On Ballylee: The Enduring Legacy of Our Fathers’ Fields

A retrospective review of Our Fathers’ Fields: A Southern Story (University of South Carolina Press, 1998) by James Everett Kibler, Jr.

On June 7, 1998, I opened a copy of The State newspaper from Columbia, South Carolina, and read a review of a book that I immediately knew I had to own. The article, “Family Ties: Author Looks at Hardy Family History,” favorably endorsed Our Fathers’ Fields: A Southern Story, by Dr. James Everett Kibler, Jr., which had just been published by the University of South Carolina Press.

“This book, a gentle, affectionate social history, is the story of a family who made a house a home for nearly two centuries. It is a memoir that could become a classic of Palmetto State history, so richly detailed and lively is its recounting of the Hardy family past,” wrote reviewer William W. Starr. “The narrative is occasionally so compelling that it forces a halt to the text to admire the way Kibler has absorbed the people and times he describes. The detail here is ravishing to read. And Kibler’s informal but informed tone adds to the pleasures.” (1)

Starr acknowledged in print what readers were then realizing all over the South and nation. Kibler’s book was not only a remarkable volume of Southern history, but its rich narrative represented a new generation of scholarly works that found favor with a much broader audience of readers than many previous titles of regional non-fiction.

When I left work that afternoon I stopped by a local bookstore and ordered a copy. The book arrived the following Friday afternoon, and I remember sitting down with it late that evening in my own library. Comfortably ensconced in a deep wing chair, and with night peacefully falling outside my window, I began to read. By Sunday afternoon I had finished the 444-page book and had read several passages over again. On Monday I awoke with ideas swirling around in my head as to how I could emulate the author’s style in my own writing, and with a greater determination to advance my love of Southern history to the level of genuine scholarship reached by Dr. Kibler.

The book not only charmed me with its sweeping story of an important family living in the Upcountry of South Carolina from the Revolutionary era, through the antebellum period and the Civil War, until the late-20th century, but also introduced me in writing to an author and scholar of the highest tier who would become, in time, both my mentor and valued friend. With that friendship came invitations to walk the fields and forests of the old Hardy Plantation known as “Ballylee” on the Tyger River in rural Newberry County, South Carolina, and opportunities to spend time in the rooms of Kibler’s plantation house that served not only as his own writer’s lair, but also from time-to-time a gathering place for some of the South’s greatest scholars, writers, and historic preservationists.

When Kibler purchased the property in 1989 he had no idea that his efforts to restore and repair the plantation house, the surviving support structures, and the surrounding gardens, fields, and pastures would also result in a dedicated mission to rescue from near oblivion the history of the plantation and its people, black and white. That mission soon took the form of a manuscript shaped in the “Great House” tradition of writing (fiction or nonfiction) where a stately house is used as a powerful symbol to convey the cultural heritage, and the beliefs of the people living in that house. The dwelling at the center of Kibler’s book could be said to symbolize the history and heritage of the entire region. It is as much a part of the South as any other plantation from Maryland’s Tidewater down to the cotton fields of east Texas.

The great popularity of novels like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, as well as the recent PBS television phenomenon Downton Abbey, reveals the importance of such works. In each of those creations a great house, filled with material treasures and inhabited by powerful people, takes on the role of a central character often possessing near human qualities.

The Hardys first living on the plantation in the late 18th century had occupied a log cabin. Then in 1803 the family began the construction of a two-story frame house of heavy, broadax-hewn pine timbers that was completed in 1804. That dwelling faced north toward the Tyger River. It was built on brick piers, sheathed in clapboard, and had a single massive interior chimney and two rooms on each floor. (2)

Around 1825, flush with confidence and burgeoning wealth from successful cotton crops, the Hardys launched into building a substantial, two-over-two addition to their existing frame house that created an imposing and elegant dwelling in keeping with the classical lines of many antebellum houses in the South. The completed L-shaped dwelling faced east. It featured fine mantels, window and door trim, wainscotting, and a massive walnut staircase. The interior walls were sheathed in smooth-polished hard plaster over lath, and the floors were crafted of wide boards of heart pine.

Originally, circular plaster medallions with a center cluster of acanthus leaves ornamented both downstairs rooms of the new addition, and smaller and less elaborate forms could be seen in both the upstairs and downstairs halls. The medallions, later removed in the 1950s, were rendered by mastercraftsman John Finger who had also worked on other plantations near the Hardys. (3)

The exterior of the 1825 addition boasted wooden pilasters at each corner, massive brick chimneys, covered with stucco and scored to resemble great blocks of stone, on the gable ends, and pairs of tall wooden shutters on each window. An impressive two-story Palladian portico, with turned balusters and carved handrails, projected boldly from the east facade. (4)

Hardy family tradition maintains that the house was appointed with elegant taste. Most of the furniture represented styles popular in the 1820s, or before, and not the heavy American Empire pieces so common in the decades just before the Civil War. Surviving records show mahogany canopy beds, chests, a walnut secretary, parlor tables and chairs, a sofa, a walnut blanket chest, rocking chairs, and a pianoforte. Sterling silver pieces in the family’s collection included candlesticks, trays, various flatware, and a handsome compote ornamented with vines, leaves, and clusters of grapes. (5) Kibler has located and returned to the house several pieces of the original furniture made on the place, including a tall four-post bed, a walnut linen and silver chest, and a three piece banquet table that seats sixteen.

