A fine Southern mansion complete with its own bowling alley? ’Tis true. A glimpse of the wealth and majesty that came with the era of Carolina Gold rice? True. Sumptuous grounds and landscaping directed by a man from my hometown? Lincolnton, Georgia. True, indeed.
“Stately, gorgeous and unspoiled, Arcadia is set between Pawley’s Island and Georgetown, encompassing all the property on both sides of the highway with the exception of DeBordieu Colony, Prince George and Hobcaw Barony.” That’s how writer Leslie Moore described it and she is right as rain as Dad used to say.
The plantation home was built in 1791 and has ties to the Vanderbilt family by virtue of marriage, though it owes its existence to Captain Isaac Emerson, Bromo Seltzer’s inventor. In the beginning, seven rice plantations, totaling 12,000 acres, existed where Arcadia was to be. Captain Emerson began buying the properties in 1906. Emerson’s daughter, Margaret, married Alfred Vanderbilt, who died on the Lusitania, and that’s where the legendary, familiar Vanderbilt name comes in.
Bromo Seltzer we’ve heard of as well. It came to be in 1888, the era of patent medicines when a lot of folks made a lot of money off the ills and aggravations of others. Bromo-Seltzer, an anti-acid, purported to relieve pain occurring together with heartburn, upset stomach, or acid indigestion. I doubt Neal Cox ever took Bromo Seltzer. His tonic came from the joy and beauty found in camellias and sweeping landscapes of Arcadia Plantation. There’s a book titled Neal Cox of Arcadia: Memoirs of a Renaissance Man and Home House Press published it. Cox is the author and Stephen G. Hoffius served as its editor. You can buy the book for $25. Contact Home House Press at 843-813-0107 or find it online with a simple Google search.
Here’s the book’s official descriptive text: These are the memoirs of an extraordinary individual whose rich and vibrant life spanned nearly a century. Neal Cox was the superintendent of Arcadia Plantation, a retreat on Waccamaw Neck near Georgetown, South Carolina, belonging to the wealthy Vanderbilt family. Cox came from humble beginnings, yet had charm and special abilities that made possible the sort of life that reads like a novel, but shows once again that truth can be stranger than fiction.
The memoir of Neal Cox’s real-life experiences paints vivid word-pictures that make its reading a delight for readers of every stripe: from seasoned professionals and hobby-readers to the inexperienced and casual readers. Vivid illustrations draw the reader into tangible, endearing experiences that seem every bit as real as the beauty, the complexity, and the mystique of Lowcountry South Carolina. Cox’s encounters with notable people of his era, the “rich and famous” of the times, and the unlikely people he was acquainted with as well, make his memoirs an especially fun read. He was a friend of George Vanderbilt, but knew many of the family well. Among his more noteworthy acquaintances was President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
This is chiefly the story of a special man, Neal Cox, but also it chronicles the times of a special place: Arcadia Plantation. Arcadia was the home of Cox’s friend, George Vanderbilt, but the place acquired the status of “legendary” and “renowned” through the efforts of its superintendent, Neal Cox. Around the home and grounds known as Arcadia, most workers and other employees called George Vanderbilt, “Boss.” The staff, however, answered to Cox, the man whom they respected and admired for his hard work and his vivaciousness, and his extraordinary gifts.
Cox came from Lincolnton, Georgia, as did I. No mention of Lincolnton. Here’s the descriptive text I see most often: “Memoir of Neal Cox, who grew up near Augusta, Georgia, and became superintendent of Arcadia Plantation, owned by Isaac Emerson and George Vanderbilt, near Georgetown, S.C. History of Arcadia Plantation and Georgetown County.”
I did not know Cox was from Lincolnton but during my tour of Arcadia his name came up repeatedly. I remained in the dark until I posted photographs of Arcadia on Facebook Sunday afternoon. It didn’t take long before the comments rolled in. Among them was a surprising post from Tara Willingham Hester, a lady who lives in Lexington. “The man that planted the gardens and was the caretaker at Arcadia, Mr. Cox, was born and grew up in Lincolnton. He moved to Augusta after the boll weevils destroyed his family’s crops. He started working at Fruitland Nurseries (where he got his start), which is Augusta National now. I have a book about it from his granddaughter, who is a friend of my husband’s family. We were shocked when we read that he was from Lincolnton.”
The book Tara mentions is the one I reference above. Later I heard from Dori Brown and another surprise jolted me. “Neal Cox was my grandmother’s cousin and grew up in Lincolnton and went to New Hope Church. My grandmother was Lucy Cox Wellmaker from Lincolnton. Wonderful book about him and a well-kept secret about his roots.”
Folks, this is a big deal. Small town folks look for things to be proud of. My hometown is known for its championship football teams but little else. So, when I learned that one of South Carolina’s more magnificent plantations owes its fabulous grounds to a hometown boy I took notice. Never before had I heard of this man. Cox went to my church even. Did I sit in the same pew Neal Cox did? Maybe.
Just when you think you know all there is to know about your hometown, you discover an amazing native who made the world a more beautiful place. In a column to the folks back home I urged them to book one of the spring tours in Georgetown that usher folks around to plantations. “See Arcadia Plantation and conjure up images of a fellow run off by boll weevils to a land of majesty where he found his calling. If you go, walk out front of the home where its long, green lawn flows toward the Waccamaw River. To the right is a small garden area. It’s there that the ashes of Neal Cox and his wife rest, a place of beauty if ever there’s one, a place of beauty created by a hometown boy.”