“It’s a beautiful love story with a lot of powerful women” kept saying Clent Coker, the historian, museum director and author at Barnsley Gardens Resort in Georgia. While visiting the gardens this past weekend, Clent gave me a personal tour while sharing his own personal obsession with the property.
Clent’s great-grandmother was born in one of the cottages adjacent to The Barnsley Manor in the early 1800s. He grew up playing in the gardens listening to her fairy-tale stories about Godfrey Barnsley and his beloved wife, Julia. Since then he has dedicated his entire life researching, collecting and documenting every event that took place on the property. Clent’s family was friends with the Barnsleys’ so he has a mental biography of each of the family members as told over time. With hundreds of letters, pictures, furniture and personal belongings, Clent now maintains the Barnsley museum and is overjoyed to talk to whoever is interested in listening to his story.
Clent is the author of “Barnsley Gardens At Woodlands”, a 260 page, photo filled hard cover book that narrates the history of this majestic estate and its owners over the last two centuries. Cotton lord and Englishman, Godfrey Barnsley built the gardens and manor for his young wife, Julia. Clent told me that although she passed away at the age of 35 before seeing the great manner completed, it was her strong influence that later guided Godfrey through the final construction of the estate. It would become one of the greatest love stories of the south.
Surviving a tornado, the civil war, a murder, and a few owners, today the 2,000 acre Barnsley Resort stands as one of the most beautiful places in the south. By the mid 1850’s the Woodland’s gardens were completed from the manuals of the renowned landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing (aka The Father of American Landscape Architecture.) Downing is famous for his cottage style residences surrounded by symmetrical gardens. As we walked out of the ruins into the Woodlands gardens, I got a beautiful view of how rows of shrubs, trees and flowers had been strategically placed creating a pristine oasis within the lush grounds.
Clent drove me around the property in his all-terrain golf cart, speeding away through grass and dirt trails. He showed me the place where the Barnsley family is buried, the beautiful orchards, lakes and picnic areas. Apparently, Clent has also been working as a strategic advisor, overlooking the construction of the resort that opened in 1999.
He guided Prince Hubertus Fugger of Bavaria (previous owner) in restoring the gardens as he remembered them as a child. He shared his vision of a peaceful resort representing an old English village, inspired by which the rows of neatly placed cottages were built. During the 1990’s Clent handpicked several other historic homes from the north Georgia area and had the moved to the premises, creating the outpost for adventure sports, an original Cherokee Indian cabin and the Rice House restaurant. However, we were not trying to create another “Dollywood” Clent exclaimed. He said that he and Prince Fugger and the developers agreed they would maintain the natural beauty of the place offering people a relaxing family friendly atmosphere were they could hike, bike, golf, kayak, horseback ride and swim while also touring the historic ruins and museum. In 2005 the Barnsley Gardens Resort was purchased by Julian Saul and associates and the Barnsley dream continues on.
Clearly, Clent is more than passionate about his own love affair with Barnsley. Everyone I talked to at the resort had the same feeling about him. He knows a lot about everything, they told me. His legacy is going to last with Barnsley. I couldn’t resist bringing home an autographed copy of his book and feeling the presence of a great storyteller in my own library.
To read more about Clent Coker or his book, click here.