Interwoven through Kibler’s book are stories of succeeding generations of Hardys and detailed vignettes of their plantation house, its furnishings, and surrounding gardens. The book offers a close examination of the plantation as it grew from 204 to 2,035 acres to become one of the most valuable and productive estates in the Upcountry of South Carolina. Years of dedicated research and writing by Kibler resulted in a richly-detailed text that breathed life into the real-life characters of William Eppes Hardy and his wife Catherine, the plantation’s master and mistress during the halcyon days before the Civil War. Their son, William Dixon Hardy, a Confederate veteran who later served five terms in the state legislature, and his son Frank Hardy, who labored to keep the plantation viable in the early decades of the 20th century, also appear prominently in the book. (6)

The last years of the Hardy’s ownership of Ballylee were often sad ones, reflecting a family far-flung from its homeplace, divorced from agricultural pursuits, and ultimately losing interest in a farm that required substantial infusions of cash. Restoring the house with the help of his parents in the 1990s, filling its rooms with genuine Federal furniture, including some surviving pieces used on the plantation, and opening the doors to new generations of visitors, including Hardy family descendants, gave Kibler an opportunity to recount that chapter of the plantation’s history and to end his text on a happier note than could have been written if he had not come along before the house fell completely into ruin.

Kibler’s book immediately met with critical praise and received many honors. The most prestigious award it earned was the Fellowship of Southern Writers Award for Non Fiction in 1999. That honor was bestowed by a league of accomplished authors that included Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price, Ernest J. Gaines, Cleanth Brooks, and C. Vann Woodward. Charles Frazier received the Fellowship of Southern Writers Award for Fiction that same year for his phenomenally-successful Civil War novel Cold Mountain.

Kibler was feted by the Fellowship of Southern Writers at an awards banquet on April 16, 1999, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The citation made to him that day reads in part, “In giving us his complete and vividly detailed account of generations of the Hardy family, its joys and bereavements, its accomplishments and disappointments, Kibler has developed a theme that has long defined both Southern history and Southern literature: the deep and, in some ways, metaphysical connection between Southern character and temperament and the natural world. The sense of piety, born out of respect for the environment and for our neighbors who share it, informs the best of the Southern Tradition. For his graceful articulation of the agrarian vision in Our Fathers’ Fields, the Fellowship of Southern Writers is pleased to give to James Everett Kibler this award for nonfiction.” (7)

Although Kibler, a tenured professor of English at the University of Georgia, had previously written or edited 11 other significant books and scores of scholarly essays, reviews, and journal articles, Our Fathers’ Fields catapulted him to a greater level of notoriety. With its publication scholars across the South and nation lined up to offer endorsements for his work.

Civil War historian and author Shelby Foote, a founding member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers who rose to national fame following his noted appearance in Ken Burns’ PBS series “The Civil War,” wrote, “This 200-year history of a Southern plantation family – seen from the inside, so to speak, in letters and ledgers and the comments of descendants – brings us home to who we are by showing us where we came from. Kibler has researched and presented an overall account that resonates for all of us in the very core of our being.” (8)

Fred Hobson, author of numerous books in American and Southern studies and co-editor of the Southern Literary Journal, placed Kibler’s work on the same shelf with the pantheon of writers who have penned some of the most beloved and celebrated non-fiction books and essays on the South. Hobson wrote, “A superb book. It is nothing short of a tour de force…it is charmingly written, astoundingly rich in detail, and absolutely fascinating reading. It reminds me at various times of Ben Robertson’s Red Hills and Cotton, William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee, some of James McBride’s autobiographical works, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and the best (that is to say, the least polemical) essays in I’ll Take My Stand.” (9)

In presenting his book at the 1999 Southern Heritage Conference in Monroe, Louisiana, Kibler acknowledged that when writing the manuscript he found himself breaking out of the prescribed style and format used for generations by historians. He explained that his own personal writing style changed as the book evolved. “When I started this book I was using the typical scientific approach of footnoting and documentation and the Olympian objectivity that scholars use. I tried to keep my distance by presenting the text from the third person omniscient. But, my characters kept struggling to break free.” (10)

Kibler continued, “you can sense that trying to break out from the academic mold with this book. And in doing so I think I have found some manner of redemption. And that’s what Southern literature is about. I think Southern literature has one great topic and that tremendously important topic is the struggle for salvation and redemption. That comes directly from our Christian culture.” (11)

My admiration for Our Fathers’ Fields, and my respect for Kibler’s contribution to the study of the American South, is rooted not only in my deep interest in antebellum plantation life and appreciation for Kibler’s literary skill, but in the fact that he unapologetically places the plantation house and the Hardy family at the center of his story in an age that strives to demonize and discredit that view. Kibler doesn’t bow to revisionist historians who endeavor to paint plantation owners as innately evil while systematically placing blame for the entire institution of slavery at the doorstep of every plantation house in the South.

Although the focus of the book is primarily on the master family and their home, Kibler does not ignore or marginalize the contribution of the African-American slaves to the success of the Hardy’s plantation. He devotes an extensive chapter to examining their lives and work on the plantation, and provides a wealth of genealogical and other documentary information that enriches and strengthens the narrative.

Fred Chappell, award-winning poet, novelist, and member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, foresaw that Kibler, however, would raise the irr of critics who hold a different view of the antebellum South, who condemn the region’s past, and who work diligently to strip it of its storied grandeur. In a review that appeared in the Sunday, June 21, 1998 edition of The News & Observer, in Raleigh, North Carolina, Chappell wrote, “It requires no Nostradamus to predict that James Kibler’s compelling volume will stir controversy among historians of the South. Our Fathers’ Fields is politically incorrect from beginning to end, top to bottom. The germane question, however, is not whether Fields will be attacked, but if its history is accurate, and I will venture to surmise that it is sound…The author has a stake in his narrative; in 1989 he purchased what was left of the once-proud plantation with its ruined Great House and set about restoring it. In order to do so, he had to research its history and was pulled into that immense chronicle almost helplessly, like a fallen leaf caught in the flow of a powerful river.”

