Once we discovered the bloodstains on the kitchen floor, things picked up considerably.
It had already been a pleasant evening, with a catered dinner in a refurbished 19th-century mansion in the hills of northwest Georgia. The house we occupied—built by a wealthy English cotton broker Godfrey Barnsley for his Savannah bride in the 1840s—had long ago fallen into ruin and then been partially restored. Even now it lacks a roof, but it serves well as a romantic setting for receptions and wedding parties.
The old estate is now part of Barnsley Resort, a sprawling getaway encompassing more than 3,000 acres in Adairsville, Georgia, about 60 miles outside of Atlanta, that includes golfing, horseback riding, trap shooting, hunting, boating, swimming, and fine dining. I’m sure I may have inadvertently left something off that list, but suffice to say, if you can’t find some way to pass the time in this deluxe retreat, you’re not trying.
The food alone would be worth showing up for. From grab-and-go breakfast offerings to fine sit-down dining in two excellent restaurants, Barnsley prides itself on its food, and it’s not wrong. The resort’s culinary wizards grow what they can and local-source the rest. If you have honey on your biscuits, chances are that honey came from Barnsley hives. The mushrooms in your salad began the day in the woods nearby. A lot on the menus has a Southern flavor, but it’s more haute than hick.
The resort is only a little more than two decades old, but it seems older. This is due in large part to thoughtful landscaping and even more thoughtful architecture. Only recently has the resort added a hotel-like building. Until then, guests were confined to cottages that can be rented in their entirety or by the room—the innovative design allows guests private entrances and shared common areas. The cottages are designed after the style made famous by 19th-century landscape designer and architect Andrew Jackson Downing, who is often cited as one of the first architects to develop a recognizable American style. The Jackson-inspired cottages nestle into the landscape as though they’ve been there for a century or more.
The Barnsley Resort may lack the pedigree of old Southern retreats like the Greenbriar or the Grove Park Inn, places with the patina of time to which Southern families have returned for generations of summers and holidays. But Barnsley is every bit as comfortable. It is not hard to stay busy there, but it is just as easy to loaf. You can even turn your children loose without worrying about their safety, since cars are outlawed from most of the grounds. And like those venerable getaway mainstays elsewhere in the South, Barnsley has a solid sense of history and a sense of place.
Which brings us back to the old Barnsley mansion that gives the resort its name and a lot of its character. Behind every great fortune, Balzac wrote, lies a great crime. But sometimes the crime comes at the end of the story. Anyway, that’s the way it happened at the old Barnsley place.
The house and its magnificent formal gardens always had a troubled history, where every piece of good fortune seemed to be countered by a setback and sometimes more than one.
In the first half of the 19th century, Godfrey Barnsley made a fortune exporting cotton to his native England, married into Savannah high society, and then carved a 10,000-acre estate out of lands from which Native Americans had been removed in the northwest part of Georgia.
An old Cherokee cautioned Barnsley not to build on what the old man’s tribe had considered sacred land, but Barnsley ignored that warning. Inspired by Downing’s ideas, Barnsley designed the palatial villa Woodlands (complete with indoor plumbing and hot and cold water) and its elaborate gardens for his ailing wife, hoping that the upcountry climate would improve her fragile health. But before the house could be completed, Julia Barnsley died. A decade and a half later, the Civil War destroyed most of Godfrey’s cotton business, and Reconstruction pretty much finished him off. Life on the estate became a hard-fought thing, and stories circulated about Barnsley’s daughter grubbing in the fields for food, stories that years later were said to have enchanted and inspired Atlanta novelist Margaret Mitchell.
It is worth pointing out that Barnsley and his kin were not Gone With the Wind cliches. According to his neighbors, the English-born landowner treated what few slaves he owned (usually acquired as inescapable parts of other business deals) like they were servants, which enraged the locals. He insisted on excellent housing for white and black field hands and refused to break up families. Judged by the appalling standards of his time and place, he was a raving extremist.
Barnsley died in 1873, but not before becoming ensnared in the fad of spiritualism that swept the nation in the mid-19th century. He was convinced he could communicate with his dead wife, whose presence, some swear, still haunts the mansion and grounds. Indeed, a melancholy fondness for the spirit world infected any number of Barnsley descendants well into the 20th century.
Haunted or not, the Barnsley estate never escaped the up-and-down pattern of success and failure. There were great wins: the family’s success with peach orchards so inspired their neighbors that the area became the peach-growing capital of the world for four decades. But the losses continued to make it all a zero-sum game: early in the 20th century, a tornado tore the roof off the mansion and so severely damaged the house that thereafter the family lived in an adjacent building housing what had once been the mansion’s kitchen. And it was there, in 1935, that Preston Saylor shot and killed his brother Harry.
