibid., 1.

[xxv] Ibid., 1.

[xxvi] LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation and Botanical Gardens Website, accessed May 3, 2019, http://www.leconte-woodmanston.org.

[xxvii] “What Will Be the Fate of Georgia’s First Botanical Garden?” Rice Paper. 1

[xxviii] Ibid., 1

[xxix] Stephens, “LeConte Family.”

 [xxx] “Dr. Joseph LeConte,” The Sierra Club, accessed May 3, 2019. https://www.sierraclub.org/yosemite-heritage-center/dr-joseph-leconte.

[xxxi] Ella Colbert, “‘Histories of racism, colonialism and exclusion:’ UC Berkeley considers changing controversial building names,” The Daily Californian, March 22, 2018, accessed May 20, 2019, https://www.dailycal.org/2018/03/22/uc-berkeley-moves-forward-attempts-change-controversial-building-names/.

Colbert, Ella. “‘Histories of racism, colonialism and exclusion:’ UC Berkeley considers changing controversial building names.” The Daily Californian. March 22, 2018. https://www.dailycal.org/2018/03/22/uc-berkeley-moves-forward-attempts-change-controversial-building-names/.

“Dr. Joseph LeConte.” The Sierra Club. https://www.sierraclub.org/yosemite-heritage-center/dr-joseph-leconte.

Etheridge, Denise. “LeConte Leader Worries for Future.” Bryan County News. June 7, 2010. https://www.bryancountynews.com/lifestyle/leconte-leader-worries-for-future/.

Georgia Historical Society. LeConte Botanical Garden. Historical marker erected 1954.

Gordon, William W. “Georgia’s Debt to Monmouth County, New Jersey.” Georgia Historical Quarterly. Vol. VII. 119-135. Published by the Georgia Historical Society. 1923.

LeConte, Joseph. ‘Ware Sherman: A Journal of Three Months’ Personal Experience in the Last Days of the Confederacy. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1937.

LeConte Family. LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation and Botanical Gardens Website. http://www.leconte-woodmanston.org/history-leconte.html.

Pennington, Marilyn. Form Preparator for the Georgia Historical Commission. National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form PH0023272. United States Department of the Interior National Park Services. 1973. https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/d18f2956-a1b5-4bca-847e-e1fcee405834.

Stephens, Lester D. “LeConte Family.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. January 22, 2003. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/leconte-family.

“What Will Be the Fate of Georgia’s First Botanical Garden?” Rice Paper: The News Letter of the LeConte-Woodmanston Foundation. Riceboro, GA. July 2010. http://www.leconte-woodmanston.org/pdf/Newsletter July 2010.pdf, 1.