Prosperity and poetry: The story of a woman who brought both to post-war Eatonton

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“My home is in a Southern Village.” This simple introduction to a largely forgotten 1901 poem published in The Atlanta Constitution immortalizes the soul of a talented 19th century Georgia poetess. The few yet compelling syllables speak across centuries with a fresh currency. They engage the senses of those who recognize in them a certain vibration that conjures more than domicile; rather a story – personal and collective that defines a sense of place, be it from birth or through adoption, in reality or spirit.

The author’s village was Eatonton in bucolic middle Georgia Putnam County. The voice was the dainty Southern belle poet, Louise Reid Prudden Hunt, born in 1847. With this poem, “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” she summoned fellow Georgians to protect her favorite iconic Southern bird “who’s divine gift is so rare that he is the envy and despair of poets to describe and musicians to imitate” from ever being imprisoned in a cage in her home state.

The lively persuasive poem typified Hunt’s lifetime writings that blend art and intellect, grace and politics, heightened sensory attunement, animation, vivid imagery, and quick wit, to celebrate her affection for “home” in rural Georgia before, during, and following the American Civil War.

In her literary works,she recorded nuanced impressions of Southern culture.And with a taste for adventure, she artfully employed her pen, beauty,and charisma to influence a pivotal epoch of the American nation that sought to mend North and South in an economically and socially inclusive future.

Hunt’s unimpeachable credibility derived from bi-regional aristocratic heritage, fortunate marriage, fine intellect, and enterprising spirit. From birth, she exemplified Southern belle breeding on her mother’s side with Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina, roots. She enjoyed warm Northern connections through her esteemed native Connecticut father and her marriage to the brilliant New York scientist Benjamin Weeks Hunt. And she found joy in both town and country: In the same week, the Southern beauty could attract admirers for her elaborate gowns at the Atlanta Grand Opera, while garnering respect for her fearless rambles in Georgia fields, going nose to nose with cows in her entrepreneurial effort to establish a successful New South dairy industry – “putting the gold of sunshine into farmer’s pockets.” Richly informed through extensive world travels by steamship and train, Louise further enjoyed resources and influence many others knew not.

A Sense of “Place”

One hallmark of Southern literature is a sense of “place,” often pastoral. For some Southern writers, pastoral imagery served as metaphor for Paradise Lost in a confusing post-bellum society. Rather the pragmatic indefatigable Louise employed dynamic pastoral imagery in her literary works to nurture an optimistic integrative New South society. Her poems and prose animate botanicals, humanize animals, and immortalize select historic figures to illustrate and shape an inclusive prosperous future for her suffering homeland.

World travel and cosmopolitan diversions aside, Louise always returned to Eatonton, her “place.” More than a material dwelling, it was a magnetic emotional and spiritual homeland, a life affirming exploratory dynamic with no beginning or end. She described her place of “magnolia bloom, mocking bird’s song, southern suns, and warm southern hearts.” On an immortal note, her village anthem declared: “Even I have fancied an angel’s song caught and repeated by a far soaring songster, when on some radiant day the pearly gates seemed ajar!”

Louise’s love affair with middle Georgia began in the antebellum days when Eatonton, a bustling King Cotton boomtown, enjoyed enviable political, financial, and social clout, just 20 miles from the state capital of Milledgeville. “White gold” fueled a vibrant town, and by age seven, Louise and others watched carpenters, masons and laborers erect magnificent structures and white columned mansions throughout the town, including that of the wealthy cotton planters Henry and Elizabeth Trippe. Little could Louise have suspect that one day she would call the iconic architectural gem her home.

As a child, Louise excelled at music, literature, and chemistry at the prestigious Eatonton Academy staffed with instructors from Princeton, Yale, and Holyoke, music masters from London, and Parisian dancing instructors. Joy and innocence turned to sorrow when tragic fratricidal war ravaged the South. At age thirteen, her family and other citizens endured the “tramp, tramp, tramp” of 27,000 Union soldiers crushing Eatonton on Sherman’s March to the Sea. Her conquered hometown suffered further degradation following Confederate defeat when Reconstruction officials moved the state capital from Milledgeville to Atlanta as a political, social, and economic symbol of the New South.

“Turning Grass into Gold”

Away from the ruins of war, Louise’s father sent her and her sisters north to Connecticut family. There, Louise attended college, exchanged poems with intimate friends, and commuted to New York City for music master instruction. In the early 1870s, Louise met the chivalrous brilliant eligible Westchester bachelor, Benjamin Weeks Hunt, who became enamored with her poise, intelligence, and alluring poetry – in his words “what made me want to serve Georgia.”