Chappell, poet laureate of North Carolina, and cultural arbiter with a deep appreciation and respect for the South and its agrarian past, was among the most accomplished voices to validate Kibler’s view and to acknowledge that his assessment was rooted in both genuine scholarship and his affection for the people and places involved in the story. “As history it (Kibler’s book) is scrupulous with evidence and dense with detail. It has grand scope… and it is a cunning mixture of data and anecdote, allowing the personages, black and white, to speak in their own voices as recorded in letters, diaries, and interviews.”

Chappell continued, “I think that for James Kibler his history is more than a book, just as his house is more than a building. Like the Great House he has restored, Our Fathers’ Fields is a symbolic gesture with which the author hopes to reclaim, and not only in memory, the traditions of the antebellum South, its agrarian ideals, its nobility of mind and temperament, its careful stewardship of the land, and – since that seems to him a necessity – the social system that sustained these values.”

Chappell acknowledged that Kibler had ignored an increasingly-jadded academic community with no genuine connection to agrarian culture, and clearly and boldly presented the Hardys as products of the time period in which they lived and not through the lens of historical revisionism so common today. Still, in the closing sentence of his review Chappell offered a warning. “Well argued, Mr. Kibler. But keep your rifle handy and your powder dry, for just over yonder ridge I hear already the frenzied drumbeat of your advancing foes.” (12)

Kibler successfully deflected the arrows that were flung at him. And in the process he not only earned one of the most prestigious honors available to Southern scholars, but also received media attention from coast to coast, including a promotional article released by the Associated Press that appeared in numerous metropolitan newspapers across the country. (13) While not all reviewers were enthusiastic about Kibler’s work, a legion of scholars, historians, and journalists applauded and commended him for his treatment of the Hardys and their planter neighbors. In addition, dozens of academic journals, regional periodicals, and small-town newspapers carried feature articles or reviews of Kibler’s book, and interviews with Kibler were broadcast by national and regional television  networks and radio stations.

“Thoughtful commentators on the past treat the documentary and material fragments that have survived with appropriate caution. The best of them use accounting records, correspondence, and inherited tales as tenuous anchors that might support imaginative reconstructions of dynamic contents. Kibler, by contrast, handles these fragments as holy relics to be lovingly presented for the purpose of burnishing the stalest of all great southern myths,” wrote S. Max Edleson in the July 1999 issue of The South Carolina Historical Magazine. (14)

Although one writer in The South Carolina Review in his essay entitled “The Stink of Magnoliaberated Kibler for limiting his view primarily to that of the white plantation family, he also acknowledged Kibler’s masterful ability to capture something genuine and real in the Hardy’s devotion to the land on which they dwelled. The reviewer stated, “The sense of place is one of the most deeply embedded themes in Southern writing, and Kibler does as fine a job as probably ever has been done examining it and explaining how people establish deep ties to the land on which they live.” (15)

More than a decade after the book was published journalists and magazine writers were still offering praise for Kibler’s work and identifying him as a much respected champion of Southern history. “Kibler is a brave thinker. He is a brave writer. Perhaps, most importantly he’s a brave achiever,” wrote Theresa Halfacre in the December 2010 issue of Newberry magazine. “He protects Southern history through storytelling and the written word. Kibler writes for the future – for the reader 100 years from now.” (16)

In Our Fathers’ Fields Kibler identifies the importance of honoring tradition and preserving the stories of one’s ancestors not only to shed light on the past, but also to serve as a guide for the future. His narrative incorporates numerous stories told by the Hardy family across generations. One of my favorite passages from the book appears in chapter 14. It reads:

As for most Southern families, the ‘porch’ yarns furthered the family’s understanding of itself, and bolstered their pride because through them, the listener became aware of belonging to a people who had survived wars, typhoid, the Depression, drought, poverty and prosperity, and cataclysms great and small. One learned that he could lose everything and still have the strength to start over, that one could even lose a great war and still not be defeated. Through the tales, one saw the bigger picture – that through some generations we had been poor, in others prosperous; but ‘always we were survivors.’ Like our neighbors, we knew how to live off the good land. As one recent Carolina author has described it, ‘there was renewal in the oft-repeated stories’ that family told from this porch, tales that bound them to this porch, and which spoke eloquently ‘of a family’s heritage spreading back over generations even older than the porch itself.’ (17)

Unlike many scholars who labor for years only to find that the book they have written, albeit important, has such limited appeal that it sells poorly, often only a few hundred copies, Kibler penned a book that was commercially successful; one that was reprinted three times in the space of the first year, with a third printing of 3,000 copies. The book was then released in paperback in 2003, by Pelican Publishing, of Louisiana. More importantly, Kibler’s book was embraced by an appreciative audience of both scholars and general readers alike who valued what he put on the page. Thousands of copies of Our Fathers’ Fields soon found their way onto the shelves of people who considered the book to be among their most favorite, and often most reread, texts.

My copy of the book has sat for two decades now on a shelf near my reading chair and contains slips of paper to mark passages that I love to read over and over. My favorite passage from Our Fathers’ Fields captures in warm detail familiar patterns of home life. It speaks clearly and lovingly of an agrarian people living on the land while celebrating the simple joys of life embedded in the Christian culture of that time and age, and indeed the culture that fortunately survives today among many of the South’s oldest families. In describing a Christmas day long ago on the Hardy plantation, Kibler wrote:

