Orton Plantation is the very picture of what you imagine a plantation in the south to look like, but its history is unlike any other. Decorated with large Grecian columns, the sprawling white plantation home sits nestled amongst live oak trees with a gallery of windows allowing the home to flow into its picturesque surroundings. And while the gardens highlighting the home’s beauty, life at Orton certainly wasn’t always so serene.
In 1725, Roger Moore, son of Governor James Moore, and his family moved to an area of land known as Orton in southeastern North Carolina. Orton was owned by Roger’s brother, Colonel Maurice Moore, father of General James Moore and Maurice Moore, Jr., author of a famous essay denouncing the Stamp Act of 1765. Maurice sold the land to his brother when Roger moved to the area and together they founded Brunswick Town.
The first home Roger built in 1725 was destroyed by local Native Americans. Roger constructed the current Orton Plantation home in 1735 and developed his land into a leading rice plantation, producing Carolina Golden Rice.
Orton Plantation remained in the Moore family until it was purchased by Benjamin Smith, who eventually lost ownership and was forced to auction off the home and surrounding 4,975 acres. The property was purchased by a physician, Frederick Jones Hill, in 1826.
The Orton Plantation remained in Hill’s possession until the fall of Fort Anderson and Fort Fisher during the Civil War. Following the Confederate defeat at Fort Fisher, Union soldiers confiscated Orton Plantation and used the home as a military hospital, thus sparing it from destruction. However, after the War, Orton Plantation was abandoned and the house sat empty for 19 years.
In 1884, Orton Plantation was purchased by a former Confederate military officer, Kenneth MacKenzie Murchison. Murchison restored the plantation to its original appearance and made it his winter home. When Murchison died in 1904, Orton Plantation was purchased by his son-in-law and daughter, James and Luola Sprunt.
James Sprunt, a lawyer, encouraged his wife to remodel the home and in 1910 he and Luola began the development of a flower garden and expansion of the house. The Sprunts constructed a family chapel in 1915, and when his wife died the following year from scarlet fever, James renamed the building to Luola’s Chapel in her honor.
James Sprunt Jr. and his Wife Annie Gray Nash continued to elevate the gardens to the exquisite site they are now, expanding them to cover 20 acres with the help of Landscape Architect Robert Sturtevant. During that time, a relative of the Sprunts was injured in an automobile accident. To help raise funds for his medical expenses, the Sprunts opened their home and gardens to the public for tours. They charged 25¢ a person to tour their home and ended up raising over $1,000 in a week’s time. The Sprunts decided to let the gardens remain open to the public.
The descendants of Sprunt Family remained the owners of Orton Plantation for the next 126 years, with the exception of the 114.5 acres donated to establish the Brunswick Town State Historic Site.
Orton Plantation Sparks The Film Industry
It began in 1982, when producers Dino de Laurentiis and Frank Capra, Jr. searched for a perfect location for a movie called Firestarter, starring Drew Barrymore, David Keith, Martin Sheen, and George C. Scott. Capra saw a photo of Orton Plantation in a Southern magazine and both he and De Laurentiis knew it was the ideal spot. De Laurentiis liked the area so much that he soon after opened a movie studio in Wilmington—DEG, the Delaurentiis Entertainment Group. The studio was sold to EUE/Screen Gems Studio in 1996.
Numerous movies and television shows have been filmed at Orton Plantation including Crimes of the Heart, Lolita, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Hounddog, I Know What You Did Last Summer, A Walk to Remember, One Tree Hill, Dawson’s Creek, Hart of Dixie, and Matlock.
A New Original Owner
In May 2010, The Laurence-Sprunt family sold Orton Plantation for $45 million to billionaire investment banker and conservationist, Louis Moore Bacon, a direct descendant of Roger Moore, the Original builder of Orton home in 1725. Since the purchase, Orton has been closed to the general public and Bacon and a team of restoration and research experts attempt to turn several acres into viable fields to produce Carolina Gold Rice, which hasn’t been grown there since 1931.
Bacon plans to restore the house and renovate the grounds. While Bacon has not publicized the renovations much since his takeover, they are refining their process for growing Carolina Gold Rice. In their first try, the plants came up, according to the property manager, but insects, cutworms and soil that was too salty and acidic all helped stunt or kill the plants. Still a learning process, the trial by error method seems to be the only route since it’s not a widely grown crop.
