The Verdura Plantation ruins are probably one of the most stunning finds I have come across in the Southeast. This massive structure was home to one of Florida's most ambitious, romantic, scandalous, and now-forgotten families. I'm not going to explain how I managed to get to this spot, but if you're truly interested, I'll give you the hint to Google it and follow the maps.
Verdura was once one of the largest examples of early antebellum plantation style. Situated on 9,000 acres of land, the house was a three-story, 13-room, 10-columned mansion. These columns were on the left and right sides of the house, rather than the front porch. The house is perched on a large hill, overlooking acres and acres of cleared land that has now grown over with weeds and brush. The house itself is surrounded by massive oaks, magnolias, and other garden-variety plants, like crepe myrtles that have now gone-to-seed.
Benjamin Chaires, who built Verdura, was the first millionaire in the state of Florida. He designed the layout of Jacksonville, then brought the railroad to and established the first bank in Tallahassee, Florida.
Historian Dr. William Warren Rogers describes him, “Ben Chaires absolutely epitomizes that class of young, go-getting, get-rich quick planters who migrated to Florida in the 1820s and made it part of The Cotton Kingdom." Here, men found land (plus wetlands) and a climate that was extremely conducive to the plantation business. “You never saw people get so rich so fast in this country until the advent of Silicon Valley."
Born in North Carolina in 1786, Benjamin Chaires grew up in middle Georgia, where he married and became a plantation owner, surveyor, and minor political figure before he was 30. He served in the War of 1812 and received the title of “Major.”
In 1818, Chaires bought his first Florida property: a one-third share in a plantation on Amelia Island, completely furnished with slaves, tools, canoes, and other necessities. Eventually he bought as many as 30,000 acres in the Jacksonville / St. Johns area.
Continuing to keep a hand in politics, he served as alderman and judge in St. Augustine and Jacksonville. Through this he helped in the original survey of Jacksonville, as control of Florida shifted from Spain to the United States. He also assisted in the treaties with the local Indian population and settlement of the rest of Florida. During this time he made several trips to Tallahassee on business. Evidently he liked what he saw of the area, and eventually his whole family moved there permanently.
When Benjamin Chaires moved to new, territorial Florida, if you wanted something done, you had to do it yourself. And he didn't do anything half-way. He didn't just have a couple of kids -- he had eleven. He didn't just become successful -- he became Florida's first millionaire. He didn't just farm -- he built the entire industry surrounding it. He created his own masonry for brick making. He financed the first merchant ship to export cotton directly from Florida to England. Similarly, he helped to create the first railroad to Tallahassee and St. Joseph. He even helped to establish the area's first and second banks (in which to store his resulting wealth).
Though he never ran for public office, by 1832 he was appointed a commissioner of Tallahassee, then served as presiding judge in Leon County court, and ultimately became justice of the peace.
He did all this before the age of 50. And, in 1838, Benjamin died of yellow fever at only 52. His wife, Sarah Jane Powell, died eight years later. Very little is known about him on a personal level, but his eulogy in the St. Augustine, Apalachicola, and Tallahassee newspapers described him as a “useful citizen and a good man,” and that “Florida sustained a loss by his death which cannot soon be supplied.”
As much as Benjamin was a high-achiever, his son Charles was extremely unlucky.
Charles was the youngest son of Benjamin and Sarah and became the owner of Verdura after his siblings had moved and started their own families. After Charles' first wife died he married Martha Mash. Thus began the chain of scandalous circumstances that eventually led to the Chaires family no longer being owners of Verdura.
Martha was very wealthy and sort a society girl. However, upon moving to territorial Tallahassee her letters indicate that she felt very alone and was suffering from depression.
In 1878, Charles (age 48) returned home from a long trip away and discovered that Martha (36) was pregnant. Slight problem -- it couldn't have been his baby. Whose baby was it? Ironically, it was his 31 year-old nephew's -- who was named Benjamin Chaires after Charles' own father. Talk about a slap in the face!
Charles sent Martha away to have the baby and then insisted that she give the baby to an asylum. Martha would later claim in court that he misled her into believing they would continue the marriage -- only if she gave the baby away. However, once she gave the baby up, he immediately filed for dissolution of the marriage and charged her with adultery. During this time, newspapers document that Charles and Ben engaged in a “shooting affray” on a downtown Tallahassee street in 1879. Both men were arrested, though all charges were eventually dropped.
The divorce lagged on for several years while the judge came to a decision about the charges of adultery against Martha and the dissolution of their marriage. Then, in 1881, Charles died of mysterious circumstances at the St. Marks Lighthouse. The lighthouse keepers were then paid for "tending" to him upon his sudden death.
Verdura was eventually given over to creditors and then destroyed by a fire sometime in the late 1880s.
The plantation land has never been protected or fully studied. It is believed to have always been a highly used area, as the site of a Seminole Indian encampment, then a Spanish colonial-era mission, then also Verdura plantation, which contained slave quarters, a slave cemetery, a cotton gin -- in addition to the Chaires home and family cemetery. The land is currently privately owned by the St. Joe Company and is mostly used as hunting tracts. The ruins of the mansion are still visible, though little remains beyond some columns and a pile of crumbling bricks (bricks that were said to have been made on-site by plantation slaves).
Though the Chaires family cemetery is now in ruins, you can tell that it was once as impressive as the plantation house. It has since been visited by vandals who toppled headstones and completely desecrated one of the above ground graves (exhuming the contents). The surviving graves are largely overgrown.
The above pictured grave belongs to the original, high-achieving Benjamin Chaires, who we've posted about previously. His grave stood out the most, and a brief account of his life was inscribed and wrapped around all four sides of the piece.
One side of his tombstone reads, "His many virtues are deeply engraved on the hearts of those friends from whom death has prematurely torn him, and by whom he can never be forgotten. His purest epitaph their tears. Blessed be his spirit."
Sarah's grave is beside his and was difficult to read, but mentions that she did "the work of God," and referring to her children, that "she would never be forgotten by them."
While I always have mixed feeling regarding the legacy of slave plantations and their owners, I was very sad to see the state of the cemetery -- which is a great record and evidence of the beginning of territorial Florida and the people who molded it into a state. And, on a more basic level, I could tell that the site had once been very beautiful, with careful consideration being given to the inscriptions.
Trail entrance. GPS 30.379377, -84.154196
Posts are a combination of my own research, visits, and conversations, plus various information found around the web. I try to provide sources, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!