Tea Grove Plantation offers unique view of area’s history.

Area history buffs and curious tourists seeking an authentic old Southern farm experience needn’t wish for a time machine or resort to living vicariously through books and time-ravaged photos. They need only take a quick jaunt to the outskirts of Liberty County to immerse themselves in the culture and antiquity of the original Walthourville Village, which thrived in the last half of the 19th century and much of the 20th century.

Tea Grove Plantation owner Danny Norman has spent more than four decades recreating the village on 200 acres that span his family plantation. There, visitors can see a working blacksmith shop, grist mill, turpentine still, an expansive collection of tractors, carriages, trains and automobiles — all in working order — as well as 40 buildings that Norman either has relocated or built.

“My heart and soul have been in doing this, not for recognition or notoriety, not to say I have the largest collection of anything or that I did the best job,” Norman says. “It was simply to say that I believe that the era of history that I am trying to preserve is important to me.”

The plantation lies on what once was part of Liberty County’s Sand Hill community. The area also was known as Lambert before it was named Walthourville around 1800 in honor of Andrew Walthour, whose family is credited with settling the area, according to www.cityofwalthourville.com.

Top: Tea Grove Plantation owner Danny Norman, right, poses with his family. Left to right: Granddaughter Ainsley Dawson, son-in-law Jeff Dawson, daughter Julie Norman Dawson, wife Kathy Norman, grandson Ryder Dawson, granddaughter Harley Dawson.
Left: Norman poses in his milk wagon.
Right: Ainsley, Harley and Ryder hang out among their grandfather’s vehicle collection.

Walthour Village, once one of the most prosperous communities in Southern Georgia, boasted a population of more than 700. That thriving atmosphere and way of life are what Norman is intent on preserving.

Visitors flock to Tea Grove to see the live-steam locomotive circle around a one-and-a-half-mile railroad track. They come to learn how a grist mill grinds grain or corn into flour, to see how blacksmiths forged horseshoes from raw metal and to watch raw sugar cane become syrup. The plantation also is home to a barber shop, newspaper press, police department, jail and service station.

Growing up, Norman’s daughter, Julie Norman Dawson, says she thought she had the world’s biggest playground.

“I was like a kid in a candy store,” Dawson says. “He collected a lot of the bigger items when I was older. When I was younger, it was more like a big huge open playground. There were some buildings, and he acquired everything throughout my childhood. I was probably in my teenage years when he acquired the steam train, and I thought he was crazy. And then I was out there and watched as they laid the track. I don’t know what life would be like without having to experience all that. We had so many things and just loved hanging out there.”

The name Tea Grove dates back to when Norman’s great-great grandfather, John Harden, grew and cultivated tea on the plantation’s farmland, Norman says. In 1877, Harden built the original wooden home where Norman and his wife of 44 years, Kathy, raised their daughter and still live today.

A Texaco fuel station models gas stops before pay-at-the-pump was an option, and a chapel shines white under a dramatic sky.
Tea Grove has its own REA Express train station with an arrivals and departures board. Though tracks do run past the platform, the route is out of commission.
From faded metal signs to an antique clock and aged farm tools, rustic nostalgia covers the land.

“My efforts were to try and preserve something here similar to what it was back in the 40s and 50s,” says Norman, who started collecting items in the early 1970s. “It was really to try and create a representation of what the Walthourville area was like and the industries that were here. … This was all about creating an environment and a place for an annual family reunion and giving everybody a chance to see something they haven’t seen before, and each year I added a little bit.”

He gradually brought in a cotton gin, added a water tower, church, fire station, city hall, a telephone office and two tractor dealerships representing Ford and Ferguson tractors.

About 20 years ago, someone gave Norman an iconic brass pole for fire-fighters to slide down when responding to calls — so he was forced to build a two-story station to make it useable, he says with a laugh.

Norman admits the hobby is a “passion-turned obsession,” but it’s near and dear to his heritage.

The plantation also has a general store, modeled after his grandfather’s business.

“It was located where my front gate is at now,” Norman says. “He had a general store and a post office there, and I can faintly remember the smell of kerosene when you go in there.”

