Originally created 08/29/00

Group hopes to open historic site

It was the site of an invention that changed a nation and home to a Revolutionary War hero.

George Washington slept there.

But the ruins of Mulberry Grove Plantation, and its two centuries of history, sit hidden behind locked gates.

Preservationists would like to open the Savannah River location where Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, possibly rebuilding the historic plantation house.

But before that can happen, negotiations with the site's owner - the Georgia Ports Authority - will have to break through years of gridlock.

Members of a foundation dedicated to restoring the plantation are hopeful that an agreement can be reached by the end of the year.

"It is perhaps the single-most historic undeveloped site in America," said Wade Waters, chief executive officer of the Mulberry Grove Plantation Foundation. "Not only Georgia history or U.S. history, but world history was changed right there on the banks of the Savannah River."

But the Ports Authority and officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which would like to take over the property, say negotiations on a land-swap agreement have yielded no results. Negotiations began in 1997.

The authority met most recently in December with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The service would like to acquire the property and lease it to the foundation, according to refuge manager Sam Drake.

But he said the Ports Authority's offer to swap the land for a piece of property on nearby Onslow Island, which would be used to dump spoils from the authority's dredging, won't work.

"Environmentally, we couldn't agree to do that," Mr. Drake said.

Ports Authority officials say negotiations aren't over.

The Mulberry Grove Plantation Foundation has gotten some high-profile support. Its members include Barry Whitney, an Augusta cotton broker and descendant of Eli Whitney, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil author John Berendt.

The group would like to turn the Mulberry Grove area into a park with a welcome center and a museum displaying artifacts from the site. Eventually, they'd like to build a replica of the Mulberry Grove plantation house.

Spokeswoman Patricia Reese suggested the Ports Authorityhas no intention of damaging the site.

"We will be putting some of this land into permanent preservation," she said.

That's a good idea, according to U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, who has toured the site and said preserving Mulberry Grove should be a high priority.

"I don't want to see them nibbling too closely around the edges," the Savannah Republican said about possible Ports Authority construction.

For now, the federal government has limited involvement in the negotiations, Mr. Kingston said. But if it looks like the Ports Authority wants to build on the historic site, he said, that could change.

Time line:

1736: John Cuthbert settles the Mulberry Grove area and develops the plantation.

1740: Cuthbert's daughter's husband, Dr. Patrick Graham, grows mulberry saplings. Ann Cuthbert, however, owned the property; she was one of the first women in Georgia to officially own land.

1783: Mulberry Grove is seized by the state of Georgia as loyalist property.

1785: The land is awarded to Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Greene for his service in Georgia.

1791: President Washington visits twice.

1793: Eli Whitney, a tutor at the plantation, designs and builds the cotton gin at Mulberry Grove.

1864: Mulberry Grove house and buildings are burned by Gen. William T. Sherman.

1985: The Ports Authority acquires the property.

Source: The Mulberry Grove Plantation Foundation


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