After years of courtship and six trips to Eatonton, Benjamin and Louise married in 1876. Their romance and Louise’s enchanting aura so inspired American poet Mrs. J. G. Bennett, that she published an honorary three stanza poem in the New York Evening Post “Greeting to a Southern Bride … Mrs. B. W. Hunt of Georgia.” The moniker would mark Louise’s poems for the rest of her life.

The cultured newlyweds settled promptly in New York where they enjoyed theatre, dining, and other privileges of high society. Yet Louise grieved her hometown where “the ashes were scarcely cooled, and the tears of the widows and orphans still upon their cheeks.”

The year of the Hunt marriage marked the Centennial World’s Fair in Philadelphia. Along with 10 million other visitors, the inquisitive young couple glimpsed new age consumer products including the telephone, typewriter, Heinz Ketchup, electric lights, Hires Root Beer, and the Kudzu plant for erosion control. Louise was elated and despondent. “At the great Centennial,” she bemoaned, all the states of the Union were represented and all the world in pride and pomp, but my stricken section of America, my own people, were in woe and want, and no hand held out to them to rebuild and repair the destruction of war, and deep impression this made on me.”

Profoundly moved by Louise’s nostalgia for her hometown and enamored with a New South vision, Benjamin decided that Middle Georgia needed him and Louise. He moved the couple to Eatonton, made Eatonton his adopted hometown, assumed Georgia as his adopted home state, and never looked back. For the next half century, the worldly couple with bi-regional sensitivities personified the ideal union of Northern and Southern roots in a single charitable adventurous institution committed to rebuilding a war-ravaged society. They applied their intellect, imagination, financial strength, and writings to benefit Eatonton, Putnam County, Georgia, and mankind.

Although cotton re-dominated Georgia’s post war economy, the Hunts advocated a diversified New South economy. Louise wrote to a friend, “We are in the healthiest section of the South and where the summers are nine months long and every fruit and cereal grown in the United States – livestock, dairying etc. …

Georgia folks at home raised nothing but cotton for 100 years, that is what’s the matter, and they don’t know that anything else grown in the world. I didn’t tell, I went north and I wondered why folks raised grass we had to kill. How funny I said…

Upon the Hunts arrival in Georgia, the state imported dairy from New York, 1,000 miles away. Small wonder, noted Louise, since even wealthy Georgians knew only the “thin blue viscid liquid” called “milk” from “ugly” native cows. Sensing collective economic opportunity, Louise and Benjamin created a model dairy farm with the first silo and springhouse in the state. They traveled the world to visit the British queen’s dairy at Windsor Castle and Marie Antoinette’s dairy at Versailles. And they imported pedigreed Jersey cows for exceptional butterfat production, beginning with “Posie,” Louise’s pet calf muse and the subject of many of her prose poems.

The Hunt farm was science and poetry. Romantic ivy clad buildings, orchards, and sparkling streams inspired botanical lyrical poems. And for Louise, every investment in Posie’s wellbeing was for “transmuting golden sunshine through the blossom and the grass into gold and butter.” For Louise, butter embodied “the song of the lark, the glow of the dawn, the ripple of streams, the balm of twilight, the breath of blossoms, all the mystery and melody of nature’s rhythmic pulse beats and blended aromas.” Dairy, she hoped, would restore the depleted barren red dirt of her homeland once blanketed with indigenous grasses, shade trees, and flowers, sorry victims of decades of cotton mono-crop farming.

The Hunt experiment proved a success. And upon first churning milk from “Posie,” Louise cried in print “Then I kissed her! Right on her beautiful black velvet nose I kissed her, and said, ‘Know all men by these presents I am a Jersey woman, from now, henceforth and forever, till death do us part. Amen!’”

A dairy industry vision required other farmers to replace cotton with green pastures and Jerseys. So Louise put her pen to paper and published a series of adult fables to enlist farmer support. In her “Posie” series published in the Atlanta Journal, Louise’s gentle Jersey, “Queen,” quietly and methodically weakened “King Cotton the cruel old tyrant,” who required all inhabitants to kill all things green, with botanical assistance from the brave rebel native Knight, “Bermuda Grass,” who scampered into the red hills, hid in gullies, and recharged from fence corners.

By 1901, the year of Louise’s poetic mockingbird rally, Georgia designated dairy a significant New South industry. The state no longer imported dairy, rather it exported. And Louise commanded statewide respect as the “incomparable champion of the Jerseys.” So memorable and influential were her prose poems that, decades later, upon arrival at the 1915 Middle Georgia Agricultural Fair in Macon, the industry crowd roundly applauded the lovely Southern belle poet and dairy maven as she drifted across the convention hall.