For the menfolk, slave and master alike, Christmas day on the plantation was itself preeminently the day of the hunt, when fathers, sons, kin, and neighbors, would take to the woods. Then came the Christmas supper for which the womenfolk had prepared all week, and served in a room freshly garlanded by the children with the aromatic cedar, holly, and smilax from the forests…Occasionally, as in 1848, even a boar’s head ‘in procession’ became the centerpiece of the evening feast, which was relished by all, but particularly by the hunters, whose exercise had built fierce winter appetites. In they came, stomping in their great heavy riding boots, spirits high, and a little rough, their cheeks red from the cold and a dram of Christmas brandy, bringing the smell of the woods with them on their clothes, their hounds and setters boiling around their feet into the dining room, to the ladies’ chagrin and the black cook Auntie Rachel’s vociferous exclamations, accompanied by the swift thrashes of the kitchen broom. A few of the venerable and better mannered of the flop-eared and big-eyed veterans of the hunt were allowed to remain inside about the postprandial fire, while all the men and womenfolk gathered together in cirque before it to tell stories of the day, of the kitchen, the cousins, the children, the fields, the hunt. Then the children went off to their quilt covered beds. The hounds and setters dozed, their noses wrinkling and tails and feet sometimes moving in their dreams as they rehearsed the day’s events, momentous in their dog memories. The spaces of silence punctuating the talking grew longer and longer. The talk became cadenced like a fine old ballad in its regular rhythms of comment, silence, and reply; the special music of good conversation. The older folks began to nod off, as the fire glowed red into ashes. Then the comfortable rhythms of yet another deep Christmas night, when over the plantation, the constellations once again wheeled, the wind occasionally whistled about the house corners and down the chimneys, and the old, well-loved serenity of joyous peace descended – the familiar peace of hearts at rest with themselves in another Christmas on the land. (18)

For a long time now I have made a habit of pulling Our Fathers’ Fields from its honored place in my library during the week of Christmas each year to read those words. The importance of Kibler’s book, for me, is rooted in how well his scenes, like the one described above, capture the feeling of times long past in a way that is familiar to Southerners of many different generations who have ties to the soil. When I first read those words I felt a genuine closeness to Kibler, even though we had never met.

While I had collaborated with other writers and historians through the years on my own book projects, namely with my friend Dr. Marc Matrana, of New Orleans, Louisiana, who has published extensively with the University Press of Mississippi, I had been writing primarily in seclusion without the mentorship of an accomplished scholar. I had never realized how valuable that type of relationship could be, on both a professional and a personal level.

Despite my great appreciation for Kibler’s work I had never endeavored to meet him in person. And then one day, more than 18 years after I had first read Our Fathers’ Fields, our paths crossed unexpectedly as Kibler was signing copies of his latest book Taking Root: The Nature Writing of William and Adam Summer of Pomaria at a bookstore in Newberry, South Carolina. After an hour-long visit that continued between his short chats with customers, Kibler extended an invitation to me to come and spend a day touring his plantation house, its surrounding gardens, and the fields and forests beyond. That plantation pilgrimage was the first time that I was afforded the opportunity to step inside the world and setting of a book that I admired and into the writing lair of an author I revered.

In preparation for that visit I began collecting and reading every scrap that Kibler had written through the years, including his other books of regional non-fiction, his Clay Bank Series of four novels, his collections of poems, journal articles, feature stories in regional periodicals, and the book reviews he had penned for works by other authors. It is a staggering collection of work, much of it researched and written while Kibler was a faculty member in the English department at the University of Georgia, a position he held for 39 years.

It was on a late summer morning that I drove from Rutherfordton, North Carolina down into the heart of South Carolina’s Upcountry with accomplished landscape photographer Mr. Lesley Bush in search of Ballylee. That broad region of the state is steeped in history and filled with grand old houses dating from well before the American Civil War. Families with ancestors who fought in the backcountry battles of the American Revolution can still be found scattered throughout every community in South Carolina’s Piedmont.

An independent spirit pervades the atmosphere of the South Carolina Upcountry. It is rooted in the very soil that sustains life, and it can be felt in the soft breezes that waft through tall stands of pines and old growth forests. Kibler is deeply a part of that heritage and culture, and the private realm he maintains and preserves at Ballylee is Jeffersonian in scope and purpose. Like Thomas Jefferson, Kibler is nowhere else as happy, and in no other society more content, than he is rambling through the native woods and fields on Ballylee. While he has the credentials and experience to hold his own in any salon of higher learning and thought, he prefers the quiet comfort of his own home, and he revels in the beauty and bounty of nature found there.

One of the best descriptions of Kibler’s view of nature and assessments of how his affection and reverence for the natural environment enriched his telling of the history of the Hardy Plantation, was penned by Kathryn Coombs from Alexandria, Virginia. She enthusiastically endorsed Our Fathers’ Fields in an online review shortly after the book was published.  Coombs made a direct connection between Kibler’s own tenure on Ballylee with the experiences of Colonial and antebellum era planters, and she mentioned the similarities between the management and preservation of agricultural and game lands of the planters of the South with the great landowners of England.

The reviewer noted, “Dr. Kibler’s exhaustive cataloging of the biodiverse flora and fauna of the plantation was the most telling. It was exactly as a plantation owner would have done in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and was reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, or William Byrd’s diaries, and of the ‘gamebooks’ at great English country houses. The head of England’s Historic Houses Association once remarked, ‘We don’t own our houses. They own us.’ This quintessentially English sense of stewardship, of holding heritage in trust for future generations, survives outside of England uniquely in the American South. Through his book, James Kibler has become perhaps its foremost exponent.” (19)

In a letter to Kibler, dated February 21, 1999, Ms. Coombs explained that for 13 years while she resided in England she had lobbied for tax concessions to enable the owners of Britain’s historic houses to afford to repair them. She surmised that even in the South, the stewardship of houses “is sadly dwindling in the onslaught of pop culture that dumbs-down history, or worse, ignores it altogether.”  She concluded her note by thanking Kibler for “keeping the metaphoric lamp lit.” (20)

That flame burns brightest when Kibler is holding court around his own table, or when he is seated in front of a welcoming fire with friends. The placid nature of Kibler’s rural retreat is rarely disturbed, however, even when he entertains. Much like the famed “Agrarians” – writers such as Allen Tate, John Ransom Crowe, Stark Young, and many more who collectively produced the landmark volume I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition in 1930 – Kibler’s enclave of friends and colleagues represents some of the South’s most accomplished writers, poets, historians, and artists. They are all traditionalists in their own way who are passionate about safeguarding and promoting the South’s unique cultural heritage. They all revel in making a journey to Ballylee.