The Saylor brothers, a sort of Jacob and Esau act, were Godfrey Barnsley’s great-grandsons. Preston was a huge man, enormously strong, and athletically gifted enough to make his living as a boxer for some years. He fought under the name K.O. Dugan, and he racked up 125 wins. But when his boxing career folded, he returned to Georgia to find that his brother was mismanaging the family property, at least to Preston’s way of thinking. The brothers fought over everything, including the family ghosts (Harry and his mother, Addie, believed in them, Preston did not). At one point, Harry helped get his notoriously violent brother committed to the state mental asylum in 1933.
After Preston was released a few months later, relations between the two continued to deteriorate, culminating in a violent argument on the night of Nov. 5, 1935, in which Preston chased Harry around the house, firing at him with an automatic pistol until a shot caught Harry in the chest, whereupon he collapsed and died in his mother’s arms.
A lot of this saga was passed along over that dinner a handful of us attended last fall in the twilit remains of the old mansion (much more of the story can be found in the hugely entertaining Barnsley family history, Barnsley Gardens at Woodlands: The Illustrious Dream by Clent Coker, the Barnsley Resort’s official historian). As soon as dessert was finished, we hurried next door to the murder scene. The kitchen building is now a museum filled with Barnsley family artifacts (the family’s hand-hewn, hand-cranked wooden washing machine; a portrait of Julia Barnsley’s dog, hard evidence that the Barnsleys were indeed wealthy enough at one point to commission oil paintings of their pets).
And there we found the evidence of the fratricide: a dark stain on the floor, fenced off by a wooden barrier decorated with a metal plaque that reads, “BLOOD STAIN FROM MORTAL WOUND TO HARRY SAYLOR INFLICTED BY K.O. DUGAN 11-5-35.” Nothing sobers the mind, and expunges all frivolous temptation toward camp, like a blood stain on the floor.
The little museum is packed with family items, but they comprise only a fraction of the family’s heirlooms, most of which, along with the house and land, went at auction in 1942 to settle family debts. By the time Preston got out of jail a year later, his mother was dead, and his family home was the property of strangers. He moved away and never came back.
The Barnsley family saga has a little something for everyone. There were noble Civil War officers on both sides of the conflict who struggled to save the house and its occupants from destruction and looting. One of them married Godfrey’s daughter, only to be killed by a falling tree a few years after the war. A couple of decades later, a tall, thin man with a black mustache arrived at the estate and took a job as a field hand. But he wasn’t really a common laborer. He was a mineralogist and inventor who was interested in the property’s mining possibilities. But while B.F.A. Saylor was surely an opportunist, his deception did not hide a dark heart. He too would marry into the family and he did much to keep the family and its lands intact, although here too, the family saga ran true to form: it was during Saylor’s tenure that the tornado would destroy the old mansion. Cotton tycoons, dashing soldiers, a mysterious stranger—the Barnsley saga even has its own prince.
In 1988, Prince Hubertus Fugger of Bavaria (if we’re talking pedigree, you should know that when the Medicis ran out of steam, the Fuggers took over) began buying back the Barnsley lands and restoring the gardens and the house. A decade later he opened Barnsley Resort on what is approximately one-third of Godfrey Barnsley’s original estate. Now it’s a peaceful, bucolic place that gives almost no hint of the tragedies large and small that befell the family that risked so much to carve a kingdom out of the wilderness.
But the evidence is there, if you care to look. And if this seems to dwell too long on the sordid side of things, the only response is, it’s a big part of the story. The people behind Barnsley Resort acknowledge this, because they’ve done everything possible to anchor their property in a specific time and place.
Consider what might have happened had not Prince Hubertus become enchanted enough with the location to begin buying land four decades ago. The easy answer is, nothing. After all, the northwest corner of Georgia was not screaming for a resort. And even if one of the hospitality corporations that run so many similar places elsewhere in the country had developed the property, it’s a sure bet they wouldn’t have started by recreating Godfrey Barnsley’s elaborate gardens from scratch, nor would they have paid to resurrect his ruined mansion. The passion for linking fine cuisine to the agricultural character of the region would likely not have played out the way it has. There would be no Barnsley family museum, and probably no Andrew Jackson Dowling cottages. All of those things were optional. You could make money without them. But they are the things that make the place unique.
It’s nice to realize that some stories do have happy endings, that there is such a thing as a change of luck, for places as well as people.
You can’t help wondering, though, as you wander the resort’s manicured lanes, what might have happened had Godfrey Barnsley paid more heed to that old Cherokee who warned the interloper off the land. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, that’s a haunting question.