One of Lawrence County’s most well-known historic sites is situated along a shady lane that is visible to motorists from nearby Alabama Highway 20, between the small towns of Hillsboro to the east and Courtland to the west. Near the banks of the Tennessee River, it was once one of the largest land holdings in the area, and produced cotton for generations.
This site was the home of Gen. Joseph Wheeler, a Confederate War general, and only one of two generals to achieve the rank of general in the U.S. Army after the Civil War. He later became an influential politician, holding the office of Representative of the Democratic Party from this district for almost two decades. From 1880 to 1884, and for seven subsequent terms, Wheeler served his country in Washington, D.C. According to Site Director at Pond Spring, Bruce Lipscombe, Gen. Wheeler resigned in 1900 after almost 20 years as a State Representative.
The Joseph Wheeler Plantation was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
The home, now known as Pond Spring, the General Joe Wheeler Home, came to the State of Alabama in 1994. The main structures on the property are a post-Civil War home of the Wheelers and the 1820s Sherrod House. The site gets its name from the large spring-fed pond located on the grounds.
Since becoming part of Alabama Historical Commission, many improvements have been made, both to the home and grounds. It is those grounds which are currently undergoing a revitalization effort to bring them back to their original beauty and usefulness to the community.
Miss Annie, the daughter of Gen. Wheeler and his wife, Daniella, shaped the original gardens, planting English boxwoods throughout the property. These shrubs have matured and withstood the test of time, enduring through drought and freezing weather, and making the plantation home a picturesque and well preserved place to visit and teach younger generations what life was like in the south before and after the Civil War.
Much of the gardens fell into disrepair during the time when the house itself was the focus of a massive restoration effort. The 50-acre site includes 12 historic buildings, gardens, and archaeological features that date back almost 5,000 years.
The enormous job of clearing the area within sight of the house has required and will continue to require volunteers who enjoy working outdoors, bringing the site back to its former glory and preserving its original landscape plan, which has been documented and is being used as a guide to restore the gardens to conform to Miss Annie’s original design.
Lipscombe has recruited a group of dedicated volunteers who work with the 1st Brigade of the Alabama Service Corps, a group made up of volunteers. One of the volunteers who has been working to clear the garden area is Major Art Helms, who explained the group’s mission, “We are a Volunteer service organization formed out of the former Alabama State Defense Force (ASDF). We are trained using FEMA and ASDF regulations for disaster response. Veterans and non-prior service members make up the organization.”
The group also has EMA personnel volunteers, and welcome anyone, both former military and non-military, who are concerned and willing to donate their skills and their time to the efforts of the organization. “We are neighbors helping neighbors,” Helms explained.
He went on to say that the group is available for both emergency situations and to help the community with crowd control and to support them in things like providing shelter management in a crisis, emergency communications, or traffic and crowd control at, for example, parades and festivals. “We use these events as a part of our training,” he explained. “We provide a valuable and useful service to the communities of North Alabama.”
Major Helms stressed that the group is unarmed, although they do wear uniforms, and that they are strictly non-political.
Another Alabama Service Corps volunteer, Col. John Pruiett, of Carbon Hill, Alabama, was among the group of volunteers who recently spent the day at Pond Spring. He operated a Bush Hog which made quick work of clearing the underbrush that had taken over several areas of the property.
Pruiett has a heart for volunteering and sees his services as a part of the group’s outreach. “Volunteering is one of those things that gets in your blood,” he said. “I also volunteer for the Army Vietnam Veterans Radio Organization, as well.”
For Pond Spring Lipscombe added, “As always, staff of Pond Spring are grateful to the generous volunteers who are willing to share their time and talents. The Alabama Service Corps made a wonderful difference in this historically significant site.”
Helms, Pruiett, and the other volunteers were treated to a guided tour of the house by Lipscombe, who is thrilled to have the groups help in restoring Miss Annie’s gardens. For her, it is a dream come true to have the grounds brought back to their original beauty. “Historically accurate grounds and gardens can afford our visitors a deeper understanding of the past beyond the walls of the structures,” she said.
The boxwoods had become covered with Kudzu, a scourge here in the South, imported from China to improve erosion. It has caused many a gardener to throw up their hands in despair over the years. The volunteers tackled it methodically, and in some cases, painstakingly working to preserve the boxwoods which had become like tortured topiaries in some cases, giving the impression that they were shaped by unknown hands into mysterious forms and shapes that add interest to the oak alee leading to the family cemetery.
“Pond Spring has volunteer opportunities galore,” said Lipscombe. “Miss Annie’s beloved gardens need tending. The Kudzu she planted as a pretty vine requires significant pruning 80 years later. Interestingly enough, winter is the best time for this work. As always, Pond Spring needs generous people who are willing to share their time and talents.”
Pond Spring has resumed normal operating hours and is operating at reduced capacity to safeguard against Covid-19. Please call for a tour appointment and observe social distancing while on site. The Alabama Historical Commission will continue to reevaluate closures/cancellations and closely monitor the situation.
According to Lipscombe, “The Alabama Service Corp also tackled cleanup of the site’s cutting garden preparing the way for a successful Heirloom Plant Sale in the future. I cannot thank them enough for their willing hearts and hands demonstrating the best in human nature.”
For contact information on the 1st Brigade Alabama Service Corps visit their website: http://1stbrigadealabamaservicecorps.com/ or their Facebook page of the same name. You may also contact Major Art Helms at 256-828-9769 for more information.