Kibler’s plantation is not easy to find. Consisting of several hundred acres, it is tucked away neatly in a landscape of deep pine and hardwood forests, and wide river bottoms that is home to a superabundance of wildlife. Meandering down the narrow road that leads to the plantation house one is likely to see turkeys in the distance, a covey of quail taking to the sky when the sound of an automobile approaches, circling hawks, deer, and any number of rabbits, squirrels, red or gray foxes, and the occasional Bobcat or bear.

Kibler is a farmer, and any visitor arriving at Ballylee in the early morning or late afternoon, from early spring until late autumn, is likely to find him at work in his vegetable garden or out in the cultivated fields that stretch far from his door. Just a few hundred feet from the main house a kitchen garden is grown annually to provide the okra, string beans, butterbeans, cowpeas, heirloom tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and a wide assortment of other vegetables that Kibler gathers fresh for his table and to preserve for the coming fall and winter months. An arbor yields the scuppernong wine that rivals his favorite old Malmsey Madeira.

When the sun is at its highest point in the sky each day Kibler retires inside to write in the cooler, high-ceilinged rooms of his plantation house. Most any spot with a breeze and a comfortable chair will do. When it comes to crafting his sentences and paragraphs he uses only a pen and paper. A true believer in thrift, Kibler has also been known to write portions of his manuscripts, poems, and letters on old envelopes and scrap paper, and he frequently uses both sides of any available sheet. Piles of handwritten pages often accumulate at the foot of his favorite chair, or end up in stacks on tables throughout his home.

“I often write through the heat of the day,” Kibler told his readers in the essay “The Writer as Farmer” published in the book Chronicles of the South: Garden of the Beaux Arts in 2011. “Earlier, while doing the duties of farming, I had been thinking things through. Some ideas, some words, some phrases – I had been moving them around, adjusting, rehearsing, forming, reforming, organizing in my mind. The rhythm of my work is accompanied in harmony by the rhythm of words.” (21)

On my first trip to Ballylee, and then on each of my return visits, I arrived in the morning and Kibler first strolled me through his boxwood garden and down along a forest trail before turning our path toward the main house and its inviting back porch, a shady space usually occupied by two or three cats who instinctively know to keep their tails away from rocking chairs. An old farm table anchors the center of the porch, and it often holds one or two split oak baskets filled with sun-ripened vegetables and fruit, or bundles of aromatic herbs to be used for medicinal or culinary purposes.

Stepping from that porch into the rear hall of the plantation house requires a moment for one’s eyes to adjust to the darkness. From that space a wide double door opens into the home’s great center hall anchored by an impressive walnut staircase and lit by the multi-paned transom and sidelights that surround the mansion’s paneled front door. Flanking that space are a bedchamber (formerly the dining room) and the home’s well-proportioned drawing room, both ornamented with paneled wainscotting, fluted window and door trim with rondels, and tall mantels over deep fireplaces.

The drawing room, with its collection of early 19th century furniture (some of it original to the house), paintings, gilt-framed mirrors, girandoles, and pair of large Persian rugs, is the one space that most clearly speaks of an earlier age. It was in that room that generations of Hardys gathered around a fire each evening, where visitors were greeted, and entertainments held.

History records that the marriage of Elmira Frances Hardy to John Davis Frost III was held in that room on February 26, 1861, at 7:30 p.m. Printed invitations announcing the wedding and reception were carried by servants to neighboring plantations or mailed to those living much further away. The guests and family members assembled on the plantation that late winter evening enjoyed one of the last bright moments of the South’s halcyon years even while the drums of war could be heard in the distance. (22)

It is not difficult to imagine the lilt of sweet music, the swirl of gowns, and the raising of glasses at that wedding long ago as candlelight threw shadows on the drawing room’s walls.  Kibler enjoys spending time in that same space seated in his favorite wing chair while sharing stories with his guests. Those tales often include accounts of ghostly apparitions that drift throughout the mansion’s rooms deep in the night, strange sounds that imminate from within its walls, and the story of how a violent afternoon thunderstorm inspired him to write the plantation’s history. On Ballylee conversation and recitation are an art.

On one particular fall afternoon as sunlight gave a blazing hue to the crepe myrtles just outside the drawing room windows, Kibler and I sat discussing his role in locating and securing the 19th century photograph album once belonging to Civil War diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, and how it was returned to her descendants so that its astounding contents could be preserved and shared with scholars and historians for all time.

The amazing portfolio is filled with original carte de vistas and ambrotypes of such important historical figures as Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Varina Howell Davis, General Robert E. Lee, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee (Mrs. Robert E. Lee), General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, General Wade Hampton III, General Pierre Gustave T. Beauregard, Judah P. Benjamin, General John Bell Hood, William Gilmore Simms, U.S. President James Buchanan, U.S. Senator Henry Clay, and many others. Thought to have been lost or stolen since the 1930s, the album was rediscovered and acquired by Chesnut’s family in 2007 and returned to their ancestral Mulberry Plantation near Camden, South Carolina. Kibler’s connection to the album’s recovery is well documented in the boxed, 2-volume edition of Chesnut’s diary published by Pelican Publishers, of Louisiana, in 2011. Kibler wrote the foreword for that heirloom edition of Chesnut’s Civil War epic. (23)

No visit to Ballylee is complete without a walk through the plantation house. Each room holds a trove of stories, and Kibler is a master at recounting the past while pointing out some of the most interesting details of the architecture and design features of the home including the original wine closet under the great staircase, the bud-and-scroll brackets that ornament the ends of the stair treads, and the original cinnamon-colored stain used to accent the wooden panels beneath the windows in the drawing room.

