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The Mysteries of the Trustees’ Garden

The History of the Trustees’ Garden

The Gas Works Wall

The 1853 Gas Works Wall at Trustees’ Garden is often mistaken for “Old Fort Wayne.” Studies find that it is partially… very partially… true.

 Historians and archaeologists uncovered a wealth of military and industrial history on the grounds and in the buildings situated on an historic bluff overlooking the Savannah River.

The surface is rough and scratches at my fingertips as I run them along the plane of fire-hardened bricks.  A faint-but-pungent scent of coal tar wafts from the walls that have been forgotten and misinterpreted for generations. In sequence, seven earthen fortifications stood here through the years.  There is nothing left of them today – or so many historians believe.  But here is the evidence:  a small section of one fortification did survive, undetected by decades of history buffs and connoisseurs of the past.

This remnant of an earlier Savannah is old.  Well, “old” by the youngest-of-the-thirteen-colonies benchmark.  Hidden in plain sight for a century and a half, the now sandy-brown wall reflects the morning light through a narrow archway. A few yards away sleepy commuters navigate past, their vehicles climbing the road-grade beside the city’s legendary Trustees’ Garden. If a piece of land could be a movie character, Savannah’s Trustees’ Garden would be Forrest Gump.  Always in the background, excluded and ignored.

But like the character portrayed by Tom Hanks, the site holds secrets of which the bus-stop folks know little.  The Garden’s ten-acre plot of sloping ground has, as some say, “more history per square foot than any other spot in the city.”  And, I like to think, possibly in the southeast.  I love and study history.  Never have I seen one small plot of land with so many significant and overlapping historical characteristics. The Trustees’ Garden was planned in 1732 when Georgia’s founder, James Edward Oglethorpe, enlisted the help of John Pine, an English artist, and engraver.  The two of them conferred and drew a plan for rows, rank, and file for mulberry, orange, peach and other trees and then inked the lot lines for the rest of the town.

When the settlers arrived in 1733 Oglethorpe staked-out the garden and had it planted the following spring. The garden itself lasted less than two decades.  In historical records, the area is always an afterthought — a footnote.  Life and history are like that.  Who knew this chocolate-history-bonbon in a box held so many hidden treats and treasures?  You never know what you’re gonna get. The land has changed hands many times over the years.  Early on, the profits expected by the Trustees failed to blossom, so the title was passed to former Royal Governors, then to industrialists, and eventually to hotel developers.   The current owner, Charles H. Morris, initiated a shift toward the preservation of the Garden’s rich history.  The renovation and historical inspection of the site is slowly revealed forgotten stories that seem to peel away, like the layers of a Vidalia onion.

A historian in his own right, Morris took his time with the renovation.  “I want to get it done right,” he said.  “I want to make sure we think it through.” The Garden’s northernmost section, alongside the Savannah River, has long been known as a strategic military location.  Over the years, military leaders fortified the bluff to provide protection against enemy ships that might sail up the river from the Atlantic.

Earthen fortifications were built on the site when hostilities seemed imminent.  Then, as each war or threat of war ended, each successive fortification fell into ruin. Dirt is easy enough to move, so for each new conflict, the battlement-du-jour was staked and excavated in accordance with the newest defensive plan.  The soil from the dry moats was “thrown up” to the inner line to create the parapets… time after time, fortification after fortification. At least seven battlements have stood on this site, beginning with colonial times and extending through the Civil War, when the last fort anchored the Union Army’s line on what was then the terrace of the Savannah Manufactured Gas Works.

In order the seven were; Oglethorpe’s fort, built circa 1740, Fort Halifax, circa 1759, Fort Savannah, 1778, British cannon emplacements employed during the Siege of Savannah 1779, Fort Prevost, 1780, Fort Wayne, 1813, and the Union fortifications in 1865.  There is evidence that there may have been additional fortifications as well, but that is yet to be determined. An interesting legend surrounds the brick wall that currently stands watch over the river at the location of the recently discovered Revolutionary War-era structure.  Guide books refer to the wall as part of “Old Fort Wayne.”

