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Barnsley Gardens

by Vyvyan Lynn

Just out of Atlanta, a little piece past the Big Chicken, you get the feeling you are close to something...peaceful. With little effort you drive your car through a spot where rock once existed. Instinctively you sense the promise of cool sweet air even if it is the middle of July. The first time observer experiences a hypnotic aura already embedded in anyone who’s spent autumn days watching gentle variations of color grace the sides of mountains. You may recall a cool fall breeze that stirred you just so, touching you way down deep, something akin to the times mama wrapped you up in a warm blanket long ago.

To the traveler it seems a magic wand has been lowered from the heavens touching each tree with a slightly different hue highlighted by a kindly sun. Even while you're grinding down the Interstate amidst five lanes of traffic, you find the sight is still somehow soothing. And if you were to put the cell phone away, this would be a good time to let the mind wander back to a period when travel was slower, when a trip to the Northwest Georgia Mountains involved a wagon train.

Sir Godfrey Barnsley came to live in America when he was 18 years old. He arrived in Savannah, Georgia in 1824, with little money in his pocket, but managed to amass a fortune as a cotton factor (broker) in a decade’s time. He married Julia Scarborough, a young woman from a prominent Savannah family, on Christmas Eve, 1828.

Barnsley’s eyes first looked upon the winsome wooded glens, springs, and gently rolling hills of Northwest Georgia while on a wagon train sightseeing expedition to Lookout Mountain. Around this time, Julia, weakened from frequent childbearing, became ill with consumption (tuberculosis). Concerned for his wife’s wellbeing, Godfrey, reasoned the crisp clean mountain air would help ensure Julia’s recovery.

Three years after native inhabitants were driven from northwest Georgia on the infamous Trail of Tears, Englishman Godfrey Barnsley bought at least 4,000 acres of Cherokee land. He bought the very land where the wagon train camped on his sightseeing adventure. Godfrey and Julia shared an interest in plants and enjoyed discussing their plans for bewitching gardens. They dreamed of building a stuccoed Italian villa bordered by landscaped gardens. The Barnsley’s garden designs were heavily influenced by noted horticulturist of the day, Andrew Jackson Downing.

Legend records that the land Barnsley purchased was sacred to the Cherokee Nation. On Godfrey’s first visit as owner of this northwest Georgia land, he found an old Cherokee man still living there. Barnsley hired the man to work for him, and allowed him the opportunity to continue living on the land. All was well until Barnsley told the old Cherokee brave he was going to shear off the bluff above the spring and build a mansion there. The old Cherokee was upset, telling Barnsley the forefathers would be unforgiving if he destroyed the Cherokee’s sacred land. Barnsley would not change his plans. It has been told that the old Cherokee put a curse on Barnsley and soon after left, never to be heard from again.

The years following that fateful exchange greeted the Barnsley family with glints of sunlight, but the shade of sorrow seemed to dominate. Julia loved the summers in the mountains; however, the cold moist winters were hard on her as they lived in a crude log cabin while the manor house was being built. Because of Godfrey’s many business trips, work on Woodlands (the name given to the manor house) and Barnsley Gardens suffered. Also suffering was Julia. She became very ill and by the time she made it back to Savannah to be treated by her family physician, it was too late. Julia died in 1844, and for a time, her and Godfrey’s dream for the northwest Georgia Mountains died, too.

Grief-stricken, Godfrey lost the will to complete Woodlands. He began to work day and night. While on business in Mobile, Barnsley went to his first séance, and was certain he could now communicate with his dead wife. He excitedly threw himself into the completion of Woodlands Manor and Barnsley Gardens, sparing no expense per Julia’s instruction.

Woodlands would fall on hard times again as a result of the Civil War. The Barnsley family continued to live there in elegant poverty. Barnsley would travel many times to New Orleans trying, yet unsuccessfully, to breathe life into his cotton business. He left this world almost penniless in 1873, looking forward to being reunited with his Julia.

Money was needed to nourish Woodlands after Godfrey’s death. Godfrey’s granddaughter, Addie, had a son named Preston who became a successful prizefighter. He used much of his earnings to maintain the estate. Preston had an untamed temper and was thought to have suffered brain damage as a result of his occupation. He was institutionalized but escaped, thinking his brother Harry was out to take his share of Woodlands. Preston made his way from Central Georgia to Woodlands Manor in the Northwest Georgia Mountains, entered the house, then shot and killed his brother. Harry died in his mother’s arms in the front room of Woodlands Manor.

Addie told of many ghost sightings during her lifetime. She saw Julia, her grandmother, in the boxwood garden. Godfrey could be heard hard at work at his desk. Harry was also present on the grounds, as was a Confederate Colonel who had been a friend of Godfrey’s. The Colonel was killed on the property after shouting a warning about approaching northern soldiers. The Colonel is buried behind Woodlands Manor.

This legend of tragedies encountered by the Barnsley family in the days and years following Julia’s death has been attributed by some to an Indian’s curse of long ago. The family was never able to live in peace on this sacred ground. The villa, suffering a fire and then a windstorm in the early 1900’s, fell into ruins. The grounds became overgrown and covered in vines.

In 1989, when Prince Hubertus Fugger Babenhausen of Augsberg, Germany, bought Woodlands, nothing remained but a gutted brick structure and stories of an elegant garden that was now a victim of time and neglect. Little was left of Julia and Barnsley’s dream. A decision was made to have the curse removed from the land. Two Cherokee chiefs came to Woodlands to put the matter to rest with the Great Spirit. Then, the Prince set about the chore of restoring Woodlands and Barnsley Gardens.

Today a visit to Barnsley Gardens is a tribute to the past and the present, a vision of loveliness, a place to lay down your burdens and enjoy a respite. A place to breathe crisp clear mountain air. It has been reported that Julia and Godfrey roam the gardens freely and are finally at peace.

Vyvyan Lynn