Beyond dairy, Louise employed poetry to shift sentiments and moral leanings of powerful men in other post war industries. Although averse to cotton dominance, she staunchly defended the homeland industry that provided significant contribution to the regional economy. In 1889, brokers on the floor of the New York Cotton Exchange burst into laughter at the public reading of her pointed poem “Cotton Guessers,” criticizing the notorious cosmopolitan British cotton forecaster Henry M. Neill for his unrealistic and compromising predictions. “Strange,” she chided, “that this city farmer, regardless rain or shine… makes crop that’s always ‘fine.’” Her poem, published widely in newspapers across Southern states, not only tarnished Neill’s international credibility but also forever altered the history of international agricultural forecasting.

“A Flower in her Own Garden”

Louise loved all things beautiful. In 1891, the Hunts purchased and refurbished the abandoned iconic antebellum white-columned Trippe mansion and renamed it Panola Hall (“Panola” being Choctaw Indian for “cotton.”) The three-storied home featured a grand portico with wide steps over a grotto and a balcony overlooking lush grounds. Inside, twelve fireplaces heated fifteen rooms with formal receiving galleries, silver plated hardware, and a gracious turned staircase. Whereas the Trippe family, with whom Louise had been acquainted, personified the quintessential Old South when cotton was King, the Hunts personified a diversified New South culture and economy.

Many of the best and brightest knew the Hunt home and rare gardens planted by Louise and Benjamin. Governors, authors, judges, scientists, and philanthropists traveled by train and carriage to experience the celebrated abode, the Hunts’ studied opinions, and their gracious hospitality. For Louise and Benjamin were poetry in motion, poetry in the garden, in wilderness and field, in science, politics, business, love, home, and the challenging transition from the Old South to the New when Southerners struggled to build a new economy in war-ravaged communities.

Louise’s arrangement of elegant furnishings created an intoxicating ambiance not lost on guests. Doors and tall windows channeled sunshine and perfumed garden breezes throughout the home. At meals, guests savored fresh regional cuisine served on fine china and silver that showcased local dairy and produce. Sumptuous floral bouquets gathered from garden promenades adorned the rooms. And evening “fairyland” fetes featured Japanese lanterns that illuminated the night garden with music provided by the local orchestra.

Georgia author Harry Stillwell Edwards observed of his poet friend, “The most wonderful flower in her own garden, she found her fulfillment in her own home, and made beautiful the place of her youth. By the strange alchemy of the spirit it was always youth, for her in the old home…”

Southern Footprints in The Sand

The Hunt home encouraged lively discourse on the nation and world events as the South navigated challenging times. Many Hunt writings memorialize personal acquaintances who, like Louise, gracefully bridged Old South and New South cultures, including figures absent or relegated to footnotes in historic documents. These Southern footprints in the sand include Confederate veterans, Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ daughter Winnie, the mother of Fay Templeton, Alice Vane, who sang in Atlanta following Confederate defeat, and Louise’s debutante cousin Sallie Fannie Reid who financed a Confederate guard named in her honor.

Louise’s candid observations of 19th century rural African-American community inspired other writings that preserved dialect and culture of the era. She recorded the African-American dialect folktale “Brer Rabbit’s Smartness.” She gently corrected 1914 Northern assumptions about Southern black song in The Washington Post noting that black lyrics often focused on the master and then proceeded to publish authentic stanzas. And in one masterful prose poem, she recorded her youthful recollection of the amusing antics, animated dialect, and colorful chaos of a black family trying to milk an unwilling native cow.

Hunt’s youthful wit pervades many homestyle poems such as “The Day after Christmas:” “Uncle John is on a drunk, Had a Christmas frolic. Christmas pudding was too rich, Grandma’s got the colic.” Her humorous woodland mystery “The Truth At Last” offers an ingenious mix of pun, phonetic twist, and atmospheric drama in animating creatures of nature. And her witty “Missing Grandfather” plays with scientific discoveries on the evolution of mankind.

Louise also recorded many impressions of her national and international travels. “Moonlight on Tybee,” published in the Savannah Morning News, extols the romance of the Georgia coastal island and won public admiration from Georgia’s U.S. Senator Thomas Norwood in the same journal. In the hotel register of the South Carolina Sea Island Inn, Louise penned her poem “Farewell to Beaufort.” Her moving poem “I Stand Upon Old Stirling’s Heights” evokes the majestic vistas in Menteith, Scotland. And her personification of Oblivion in “The Ruins of Furness Abbey” in England evokes tingling chills.

Yet it is in “My Steamer Chair” that Louise expressed her ultimate abiding delight upon return to her home garden. “Far different was that scene from this/ But ah, I like it better/ My steamer chair, upon the lawn/ Moored by a rose vine fetter.”