Many historians do the same.  The confusion is justified.  The building of the wall in 1853 destroyed the older fort that was the namesake of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne.  The older earthen ramparts were shoveled into the interior of the wall to create a terrace for gasholders.  Workers unearthed old cannons that they placed along the wall, making it look like an old fort to generations of Savannahians.

Everybody in town knew that the fort had been located on that spot. After all, the cannons were there to prove it. Fort Halifax, the second on the bluff, was built in 1759.  It was a tender spot and tinder box during the days leading up to the American Revolution.  In December 1765 the “obnoxious” stamps that represented taxation by the Crown were stored at the fort.  Royal Governor James Wright placed the stamps there for protection against the local Sons of Liberty, who vowed to burn them.  Fifty-five Royal Rangers under the leadership of the Governor and Captain John Milledge stood guard.  Nearby, 200 angry Patriots awaited an opportunity to strike a blow for liberty. Wright had the stamps moved by ship to Cockspur Island at the mouth of the river, thus defusing the matter, at least for awhile.

And that’s only a partial history of the site. I’ll post more later.

– JD Byous

Looking east from the location of the ancient powder magazine.

Looking east from the location of the ancient powder magazine.

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Adapt, I Did Y’all. I’m a Son of the South.

Visit our main website at SoutheasternBound.net

My family is from the South. They lived in and migrated through Georgia but that was a bloody Civil War ago. They fought here in the Revolution; some fought in Savannah in 1779. So, though I am “of the South” I am not “from the South.” Manifest Destiny carried us with the wave of humanity that washed across the continent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Like Mark Twain we are “American mongrels and proud of it,” a little Cherokee, a little Choctaw, some Scottish, some Irish, a butt-load of Scots Irish and a little English. The latter, however, we usually don’t talk about in polite company.

We are Southern Americans. Though I was not born here I have long-since been converted and baptized – sprinkled and immersed (to cover all bases) – into Southern-dom naturalization. Marrying a Georgia girl helped.  If you knew the peach you’d know why.

e bec n stratton

Bec, my Georgia peach, with movie producer, ice cream aficionado and Savannah native, Stratton Leopold.  A few years ago he reopened his family ice-cream business on Broughton Street.

It took a while to adapt after I moved to Savannah. That was twenty years ago. It’s different here. Or so it seems at first. To explain (and to risk mimicking Ted Knight 0n the Mary Tyler Moore Show) I was born in a tiny hospital in Central California, out in the sun-baked and cracked-adobe farmland that surrounds State Highway 33. My older brother and I were the first of our family to divert the lineage from those who were house-and-home-born; unknowingly, of course.

Our birthplace was named Westside Hospital. The structure was a stretch in healthcare nomenclature. Those who zip pass on the two-lane, dirt-shouldered road can easily mistake the building for just-another in the scores of cheap, flat-topped, ranch-style houses that had popped up after the World War II.

I remember from later visits it had five rooms; an operating/delivery room, waiting room, and a couple of cubical for examinations. My first experience there is still foggy, save the bright-light, tunnel-view and a subsequent roughing up by Dr. Jimmy Thompson.  I am his namesake since my mother had expected a girl.  I was not, however, and am not to this day though I have met ladies that carried the name, Jimmie.  I shall not interpret my mother’s intentions.

After a few months of crawling, then running, in the flat, furrowed fields of Dompe’s bean ranch near the town of Crow’s Landing we moved to the “city” where I was raised in one of the rural “Little Okie” settlements. These were semi-impoverished hamlets that housed upper-lower and lower-middle-class farm laborers and tradesmen. These communities punctuated many towns in the state but especially those in the rich farm-belt land that carried U.S. Highway 99 from Bakersfield to Red Bluff. In the fifties the burgs were a breeding and grooming ground for post-pubescent, pre-adult teens that inspired the slick-haired, hot-rod driving, main-street dragging screen characters depicted in American Graffiti and Happy Days. Harrison Ford’s cowboy-hat topped character depicted another faction from the cultural group.

