Where Was Margaret Mitchell’s Tara, Really?
By SHERRI SMITH BROWN
When I was twelve, my Aunt Madeleine gave me a copy of Gone With the Wind for Christmas. I had seen the movie the previous summer, and when she told me that there was a book—that I could actually curl up in my own room and read to my heart’s content about Scarlett, Rhett, the Civil War and Tara—I was beside myself with amazement and anticipation. And then I got it and saw that there were hundreds of pages that I could pour over—passages describing the red clay countryside, the march from Resaca to Atlanta, Rhett and Scarlett fleeing Atlanta’s flames and the billowy, green-flowered muslin dress Scarlett wore to the barbeque.
During all my teenage summers, my family headed out of Indiana for Daytona Beach, Florida, each time passing through Atlanta, where I would peer from the car window at the skyline, dominated by the blue Hyatt dome, as we maneuvered our way through the construction and detours of the new interstate highway. Was there a trace of the railroad depot or Aunt Pittypat’s house? Would I catch a glimpse of a sign with an arrow pointing to Tara?
By the time I was twenty-one, I had read the book ten times. Then I put it down—life got in the way. But my perception of the South, and particularly Georgia, was fixed: it was a long-gone place of cotton fields, huge houses with white columns and pretty, flirtatious Southern belles with eighteen-inch waists and swaying hooped skirts.
Over the years I learned that I was not alone in my fascination with Tara and Gone With the Wind. In the preface of the book’s sixtieth anniversary edition, author Pat Conroy writes about his mother’s passion for the novel and how she raised him up to be a “Southern” novelist because Gone With the Wind “set her imagination ablaze.” Albert Castel, Civil War historian and author of the widely acclaimed Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864, tells of being mesmerized by the movie and the book at the age of thirteen. From that time on, the Civil War became a passion of his “inseparable from what had inspired it—Gone With the Wind.” Back in the 1970s I taught a high school student in North Carolina who told me how she and her father, with a copy of the book and county road maps, had driven the back roads of Clayton County one vacation looking for signs of Tara. And, of course, there’s the Georgia Department of Tourism claiming that thousands of tourists, both foreign and out-of-state, visiting each year will invariably ask for directions to Tara. Somehow this all comforted me.
In my late twenties I moved to Atlanta—to Fayette County, that is. This Hoosier girl had gone from Indiana to California to Texas to North Carolina only to end up within twenty miles of where Gerald O’Hara’s plantation sat along the swamp bottoms of the Flint River. In fact, Scarlett had received her meager education from the Fayetteville Female Academy—just nine miles down the road in Fayetteville.
I could NOT believe this twist of fate.
But—WHERE WAS TARA—exactly?
The receptionist at the Clayton County Visitor’s Center looked at me strangely.
“Well, yes, I know that Gone With the Wind is a novel," I said. "But it’s so real.” After all, I expected to find something. “What? There isn’t any Tara?”
The Tarleton twins never sat on Tara’s porch with Scarlett? Scarlett and Cathleen Calvert never spied Rhett looking up at them from the bottom of the Twelve Oaks winding staircase? Rhett never gave Scarlett a farewell kiss on the road near Rough and Ready? Scarlett never led her half-dead horse up the driveway to find Tara, desolate but standing, spared by the Yankee invaders? And movie producer David O. Selznick put white columns on Tara—Margaret Mitchell never mentioned white columns in her book? Not only is there no Tara—but my vision of it is just a celluloid Hollywood version of the South?
Margaret Mitchell couldn’t have made all of this up. I decided to combat my disillusionment with action. Forget Scarlett—what was Margaret thinking of? Born on November 8 1900, Margaret Mitchell was spoon-fed stories about the War of Northern Aggression. Her grandmother, Annie Fitzgerald Stephens, had been an Atlanta wartime bride. Stories were told and battles were fought over and over again in living rooms and on porches as Margaret sat on her relatives’ knees. According to Mitchell biographer Darden Asbury Pyron in his book Southern Daughter, Mitchell wrote the first draft of her book from memory. So, if Mitchell had written from memory—what memory had sparked Tara? How did she envision Gerald O’Hara’s plantation? What had been her inspiration?
