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A peaceful remnant of Georgia before the war

Email|Print| Text size + By Linda Laban
Globe Correspondent / May 14, 2006

ADAIRSVILLE, Ga. -- Barnsley Gardens Resort, in the beautiful north Georgia hill country, is a world-class leisure destination, centered around ''cottage" suites, and boasting golf, fishing, clay pigeon shooting, horse riding, bicycling, canoeing and kayaking, a top-notch spa, and fine dining. It also has, so many say, the odd ghost or two.

A short walk away from the leisure pursuits and accommodations stand the ruins of an old manor house, built in the mid-1800s by Godfrey Barnsley, who named this, his family home, Woodlands. Many claim to have seen apparitions of the Barnsley family at one point or another. Barnsley was said to commune with his departed wife in the terraced gardens surrounding this once-commanding house.

There are many legends surrounding Woodlands, or Barnsley Gardens, as it later became known. But the facts are as dramatic as any tale or rumor that has spun off around the place and its founder. It is a history rich enough in passion and tragedy to match ''Gone With the Wind," in which Margaret Mitchell is said to have modeled Rhett Butler on Barnsley. One of his daughters, also named Julia, was allegedly the inspiration for Scarlett O'Hara.

Barnsley was born in 1805 in Derbyshire, England. At 18, he worked his passage to Savannah, and by the age of 24 he was the wealthiest cotton broker in the South. He married a Southern belle, Julia Scarborough, and to escape the heat and yellow fever in Savannah, he eventually moved his wife and children to the newly evacuated Cherokee lands some 60 miles north of Atlanta.

Barnsley was a notorious freethinker who was forced to accept the ''custom" of slavery, but he cared for his workers with such kindness that other slave owners feared he would incite an uprising among theirs. He refused to join the Georgia militia, for which, though he retained his British citizenship, he was regularly fined. However, for his service to American trade, President Andrew Jackson appointed him vice consul to the Netherlands in 1829.

When it came to building his home, Barnsley shunned the typical Southern Greek Revival mansion, opting for an Italian villa style. The gardens, which became his passion, were modeled after designs by A.J. Downing, a noted landscape gardener of the time whose work includes landscaping at the US Capitol and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. As with traditional English gardens, Barnsley's included a rose garden and other formal shrubberies. But some wooded areas were left in their natural state. It is through the woods that you will find the family cemetery, where also lies a Confederate soldier shot as he rode to warn the Barnsleys of approaching Union troops.

Today, only the part of the house that initially served as the kitchen and servants' quarters remains intact. It houses the Woodlands museum and is filled with family memorabilia. In the basement, in what would have been a wine and food cellar, there is a more general Civil War exhibit.

Barnsley's life was marked by tragedy. His youngest child died at Woodlands, soon followed by his beloved wife, who never saw the house's completion. Many of his children suffered early deaths; his descendants fell to gambling, drinking, and even murder. In 1935, one great-grandson shot and killed his brother during an argument. The bloodstain and bullet holes are preserved in the kitchen house, where Barnsley descendants lived after a tornado ravaged the main house in 1906.

The restoration of the estate began in 1989. The upper floors and roof are gone. The fireplaces remain. Barnsley's large brick vault sits bare and barren, but is a reminder of his wealth.

The gardens have been replanted, mostly with heirloom flower varietals. The replanted box hedge in front of the main entrance to the house is now grown thick and trimmed into a mini-maze. The garden is an ongoing project that will soon realize another goal when a copy of the original fountain is returned to the center of the maze.

The resort is busy year-round, and busiest April through November. Along with staying guests, wedding parties, and business retreat groups, Barnsley Gardens welcomes day visitors to tour the ruins and gardens (garden tour admission is $10 adults, $8 senior citizens, $5 children under 12).

Weekdays during off-season the resort is quiet with a meditative pastoral ambience. Despite all the activities, many guests come to do nothing but sit peacefully in the beautiful grounds. You can order, or even bring in, a picnic lunch complete with wine. The whole place has a discreet charm and an otherworldly quality, as though time stands still here.

Contact Linda Laban, a freelance writer in Watertown, at lindalab@gmail.com.

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