Jim Byous gave Bulloch County Historical Society members a quick look Monday through the layered past of the Trustees’ Garden, a compact Savannah site that that has been home to a least seven fortifications, one battle and some of Georgia’s early industries since its founding as a literal garden spot for the new colony in 1733.
The Trustees’ Garden, surrounding the Charles H. Morris Center off East Broughton Street in Savannah, is being renovated Charles Morris as a location for cultural and social events, as well as to showcase its history. Morris is chairman and CEO of Morris Multimedia, parent company of the Statesboro Herald. Byous, a historian and illustrator with a background in photojournalism, has served as a consultant on the project for almost two years.
“It’s probably the most historic spot in Savannah by all the connections, and I call it the Forrest Gump of Savannah history,” Byous said Monday. “It’s always in the background there, and nobody realizes it’s there, but things were happening connected to that site that were significant in history.”
For those who don’t remember the movie, key parts of which were set in Savannah, fictional Forrest Gump is a man who overcomes the disabilities he was born with. Then, through a series of innocent accidents, he keeps showing up in the background of historic events.
The Trustees’ Garden was laid out in 1733, the year that Gen. James Oglethorpe and the other original colonists arrived. It was planted in 1734. But the colony’s trustees immediately parted from the intent of producing cuttings and plants that colonists’ could use to establish wider agriculture, Byous said.
They instead planted mulberry trees as food for silkworms, hoping to sell the silk for profit. But the ground was not suitable for either purpose.
“The soil types were really not the best place to put a garden because most of the garden is really sandy soil,” Byous said.
By 1753, he noted, the garden was in disrepair.
A strategic position
But because of the site’s position at the east end of Yamacraw Bluff overlooking the Savannah River where ships would come in from the Atlantic, a series of fortifications were built there. The first, Oglethorpe’s Fort, made of posts set in the ground, was built around 1740 during the War of Jenkins’ Ear with the Spanish. But it never saw battle.
Fort Halifax, built in 1759, was already reported in bad shape in 1764, “just in time for the revolution,” Byous remarked.
The British held the fort in 1765, when the Stamp Act “riled people up in Georgia” and across the colonies, he said. The hated tax stamps were stored inside, and the captain of the 200 Royal Rangers guarding them was John Milledge Sr., while his son, John Milledge Jr., was a member of the Liberty Boys, who plotted the stamps’ destruction. The younger Milledge, for whom Milledgeville was named, later served as governor of the state of Georgia and in the U.S. Senate.
“Rather than dividing like the Civil War, brother against brother, the Revolutionary War, in this area here, tended to be father against son,” Byous said.
The war began in 1775 and lasted until 1883. In 1778, the Americans built a fortification on the northeastern edge of the garden property.
During the second battle in Savannah, the British swept past the fort to flank the Americans. This resulted in a rout in which some of the patriots drowned in a creek at high tide while fleeing from the British.
The British then occupied the site as part of extensive earthworks around Savannah. The Siege of Savannah in 1779 was fought largely on the other side of town, but when the British pulled back and tightened their defenses, they established Fort Prevost at Trustees’ Garden.
During the War of 1812, the United States replaced the old star-shaped fort with a sickle-shaped fortification called Fort Wayne.
“Part of Fort Wayne is actually still there,” Byous said.
From forts to industry
During the 19th century, the Trustees’ Garden became a place of industry. By the early 1850s, a gas plant was built there to supply Savannah’s streetlights. The gas was made by cooking coal in tall retorts, and oyster shells were reduced to lime to filter the gas, Byous explained.
Stout brick walls from the gas plant are still standing, and were incorporated into later structures. Byous’ slides included a photo of a small archway in one wall’s interior. By overlaying maps, he was able to conclude that this portion dates from Fort Wayne and possibly Fort Prevost, he said.
James Monahan built Monahan’s Phoenix Iron Works on the site in the early 1870s. William Kehoe, an immigrant from Ireland who arrived in Savannah as a child in 1852, grew up in sight of the foundry, got a job there, and in 1880’s bought it from Monahan’s widow. The name Kehoe Iron Works was long seen on manhole covers in Georgia towns and on large kettles used to make cane syrup on the farms.
In a tidbit both military and industrial, Byous noted that two of the three known observation balloons used by the Confederacy were made in Savannah. Test flights were held at Trustees’ Garden, he said.
Although in Savannah, the site’s history made it a subject of interest for members, said Bulloch County Historical Society President Joe McGlamery, who is also president of Statesboro Herald Publishing Co.
“The lanes of commerce between Bulloch County and Savannah have always been strong, and they continue to be so even today,” McGlamery said. “The Trustees’ Garden was such an important part of the beginning of the colony of Georgia.”
The ongoing restoration is another reason, he added.
“The work that Charles Morris is doing now on saving Trustees’ Gardens as a public space to be used by many also is a reason for us to be interested on what’s happening down on that six and a half acres of prime real estate on the edge of the Savannah Historic District,” McGlamery said.
Morris owns about 6.5 acres of what was originally a 10-acre site, Byous said. He said it will be privately owned but available for public enjoyment. The Pirates’ House restaurant is on a portion of the original gardens site under different ownership.
The Metal Building, with an 8,000 square-foot interior, is slated to open next summer as a venue for events such as banquets, stage and music performances, traveling exhibits and art shows. A brick structure, the Kehoe Building, is being renovated for similar purposes, and the Trustees’ Garden will also include a 2,000 square-foot annex and an outdoor amphitheater seating up to 1,000 people.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.