The Majestic Plantation

by Susan Taylor Block

"We drove down to Orton, the most exquisite of old plantations. It is impossible to describe the beauty of the garden. There are great rolling lawns of the greenest green grass. The sunlight was streaming down through the moss into the complex maze of exquisite blossoms. In the distance we could see the snow white columns of the plantation house on a great bluff overlooking the rice fields and the river. The whole garden seemed like one great fantastic fairyland." Artist Claude Howell, January 23, 1937

 

"The King" presides

The best pieces get picked off fast, and by 1727, "King" Roger Moore was the proud owner of a splendid Cape Fear riverfront tract. The son of S.C. Gov. James Moore, he named the rice plantation Orton after the Moores’ ancestral home in England. Roger Moore (1694-1751) was nicknamed King because he eventually accumulated 25,000 acres of land in Brunswick County. The first house he built on the land was destroyed by fire, but a portion of a subsequent structure he erected in 1735 still exists within the present Orton residence.

Moore family members resided at Orton for two more generations. Roger Moore’s descendants include son George – who designed and constructed Gordon Road as an avenue by which to transport his wife and 28 children from his Rocky Point plantation to Masonboro Sound every summer – and Louis T. Moore (1885-1961), an author, photographer and local historian who helped improve roads, education, the port and tourism in Wilmington.

After the Moore family departed, Orton Plantation went through a succession of owners, including Gov. Benjamin Smith and Frederick Jones Hill, who, in about 1840, added the second floor and four Doric columns. Hill sold the property to Thomas C. Miller, who decided to sell after the Civil War. "If you wish to make an investment, let me advise you to take hold of Orton. It is now a complete wreck, but nevertheless can be made valuable," Wilmingtonian John C. MacRae wrote to his brother, Donald, February 3, 1866. Donald MacRae eventually invested money in a cotton mill, railroad, warehouse and two banks, but he didn’t tackle Orton.

Ten years later, a buyer finally stepped forward, but he committed suicide soon after receiving the deed.

The extraordinary James Sprunt

Finally, in 1884, Fayetteville native Col. Kenneth McKenzie Murchison bought the woebegone retreat. Heavily capitalized from business ventures in New York and armed with a personality likened to German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Murchison determined to make the most of his purchase. Among many other things, he removed trees that had begun to grow inside the house and spent $25,000 to repair the rice fields. Soon the land began to function again, but as a rice and peanut farm.

Col. Murchison, a loner, preferred to roam the beautiful Orton woods without company, except for the companionship of his beloved hunting dogs. Murchison also owned the elegant Orton Hotel, located at 109-117 North Front St.; along with residences in New York City and at Wrightsville Beach. His oceanfront cottage, "The Southland," was swept away during the Great Storm, November 1, 1899. Col. Murchison died in 1904, and his son-in-law, James Sprunt, purchased Orton from the estate as a gift for his wife, Luola Murchison Sprunt. The Sprunts also divided their time among Orton, Wrightsville Beach, and the Governor Dudley Mansion at 400 South Front St. in downtown Wilmington.

The advent of the Sprunt era at Orton brought a new elegance and many illustrious visitors. Sprunt’s roster of friends ran the gamut from state and national politicians to administrators and faculty members at UNC-Chapel Hill and Princeton, including numerous social butterflies, such as Pembroke Jones and brother-in-law Kenneth Murchison. In the absence of a road, guests traveled by water, usually aboard James Sprunt’s yacht, the Luola, or on the steamer Wilmington. A mule-drawn train flatcar transported guests from the Orton dock to Orton while waiting servants toted luggage.

James Sprunt, the former youthful purser of a Civil War blockade runner, made his money most famously from cotton exports. Operating under the name of the business he first managed for his father, Alexander Sprunt and Son, he ran satellite offices in faraway places: Bremen, Rotterdam, Le Havre and Liverpool. Sprunt also owned naval stores and vast warehouses in which sugar, nitrate and cement were stocked. His diversified interests acted as a sort of hedge fund that lasted well into the 20th century.

Somehow Sprunt also found time to write several books on the history of the Cape Fear area. These include Tales of the Cape Fear Blockade, Derelicts and Chronicles of the Cape Fear River — recognized as Sprunt’s masterwork.

