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The Sudy Leavy Interview: Timeless Stories And Relics from the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation

Sudy Leavy Interview
Timeless Stories And Relics from the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation

By James Calemine

Sudy Vance Leavy’s book Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation presents a timeless historical glimpse into life on a coastal Georgia plantation for the Dent family that lasted for five generations. The plantation is located on the Altamaha River near Brunswick, Georgia. It served as one of the last coastal plantations to grow rice. Ophelia Dent bequeathed Hofwyl to the State of Georgia after her death in 1973. 

The book was published on Arcadia Press. The images of this American series remain best described in Arcadia’s mission statement, which “celebrates the history of neighborhoods, towns and cities across the country. Using archival photographs, each title presents the distinctive stories from the past that shape the character of the community today.”

Her book captures the spirit of a bygone era of an old southern plantation. The book contains photographs, ancestry, rare & original family documents, paintings and historic descriptions that prove inimitable. Leavy wrote this about Ophelia Troup Dent regarding the her determination on the Hofwyl plantation: "To look across the marsh, to walk the fields, or to drive through the gates of Hofwyl had to be some of the myriad images that sustained Ophelia Troup Dent and her love of the land. Her life centered on protecting the 1,268 acres she had inherited, keeping the rambling 1851 plantation-style house maintained, and deciding what would be Hofwyl's fate. For a person who had been a crack shot all of her life, she did not flinch from the responsibility of how to perpetuate what Hofwyl had meant to her and to her family..."

I’ve known Sudy Leavy since I was 7 years old. My parents were friends with the Leavy’s and I often kept time with her three children. They are an exceptional family. She possesses a sharp insight of local history and truly stands as a formidable source. She’s hard at work on her next book. Look for more contributions from her soon. In this Swampland interview, she describes the fascinating aspects of this rustic plantation on the Georgia coast.

Sudy Leavy: Hofwyl is not your typical Gone With the Wind plantation. It was really a working plantation. It’s a low-country house—no big columns or anything like that. You could almost feel within the house the blending of the generations that made it their home. The grounds are absolutely beautiful. They have the prettiest stand of live oaks anywhere on the coast. That’s what really got me thinking about it. It’s funny, I was out in New Mexico for a writing class and I looked at what I’d written and I was writing about the Georgia delta and I thought I needed to go home and write about Hofwyl.

James Calemine: How did you go about gathering the photographs for the book? Some were from families and others you researched, I’m sure. There are some interesting relics in the book…

SL: It’s very interesting since Arcadia has been doing this all over the country—they have a very specific layout—exactly how many pages—how many words and how many pictures they want. You’ve got you requirements right there. I was very fortunate in that in the early 80s I believe, the Department of Archives in Atlanta sent around photographers and there is a section you can access called Vanishing Georgia, and there are pictures that were taken during that time in Georgia. Fortunately, there were a good section of Hofwyl photographs there. Then I was able to research through the Margaret Davis Cate collection. She was the famous historian of Glynn Country Georgia. Her collection is now in Savannah at The Georgia Archives, and so I was able to get images from there. Some were from England. I got photos of Fanny Kemble from there. That particular image ended up at Oxford. So, you just start looking—or I found family members who were kind enough to share their family pictures. I also obtained pictures from the Archives of Hofwyl and then a very special friend of Opehia Dent Arabella Cleveland I was lucky enough to meet her daughter. Also, Albert Fendig whose father had set up the original trust. Albert had photos. You really figure how many images you need and develop your story around that. It’s pretty much a lay out for an annual. It’s very much the same thing.

JC: Let’s go back…where were you born?

SL: I was born in Griffin, Georgia. When I got out of college for some reason I didn’t care about going to Atlanta where a lot of my friends were going. I went to school in Middle Georgia—at Georgia College—so I decided I wanted to go to the coast. I was lucky enough to get a job teaching senior English in high school at your alma mater Glynn Academy. That was in 1964. I got there just in time to see them win the state championship in football that year. It was an exciting year. There were some incredible students in the three years I taught there. I went to college at Georgia College, which the famous alum from there is Flannery O’Connor. I started out chemistry major and English major, and should have obtained a minor in history, but instead I took chemistry and Spanish. I was always very interested in history. In fact, Georgia history always interested me. I liked the book White Columns of Georgia, so it was kind of natural that as I matured and began to develop interests history was always one of them.

JC: When I saw you in October, we talked about it a little bit, and since I’ve written about the Georgia Island Singers, talk about how slave songs played a role in the culture around Hofwyl at that time.

SL: I became interested when I was doing historical profiles of women. One of the first I did was on Lydia Parrish. So many people did not realize she lived on St. Simons Island from about 1914 until her death in 1953 for at least six months out of the year. It was she who got out and began to try and record the slave songs. She credits the Dents for being so willing for her to come out to Hofwyl and hear the people who worked there sing. One of the things I have is a recipe for a rice cake and that came straight from Hofwyl and Lydia Parrish talking to a descendant of one of the former slaves. Recently, two Saturdays ago, The Geechee Shouters were singing at Howfyl. These are the descendants of the Sea Island Singers. There’s a wonderful picture in my book of Cohen or Harris and they likely sang with the Sea Island Singers even before Bessie Jones. Bessie Jones I don’t believe was a native of Glynn County.

