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Orton Plantation Gardens
In 1663, King Charles II of England granted the eight Lords Proprietors the Carolinas region of America. Brothers Maurice, Roger, and Nathaniel Moore permanently settled the Cape Fear River region around 1725, by establishing Brunswick Town. The Orton land on the north side of Brunswick Town was first owned by Maurice Moore, but he quickly gave it to his brother Roger, who developed it into one of the most famous of the Lower Cape Fear rice plantations.
Roger first built at Orton in 1725, but the Indians burned down that house. Roger next built at Kendall, his plantation to the north of Orton. In 1735 Roger built again at Orton, a 1.5 story house that is the center of the current house, and established his family there. He cleared trees in the marsh wetlands and built earthen bankings around the wetlands to create the rice fields. To flood the rice fields, he dammed Orton Creek and created a “reserve” of fresh water five miles in length and averaging a quarter mile in width.
“King” Roger Moore, as he became known for his masterful personality and generosity, was a member of the Council, a body of eight of the most influential citizens entrusted with considerable responsibility for the proper administration of the public affairs of Brunswick Town. Roger died in 1751 leaving 250 slaves, many thousand acres of land, and other valuables. He is buried in the Colonial Cemetery at the north end of Orton Plantation Gardens. His son William died soon after and his other son George sold Orton to Richard Quince in the 1750’s.
Richard Quince was one of the leading merchants and traders of the region. He was a commissioner of Brunswick Town, chairman of the inferior court of pleas and quarter sessions of Brunswick County, and an active participant in the American Revolution. He died in 1778 and was buried in the courtyard of St. Philips Church at Brunswick Town. In 1796, his son sold Orton to Benjamin Smith.
A grandson of Roger Moore, Benjamin Smith served as aide de camp to General Washington in the retreat from Long Island in August of 1779 when he was 21 years old. He was elected Governor of North Carolina in 1810 and was instrumental in obtaining a charter for the town of Smithville, later renamed Southport, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. But, Smith’s life ended in a tragic anticlimax. Having lost a considerable part of his fortune by endorsing the note of a friend and unsuccessfully undertaking a government contract, he died a pauper in 1826, so heavily in debt that his body was about to be seized by creditors under a gruesome law then in force. The advertisement that Orton, containing 4,975 acres of land more or less, would be sold at public auction in 1824 was evidence of his financial debacle.
In 1826 a grandson of Nathaniel Moore, Dr. Frederick Jones Hill, became owner of Orton. Hill was held in the highest esteem for his benevolence and service, especially in the cause of the common school system, of which he was the most influential advocate. He added the second floor, attic, and four fluted Doric columns to Orton House in the Greek revival or Neo-Classic style instituted by Thomas Jefferson.
In 1854 Hill sold Orton to Thomas Calezance Miller who held Orton until his death just after the Civil War (1861-1865) ended. A daughter later wrote to a relative in Wilmington that, after the war “of course everything went to pieces and we lost it (Orton).” The rice plantation period flourished up to the end of the war, but due to loss of slaves and capital, the greater part had to be abandoned. Orton was saved from certain destruction because the Northern troops used it as a hospital when they overran the Lower Cape Fear after the fall of Fort Fisher across the river in January of 1865 and Fort Anderson at Brunswick Town in February of 1865.
In August of 1872 Orton was again advertised for sale at public auction, but it did not sell. Orton finally sold in 1876 to Currer Richardson Roundel, who committed suicide soon after. In the late 1870’s, Roundel’s heirs sold Orton to Major C. M. Stedman and his brother-in-law Captain David Reid Murchison. In 1884, they sold Orton to Murchison’s older brother, Colonel Kenneth McKenzie Murchison.
Kenneth Murchison went to New York to be a naval stores and cotton merchant after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He returned to Wilmington to be in the Confederate Army and became a Prisoner of War (POW) on Johnson Island under horrible conditions, having to eat rats for nourishment. After the war he went back to New York and revived his naval stores and cotton business. After purchasing Orton in 1884 he restored Orton House to its former state after years of neglect, repaired the rice fields, and made Orton his winter home. He was an outdoorsman who liked to fox hunt, duck hunt, and fish. He died in 1904.
James Sprunt bought Orton out of his father-in-law’s estate and presented it to his wife, Luola. During the Civil War when he was only 18 years old, James was a Purser on several Confederate blockade runners, swift little ships which dashed through the blockading fleet of Northern ships to export cotton to the British mills and import necessities for the South. After the War, with 5 bales of cotton, he joined his dad in starting Alexander Sprunt & Sons cotton exporting business. Based out of Wilmington with offices throughout Europe, it became the largest cotton exporting business in the world, known in Europe as the most prominent and reliable.
James and Luola added the wings to Orton House in 1910, designed by her brother Kenneth Murchison, Jr., an architect in New York. They began the development of a modest garden by planting live oak trees, arborvitae trees, and cedar trees. They built the Chapel in 1915 for family services, as travel to distant parishes was difficult. After Luola’s death in 1916, James named the Chapel in her memory, Luola’s Chapel.
James financed the construction of many churches; he gave a wing to the James Walker Memorial Hospital in Wilmington and named it in memory of a young daughter, Marion Sprunt; he established a fund for the aid of crippled children; and he endowed a series of lectures at the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. James was also the author of several books on Cape Fear history, most notably Chronicles of the Cape Fear first published in 1914.
After James’ death in 1924, his son J. Laurence Sprunt and wife, Annie Gray, extended the gardens to Roger Moore’s graveyard with the help of Robert Swann Sturtevant, a landscape architect and friend who came down from Massachusetts to help in the winters. In the 1930’s and 1940’s they planted live oak trees, azaleas, camellias, flowering peach, daphne, hydrangeas, crepe myrtles, dogwoods, and colorful annuals. In the late 1930’s a cousin had a bad automobile accident so the gardens were opened to the public for a long weekend to help pay the medical bills. The gardens have remained open to the public ever since.
Churchill Bragaw contributed greatly to the planning and building of the gardens as manager for some years before World War II (1939-1945) where he lost his life in fierce warfare in Italy. An impressive dormitory was named in his memory at North Carolina State University in Raleigh where he received his degree in horticulture.
After the death of Laurence Sprunt in 1973 and Annie Gray Sprunt in 1978, the ownership was shared by their three sons: Kenneth Murchison, Samuel Nash, and Laurence Gray Sprunt. Kenneth succeeded Bragaw as manager of the gardens after World War II until the mid 1990’s when Laurence bought the gardens from his brothers and continued the management.
The façade of Orton House with impressive live oak trees situated on a high bluff overlooking the colonial rice fields and Cape Fear River attract thousands of visitors each year. Lawns and water gardens lend variety to the lush vegetation. The woodlands are devoted largely to pine forestry.