Godfrey Barnsley came from Savannah to Bartow County (Cass County in his day) shortly after the Cherokee Indians were removed from northwest Georgia in 1838. He came on an expedition with three friends, all of whom would have a lasting impact on the county: William Henry Stiles, Reverend Charles Wallace Howard and Francis Bartow. He returned to build a mansion that was to become a legend and a showplace.
Howard came to northwest Georgia on a geological survey. Stiles was interested in acquiring land for future development. Barnsley, whose wife and five children sweltered under the heat and threat of yellow fever and malaria of the Georgia coast, sought the haven and comfort of the higher elevation.
The road to the newly opened Cherokee lands in Cass County had been a long, but fortuitous one for Godfrey Barnsley. He had come to America from Liverpool, England in 1823 at the age of eighteen without pedigree or distinguished education. In Savannah he was employed as a brokerage clerk to a prominent cotton shipper and rose swiftly in both business and social worlds. By the age of twenty-five Barnsley was a successful cotton factor and married Savannah socialite Julia Scarborough, the second daughter of William Scarbrough. A merchant and financier, Scarborough built the Savannah, the first ship partially powered by steam to cross the Atlantic. This endeavor, however, cost Scarborough his fortune.
In 1841, Barnsley moved Julia and their family to his northwest Georgia refuge and work on the estate was begun. Eventually, approximately 10,000 acres would be in his domain. Barnsley planned the mansion with the same bold imagination that had made him a wealthy man. He described the house in a letter to a friend as having ‘six or seven different styles of widows, giving variety, yet harmonizing…. All the walls are of brick. The campanile is three stories high…. On the first floor is the drawing room, library, vestibule, hall, dining room, breakfast room, pantry, bathrooms, etc., with cistern above a large closet and safe.’
Barnsley called his dream manor Woodlands. He designed his gardens in the style of Andrew Jackson Downing, considered America’s first great landscape architect. He brought in every known variety of roses and numerous exotic plant specimens for the gardens. The splendid twenty-four room home was designed in the style of an Italian villa and featured such unheard of conveniences as hot and cold running water. The family kitchen featured an innovative spring-wound cooking spit that automatically turned cuts of meat over roasting coals. A copper tank to the right of the chimney furnished hot water to bathrooms, and a similar tank in the bell tower supplied cold water to house and gardens. The wine cellar held plentiful imported wines. Tiles for the verandah were imported. Doors and paneling were fashioned by London cabinetmakers, and mantels of black-and-white marble were brought from Italy.
The house was built on an acorn-shaped hill reputedly cursed, and Indian legend warned it should be avoided as an unlucky site. But, having enjoyed a Midas Touch, perhaps Barnsley was unconcerned with local legend.
The later life of Godfrey Barnsley was in tragic contrast to the early years that had made him one of South’s wealthiest men. Fortune changed for Barnsley shortly after moving his family to Woodlands. Soon an infant son died and Julia succumbed to tuberculosis in the summer of 1845. In 1850, the oldest Barnsley daughter, Anna, married and moved to England. Their second daughter, Adelaide, died in the house in 1858. His oldest son Howard was killed in 1862 by Chinese pirates while he searched the Orient for exotic shrubbery to complete his father’s garden.
But through it all, completing the mansion was an obsession with Barnsley. He toured Europe to furnish the home with the elegance he had planned for his wife and family. His travels netted an impressive stock of furnishings and art treasures. When the Civil War found its way to Woodlands, Union troops found Godfrey Barnsley alone with his treasures and his palatial manor still incomplete.
Barnsley’s two remaining sons, George and Lucian, had left Woodlands to fight for the Confederacy. His daughter Julia married Confederate Army Captain James Peter Baltzelle in February 1864, and Baltzelle insisted Julia refugee to Savannah. The following spring, Sherman’s forces were on the grounds. On May 18, 1864 a cavalry skirmish occurred at Woodlands that was depicted in the pages of Harper’s Weekly. Colonel Richard G. Earle of the Second Alabama Light Cavalry rode to Woodlands to warn Barnsley of the Union approach and was shot down within a stone’s throw of the house.
Charles Wright Willis, 103rd Illinois infantry, wrote this account of the event in his book Army Life of an Illinois Soldier:
May 18, 1864. Our cavalry had a sharp fight here this p.m. and on one of the gravel walks in the beautiful garden lies a Rebel colonel, shot in five places. He must have been a noble-looking man; looks 50 years old, and has fine form and features. Think his name is Irwin, there must be a hundred varieties of the rose in bloom here and the most splendid specimens of cactus.
Colonel Earle’s grave is within a stone’s throw of the manor house and enjoys a prominent place in a perennial garden today.
It is said that Federal Gen. McPherson forbade any looting of the unfinished mansion, but his orders had little apparent effect. Barnsley’s Irish maid Mary Quinn is recorded as having called McPherson ‘a gentleman surrounded by rouges and thieves.’
Carefully chosen furnishings were destroyed; an Italian statuary was smashed to see if it might contain hidden gold; windows and china settings were broken, and wine and stored foods were consumed or stolen.
The war’s end brought little relief. George and Lucian Barnsley returned home, but refused to sign the oath of allegiance to the Union and emigrated to South American instead. Barnsley moved to New Orleans in an effort to recoup lost fortunes, leaving his son-in-law Captain Baltzelle and daughter Julia to manage Woodlands.
Baltzelle supported the family by shipping timber from the estate, but was killed in 1868 by a falling tree. Julia took her daughter Adelaide, born in 1864, to her father at New Orleans. Here Julia met and married a German ship captain named Charles Henry Von Schwartz
Godfrey Barnsley died in New Orleans in 1873 and Julia returned his body to Woodlands. Von Schwartz died in 1885. Julia’s daughter Adelaide grew up and married a chemist named A. A. Saylor. Bearing out the prophecy of ill luck that lingered over the estate, Saylor died while their two sons, Harry and Preston, were quite young. A tornado in 1906 tore away the roof of the main house and forced the Saylors to move into the intact kitchen wing. In 1935 Preston Saylor a nationally recognized heavyweight boxer under the name of K.O. Dugan killed his brother and was sent to prison. When Mrs. Saylor died in 1942 the estate and its remaining furnishings were sold at auction. The property was bought by W. Earl McClesky and used for farming. Barnsley’s grand dream was engulfed with kudzu.
In 1988, Prince Hubertus Fugger and his wife Princess Alexandra, Bavaria, purchased Barnsley Gardens. The remains of the old estate and gardens were rescued from 40 years of neglect. Today, Barnsley Gardens is a northwest Georgia historic showplace and home to a luxurious golf resort.
Tales of supernatural manifestations are plentiful in the long and tragic history of Barnsley Gardens. Barnsley wrote more than once that he could feel the presence of his dead wife everywhere. Mrs. Julia Barnsley Saylor, reported having seen Julia Barnsley, her grandmother Julia, in apparition form in the gardens so often that it became an accustomed sight. Mrs. Saylor also told friends that her Uncle George, one of Barnsley’s sons who had settled in Brazil, appeared at the estate on the night of his death in South America.
With or without supernatural trappings, the Barnsley Gardens story is as compelling as it is tragic. One must wonder what life might have been like for the family if Barnsley had heeded the wisdom of the Indian curse and built his home on some other spot on the huge Woodlands estate instead of on that unlucky, acorn-shaped hill.
Plan your visit to this compelling estate, see Barnsley Resort