Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Agricultural and Architectural Reform in the Antebellum South: Fruitland at Augusta, Georgia

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Agricultural and Architectural Reform in the Antebellum South: Fruitland at Augusta, Georgia

Article excerpt

IN THE SPRING OF 1857, TRAVELERS ALONG THE WASHINGTON ROAD heading west through the outskirts of Augusta, Georgia, would have seen a large and unusual dwelling in the course of completion: Fruitland, the country residence of horticulturalist Dennis Redmond. Redmond, the junior editor of an Augusta-based agricultural periodical, the Southern Cultivator, designed Fruitland not only as the home place of his expansive orchard but also as a model "southern country house" for his planter patrons. The Fruitland plan appeared in the Southern Cultivator in August 1857. Redmond provided detailed instructions for the concrete, or "gravel wall," mode of construction he used to build the two-story, rectangular dwelling, with a cupola rising high above the nearby fruit trees. To accompany the text, Redmond commissioned simple engravings of the upper and lower floor plans, but it was an elaborate woodcut elevation of the house and its immediate surroundings that more fully depicted the idealized agricultural landscape that Redmond sought to create. The artist presented Fruitland as a solidly constructed residence, dominating the rows of young trees radiating out from it--a setting of order and improvement in contrast to the untamed foliage beyond. (1)

The importance of the house and its plan lay not in their consequences. The novel concrete residence did not transform southern architecture, as Redmond intended, and few slaveholders developed large commercial orchards such as Fruitland possessed. Rather, the design deserves attention because its approach to the improvement of southern agriculture is strikingly ambiguous about the roles of slavery and the plantation in a progressive South. At a time when the South was engaged in a process of regional self-definition that reinforced slavery's cultural and economic centrality, Fruitland suggested an alternative southern agricultural landscape: a big house without slaves, without cotton, and perhaps without a plantation. Fruitland was not a veiled antislavery argument; instead, it was Redmond's attempt to avoid the limitations of a South defined exclusively by cotton and slaves. Far more than an innocuous architectural experiment or a simple house plan, Fruitland was part of an increasingly volatile debate over what southern agriculture was and what it could be. The plan for Fruitland reflected the ever-narrowing space in which late antebellum southern reformers could critique southern institutions.

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Although the Fruitland property has received much attention in its twentieth-century reincarnation as the Augusta National Golf Club, its significance as the brainchild of a mid-nineteenth-century trendsetter has been overlooked, its origins reduced to the preamble of its subsequent history as a world-famous golf course developed by Bobby Jones in the 1930s. Given that the concrete house and surviving orchard plantings now evoke romantic notions of a bygone South, it is ironic that Redmond implemented these same architectural and landscape features to challenge traditional southern cultural and agricultural practices. Like dozens of publishers of plans for improved houses and gardens in the 1840s and 1850s, Redmond used Fruitland to advance a specific package of values to readers. He did so within a contentious national and transatlantic debate over slavery, which by the mid-1850s had become focused on the relationship between labor and land use. (2) In his plan for a southern country house, Redmond bypassed the labor question altogether, building instead a critique of planters and plantation land-use practices. The fact that Redmond carried out his design in built form as his own home and as a published plan--creating both a physical and a conceptual Fruitland--offers a unique opportunity to explore why one of the South's leading antebellum agricultural writers promoted concrete and fruit trees instead of cotton and slaves. …

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