Birmingham Public Library
Main Residence Hall
Pickens County Courthouse
by Mat Hartsell
The history of Gaineswood is somewhat contemporaneous
with the history of Demopolis itself. The town was established in 1817.
The site where Gaineswood is now located was first owned privately in
1819, the same year Alabama became a state. Then in 1821, the first
documented owner--George Strother Gaines--built a dog-trot cabin on this
site. Mr. Gaines lived in this cabin throughout the 1820’s. He and Alan
Glover, a local businessman, bartered out of this cabin with the Choctaws,
who came from the West across the Tombigbee River. Mr. Gaines left this
part of Alabama in 1831 and moved to Mobile. He retained ownership of the
future site of Gaineswood for about 12 more years. Then in 1843, Nathan Bryan Whitfield, a
wealthy cotton planter from North Carolina, bought this estate from George
Strother Gaines, which included the dog-trot cabin and the 480 acres
surrounding it. Mr. Whitfield and his skilled slaves and craftsmen took 18
years to build Gaineswood. The cabin was enlarged and refined into
an elegant mansion from from 1843 to 1861 under the
direction of Nathan Bryan Whitfield, who was his own architect and
designer for his neoclassical Greek Revival-style house, even though he
had no formal training in those fields. Gaineswood is one of the most renowned
structures in the world today for its original furnishings returned by
Whitfield's descendants and its unique architectural
elements, including the domed ceiling. Among the latter are Mr.
Whitfield's inclusion of the three major orders of neoclassical Greek
Revival into the mansion--Doric on the exterior, and the Ionic and
Gaineswood also has a lot of other things in it that
most private homes don't have. Among them are the domed
ceilings--one in the parlor and one in the dining room, each with
cupola-style window lanterns for light and ventilation. There are
also the breathtaking vis-a-vis (face-to-face) mirrors in the drawing
room, and ornate plasterwork, cast iron, and carved wood throughout the
interior. Added around 1860-61, these elements illustrate Mr.
Whitfield's passion for refining a beautiful, atypical home that was
practical for the day and reflected changing architectural trends of the
time. French, Prussian, and Italianate elements accentuate the
imposing neoclassical features that Mr. Whitfeild had established in the
1840s and 1850s.
Nathan Bryan Whitfield died in 1868. The
Whitfields owned the mansion until 1923, and two other families, the
Kirvens and the McLeods, owned the house until 1966. Then the State
of Alabama bought the home, and in 1971 the home was officially turned
over to the Alabama Historical Commission (AHC). The AHC restored
the house and continues to maintain and operate it as a house
museum. Gaineswood offers guided tours daily, on the hour, and also
offers a variety of other public programs. The Friends of Gaineswood,
a support group comprised of Whitfield descendants and local civic
leaders, are active partners with the AHC in site preservation and
programs. For more information, call Gaineswood at 334-289-4846.
we’ve come across two versions of the
ghost story connected with Gaineswood. The most well-known version is
Kathryn Tucker Windham’s in 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. As she tells
it, a young lady named Evelyn Carter came to Gaineswood plantation some
time following the death of Nathan Bryan Whitfield’s first wife Betsy died in 1846, and some time after that, the young lady from Virginia
came down here to the plantation to help Mr. Whitfield with the household
chores and to take care of the young children. According to Ms. Windham,
this young lady’s name was Evelyn Carter. As the story goes, she was
musically talented. She played a variety of instruments and had a nice
singing voice. She entertained the family on numerous occasions during the
building of the mansion. As the story continues, one tragic winter day,
Evelyn died after an extended illness. But prior to her death, however,
Evelyn had requested that her body be taken back up north to Virginia
where he family burial ground was. Now, unfortunately, river travel was
slow at the particular time--perhaps the river was up or down. But for
whatever reason, the river boats could not out to take her body to
Virginia. There were no railroads here until 1862, so they couldn’t take
her body back by railroad. And the roads leading out of here were very
muddy and impassable in the wet winters that we have here. So Mr.
Whitfield was left with basically one option--seal the body in a pine
casket with resin and store it underneath the home here somewhere until
spring arrived and the family could come get the body or Mr. Whitfield
could have it shipped back to the eastern seaboard. So the story goes that
Ms. Carter’s spirit became restless because it was not taken to the
family cemetery in Virginia.
According to Ms. Windham, Ms. Carter to this date still has a presence
here at Gaineswood. Numerous people have reported over the years that they
have heard voices and playing on this piano. The sound of silk skirts
rustling against the walls has been heard here. The sound of footsteps
going up and down the long stairway here at Gaineswood has also been
reported. In addition, there have been verbal accounts of hearing singing voices, perhaps of Ms. Carter herself. Probably
one of the more remarkable manifestations is that of Ms. Carter playing
the piano here at midnight during the 1970s restoration. We cannot verify
any of these manifestations, and neither of us has witnessed any of them.
We do know from the family history and from the family
story that Mr. Whitfield liked Scottish tunes and ballads, and Ms. Carter
and Mr. Whitfield may have played some of these. One of the original
musical instruments in the parlor today returned by Whitfield's
descendants is a rare Chickering & MacKays square piano manufactured
around 1840. The piano was made in Boston and shipped to
Mobile. Its style is very typical of antebellum pianos. The
keys cover only two thirds of the width of the piano. In today's
pianos, the keys go all the way across. The piano at Gaineswood
would seem to be the one that people have reported being played.
However, the ivory has been stripped off some of the keys, and some of the
keys don't even play. The ones that do play are badly out of
tune. The painting above the piano is an original furnishing.
Mr. Whitfield painted it of his daughter Edith ten years after she
died. So it is quite and accomplishment that he could do it from
memory. This was some ten years before the advent of photography.
Also original to Gaineswood, in the parlor, is the
remarkable "flutina," Mr. Whitfield's barrel organ containing a
wide variety of music, some of which he wrote himself! Digital
recordings of the music are played during house tours and programs.
A violin and zither, neither original to Mr. Whitfield's time, are period
instrument similar to those believed to have been played at Gaineswood.
There are endless possibilities as to what kind of music may have been
Kathryn Tucker Windham’s story names the young
lady who came to help Mr. Whitfield Evelyn Carter. However, there are
family records that suggest that the young lady was named Ms. Robinson. I
haven’t heard what the young lady’s first name was. The name of the
young lady is the primary difference. It does seem apparent from both
versions of the story that her father was some kind of a diplomat,
believed to be an
ambassador or envoy to Greece some time after 1846.
I don’t know how commonly so many stories are
circulated today, but we think that they are spin-offs from the story
about Ms. Carter. One is the story of the Eliza Battle for which Ms.
Windham is partially responsible. The Eliza Battle was a steamboat passing
along the Tombigbee River near Demopolis in 1858 when tragedy struck.
There was a whole cargo of cotton and over 200 passengers on board. It
seems the vessel caught fire and sank a good distance down river from
Demopolis. Most of the people either drowned or died of
hypothermia. . It was a very foggy and cold December night.
According to the legend, people have subsequently reported seeing the Eliza Battle on
fire and burning on dark, foggy nights on the Tombigbee River. After a
foray downriver to try to rescue some of the passengers, Nathan
Bryan Whitfield himself painted a portrait of this tragedy--"The
Burning of the Eliza Battle"--which is on display inside Gaineswood
We also know that Mr. Whitfield had a canal--The
Whitfield Canal-- built to
drain the run-off from his farmland. We have heard reports that there is a
ghost haunting the canal itself. And we have also heard there was also a ghost haunting the
tunnel that Mr. Whitfield had bored to the Tombigbee River, but none of
these have been verified.
Visit the Gaineswood