My search for Tara began—again.
With county maps in hand, I have wandered Fayette and Clayton county roads along the Flint River, searching for the hills of Tara—or more accurately, the plantation land where Margaret Mitchell had spent her childhood summers, the land belonging to Mitchell’s Irish great-grandfather, Philip Fitzgerald.
Like Tara, Fitzgerald’s plantation lay along the Flint River swamp bottoms. Flint River land in the Georgia Piedmont was some of the finest cotton land in the state. It had been Creek Indian territory up until 1821 when the Creeks ceded this portion of their land to the federal government. The federal government placed the Indian boundary at Line Creek (the treaty actually said the “Flint River,” but this was an error). Georgia held a lottery to divide up this vast territory, an area that eventually would become Fayette, Clayton, Henry, Houston, Dooly and Monroe counties. Land lottery winners, the first white settlers here, cleared trees and carved cotton fields out of a frontier. With family members and possibly a few slaves, they planted a manageable amount of crops.
For the most part, plantations here were extremely rural and backwoods in the years leading up to the Civil War. These were not the great cotton plantations of the South; although in terms of numbers, Georgia had more “plantations” than any other Southern state. This was not the landed aristocracy who grew thousands of acres of cotton or rice and owned hundreds of slaves. That class comprised less than 2 percent of the 62,003 farms listed in Georgia’s 1861 Census. Even the fictional Gerald O’Hara, who aspired to be a great planter—who “desired his own house, his own plantation, his own horses, his own slaves”—knew that he would never win a place among this aristocracy.
The “typical” planter of the northern Piedmont, as well as Georgia and the South as a whole, was the small planter who owned two to three hundred acres of land and five to twenty slaves. Later on, historians would not even designate these properties as plantations since their acreage did not total five hundred acres. But these planters did not hesitate to refer to their properties as “plantations” and considered their interests as important as that small percentage of elite planters who controlled vast amounts of land, possessed great wealth and wielded huge social and political power.
Like the fictional Gerald O’Hara, Philip Fitzgerald was born in Ireland—in Tipperary County, however, rather than County Meath. After migrating to America, Fitzgerald settled in Fayetteville, Georgia, in 1831, began operating a store with his brother James and started buying property.
Founded in 1823, Fayetteville was a thriving center for the surrounding farm community by the time Fitzgerald arrived. There was no Atlanta (or Terminus as it was first called) and no railroad connecting the region to cotton markets. Farmers carried cotton and other marketable farm products caravan style to Savannah, returning with the goods they could not produce themselves on their self-contained properties.
Philip Fitzgerald, like the fictional Gerald O’Hara, bought at least part of his property from another local land owner who was ready to move on. A deed dated August 9, 1853, and recorded in Fayette County Deed Book G, shows Fitzgerald purchasing 1,200 acres from Henry McElroy for $4,800. One family story says this property, which had a home and slave cabins, lay between two other parcels Fitzgerald had previously purchased.
In 1858, the state legislature formed Clayton County from the western portion of Henry and the eastern portion of Fayette counties with the Flint River the natural boundary between much of Clayton and Fayette. Fitzgerald’s property now fell in both counties. The 1861 Tax Digest for Clayton County shows Fitzgerald owning 2,527 acres and 35 slaves. The 1860 Census valued his total estate at $61,000, making him the richest man, though not the largest slave owner, in Clayton County at that time. By 1860 standards, this put him far above the “typical” planter—but his was still a middle-sized plantation—and like Gerald, he came nowhere close to the status of the great planters.
The Fitzgerald plantation home, originally built by McElroy, was primitive—a typical North Georgia Piedmont farm house. As Fitzgerald and his wife Eleanor’s family and wealth grew, the house, which they called Rural Home, evolved—a second story, porches, separate guest houses encircling it—but it always remained plain.