They had replanted over 40 acres after the first effort, but both Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence caused extreme flooding, setting the plans back again. The main issue with growing rice is the amount of salt in the water. Not only does it come in when the Cape Fear River breaches or overwashes the dikes, but salt also comes up from the groundwater. The plan is to grow barley in the rice fields that tolerate salt and draws it out of the soil into the plants’ flowers. They estimate it will take six plantings of barley over three years before he can see about growing anything else.
Louis Moore Bacon isn’t worried about the “investment” he made in Orton Plantation. He doesn’t see it as a commercial project but is more interested in providing resource information on how the crops grow, planting methods, restoring the beauty that so many people contributed to over the centuries.
The Rice Fields
Between 1700 and 1775 no colony in British America experienced more impressive growth than North Carolina, and no region within the colony developed as rapidly as the Lower Cape Fear. Totally uninhabited by Europeans in 1700, this isolated corner of North Carolina’s southern coast is particularly noteworthy for its relatively late colonization and its rapid rise to economic prominence, first settled in 1725, the region grew to be the most prosperous in North Carolina by 1775.
Orton Plantation’s rice fields as seen today were constructed sometime between 1726 and 1750 together with the damming and construction of Orton pond, which was essential as a reserve to supply the rice fields with water.
Orton was the first rice plantation in the Lower Cape Fear Region and one of the largest in North Carolina and because of his vast landholdings, Roger Moore was referred to as “King” Roger. The amount of slave labor that was needed to build the original pond and back rice fields was significant, but with commercial success, even more slaves were imported to build out and cultivate the massive front rice fields.
Although the cultivation of rice and other crops has been intermittent in the last few decades, the original system of water controls, sluices, canals, and embankments are largely in place and functional.
The rice grown and produced at Orton was of high quality, fine grain which was highly prized and sought after as seed rice by the larger Southern plantations. The annual production of seed rice was critical in order to maintain the vast economies and rapid growth of rice plantations in the Southern states. Orton and other Lower Cape Fear plantations were a key factor in maintaining the development and success of the Southern-based rice economy
Today, the pond and rice field layout is recorded on many early historic navigation plans of the Cape Fear River. Research is ongoing and current thinking suggests that the ‘back’ rice fields contiguous to Orton pond, protected by higher ground and most easily fortified against the brackish Cape Fear River, were developed first as a beta test site to experiment with rice cultivation.
Due to their success, a large dike impoundment was built out into a shallow portion of the Cape Fear River. This was equipped with extensive irrigation and water control structures to modulate water levels. At the same time, sluices drained the freshwater of Orton pond through a series of paddies and canals within the original “Back” rice fields to the 200-plus acres of rice fields that provide the magnificent foreground view from the front of the plantation house.
The property manager Dillon Epp, describes the water system, “They were genius in how they moved water in and out, they understood that the critical part of growing rice was getting water in and out of the fields.”
Epp uses the same system to bring water into the field, flooding the established rice so that just a few inches of the plants remain above water. But he makes one concession to modernity at harvest time: He uses mechanical pumps to drain the water away, so the fields can more quickly get dry enough to support a John Deere tractor, something earlier planters didn’t need to worry about.
Carolina Gold Rice
Carolina Gold rice market farming created a unique set of foods that eventually evolved into a complete cuisine. Sweet potatoes, brassicas, oats, barley, buckwheat, benne, emmer, bread rye, wheat, maize, cowpeas, broad beans, etc. were foods that thrived because of the attributes of the soil and environs in our local terrain. However, the unique qualities these foods amassed from years of crop rotation and Antebellum farming techniques were lost as we moved to a more industrialized system based more on growth than quality.
Orton Plantation, of all the Antebellum rice plantations, possesses this the ability to capture the heirloom concepts of farming back if the rice fields return to their original purpose, Carolina Gold Rice seed research and production. Orton’s facility and potential presence of scale are unmatched with respect to our surviving collection of Antebellum rice field landmarks.
And while it may seem trivial to invest so much into time and money into producing a food found in varying forms just about everywhere, it’s about reviving a piece of history intertwined with the pride of heirloom farming and preserving it for the future.
Information gathered from Raleigh News & Observer, The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, Star News, and Life in Brunswick County