“In this house itself, the past is most literally close at hand,” Kibler wrote in Our Fathers’ Fields. “I am keenly aware when I find support from the stair rail, that my hand and body repeat a motion performed now for almost two centuries by all the people in that story. The hand rail’s polish, glass-slick from wear, is tactile evidence of them. Rhythm, pattern, continuity. These are no small things, I learn, as my hand uses this rail, to climb toward a sleep in which those participants in this drama sometimes become palpable. It is as though, in the words of the Greek poet, ‘From deep in their graves in the soil of the land, the dead have embraced us.’ It is then we realize that though the particulars of this place remind us of the procession of time, they speak even more strongly of cycles and timelessness.” (24)

Ascending Ballylee’s wide walnut staircase, which rises to a landing before making its way to the second floor and then to the attic above, is a treat in itself. But that experience is eclipsed when stepping across the hall and through the double doors that open onto the mansion’s upper gallery. Those few steps take you through the portal of time into the realm of yesterday.

“From the second story balcony you can get lost in the clouds or your imagination. It’s a place to soak in the wonder of the reality before you – fragments of history unearthed and united. You can almost see the past walk before you, full of expressive faces and childhood hopes, and rest assured that past triumphs and troubles on the Hardy Plantation are indeed part of that history,” wrote Theresa Halfacre in the December 2010 issue of Newberry magazine. (25)

On that veranda Dr. Kibler and I once discussed the antebellum plantation architecture of South Carolina’s Upcountry and contemplated the role that each of those dwellings plays in preserving and promoting the heritage of the region today. Our discussions extended beyond the houses themselves to the treasures they hold and the families they have sheltered for generations. We talked about faded wallpaper and “haint blue” paint, hunt boards and cellarettes, and how the planter families managed to hold onto their properties during the dark days of Reconstruction when drunken scalawags and illiterates took over the statehouse in Columbia, and roaming bands of federal troops moved through the area encouraging former slaves to move off the land breaking the often mutually beneficial ties they once held to ancestral agrarian estates.

On another occasion I sat in front of a roaring fire in a cabin on the plantation enjoying the view of a 10-foot cedar Christmas tree, hung with heirloom ornaments and festooned with silver icicles, while listening to Kibler regale his small circle of guests, including Mr. Lesley Bush and Dr. Tim Drake, with stories of how Southerners celebrated the yuletide season during the harsh years of the Civil War when there was little to fill their plates and cups and few presents to share.

Returning the conversation to a more festive tone, Kibler quoted a passage from William Gilmore Simms’s 1852 classic volume The Golden Christmas: A Tale of Lowcountry Life that recorded the events of a holiday season in South Carolina before the war. “Old Father Christmas, in the South, does not confine his favours to the palace. The wigwam and the cabin get a fair portion of his smiles,” Kibler said while recalling that Simms was one of the first American authors to document the use of Christmas trees here in America to celebrate the holiday season. (26)

Hailed today as the father of Southern literature, Simms wrote more than 2,000 poems, a series of commercially-successful novels, numerous short stories, and many hundred essays and reviews. Throughout his own career, Kibler has published or edited eight books on Simms. He is the founding editor of The Simms Review, and has long been considered one of the nation’s leading authorities on the 19th century writer’s life and works. (27)

When gathered around Kibler’s kitchen table for dinner, or perusing the shelves of his voluminous upstairs library, the conversation might drift from discussions of Simms to the works of other antebellum and postbellum writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Timrod, William Elliot, Louisa McCord, Grace King, Joel Chandler Harris, and Elizabeth Allston Pringle, to late 20th century authors such as Larry Brown, Cormac McCarthy, and Harry Crews. Kibler is particularly fond of non-fiction Southern writers Archibald Rutledge, Richard Weaver, Ben Robertson, James Agee, Andrew Lytle, and Robert Penn Warren, and he greatly admires the short stories and novels of Flannery O’Connor, Caroline Gordon, Julia Peterkin, Josephine Pinckney, Walker Percy, and William Faulkner, and poets Wendell Berry and Donald Davidson. Of the current crop of Southern poets, he enjoys Jim Clark, Ron Rash, and Ryan Wilson, the last of whom he taught and who considers Kibler a chief influence.

Kibler wrote his doctoral dissertation on Faulkner and made several important pilgrimages to the author’s home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi. On one of those heady trips as a young scholar in May 1970, Kibler was able to wander unattended through the antebellum residence, to sit in the chair at Faulkner’s desk, and to gaze out at the landscape that had inspired so much of the author’s prose. It was in the drawer directly beneath Faulkner’s typewriter that Kibler saw a personalized copy of the New Testament, a volume that did not appear in the catalog of the author’s library shortly after his death in 1962. That discovery was profound for Kibler. Throughout his teaching and writing career he has long noted that the most important works of the South’s literary heritage rest on a firm Judeo-Christian foundation, and that they often mirror elements of abiding faith in the quest for eternal salvation. His essay on Faulkner, “As the Twig is Bent,” published in 2004, sheds light on this topic. (28)

The depth of Kibler’s knowledge of 19th and 20th century Southern literature is immense. His collection of books contains hundreds of titles inscribed to him by the authors, and his correspondence files contain scores of letters, cards, and notes penned by some of the South’s most respected literary figures and historians. One might see a Christmas card from Kentucky author and conservationist Wendell Berry displayed on Kibler’s mantelpiece, or a letter from the late Civil War historian Shelby Foote peeking out from a pigeonhole of his writing desk. On Ballylee the words and voices of the past mingle freely with those of today.

