Munnerlyns were area pioneers

Published 7:05 am Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Southlands Experimental Forest seems to always have been a field of dreams.

The first documented owner of this land was Charles Lewis Munnerlyn.

Originally from South Carolina, Munnerlyn first settled in Florida in 1833. There are no records that say where or why he felt that these lands were not the place where he could pursue his dream of being the owner of a large plantation. In 1837, he gathered his family and his slaves together and traveled to southwest Georgia. Here he found the fertile lands along the banks of the Flint River the ideal place to set up his homestead.

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The Munnerlyn group had to have been very brave because at this time the Seminole and Creek Indians were still raiding settlers’ homes in this area of Georgia.

Munnerlyn was considered to be a wealthy man. His wife, Hannah White Shackelford Munnerlyn, was the descendant of a large, wealthy family, which added to the existing Munnerlyn fortune.

After the original land purchase, Munnerlyn kept buying parcels of land until in 1860, the plantation was made up of more than 3,000 acres on the east bank of the Flint River. There, they built their grand home, which was known as “The Refuge.” It has been described in several history books as having “broad verandas, wide halls and airy rooms. All of this was surrounded by well-kept lawns, a huge English flower garden and a kitchen garden.”

The mansion was also “in the middle of two vine-covered cottages which were used as guest houses where every one, even strangers, were made welcome.”

Several historians think that the Munnerlyn estate was also a place where the Alligator Stage Line stopped. It operated between the 1830s until after the Civil War in 1865.

About Mr. Munnerlyn

History describes Charles L. Munnerlyn as a grand and noble Southern gentleman. He was a shrewd and successful businessman who also had a reputation for dealing fairly with everyone, including his workers.

His wife, Hannah, gave birth to several children but only one lived to adulthood and that was Charles James Munnerlyn. He was born in 1822, while the family was still living in South Carolina.

The elder Charles Munnerlyn also had the reputation for being kind to his slaves. He encouraged those who wanted the opportunity to learn to read and write to do so. He felt that everyone should at least know how to read and write their name.

For the workers, Saturday night on the plantation was a time for fellowship. They would gather for a huge meal and afterwards would dance and sing.

Those who worked on the Munnerlyn Plantation lived in log houses. Each family was given one of these cabins. Most had hand-made furniture, including many beds that were placed along the walls of the cabin.

The steamboat Callahan docked several times a week at the landing of the Munnerlyn Plantation. Here workers sang as they loaded on a cargo of cotton and syrup to be sold down river in Apalachicola.

Munnerlyn’s Landing was believed to have been at the foot of a now impassable road called Lambert’s Ferry.

The Union blockade and wartime conditions threatened the way of life along the rivers by restricting travel along the waterways. The familiar, privileged life of the Munnerlyns was choked off around 1860.

Munnerlyn’s legacy

Charles L. Munnerlyn did not live to see the strife of the Civil War nor the tragic loss of his mansion in a devastating fire in 1883. He died in 1857, at the age of 71. He may have had Alzheimer’s disease, because some accounts tell of him becoming quite feeble and dependent upon his wife and son.

Workers at the Southlands Experimental Forest have searched the area for the location of the Munnerlyn mansion. The house was believed to have been about 500 feet from where the Munnerlyn Cemetery sits.

Forest workers have found a place where the planting of certain bushes and trees seem to frame an area where a large structure had once stood. They searched and searched there with metal detectors but nothing definitive was found.

Surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, the Munnerlyn Cemetery is the only evidence that the family had left behind as proof that they lived here and made an impact on the area. There they lay at rest.

There is an interesting legend that goes along with the cemetery. It seems that in 1934, a huge fire engulfed the fields in Southlands. It burned continuously, despite the efforts of many people to stop it. Finally, when the fire burned itself out, workers went out to investigate how much damage was done. They found that the fire had burned everything up to and around the cemetery, but had stopped at the iron fence. Nothing in the plot had been touched by fire. From this time on, workers did not want to work in this area because they believed that it was haunted.

I would like to thank the workers at Southlands Experimental Forest for providing me with a book, which tells the facts of the Southlands that has helped with the historical aspects of this article others to come.