Travel: Georgia's Pebble Hill

Sharon Cavileer visits Pebble Hill, an equestrian paradise in the piney woods near Thomasville, Georgia. Once the haven of the very wealthy, the area now draws anyone with a passion for the equestrian lifestyle - southern style.
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Sharon Cavileer visits Pebble Hill, an equestrian paradise in the piney woods near Thomasville, Georgia. Once the haven of the very wealthy, the area now draws anyone with a passion for the equestrian lifestyle - southern style.

For the last hundred years, those who love the land and the equestrian life have secluded themselves among the pines and pecans of Thomasville, Georgia. Seeking solitude, fresh air, and wide-open spaces for horses and hunting, this secret destination was accessible only to those with fortune, fame or a combination of both.

Trail Riding at Pebble Hill. Courtesy Pebble Hill

Presidents Garfield and Eisenhower, and notables including The Duke of Windsor, Jacqueline Kennedy, Joanne Woodward, Joan Crawford, and Jimmy Buffet have all enjoyed extended stays in the privacy of the pines and the heart of Southern gentility. In his novel A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe sets a portion of his tale of modern manhood within this southwest Georgia plantation country.

The area first grew fashionable during the Victorian era. In 1887, Harper's magazine touted Thomasville as: "The best winter resort on three continents." Northern socialites by the score packed their trunks and traveled by train to winter over in Thomasville, far from the harsh winters of the industrial northeast. Some stayed at opulent accommodations like the grand Mitchell House Hotel or Pineywoods Hotel. A massive resort for its time, Pineywoods' front porch measured 400 feet across. It had four towers distinguished by points in front and squares in back to help guests find the main entrance. It also boasted the latest in luxury -- indoor plumbing.

Some of those guests loved Thomasville enough to plant deeper roots. The area had huge appeal to many wealthy northerners. The fertile fields of Georgia's "Redhills" offered fine hunting, fresh air, a mild winter climate and the elan of a gracious southern lifestyle. And, large parcels of land were available at bargain prices. Some built cottages that rival the Hamptons in grandeur; others purchased plantations. Among them was Howard Melville Hanna of Standard Oil fame who bought the 3,000 acre Pebble Hill Plantation in 1896.

Pebble Hill was already an established landmark in Thomas County, created in 1820 by county founder, Thomas Jefferson Johnson. The plantation was improved in the l850s with the addition of a new manor house, built by English architect John Wind. Blessed by fate as well as beauty, the estate survived the turbulence of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

In 1901, Mel Hanna's daughter, Kate, became the owner and mistress of Pebble Hill. After a fire destroyed the John Wind house, she set about replacing it with one of the most beautiful properties in the United States. Shortly after the completion of the massive project in l936, which resulted in a 40 room American "castle" with gardens, stables, a swimming pool and numerous out-buildings, Kate Hanna turned over the ownership to her daughter. Affectionately known as "Miss Pansy", Elisabeth Ireland was definitely her own woman. Amidst elegant surroundings, she lived the penultimate sporting life.

An accomplished horsewoman, Miss Pansy spent her days actively involved with her animals. She practiced the art of breeding, showing and racing fine horses. She converted her mother's prized Jersey cow barn, modeled after Thomas Jefferson's architecture at The University of Virginia, into a world class stable.

At a time when being single was considered unseemly, Miss Pansy prevailed, not marrying until she was in her mid-forties. In the late l920s and early 1930s, she was known as one of the country's outstanding polo players. According to her niece, Mrs. Gilbert Humphrey, Pansy Ireland was the only woman in the United States to have a rating -- a handicap of one. During her polo-playing days, she kept 8-10 polo ponies in her stable.

Her Horses and Dogs
A real competitor, Pansy brought home ribbons by the score, but her own fine breeding would not allow a "showy display" of her accomplishments. Instead, she had a special closet created with racks for her ribbons---which visitors can see today. In 1929, she won the hunter championship at Madison Square Garden in New York. She also won the Gimcrack Stakes at York, England with her 2 year old gray colt, "Young Emperor.

As well as keeping a summer home in Cleveland where she played polo and was active in the Ohio equestrian community, Pansy also owned Shawnee Farm in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, where she raised Thoroughbreds. She was respected enough to be the first woman named to the Board of Directors of The Keeneland Association in l955. In l958, she received the ladies sportsmanship award from The Kentucky Thoroughbred Breeders Association. In l972, she was recognized by the Thoroughbred Club of America and given an award for her contribution to the sport.

After her marriage to Parker Poe, a dashing Army officer some 15 years her junior, Pansy traveled extensively through Europe with her new husband. She had a stable of horses just outside Dublin and worked with legendary trainer Paddy Pendergrass.

Elisabeth Ireland Poe, lived out her life at Pebble Hill, enjoying her horses, her dogs and the hunt. She loved hunting doves and ducks. An avid fox hunter, she was a serious competitor, traveling to Kentucky for the night hunt competitions.

During her prime, Miss Pansy had nearly a hundred dogs in her kennels. The foxhounds, pointers and setters were as much a part of her heart as her hunt. Their food was prepared in a special cookhouse with a huge kettle for canine cuisine. And, a special dog hospital was constructed near the kennels for canine care. Some of the dogs had the run of the house. For a time, German Shepherds roamed the house with the dozens of guests. Later, she turned to Labrador Retrievers who would follow her from room to room.

Pansy's nieces and nephews would help exercise the horses and she would lead a parade of children and dogs from the house to the barns.

"She was just a child at heart," said niece Muriel Humphrey. "Everyone just loved Miss Pansy. She loved the children, her animals and a good prank. Every April Fool's Day, she would have a big party for everyone. She would short-sheet the beds, and at dinner you never knew what she would serve -maybe castor oil in the fruit cup. She had a rare sense of humor!"

Pansy's love of animals extended into her home's decor. Sculptures of both her hounds and her horses adorn the grounds. Massive murals of the natural world adorn the "Big Room" of the main house painted by Clinton Sheppard. In a charming boat-shaped building named Noah's Ark, Sheppard paintings feature the creatures Noah took two-by-two before the flood. The house also contains an outstanding collection of Audubon prints.

Miss Pansy also collected art, Native American artifacts and American sculpture. She threw lavish parties and lived exactly as she pleased. As the last of the Hanna heirs, it was her final wish that Pebble Hill be open for to the public to enjoy. Today, The Pebble Hill Foundation, maintains the property in pristine condition and preserves the legacy for all to enjoy. Mrs. Muriel Humphrey, president of the Board of Directors and Miss Pansy's niece remarked: "Everything is just as it was.... It's like Miss Pansy just left to go out for a ride."

For more information, go to www.pebblehill.com