During each season of the year daylight spills into the plantation house through large windows that look out onto a verdant landscape. After touring the home’s gracious interiors guests often find themselves drawn back out into the surrounding gardens, lawns, and woods to explore other areas. To the north of the main house they can follow the path of an old wagon road that once ran in front of a row of log and frame cabins with brick chimneys that housed the plantation slaves. A neat cluster of fieldstones, marking the burial sites of former slaves and their descendants, can be found nearby. Those simple monuments are a very powerful reminder of the men, women, and children whose labor gave rise to the plantation and helped sustain it across generations. Kibler keeps that area clear of vines and underbrush and often walks to that spot when taking a break from his daily chores to commune with the souls of those long dead.

As he leads visitors on a garden walk with the mansion house in the background, Kibler often recounts the story of André Michaux’s visit to South Carolina in the late 18th century and explains how the French botanist’s presence can still be felt in gardens across the region today. Michaux probably never stepped foot on Ballylee, but he would certainly recognize many of the plantings used there today. A dense allee of ancient boxwoods lines the brick path leading to the front door, and scattered throughout the ornamental grounds surrounding the house are crepe myrtles, camellias, gardenias, tea olives, anise, nandinas, cryptomerias, banana shrubs, spirea, and dozens of varieties of heirloom roses. Old magnolias, walnuts, live oaks, maples, gingkos, yellow woods, hemlocks, and cedars provide a canopy of dense shade to cool long summer days.

A garden walk at Ballylee also gives Kibler the chance to share with his guests the story of Pomaria Nursery, a remarkable enterprise which thrived in central South Carolina from the 1840s to the 1870s. The company, owned by William Summer, grew into one of the most important American nurseries of the antebellum period, offering a wide variety of fruit trees and ornamentals to gardeners throughout the South. Kibler has spent decades researching and documenting the history of the nursery and studying the nature writings of William and Adam Summer. A number of the plantings on Ballylee and in the plantation community throughout Newberry, Fairfield, Lexington, and Abbeville counties have a connection to Pomaria. Some of the plants in the garden at Ballylee are cuttings from the original Pomaria plants Kibler has located throughout the state. (29)

One of Kibler’s favorite gestures of hospitality is to send departing guests from Ballylee with cuttings, rooted plants, or seedlings from some of the plantation’s most important heirloom shrubs, trees, and flowers. He takes great pride in knowing that these small gifts may help promote and preserve the natural heritage of the South.

Taking leave from Ballylee is always a little sad for me. Because Dr. Kibler and I live more than 80 miles apart, and because I maintain a full time teaching position, my visits on the Tyger River are infrequent and often separated by months. What takes the place of more frequent visits are the penned letters that we have regularly exchanged since our first meeting. While our letters give us the opportunity to carry on a conversation about topics of Southern history, plantation culture, and some of the region’s most important literary figures, increasingly they often mention the seismic changes that are occurring across the South today, and the forces that seek to destroy the heritage that we strive to preserve. On Ballylee, both the pen and the sword stand ready to defend the past.

Since Kibler’s book Our Fathers’ Fields was published in 1998 the world has changed almost to the point of being unrecognizable to many Southerners. “The planet changed underneath my feet as I was teaching Southern literature,” Kibler told an audience at the 2015 Abbeville Institute Summer School while acknowledging that most colleges and universities have grown increasingly hostile to any effort to promote or preserve the cultural heritage of the region or to celebrate or commemorate the icons and symbols of the past. “I despair at how difficult it must be today for a young teacher who loves the South to face such obstacles.” (30)

Increasingly, those who desire to study and write about the South’s storied past find it easier to do that important work privately in connection with other scholars, and in locations and sites shielded from the onslaught of heated rhetoric and shrill protests. Kibler’s beloved plantation serves as one of those cherished places of intellectual solitude and stimulation. More importantly, for me, it serves as a place where the traditions of the past are honored, and the people of long ago are remembered and revered. How marvelous it is to gather my thoughts while strolling unattended through the gardens, and to have written a portion of this essay seated in the mansion’s drawing room. It is even more special to have sat metaphorically at Kibler’s feet and to have grown more confident and accomplished in my own writing under his mentorship.

In evaluating the importance of Kibler’s restoration and preservation work on the old Hardy plantation, and in his own career as a historian and author, I am reminded of the oft-quoted words from Agrarian poet, Allen Tate, who wrote in an essay on Ezra Pound, “the task of the civilized intelligence is one of perpetual salvage.” (31) That single sentence could be applied directly to Kibler’s life and work. For more than 50 years he has endeavored to preserve as much of the past as possible for the benefit of future generations. And we are all the beneficiaries of that Herculean task.

The enduring legacy of Our Fathers’ Fields: A Southern Story is rooted not only in the scholarship and storytelling skills that Kibler brought to the book, but more importantly in how the entire project has served to inspire other people to resurrect, restore, and preserve elements of Southern history from colonial and antebellum architecture and antique furniture, to family stories, old recipes, and heirloom plants. In my own work I looked to Kibler’s example when researching and writing my books Across Two Centuries: The Lost World of Green River Plantation (2003), Rural Splendor: Plantation Houses of the Carolinas (2010), and Southern Splendor: Saving Architectural Treasures of the Old South (2018).  A host of other authors and scholars have also acknowledged Kibler’s influence in the writing of their books, including landmark titles such as James P. Cantrell’s How Celtic Culture Invented Southern Literature, published by Pelican Publishing Company in 2006, to the more recent book A South Carolina Upcountry Saga: The Civil War Letters of Barham Bobo Foster and His Family 1860-1862, edited by A. Gilbert Kennedy and published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2019.

