Food Feature: A not-so-secret garden

If Barnsley Gardens were a grand opera, it would be a saga of generations driven by enduring love, cruel loss and fratricide. It could be a romance novel, too, in which case, the horse I sat astride on a bucolic trail through the grounds would have been named Slade, and we would have galloped, hearts thumping in our breasts, to the solitary mansion deep in the forests of what was once the Cherokee nation.

The horse I rode was actually called Skeeter, and he diligently followed my guide, a cheerful, sunburned member of the resort's staff astride another calm steed, on an hour-long meander through the pastoral meadows, woodlands and English gardens that surround the towering ruins of the 1840s Italianate home near Adairsville. Over 150 years have passed since the day legend says a grieving cotton broker named Godfrey Barnsley witnessed the ghost of his deceased young wife Julia standing by the fountain in front of the mansion and exquisite gardens he built for her, far from the health-threatening heat of their Savannah home. She implored her heartbroken husband to continue to build the elegant estate for future generations. The drama that would follow over the next century left the family torn apart and impoverished. For decades, the mansion stood as an empty, vinechoked ruin.

Today's Barnsley Gardens is gracious and a little eccentric, sprung happily from the chrysalis of history. The property was purchased in 1988 by Prince Hubertus Fugger of Bavaria, who had the grounds carefully restored, reopening to the public in 1992. He opened the resort in 1999. The prince, despite sounding as if he is another chapter in the epic, is evidently a regular guy, and he and his wife visit regularly. "The first time I met him, I thought he was a new maintenance guy," confided a Barnsley employee, who whisked me to my horse on a golf cart.

Filled by an elegant brunch of cheeses, fresh berries and melon, smoked salmon, salads, an omelet and excellent coffee in the Rice House Restaurant, a circa 1850s gabled house at the end of a graveled path, I watched golfers head toward the 18-hole course, and robust, helmeted families on mountain bikes pedal toward the seven-and-a-half miles of wooded trails. A supernaturally relaxed woman in an orange swimsuit ambled by toward the day spa. All was right with the world.

The 1,300-acre resort property welcomes overnight guests and day visitors who come to stroll the formal gardens, play tennis and golf, shoot sporting clays, or melt under a massage and facial in the spa, located in what would have been the estate's carriage house. The last stragglers of a family reunion from New York were helping themselves to additional passes at the dessert table on a Sunday morning, and the reservations book for activities in the Outpost Sporting Center was filling up with penciled-in names. A woman wearing a ubiquitous Barnsley Gardens polo shirt rang up some purchases from a flowering plant sale going on by the reservations office. Barnsley Gardens is a popular site for weddings and meetings, with a conference center and a chapel on site. Most weddings take place in what's called the "historic district," among the romantic ruins and garden vistas. Property management is happy to provide a judge to officiate.

The landscape and building design surrounding what the florid 1940s newspaper clippings displayed in the on-site museum called "a castle-like ruin" were inspired by Andrew Jackson Downing, the innovative 19th-century landscape designer who promoted theories of natural beauty and well-being. The patterns in his 1842 book, "Cottage Houses" were the basis for the cottages on the grounds today. Downing designed the White House grounds and the bowling green-like Washington Mall, and his teachings inspired Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of, among other things, Druid Hills and Central Park.

Thirty-three cottages in English and Gothic style stand on neat winding paths. Some are duplexes with separate entrances and porches. The cottages make me want to curl up, pampered and snug, with a good book for the rest of my life. There are wood-burning fireplaces, massive beds dressed in Egyptian linens, hardwood floors and claw foot tubs. The digital heartbeat of the modern world pulses discretely in the data port, television and CD players in the suites. Cars are parked, almost invisibly, behind cottages. One varnished wooden door stood open in the early summer air, and a woman in wraparound sunglasses and designer shorts stood on the buzz-cut lawn calling for her friend to come out.

Hers was the only loud voice I heard at Barnsley Gardens, even though patches of activity were everywhere. The herd of buffalo, imported from Prince Fugger's Montana property, were dozing in their pasture, ignoring the horses as we rode by. The only constant sounds were birds whistling and insects whirring. While admiring the ancient silvery-green Chinese Fir tree in the parterre gardens — one of the surviving original plantings of Godfrey Barnsley's in a stunning garden painstakingly restored with heirloom plants — a butterfly landed in my hair. I fought the urge to write a Victorian sonnet, or find curtains to tear down to cover myself as my fortunes dwindled.

My craving for narrative was satisfied in Barnsley Gardens' museum, housed in the kitchen wing of the ruins, where the family fled after a tornado ripped the roof off the mansion in 1906. It was in the kitchen residence that Barnsley's great grandson Preston, a prize fighter with the ring name K.O. Duggan, shot and killed his brother Harry in a 1935 dispute over managing the property. Harry died in his mother's arms, and a figure eight-shaped mark in the chocolate brown floorboards is indicated by a plaque solemnly proclaiming, "bloodstain."

Barnsley Gardens' historian, who says he knew the family as a young boy when Godfrey's granddaughter, "Miss Addie" had fallen on hard times, led rapt visitors around the five rooms with a flourish. The 1942 auction notice for the property is on display, advertising "valuable antiques, shrubbery and dwarf boxwood," as is a petite, bustled mink-colored velvet dress of Miss Julia's, and her small glass and filigree "respiratory lamp" for the illness that drove her from Savannah. Panels of period photographs cover the walls. "Woodlands, near Halls Station, Bartow County" is embossed on correspondence from the property's first heyday, before one of Godfrey and Julia's daughters — also named Julia — declined to join her sisters in England during the Civil War. Barnsley Gardens lore says Scarlet O'Hara's phrase, "with God as my witness, I will never go hungry again" originated in one of Julia's letters to her dismayed sisters.

Seeking some modern-day aromatherapy or a visit to the swimming pool, I passed the merry little Bavarian beer garden. Two tanned couples under table umbrellas waved cold beers at me in salute, and two little girls in flowered dresses turned cartwheels near a croquet set.

Miss Julia seems to have gotten her wish.??

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