And what a garden! “Dancing Daffodils” makes dramatic play of the prolific bulbs that bloomed each spring along “the Avenue” in front of her home in unanticipated places: “I think, O poet, I like you, Will watch some night what daffys do.” In “December Roses” Louise sings: “No rose of June at summer’s noon, When ‘zephyr faint’ reposes, Or bloom beneath a ‘harvest moon,’ Could match December’s roses.” In response to the lament of the New York Saturday Review that so few poets gave autumn its proper compliment, Louise responded with “October Jewels” to celebrate the shimmering colors of the season “Of all the wealth she yielded up, Bright gold, for grain fields reaping, And rubies for the rich red grapes, In royal splendor heaping.”

Beyond the cultivated garden, Louise expressed nuanced sensitivity to Nature’s wild children. Her pet squirrel charmed St. Louis industrialist N. O. Nelson during an extended Eatonton visit. Her pet mockingbirds described in her mockingbird prose poem rekindled Georgians’ romance with their homeland, transcending the material and emotional ruins of war. “The Truth at Last” casts atmospheric magic in the theatre of her woodland animal mystery: “And all the world was lost in mist, Dissolved in melted amethyst…The real has changed its shape and hue, And unreal things are only true.”

With an ear for music, Louise would serenade Benjamin and wildlife with operatic arias from her porch and garden strolls. And the wildlife responded in repartee. In “Listen to the Mocking Bird” she gave theatre to her “imprudent little musicians… tapping impatiently on the window glass if the meal was late … complaining like unreasonable human beings that the breakfast did not suit” in exchange for fine music. “They will answer and mock my whistle, and I can order a concert to begin at any time I wish an open-air musical among the roses.” And “Caruso’s Rival (A Southern Garden)” published during Grand Opera Week in Atlanta, elevated her home garden song bird music to fine art with “Strawberries missing! ’twas little to pay, A singer like me for a matinee!”

“I Only Know Content”

The Hunts’ dairy vision proved providential. In 1918 the notorious cotton boll weevil arrived in Putnam County with catastrophic damage to the Southern economy exceeding that of the Civil War. While the rest of America celebrated the Roaring 20’s, over one third of Putnam citizens departed the region in search of work. The dairy industry and non-cotton agriculture kept Putnam citizens alive, however barely.

Louise’s poems in those years remain youthful in spirit and loveliness. Observed journalist, Joseph Robinson, in The Atlanta Constitution, “Mrs. Hunt had not only the gifts of intellect but the grace of spirit that etches beauty on the face as the years pass.”

In 1929, Louise departed her earthly home to await her beloved Benjamin on the other side. As a tribute to her spirit, grace and charity, all church doors throughout the town were closed on the day of her funeral. Despite request that friends forgo flowers, more than 50 floral arrangements arrived from gardens across Georgia. Ever the poet, Louise left a public love poem to her devoted Benjamin, carved on a granite table above her grave at Pine Grove Cemetery in Eatonton.

Louise Hunt’s poetry reminds us that home is where the heart dwells. That when we pause to contemplate the refreshment of a flower blossom, a changing season, holiday mirth, or the loss of a loved one, the virtues of a cherished friend, a personal sorrow or joy, the beauty of our profession, or a place we may never visit again, we find in our human condition, at home in our heart, poetry and grace.

This is Louise Hunt’s legacy. Her cultural children, her spirit song progeny, lift and carry us home, be it native or adopted. This American cultural ambassador, patriot of hope, daughter of the South, community visionary, devoted wife, ardent entrepreneur, beloved friend, lover of nature, and poet teacher modeled beauty and grace in all seasons of life.

Harry Stillwell Edwards recalled with nostalgia, “Yet, as I read the lines of her verses, I hear again the psalm of her pure life sounding through, and feel her spiritual beauty in its perfection, mantling me with the radiance of morning light, the tender glow of evening skies… The great poem of this devoted woman was her life in her old Georgian home, her husband by her side.”

Later, Georgia scientist Francis Rees Edwards (b.1897) imagined his friend Louise’s eternal home in his memorial poem “Her Garden (To Mrs. B. H. Hunt):” “Her garden’s form still shows her care/ And friends reflect her image rare/ But flowers and trees and friends all miss/ The kindness of her tenderness.” In the same honorary poem, he includes a final heartfelt verse contributed by horticulturalist and Georgia friend and agronomist Rose P. Bledsoe, “But who would call her back to see/ The tears we shed so desolately!/ She lives in a Land of sun and shade/ Where flowers bloom and never fade.”

– Michele Bechtell resides in the 1854 historic home of Louise Reid Prudden Hunt and is an expert on the life and writings of the 19th century Southern poet. She has documented Hunt’s biography and extensive collection of her literary works including poetry and prose.

 

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