Rural Home was, in fact, much closer to Margaret Mitchell’s mental image of Tara than David Selznick’s white-columned movie facade. Pine board, instead of the book’s “whitewashed brick”—but no columns. Darden Pyron recounts a letter Mitchell wrote to a friend: “...this section of North Georgia was new and crude compared with other sections of the South, and white columns were the exception rather than the rule....”
Also, like Tara, the house was spared during Sherman’s March to the Sea, while the farmlands and cotton fields were destroyed. In her book Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell, Anne Edwards wrote that the family story young Margaret heard over and over was that “when the battle was over, the Fitzgerald farm stood raped and silent, its fields stripped, its slaves and animals gone, the house emptied of most valuables. But Eleanor Fitzgerald’s dark velvet drapes still hung defiantly at the windows, and her few small personal treasures, including her sacred gold cross, were buried under the pig house in an old tea caddy.” Philip Fitzgerald, then sixty-six, said Edwards “began all over again with no slaves, no food and only three of his daughters and an ailing wife at home to help with the work.”
My obsession with the mythical Tara came to an official end. Now I had to find what I believed to be the true inspiration of Margaret Mitchell’s novel—Rural Home.
My search suddenly became easier. I called Betty Talmadge. I knew that Ms. Talmadge had purchased the crumbling Tara movie facade from the MGM backlot years ago. I had often wondered about it—what it would be like to see it restored to its 1939 glory. I also knew that in 1981 Ms. Talmadge had moved Rural Home, in great disrepair, to her own property for safekeeping—but only now did I care about that.
“I want to see the old Fitzgerald homestead,” I said.
“Oh, Honey, you don’t want to see that. It’s a mess.”
“No, Ms. Talmadge, I REALLY want to see it.”
From my home in Fayette County, the road to Tara heads east on Georgia 54 through Fayetteville, onto McDonough Road and straight to Lovejoy Plantation.
I inspected the movie facade first. Pieces of roof, window frames, peeling dark green shutters, doors and the infernal square, white, faux brick columns were piled in stacks—dirty and desolate looking but tagged and labeled with letters and numbers. The Atlanta History Center had taken the double palladium-style front door, and it was now enclosed behind glass in a Gone With the Wind exhibit. But these other pieces—which once made up a movie facade so classy it was featured in the November 1939 issue of House & Garden magazine—lie sadly waiting for the time when they, too, might be reconstructed again.
“Are you ready for Rural Home?” Ms. Talmadge broke the silence. I nodded and we turned away.
Betty Talmadge saved Rural Home from destruction back in 1981. “I bought it over the telephone in thirty minutes,” she told me. “One thousand dollars, and I had to move it and clean up the mess left behind.”
She said she went out to see what she had purchased and as she stood looking at it, wondering how she was going to move it, all she could think of was “what have I done” and “why have I done it?”
The oldest portions of Rural Home stood in sections raised on cement blocks in the back of her pasture: a two-story structure with broken window frames and panes; a smaller one-story section stood a few feet away. One entire end of this section was open where it was once attached to the main house and a gaping hole took the place of what was once a chimney. Weather-and-age-worn clapboard—very plain—definitely, no columns.
In the History of Clayton County, Stephens Mitchell, Margaret’s brother, wrote that the “old house was ugly, but comfortable and surrounded by huge oaks of great age.”
The original portions dated from the 1820s Ms. Talmadge told me. Just four rooms. “I took down the Victorian trim,” she said.
It was hard to imagine Scarlett chattering away to the lounging Tarletons here after seeing Selznick’s white-columned splendor; but it was easy to imagine a young Margaret Mitchell spending her summers here and returning to this house and the story of her great grandparents when she wrote her great Civil War novel.
I looked at Betty Talmadge, wondering what inner voice of hers had led her to the ownership of these symbols of the antebellum south.
“Just think,” I whispered, “You have the ‘real’ Tara and the ‘mythical’ Tara.”
“I know,” she replied softly.
As I left Betty Talmadge, I knew I had just one more thing to do and then nearly forty years of “searching” would be over.