The reconstructed general store is filled with goods of the era: kerosene lamps, washboards, farm tools, cattle supply and mason jars. Norman even recreated the store’s original sign bearing the names “H.C. Norman General Merchandise,” and “Post Office Walthourville Village.”

“Bill’s Gas and Oil,” service station still advertises gas for 10 cents a gallon, and if you want to place a call from the old telephone office, be prepared to crank the phone handle.

Norman’s tractor collection has surpassed 400, and his stable of antique cars, trucks and horse-drawn buggies is just as deep.

“The first tractor I got I bought in 1970, and I still have it,” Norman says. “The first old car that I bought, I got when I was 11 years old, and I still have it. I’m just not much for selling. I have an affection for it and I just enjoy it.

“People ask me, ‘What is your favorite piece?’” he says. “Honestly, I don’t have a favorite, I like it all. I have someone that helps me, and one day we washed over 138 cars — no sane person has 138 cars to show, and that wasn’t even all of them. You can’t enjoy all of that, but you can share that with others, which is what I enjoy doing.”

For Kathy Norman, her husband’s passion spurs plenty of warm memories.

“He comes home with something different every day, and that is what is exciting about it,” she says.

Norman’s quest for the next item has taken the couple on a multistate journey spanning the past and present.

“I can remember the old cars and things, and it’s fun going back that far, to really see how people really did live,” Kathy says. “We visited Amish country and I was amazed at how they live and what they do, and it is very much like the way we used to live if you really look at it — if they really went back in time, they would realize we were living the same way they are.”

Norman’s property is a glimpse at rural Americana, complete with general store wares and a fortune teller next to vintage mailboxes in the model post office.

For 16 years, the family opened its plantation to an estimated 25,000 visitors each year for Old South Farm Days, where folks marveled at the working machinery, and older generations shared stories about how they used similar equipment and maintained farms by hand.

But as time passed and the crowds grew, it became impossible to host the event, Norman says.

“It really got so big that the logistics of it were almost impossible, and then we had a couple of things come about that created problems with us trying to continue it,” he says, adding that many of his volunteers began aging and dealing with health problems. As older participants passed away, much of their knowledge on how to operate and fix the antiques was lost.

Visitors still enjoy the plantation today through smaller events, such as weddings, the Georgia Farm Bureau farm tour and the Boy Scouts of America jamboree.

And the village still is living and growing.

“I collect everything from thimbles to light bulbs to milk bottles of the early era,” Norman says. “I always wanted a horse-drawn milk wagon. When I was a little fellow and we used to go to Savannah, they had horses pulling the milk wagon. And when you were going into Savannah you would go by the place where they housed them, and I said, ‘I’m going to get me a milk wagon one day.’ We were up in Ohio when I found one. I then bought a bunch of stuff to put in it to make it look like it was ready to make deliveries. I like things that you can’t go just anywhere to see. It is rewarding to be able to provide an environment to preserve something.”

Norman’s preservation efforts have been hindered by changing technology and practices that have become outdated. The venue has not hosted a family reunion in years.

As Dawson grew older, she learned to appreciate and respect the work her father started.

“I wish my children had the opportunity to experience it,” she adds. “Every Thanksgiving, we would have a huge family reunion and grind cane — I mean that is how this all started — I miss that, and my children have never been able to experience it because when we stopped, my oldest daughter was still just a very small child. But to go out and find somebody that is capable of operating the grinder … or how a blacksmith made a horseshoe … All of that has been lost.”

Dawson’s three children are fascinated by the plantation, she says. Her son Ryder, 7, loves the tractors, her older daughter Harley is intrigued by all the old cars, and her middle child Ainsley is partial to Dawson’s favorite spot, the sugar-cane grinder.

“That was probably my favorite area,” Dawson says. “Right underneath those huge oak trees, you step in there and you just step back in time.”

Norman plans to preserve the plantation so it can be open to visitors for years to come.

“I would hope that we could turn it into something like a museum with the state and have it open on a daily basis,” Dawson adds. “Where else could you go and actually experience this? Nowhere. Where else could you go and see what an old general store looked like — what a real one looked like? Or see a turpentine still or a real cotton gin — and everything else that we take for granted nowadays?”

{ By Patty Leon | Photographs by Geoff  L. Johnson }