James Sprunt exhibited a deep faith in God, conducting nightly family devotions in which all participants prayed on bended knee. His obedience to the word of God manifested itself in generous financial gifts. He donated the chandeliers at St. Stephen’s A.M.E. Church; made substantial contributions to his own church, First Presbyterian, and to numerous local medical projects; gave money and a 2,000-book library to the Boys’ Brigade; and, remarkably, underwrote the majority of expenses incurred at the Jiangyan Medical Presbyterian Mission Station in China, headquarters of Dr. George Worth, a Wilmington native.

Sprunt also contributed to the building of many Presbyterian churches. Among others, he was wholly or, occasionally, partially responsible for the following houses of worship: Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church; St. Andrew’s Church on North 4th St.; St. Andrew’s Covenant at 15th and Market streets; Winter Park; Delgado; and two Immanuel Church buildings. The Immanuel congregation, first housed on the western side of town, eventually built a new church on Eastwood Road and is now known as Windemere Presbyterian.

Sprunt also built Luola’s Chapel at Orton as a memorial to his late wife, who died in 1916. The chapel, like the 1910 wings on the Orton house, was designed by Luola Sprunt’s brother, architect Kenneth M. Murchison Jr. Murchison was a multitalented man who was an artist and composer, as well as a gifted musician who could play every instrument in an orchestra.

Sprunt was greatly influenced by the teachings of Joseph Wilson, minister of First Presbyterian Church — and father of future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Having once felt a tug to be a foreign missionary, Sprunt turned his attention instead toward the home field and the need for more houses of worship. Sprunt himself wrote that life’s troubles and everyday conditions had not kept him from accomplishing his highest aim, "to glorify God in the building of His churches and in making the lives of His people brighter, more joyous and better."

But James Sprunt’s finest moment came during Wilmington’s darkest time. During the Race Riot of 1898, he literally offered his life for his friends when marauding white rioters showed up and beat on the doors of his business, Champion Compress. Knowing of Sprunt’s compassion for the less fortunate, hundreds of blacks had made their way to the compress on the Cape Fear River, and Sprunt gave them sanctuary. In general, blacks were being chased toward the river, so others with no connection to Sprunt also found themselves begging for a dry hiding place. Before opening the heavy doors to the demanding rioters, Sprunt wrapped himself in the American flag. A slight man who had lost a foot to a horse-and-buggy accident in 1882, he asked several of his employees to hoist him to the top of a large mass of compressed cotton. This was the first picture rioters saw of the compress interior that night.

"If you want to get to my friends, you’ll have to shoot me first," he told them. The rioters turned away and, in all probability, many lives were saved. Sprunt later attributed his deed to his mother’s training. Breaking the law, Jane Dalziel Sprunt had, for years, spent Sunday afternoons teaching black children reading, writing, Bible lessons and the Presbyterian catechism.

In addition, James Sprunt taught Lincoln Hill, his beloved butler, to drive. Hill was the first black man in Wilmington to operate an automobile. Though Sprunt died long ago, in 1924, one of his black employees survives. Legendary Orton gardener Clarence Jones, age 98, remembers the generosity of the man he addressed as "Mr. James."

"He always would provide things for the black people," said Jones. You know, blacks were poor as snakes back then. With Christmas coming, he would send his workmen to fruit stands, grocery stores and other places to buy up just tons of all kinds of things: meat, lard, flour, rice. And he’d have a barrel and he’d pack those barrels with what they bought, just as long as he could fit something else in it. Ham was a big thing. He put a ham in every barrel — then he’d put fruit on top and cover it over with burlap and put a hoop on it.

"The steamer Wilmington would bring the barrels to Brunswick County," continued Jones. "Everybody would come down at Christmas to get their barrel. They would come with wagons, carts, oxen or horses and load the barrels for home. Well they had enough in those barrels to last almost until spring. Mr. James did that every year. He was a good-hearted person. And then the boys came right along behind him: his son, Mr. Laurence, and his grandsons."

Orton and Ogden Nash

When James Sprunt died in 1924, son Laurence became owner of his father’s properties. By that time, the original 8,000-acre tract had been expanded, in 1920, to 15,000 acres with the acquisition of neighboring plantations, Kendal and Lilliput, purchased from the estate of Frederick Kidder. Sprunt also owned Brunswick Town, an abutting property to the east. But Orton was always the focus.