In 1938 Mitchell provided a description of Tara and its environs for an artist drawing up a plot plan of the plantation to aid in the movie production. She placed the plantation on the north side of a road that headed west to the Flint River, Twelve Oaks and Fayetteville and east to Lovejoy and Jonesboro. I pulled out my copy of the plot plan and my county road maps. Now, it was time to match the house to the land where it belonged.
I headed west toward Fayetteville on McDonough Road. On Folsom Road, called Fitzgerald on an old topo map, I took a left. As I drove my car up the road’s incline, I thought of how Gerald O’Hara’s Tara was “a clumsy sprawling building that crowned the rise of ground overlooking the green incline of pasture land running down to the river.” At the end of Folsom, where it dead ends into Tara Road, I came to the top of the hill. Straight ahead, I looked out onto the rooftops of what is now a huge recently built subdivision with roads winding down the north side of the hill. To the west was the incline down to what I knew was the bottom land of the Flint River. I turned my head directly to the right and there, along the side of the road, were the crumbling remains of a brick chimney. And to my left, among the briars and weeds, were traces of an old foundation...Tara.
I’ve been asked if maybe its time to take down the posters of Clark Gable and Gone With the Wind that hang on the walls in my office. Funny, I had thought of that myself. Kind of an end of an era for me. I’ve spent nearly forty years and traveled hundreds of miles to realize a myth. The “real” ended up sitting practically in my own back yard. And that “real,” in some unexplainable way that I still haven’t sorted through yet, has been the much more satisfying experience.
Reprinted from The Best of Georgia Farms Cookbook and Tour Book by Fred Brown and Sherri Smith Brown with Illustrations by Garry Pound
VIEW INTERACTIVE MAP Take a Do-It-Yourself Tour of Margaret Mitchell's Atlanta and environs.
Margaret Mitchell’s Tara
Margaret Mitchell may have written her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from a small, first-floor apartment at 10th and Peachtree streets in Atlanta, but the story was born from the red clay backroads that once wound mostly through Clayton and Fayette counties. Browse the photo gallery below to see some of the places in Atlanta, Jonesboro and Fayetteville that tell the story of Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind.
For more about Mitchell and Gone With the Wind, see the Brown's Guide blogs: In Search of Margaret Mitchell's Tara, Tara, Margaret Mitchell and the Flint River, and Where Was Margaret Mitchell's Tara, Really?
Few authors are as identified with a town as Margaret Mitchell is with Atlanta. Mitchell is the author of one of the best-selling novels and highest grossing movies of all time, Gone With the Wind.
Visit the small apartment where Margaret Mitchell wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gone With the Wind, and see exhibits about life, her book and the movie it inspired.
Take a Do-It-Yourself Tour of Margaret Mitchell's Atlanta and environs.
The Holliday-Dorsey-Fife House Museum is housed in an 1855 Greek revival home that has long been a city landmark and was an inspiration to author Margaret Mitchell.
The Georgian Terrace Hotel gained national fame as the setting of the premier gala of Gone With the Wind in 1939.
The Margaret Mitchell Research Library is a 1948 building that was the first county library and is now where the Fayette County Historical Society archives county history.
Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, golfer Bobby Jones and many other Atlanta luminaries, along with 6,900 Confederate soldiers, are buried in this historic cemetery.
Philip and Eleanor Fitzgerald, the great grandparents of Margaret Mitchell and role models for Scarlett's parents in "Gone With the Wind," are buried in this cemetery.
Music, narration, and sound effects bring to life the world’s largest oil painting as well as the Battle of Atlanta fought between Confederate and Union troops on July 22, 1864.
One of the largest history museums in the Southeast, the Atlanta History Center celebrates Atlanta's Southern culture.
See exhibits about the book and movie and learn how Margaret Mitchell used the history of the Civil War in Jonesboro as a setting in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book.
Discover some original memorabilia from the book and movie at the Marietta Gone With the Wind Museum, Scarlett on the Square.
Experience history and Southern hospitality as you visit the authentically restored antebellum home, which may have inspired Margaret Mitchell's vision of Tara.
Learn about Jonesboro's significance in the Battle of Atlanta and the entire Civil War and the central role Jonesboro played in Margaret Mitchell's novel, Gone with The Wind.