We, like our neighbors, spoke with accents. Those with first-language English carried the twang of Oklahoma or Texas or the South or the Mid-West. Second-language-English speech was tinged with Mexican-Spanish highlights with a few from Portugal. The locals of Japanese descent had been there for generations, had no accent and, save a short stint at a war-relocation center across the mountains at Manzanar, worked the land and kept to themselves. They were represented by only a couple of families on acreage adjacent to the subdivision where the Okie drawl was predominant. Current-day academia sometimes calls the sub-culture, “Steinbeck’s Okies.”

In that area, just before I popped into the light of the world, the emigrant-Okies were often met with shotguns and with that’s-your-truck-and-that’s-the-road greetings from the locals. The Japanese kept silent, busy working their fields.

Also during that era signs on some movie houses declared, “Negroes and Okies in the balcony.” In most cases we got second billing.   The Japanese sat with everyone else – until the war. But by the 1950s and the time I was old enough for a movie matinee the rules had slackened – for all groups. In Modesto the Strand, the State and the Covell theaters were a weekend haunt for my cousins and me. Cartoons and newsreels were a highlight in the days before our first black-and-white TV and its fuzzy image of Sacramento’s champion of kid-dom, Captain Sacto.

Aside from a few brief attempts by my parents to return to the Holy Land – the area called Oklahoma by others – we tended to hover around the towns of Ceres and Modesto. I can think of no famous person who came from the area, at least at that time. Years later several notables sprouted including Olympian Mark Spitz, who didn’t stay long, film-maker George Lucas, who left as soon as he could, taking his hot rod with him, and actor Jeremy Renner, who did the same. I don’t know if Renner had a hot rod, but I am told by my daughters and grand-daughters that he is definitely “hot.” I have no opinion.

Other than those examples I might include two more, congressman and cleared murder-person-of-interest Gary Condit and a young man named Scott Peterson. Condit slipped from national headlines when commercial jets crashed into the twin towers on 9/11 only to have detectives drop their investigations of when the real murderer was found.

Peterson was convicted of murder. He killed, then dumped his beautiful-pregnant wife in San Francisco Bay so he could marry a blonde stripper. Go figure. I guess divorce wasn’t an option. Both I am told were of Okie origin. Few people in Georgia are familiar with the term, Okie. I constantly have to explain.

But, I digress. Savannah is different than my home in the West. It’s more cosmopolitan on the outside but distinctly Southern when you get to know her. You have to examine below and beyond the transient cultural façade of the military bases, the global influx of Savannah College of Art and Design and other area schools of higher learning. Then you must look past the society of “Old” Savannah, the NOG families as author John Berendt noted.

Once you look beyond those levels you find the “common” folk, those whose families have been here for generations; working people, river people, island people. They are like the townsfolk in the background scenes of movies, always seen but rarely noticed… with the exception of Paula Deen. They are like the people I knew in another life.

Here we have those with accents and those who talk Southern. Most locals have ancestors from other parts of the globe; Europe, Africa, Asia, India, Central, and South America. We even have the occasional South African and Kiwi. When they’re here long enough they unconsciously utter provincial terms like fixin’ and y’all.

Here and in the surrounding rural areas beyond the city limit you can find the same culture of my youth, the culture of my upbringing. The red-state people, people who will welcome you with open arms and love to get along with the throngs of in-moving blue-state folks. They are welcomed even though a few newcomers haven’t learned that locals don’t give a damn how it was done in New York or in New Jersey or on Nantucket, God bless ‘em.

Then, again, I have met a few locals with jackass traits. Some I’m told come with pedigrees of highly-selective, pure-bread jackass personae. But, that’s another storyline and that list is quite short. Then, again I’m of the South not from the South. Those who don’t understand… God bless their hearts.

– James Byous

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