With my research, the best recordings I’ve found—Robert Gordon came to Darien, Georgia, in maybe 1925. He recorded over 500 hundred songs that you can access at the Smithsonian at the Folk Life Department. He really is the person who came through and recorded these songs. He knew Lydia Parrish and she was beginning to get her book together, but those songs from Robert Gordon are incredible. He precedes Lomax. Gordon studied at Harvard and was a professor at Harvard. He’d even gone to the West coast. He not only recorded all of the slave songs, but longshoreman’s songs and cowboy songs. He was fascinating.

JC: One of my favorite books about here is Fanny Kemble’s book Residence On A Georgia Plantation, and she plays a role in the fabric of your book.

SL: Yes, it’s still one of my favorite books too. Her daughter’s book was written after the civil War. The daughter came back and tried to run the plantation after the Civil War and I was also interested when I found out that the Dent’s knew Fanny Kemble because she lived on butler Plantation, which was just up the road and even visited with her in the late 1800s on a trip to England. This was the reason for including Fanny Kemble in the book because it’s often said Fanny Kemble published her book and that is one reason England was not willing to underwrite the south in the Civil War. So, I felt like it was very interesting for people to know she was that close to Howfyl and that she was a family friend and of course her daughter continued to come for many years. Her husband gave the funds to help build the black Episcopal Church in Darien.

JC: What were a couple of other books you found to be informative and influential when doing your research?

SL: Well, I relied a lot on my very good friend Patricia Barefoot Copeland, who has done three books for Arcadia as far as guidance far as how to find materials and she’s very well connected with historians. I also always refer to Buddy Sullivan’s Days of Coastal Georgia. I found the collection of Robert Davis Cate. Then when the State took over Howfyl there were five rolls of microfilm made in the archives there so I found that very helpful. It took in all the generations of the family and family trees. There was this intriguing information there.

JC: How long did it take to complete the book?

SL: It took almost a year. I started in January and I had it to the publisher in October. I was working pretty fast. I found the family so interesting in that Arabella Cleveland Park shared her letters to Ophelia Dent and they remained lifelong friends. That gave me the 20th Century generation as far as Ophelia’s lifetime and her ties to her school friends and friends in Savannah.

JC: What was the most difficult thing about getting this together?

 SL: Which way to go. They usually don’t like family histories—Arcadia prefers it that way. But there was no way to tell this story without bringing in some of the family’s history. Ophelia’s immediate family was in Savannah. Her grandfather was the postmaster in savannah before the Civil war and during the Civil War. He married Ophelia’s grandmother from Philadelphia. Then you link in all of the Philadelphia family who in turn links to a Jewish family in New York so you not only have Gentiles, but a wealth of the Jewish community along the Atlantic seaboard. That became interesting.
Another influential book I picked up in Savannah was the Jewish people of the Civil War. It was very interesting because Ophelia’s uncle was killed at the last Battle of Bentonville. This is Solomon Cohen’s only son.

JC: How is Hofwyl set up now? What goes on there?

SL: Well, right now the plantation has been owned by the state of Georgia’s Department of Resources since Ophelia Dent died in 1973. At the moment the site is actually curtailed with operating hours only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. We’re hoping the economy will eventually stabilize and become better so it will be open full time like it used to be. There’s a group doing a lot to try and bring more interest to Hofwyl from the local community because Hofwyl has always been well visited from people all over the country—all over the world. Jeanne Earle McConnell is working very hard to get local interest in Hofwyl. They host an annual Christmas program with a tour of the home.

JC: The book provides a lucid glimpse into the past, and it’s a reminder of how easy lifestyles are these days.

SL: It’s interesting. I think one of the neat things about Ophelia was she might go to Europe with them, but at home she was still getting up and getting the milk delivered. They were very circumspect and concerned about money. They were very conservative even though they have some of the prettiest silver in the country, but still very careful about how they spent their money. They were a well-connected family, which I didn’t realize when I first started. When I was a tour guide at Hofwyl, we’d talk about the Revolutionary War. Her great great great uncle helped finance the Revolutionary War. Isaac Moses. Her aunt Rebecca Gratt never married was one of the foremost Jewish women of her day. Now, I’m doing some research on the family in Savannah. It’s just fascinating.

JC: That’s my next question. What’s your next project?

SL: I want to write a book about the Civil War. I think it’s been done (laughs) but I’d like to do it within the context of this family. See, during the war, George Columbus Dent went off to war and his son who was 15—James Dent—went with him. It was Ophelia’s father. Then you have all of these cousins interestingly some on the Union-side some on the southern side; cousins from Philadelphia, Maryland, Arkansas and so it becomes real interesting which cousins were involved with the war.

Ophelia Dent grew up in Savannah. Her grandfather gave her mother a house that still stands right on Liberty Street as a bed and breakfast, which is still there. Her brother and sister really grew up and went to school and then went to the northeast. The brother went to Yale and graduated then later became a county agent in Chatham County. Howfyl was always where they went. They took friends there they entertained and their father continued to try and grow rice up until 1900.

JC: It’s interesting how the oldest black churches existed in that area…

SL: I’m reading a book now about Savannah during the Civil War, which is very interesting because I did not realize—I believe there were five independent churches in Savannah before the Civil War. The oldest was founded in 1788.

JC: The Savannah research you’re doing now, will that be another Arcadia publishing?

SL: No, I’m hoping it will be a novel. Historical fiction…

JC: We’ll check in for an update soon. Thanks so much…

SL: Thank you.

Photos Reprinted with permission from Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, by Sudy Vance Leavy and Friends of Hofwyl. Available from the publisher online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665.


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