Historic Square

Living History Feb 26, 2018

Located in Stone Mountain Park, Georgia, the Historic Square is not your typical amusement park attraction. Situated on 3,200 acres, the Park is the state’s most popular attraction, offering a mixture of family friendly fare along with natural and historic sites. The area’s most impressive feature is the Stone Mountain itself, being the world’s largest piece of exposed granite. Carved into the side of the mountain is the largest high relief sculpture in the world, depicting Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, three Confederate heroes of the American Civil War. Work on the carving began in 1915; fifty-seven years and three sculptors later, the 90 by 190 foot carving, recessed forty-two feet into the mountain, was finally completed in 1972.

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Management of the site, including the Historic Square, is rather complicated. The State of Georgia purchased the mountain and the surrounding land in 1958, creating the Stone Mountain Memorial Association (SMMA) for the purpose of developing, managing, preserving, and protecting Stone Mountain as a Confederate Memorial and public recreation area. In 1998, SMMA began collaborating with the Herschend Family Entertainment Center (HFEC), a private corporation that manages the commercial aspects of the Park: lodging, attractions, retail, special events, and the Historic Square. As the largest family-owned themed attraction corporation, owning, among other things, Dollywood in Tennessee’s Great Smokey Mountains, Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, and the Harlem Globetrotters, HFEC carries its moto “Creating Memories Worth Repeating” throughout sites located around the United States.

Perhaps the Historic Square is not as flashy as the aforementioned attractions, but it certainly holds its own. Formerly known as the Antebellum Plantation, the Square is a collection of original buildings built between 1792 and 1875 that were previously located around the state of Georgia. They were assembled with an interest in their historical value, as well as being representatives of the various lifestyles of eighteenth and nineteenth century Georgians.

The walking tour begins at the charmingly blue Maddox General Store, of Cherokee County, Georgia, circa 1830.

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Originally a general store and post office before being moved to the Square in the early 1960s, today the building functions as the orientation center where friendly staff set you up with a map and send you off with a smile.

Heading down the stairs and out into the arms of the Georgia sun, the first stop is Allen House, of Bartow County, Georgia, circa 1845. Allen House may seem small to modern viewers, but it was originally the manor home of the 300 acre Allen Plantation; Bryan Allen, his wife Nancy, and their sons Virgil and Zachariah lived in the home.

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Allen House, like the rest of the accessible homes on the site, has been outfitted with artifacts from the collections belonging to the Stone Mountain Memorial Association. The majority of the displays have remained unchanged since the 1960s, when they were originally curated, with the exception of some truly terrible reproductions that were recently removed by Amanda Morrow, the Square’s newest director.

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The Allen House is one of the buildings that escaped history fairly intact, and is free of major alterations or additions. When it was moved, the brick portion of the house had to be taken apart; however it was mapped so that it could be put back together exactly.

The next house, Dr. Chapmon Powell’s Cabin, of DeKalb County, Georgia, circa 1826, was not so lucky. Believed to be the oldest building in DeKalb County, the home is one room with an upstairs loft. It too was outfitted in period trappings,with a central table set for a meal, a bed in one far corner, and an oddly out of place loom in the other.

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Like many nineteenth century houses, the Doctor’s Cabin was a house within a house when it was found. Dr. Powell gave the house to his son and daughter-in-law, who then preceded to build a new home around the original, making the cabin one room within their house. It was extracted from that house in the 1960s when it was given to the Square; however, by then it was no longer in its original condition as it had been shortened to accommodate the other house as it was being constructed around the cabin. While the Cabin may no longer be exactly as it appeared, attempts are being made to provide as accurate a representation as possible: the windows are left open, with reference made to the practice of using oiled cloth or scraped and stretched animal skins as window coverings instead of glass, and portions of the chinked Georgia clay are removed in order to provide ventilation.

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Following is the oldest house in the collection, Thornton House, of Greene County, Georgia, circa 1792, was built by Redman Thornton (1769-1826) as the manor house on his indigo plantation. In 1958 the house was first acquired by the Hyde Museum of Art, located in Atlanta. It was they who moved it from Greene County and carried out its restoration. Their goal was to restore the house to its original condition; for example, the wall paint throughout the house was stripped down to the first layer, then repainted in the original colors so all the interiors are to their best estimate what it would have looked like.

Thornton’s back porch underwent a restoration as well. Originally a carriage porch, during the Victorian period it was enclosed to become rooms, and a typical wrap around porch was added to the home’s exterior. The Hyde Museum removed the porch and turned the rooms back into the carriage porch. They believed restoring the carriage porch was important to telling the story of Redman Thornton, who was an avid collector of carriages.

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Occurring next on the tour are the two Slave Cabins, of Mount Pleasant Plantation, Covington, Georgia, circa 1830. Unlike Thornton House, which was restored to its original state before reaching Historic Square, the Slave Cabins were altered from their original state in a way that I believe lessens their impact.

While the framing and many of the clapboards are original, the glass window panes and wood floor were added after being acquired by the Square. When they came to the site, the windows were bare – no glass – and the floors were dirt. The reasons for doing so are solid: Dirt floors rot faster than wooden floors, and glass was added to the windows to keep the elements out. However, I believe these additions lessen the impact of viewing a slave cabin, as they do not look much different than Doctor Powell’s Cabin seen earlier; a bit smaller, perhaps, but the Doctor’s Cabin did not have glass windows, and these do. I would be more willing to overlook these modification if they were mentioned in the descriptions located in front of the buildings, but they are not.