J. Laurence Sprunt’s first wife died just after giving birth to their son, J. L. Sprunt Jr., in 1915. A few years later, Sprunt married a widow, Annie Gray Nash Ruffin, from Tarboro, who also had a son from her first marriage, Peter Browne Ruffin. Laurence and Annie Gray Sprunt had three sons of their own: Kenneth Murchison, Samuel Nash and Laurence Gray. Like the previous generation, the family split their time between Orton, the Governor Dudley Mansion and their house at Wrightsville Beach.

Famous poet Ogden Nash, Annie Gray Sprunt’s first cousin, paid Orton a few visits. Though his verse is known for its wit, Kenneth Sprunt remembers him as rather serious in person. "He was not a jokester in conversation," said Sprunt. Nevertheless, when it was time for Ogden Nash to sign the Orton guest book, his humor rang true. Having been ‘versed’ throughout his stay as to J. Laurence Sprunt’s preference for the latter pronunciation, Nash wrote: "There was a man,/A social failure,/He said cameellia,/Not camaylia." - Ogden Nash.

Novelist James Boyd, known best as the author of Drums, visited Orton and later swirled bits of the Brunswick plantation into another book called Marching On. Orton was also the subject of numerous national magazine articles during the 20th century. Today, the plantation attracts television and motion picture location scouts. To date, Orton has been featured in over 40 movies.

It was Annie Gray and Laurence Sprunt who began Orton’s slow transformation from rice and peanut fields to horticultural eye candy. Miss Annie Gray, as many people knew her, did some of the designs herself. She also hired landscape architect Robert Swan Sturtevant and horticulturist Churchill Bragaw, both of whom made significant contributions to the garden.

A true public treasure

In 1952, J. Laurence Sprunt and his four sons deeded the 114-acre tract that had been the colonial town of Brunswick to the State of North Carolina. From 1958 until 1966, Dr. E. Lawrence Lee and state archaeologists uncovered there the remains of house foundations and incidental possessions lost or discarded by 18th century citizens of Brunswick, a town that predated and, for a time, eclipsed the settlement that would become Wilmington. Today, the ruins of Brunswick Town remain a thriving tourist attraction.

After World War II, yet another generation took charge of Orton. Kenneth Murchison Sprunt, grandson of James Sprunt, became manager of Orton. He was, in the words of Clarence Jones, "exceptionally good." During nearly 40 years as manager, Kenneth Sprunt made many improvements to Orton and also designed the "Sun Garden." During his tenure, tourism increased greatly. In the 1920s and ’30s, Orton was only opened to the public a few days every year for tours co-sponsored by Mrs. Henry Walters at Airlie, and Annie Gray Sprunt at Orton. All proceeds from the early Airlie-Orton tours went to the Episcopal Church on Airlie Road, St. Andrews on-the-Sound.

But in the ’40s, Orton was opened to tourists during the spring and summer. In 1948, a new celebration, the Azalea Festival, brought throngs of people to huge barbecues held outdoors in the midst of hundreds of thousands of azalea blooms. Orton continued to host the festival barbecue for years before the event moved to Airlie, where it is still a highlight of the springtime celebration.

The grandest remaining plantation in North Carolina

Today, Orton thrives under the ownership of Laurence Gray Sprunt, a specialist in timberlands. His son, David Harriss Sprunt, is Orton’s manager. The grandest remaining plantation in North Carolina and a model of preservation, it draws everyone from the curious, to history lovers, to hordes of flower lovers. Conservation easements and a healthy dose of family pride promise to keep Orton’s gardens beautiful and that 272-year-old core of the old house intact for many years to come.

 

Sources: Author’s interviews with Kenneth M. Sprunt; Laurence Gray Sprunt; Clarence Jones; the late James L. Sprunt Jr. and Peter Browne Ruffin; The Past…a stairway to the future, by Laurence Gray Sprunt; The Story of Orton Plantation, by James Laurence Sprunt; David Harriss Sprunt; Special Collections, Duke University; Lower Cape Fear Historical Society; Cameron Art Museum; and the Brunswick Town State Historic Site.

 


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