I still have the newspaper clipping from 1998 that introduced me to Dr. Kibler’s amazing work. Now, after more than two decades, it has yellowed with age and its folded creases have grown quite worn. From time-to-time I take it out from its honored place in a drawer inside my writing desk and read the words that first introduced me to the fine Southern gentleman who has since become both a mentor and a cherished friend, and to his plot of earth that now holds a special place in my heart.

The article concludes with a quote from Our Fathers’ Fields. “As Carolinians of the last century knew so much better than those of our own day, to live a life of completeness, a mortal must fully concentrate his being upon one finite place on earth and know it both tactilely and spiritually in all the fullness of the seasons, know all of the creatures of that place who move there in the night world as well as the day. He must know its story and the interwoven chronicles of the human heart and hands that have touched that land and made impress on the place. He must hear the truths of the past. Only then will he approach true understanding.” (32)

Scholars like Dr. James Everett Kibler, Jr. understand the importance of place in achieving a full appreciation and knowledge of the past, and how crucial plantations like Ballylee are to preserving the stories of yesterday. On Ballylee the past is always present. On Ballylee time stands still.

 

Notes

  1. Starr, William W. “Family Ties: Author Looks at Hardy Family History.” Columbia, South Carolina. The State, June 7, 1998. Print.
  1. Kibler, James Everett, Jr. Our Fathers’ Fields: A Southern Story. Columbia, South Carolina: The University of South Carolina Press, 1998. Pgs. 25-26.
  1. Ibid, Pgs. 83-84.
  2. Ibid, Pgs. 78-79.
  3. Ibid, Pg. 75.
  4. Ibid, Chapters 3-8, 12-15.
  5. Ballylee Archives – previously unpublished citation. Quoted with permission from James Everett Kibler, Jr.
  1. Our Fathers’ Fields – book jacket
  2. Our Fathers’ Fields – book jacket
  3. Southern Heritage Conference, Monroe, Louisiana, 1999. Recording provided by: Apologia Book Shoppe, P.O. Box 1031, Wiggins, Mississippi, 39577.
  1. Ibid.
  2. Chappell, Fred. “Paradise Lost: Has the Antebellum South Gotten a Bum Rap?” Raleigh, North Carolina: The News & Observer. June 21, 1998.
  1. Wheelan, Joe. “Poet Pens History of Grand Old Home.” Charleston, South Carolina: The Post & Courier. The Associated Press. August 23, 1998.
  1. Edelson, S. Max. The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 100, No. 3, July 1999. Review, pgs. 274-276.
  1. Baker, Bruce E. “The Stink of Magnolia.” The South Carolina Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, 1999, pgs. 241-246.
  1. Halfacre, Theresa. “A Writer in Residence: Local Author and Preservationist, James Everett Kibler, Jr.” Newberry, South Carolina: Newberry Magazine, November/December 2010, pgs. 20-26.
  1. Kibler, Our Fathers’ Fields, pg. 348.
  2. Ibid, pgs. 71-72.
  3. Goodreads.com. February, 22, 1999. Copy of anonymous review in author’s possession.
  4. Letter from Kathryn Coombs to James Everett Kibler, 21 February 1999. Ballylee Archives. Used with permission from James Everett Kibler, Jr.
  1. Kibler, James Everett. “The Writer as Farmer.” Chronicles of the South: Garden of the Beaux Arts, Vol I. Clyde Wilson, ed. Rockford, Illinois: Chronicle Press, 2011, pgs. 231-236. The essay was first published in Chronicles, November 2005, pgs. 23-25.
  1. Kibler, James Everett, Jr. Our Fathers’ Fields, Pg. 263.
  2. Daniels, Martha M. and Barbara E. McCarthy. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Photograph Album. James Everett Kibler, Jr., ed. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, September 28, 2011.
  1. Kibler, James E., Jr. Our Fathers’ Fields, Pg. 390.
  2. Halfacre, Theresa. “A Writer in Residence: Local Author and Preservationist, James Everett Kibler, Jr.” Newberry, South Carolina. Newberry Magazine, November/December 2010, Pgs. 20-26.
  1. Simms, William Gilmore. The Golden Christmas: A Tale of Lowcountry Life. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, pg. 114.
  1. Kibler, James Everett, Jr., et. al., eds. William Gilmore Simms’s Selected Reviews on Literature and Civilization. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014.
  1. Kibler, James Everett. “As the Twig is Bent.” Southern Partisan, Vol. 24, July/August 2004, 24-27.
  1. Kibler, James Everett, Jr., ed. Taking Root: The Nature Writing of William and Adam Summer of Pomaria. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2017.
  1. Kibler, James Everett, Jr. “The Greatness of Southern Literature.” Abbeville Institute Summer School, 2015. Lecture.
  1. Squires, Radcliffe, ed. Allen Tate and His Work: Critical Evaluations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.
  1. Starr, William W. “Family Ties: Author Looks at Hardy Family History.” Columbia, South Carolina. The State, June 7, 1998. Print.

About Robin Spencer Lattimore

Robin Spencer Lattimore, of Rutherfordton, North Carolina, is an award-winning historian and author of more than 30 books and scholarly monographs that celebrate the history, traditions, and people of the American South. He is the co-author of Southern Splendor: Saving Architectural Treasures of the Old South, published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2018, and author of Southern Plantations: The South’s Grandest Homes, published by Shire Books (now a part of Bloomsbury Publishing) of Oxford, England, in 2012. In addition to his printed works, Lattimore served as the chief historian and commentator for the Emmy-nominated, PBS documentary “Gold Fever and the Bechtler Mint,” produced by UNC-TV and released nationally in 2013. Lattimore was named the North Carolina Historian of the Year in 2009, by the North Carolina Society of Historians. He was bestowed with the legendary Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest civilian honor, in 2013. He is a high school teacher at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, in Rutherford County, NC. More from Robin Spencer Lattimore

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