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This seems a good time to describe the descriptions, which are located in front of each doorway in every building, be they one room, like the Doctor’s Cabin or the Slave Cabins, or manor homes with multiple rooms, like Allen House or Thornton House. The majority of the rooms are inaccessible, being blocked off by Plexiglas or an equivalent, with a music stand located behind the barrier holding a one or two page description about the room. This is illustrated in a previous image taken of the door way leading into the Master Bedroom in Thornton House.

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If a room is accessible, it is only as a walkway from one room to the next, and one’s way is laid out with wooden barriers preventing access to the rest of the room. Now, the signs themselves are “not fantastic,” according to Amanda Morrow, and are not even entirely correct. She said that redoing the interpretive signs are “on her list [of things to do]," [as of 2016].

Back on the walking tour, after the Slave Cabins comes a favorite area of Historic Square: the Farmyard. Apparently families will walk through the Square, pet the animals, and then turn around and walk right back out. The Farmyard is home to goats, sheep, and pigs, all old livestock breeds that would have been kept in Georgia during the mid-1800s. The animals are friendly and visitors are welcome to pet them, except for the pigs, who mistake fingers for carrots. One of the critters, who shall remain nameless, also likes to eat dresses, and unfortunately mine was among those sampled.

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Next to the Farmyard is the Barn, of Gordon County, Georgia, circa 1830, playing host to a collection of wagons, carriages, farm tools, and an antique cotton gin; across from the Barn is the Coach House, which is a reconstruction made from period materials.

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A Smokehouse, of Covington, Georgia, circa 1830 is beside the Coach House, and the Necessary House, of Mount Pleasant Plantation, Covington, Georgia, is behind (pictured). The Necessary House, crafted from handmade bricks, is a ‘four seater’ – there are four holes, each a different size, in order to accommodate the largest member of the family to the smallest, though not necessarily at the same time.

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Beyond the Necessary House is the Vegetable Garden, which fronts the Cookhouse. The Garden is farmed as it would have been in previous centuries, without the use of pesticides or fertilizers. There are also an abundance of flowers planted throughout the space acting as a natural pest repellent. The Cookhouse, though a reproduction, accurately reflects early American life. All of the manor houses had their own cookhouses; a separate building for cooking was normal on Southern farms, both small and large. Cookhouses served to reduce the risk of fires and eliminated strongsmells and loud noise from the main house.

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On the other side of the brick walls of the Garden is Davis House, of Calhoun County, Georgia, circa 1856. The home was lived in by the descendants of the original owners until 1961, when it was moved to the Square. It has fourteen rooms covering 6,250 square feet, neoclassical architecture, and ‘welcoming arms’ in the form of twin staircases on its front.

The Davis House is original, with the exception of the bottom floor. The house came to the site in four pieces, and when it was being put back together, the architects didn’t believe it was structurally sound enough for visitors to enter, so they added the bottom floor in as they were putting it together. The bottom floor was patterned after what a typical floor would have looked like in a home like the Davis House, and was built using historic materials.

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This house is more in keeping with what comes to mind when the term “Southern Plantation House” is mentioned. The rooms and trappings are beautiful, with architectural details like built-ins, molding accentuated with rich furniture, heavy curtains, plush rugs, portraits, ornate mirrors, laden tables, and more knick-knacks than a flea market. As an added bonus, the informational music stands receive supplemental material located on the walls (in five different languages, no less).

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The bottom floor, in addition to several period rooms, contains the only typical “museum” style displays, in which items are encased behind glass with little wall texts strategically placed nearby. The display, “Up Close and Personal: Treasures from the Historic Collection of Stone Mountain Park,” includes items such as hair jewelry and a curling iron. Its stated purpose is to allow visitors to experience some of the items – normally tucked away in the rooms and difficult to see – up close and to learn their stories.

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Exiting Davis House through the bottom floor, one spills out into the Formal Garden and Gazebo, fronted by the Bride’s Cottage, a reproduction that isn’t open to the public. The Bride’s Cottage is representative of the separate business office built on many plantations; currently it is used with wedding garden rentals for bridal preparation.

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The last entry in the tour is the Powell Academy Schoolhouse, of DeKalb County, Georgia, circa 1875, and is one of the last one-room schoolhouses in DeKalb County. It contains a small piano against one wall, with the expected fireplace and teacher’s podium at the opposite end of the building. Notably, this is the one building that has unfettered guest access. (Maybe they’re trying to tell us something.)

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After the Schoolhouse one exits back through the Maddox General Store, where there is a selection of souvenirs. Sadly none are specific to the Historic Square [as of 2016], something Ms. Morrow is seeking to change through the addition of books and post cards. This is one of the ways the Square is open for improvement, but overall I thought the Historic Square in Stone Mountain Park was an entertaining experience, suited for people who might not otherwise visit a living history museum, and full of potential for those whom living history is a constant draw. Be that as it may, as a member of the latter, I believe the Historic Square truly is a memory worth repeating.

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Sources:

Amanda Morrow, interview by Rachel V. Polaniec, June 17, 2016.

Herschend Family Entertainment. “About Us.” Accessed 17 June 2016. http://www.hfecorp.com/about-us/

Stewart, Bruce E. “Geography & Environment: Geographic Sites & Features: Stone Mountain.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. May 25, 2004. Accessed 17 June 2016. http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/geography-environment/stone-mountain

Stone Mountain Memorial Association. “What is SMMA.” Accessed 17 June 2016. http://stonemountainpark.org/about-us/what-is-smma/

Stone Mountain Park. “About Stone Mountain Park.” Accessed 17 June 2016. http://www.stonemountainpark.com/About

Stone Mountain Park. “Confederate Memorial Carving.” Accessed 17 June 2016. https://www.stonemountainpark.com/activities/history-nature/Confederate-Memorial-Carving

Rachel Polaniec

I enjoy researching, visiting, and writing about local historic and cultural sites.