Enlightening Places: An Afternoon at Orton Plantation
When my family and I decided to make Brunswick County our home, we knew the welcoming people, beautiful landscapes and rich history were distinctive from the very start. But I truly didn’t understand how rare and important the Brunswick County region is until I attended an event called “A Private Glimpse of Orton/A Taste of Carolina History,” hosted by the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust and their sponsors at Orton Plantation. The North Carolina Coastal Land Trust is a nonprofit organization formed to protect valuable natural areas and it holds conservation easements that cover much of the Orton property.
I believe it is important to know the history of the places I live, so this was not my first visit to Orton Plantation. But this particular trip delighted me, especially knowing that the plantation is under new ownership and is currently closed to the general public. I learned so much, not only about Orton but also about Brunswick County.
Before I tell you about the tour, first let me share a brief history of Orton Plantation, which is located along the Cape Fear River on Orton Road off of N.C. Highway 133 in Winnabow, just a few miles from the Brunswick Town State Historic Site.
In 1725 Roger Moore, one of the founders of Brunswick Town, built Orton and eventually established it as one of the most prominent rice plantations in the Lower Cape Fear region. Northern troops used the plantation house as a hospital during the Civil War, thus sparing it from destruction. The plantation went through several owners throughout its history, each owner adding his or her own thread to Orton’s story. The plantation finally found its way into the Sprunt family, who not only added to the residence but also began the famous gardens. The Sprunt family held the land for more than 100 years and sold a large portion of the plantation property to a direct descendent of the original Moore family last May.
The Coastal Land Trust’s tour of Orton was divided into six stations throughout the grounds, each with a presenter on a specific topic. To enhance the feeling of having stepped into the historic Southern past, at each site we were treated with a delectable taste of Southern fare catered by Pine Valley Market of Wilmington.
My group’s tour began on the grounds overlooking the plantation’s old rice fields. Janet Seapker, an architectural historian, was our guide on the rice culture. She spoke of the successful fields that grew high-quality Carolina Golden rice, which was sold primarily as seed.
“Slaves were actually the ones who taught the plantation owners how to harvest the rice,” Seapker says. “The work was very labor intensive. Women usually had the task of planting, by using gourds with slits in them to sprinkle the seeds out, and then using the toe and heel of their foot to dig a small hole in the ground to plant the seed.”
Photos from the 1890s depict how a device called a “trunk” was used to control the tidal flow, as rice was a water-dependent crop.
At this station we received a delicacy of deer sausage with rice.
Flavorful Brunswick stew greeted us at our second stop, along with Lawrence S. Earley, author of Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest. He educated us on the longleaf pine that once grew so prevalently from Virginia to Texas.
“Ninety million acres of longleaf pine forests used to exist, and as of about 10 years ago only 2.8 million acres were left, fragmented across these regions,” Earley says.
The majestic longleaf pine, which can live as long as 500 years, grew abundantly in the area’s sandy soil, creating a very diverse ecosystem. Its decline began when early settlers cleared land. Then the trees were clear-cut for making turpentine, tar and pitch (which was in demand for navies and shipped throughout the world from this region) as well as lumber and paper. To add to the devastation, in more recent times, naturally occurring forest fires have been limited by human intervention, therefore stunting these fire-tolerant forests.
“It took about three generations of foresters to understand the longleaf pine and how to grow it,” says Earley.
Because of this knowledge people are restoring the longleaf pine, and in the last few years the acreage of these forests has risen slightly.
Our next stop was Luola’s Chapel, erected in 1915 and named in memory of James Sprunt’s wife. Ben Steelman, reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and co-author of Wilm on Film, gave the history of the chapel in addition to an account of Orton’s film merits.
“The Sprunts built the chapel for family services as well as for their visiting guests, so they wouldn’t have to travel to Wilmington,” says Steelman. “And being pre-automotive days, that would have been far.”
With the stately mansion situated on a bluff overlooking the river, expansive gardens and mature live oaks hung with Spanish moss lining the drive, it is easy to see why Orton Plantation has been a frequent set for movies and TV shows. In fact, Orton helped Wilmington start its film industry.
It began in 1982, when producers Dino de Laurentiis and Frank Capra, Jr. searched for a perfect location for a movie called Firestarter, starring Drew Barrymore, David Keith, Martin Sheen and George C. Scott. Capra saw a photo of Orton Plantation in a Southern magazine and both he and
De Laurentiis knew it was the ideal spot. De Laurentiis liked the area so much that he soon after opened a movie studio in Wilmington.
Subsequent movies filmed at Orton include Crimes of the Heart, Lolita, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, I Know What You Did Last Summer, A Walk to Remember, Bruno, Hound Dog and others.
After having our movie appetites satisfied, we were treated with a perfect snack of fried green tomatoes.
Our next two stations consisted of the architectural history of Orton, presented by architectural historian Ed Turberg, and the waterfowl of Orton presented by Dave Adams, a North Carolina Coastal Land Trust volunteer. Corn muffins and duck confit over sweet potatoes welcomed us at these sites.
Looking up at the mansion, Turberg educated us on how the edifice we see today is actually a replacement of the first home built here by Roger Moore. The first burned, and Moore decided to rebuild in 1735. At the time, it was a one-and-a-half-story brick home, which makes up the current core of the structure. Later, in about 1840, owner Dr. Frederick Hill added the second story, the attic and the Doric columns. In 1870 Colonel Kenneth Murchison purchased Orton after it had endured years of neglect.
“[Murchison] restored Orton,” says Turberg, “and used the property as his personnel hunting preserve, where he brought his hound dogs and would fish with friends.”
After Murchison’s death in 1904, his son-in-law, James Sprunt, and daughter, Luola, bought the property and added more elegance to the mansion by designing the two wings on either side. At the same time, they began creating the garden. Sprunt’s son, J. Laurence Sprunt, and his wife, Annie Gray Nash, extended the gardens to their current splendor.
Adams gave an informative speech about the waterfowl living in the area wetlands and about the resident wood duck. According to Adams, the wood duck nesting boxes posted in the wetlands are effective in increasing the wood duck population. Once in peril, the wood duck is now one of the most common ducks in North Carolina.
The last station on our tour was about land conservation, presented by Camilla M. Herlevich, executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust. She gave us a look at the environmental diversity that is Brunswick County.
“This area is ecologically important on the North Atlantic seaboard,” says Herlevich. “It is as rare as some of the places in the Amazon Rain Forest … it is like a stew … variety is the spice of life in Brunswick County.”
A plethora of habitats come together in this region. In the estuaries, fresh water from the Cape Fear River and blackwater streams and salt water from the ocean merge. Coquina, limestone, coral and acidic soils (where Venus’s flytraps thrive) are just some of the distinctive elements found here. Furthermore, the county is host to a variety of waterfowl, birds, fish, trees and other vegetation.
“Fortunately, land ownership patterns in the area have been conducive to conservation,” says Herlevich.
Through the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust, 2,900 acres of Orton, as well as many other areas on the North Carolina coast, are under conservation easements that will preserve them for generations to come.
The pleasant and enlightening afternoon confirmed the fact that I live in an extraordinary place full of nature, history and importance. It left me realizing that there is always more to learn to fully appreciate my surroundings and the place I live.
To learn more about the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust visit