For decades, visitors drove under the moss-draped live oaks up the main drive to Orton Plantation to tour the formal gardens surrounding a white mansion that has stood sentinel over the Cape Fear River since 1730.
But beyond the blooming azaleas and camellias, much of the plantation’s antebellum landscape was overgrown. Phragmites, a tall reed, covered the fields where rice was once grown, and the normally open longleaf pine forests were so choked with shrubs and other trees that sunlight couldn’t reach the ground.
Now, Raleigh native and billionaire hedge-fund manager Louis Moore Bacon is working to restore Orton’s cultural and natural landscapes. Bacon bought the plantation and about 8,500 surrounding acres in 2010, closed it to the public and embarked on a multi-year effort to restore the rice fields and thousands of acres of longleaf pine forest.
Unlike most of his investments, Orton doesn’t figure to be a money-maker for Bacon. He paid $45 million for the property, according to the Wilmington Star News, and is spending a “significant amount,” in his words, to restore the forests and rice fields as well as research the plantation’s history and renovate the gardens.
He has also hired a law firm to do some public relations for the project. Spokesman Mark Hubbard said the rich guy from New York who bought and closed a beloved tourist attraction and the site of countless weddings wants people to understand what he’s doing and why. “It’s an effort to help people see and understand his vision,” Hubbard said. “He wants people to know his local connection.”
That connection to Orton Plantation goes back centuries. Bacon, 56, is a direct descendent, on his mother’s side, of “King” Roger Moore, the man who established the plantation in 1725 and developed the rice fields he now hopes to restore.
On top of that, land conservation is a hobby of sorts for the hedge-fund manager that Forbes estimated to be America’s 312th richest person last year, with a net worth of $1.4 billion. Bacon recently donated a conservation easement on a 90,000-acre ranch he owns in Colorado and received a medal from the National Audubon Society for his support of the organization and his efforts to protect land in North Carolina, Florida, the Bahamas and on Long Island, where he lives.
“Very few people have the resources or the will to do what’s being done here,” Hubbard said on a tour of Orton this month. “Louis has both.”
News accounts of Bacon refer to him as secretive and reclusive. For this article, he refused to talk to a reporter.
In an email message, he said his mother, Ann Moore Bacon, spent lots of time with her parents at Orton when it was owned by the Sprunt family and that she always dreamed of it returning to her family. James Sprunt bought the home just after the turn of the 20th century, added wings to the house and built the chapel and established the gardens that were later expanded and opened to visitors in the 1930s.
Asked when he first set eyes on Orton, Bacon wrote: “My mother brought me numerous times to visit Orton as a child, and I have visited the gardens with my children many times. Orton is a gem on the Cape Fear River and I am excited about our restoration efforts to bring it back to its original landscape.”
The vast majority of Orton Plantation is covered in forests, which line both sides of N.C. 133 north of Southport in Brunswick County. Motorists can see the changes, as once dense forest has been partially cleared, leaving widely spaced pines.
These are the early stages of a restored longleaf pine forest, which when mature looks like a grassy savannah randomly dotted with tall pines. The trees dominated the coastal plain when the first Europeans arrived, but mature longleaf pine forests have become relatively rare. Of the 90 million acres that once covered the southeastern United States, only about 3 percent remain, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
That’s in part because other species of pine grow faster, making them a preferred choice commercially and because to remain healthy a longleaf pine forest needs to burn every few years. Fire, sparked by lightning, maintained the state’s longleaf pine forests for millennia by regenerating the savanna and keeping other species from taking hold.
Orton Plantation has burned 4,000 acres of forest this year, said Dillon Epp, the forester who manages the Orton property. Before the fires, workers clear the understory and the weakest pines, leaving the most mature, straightest and healthiest trees – each a potential telephone pole, marked with pink ribbons so they wouldn’t be cut.
“It’s beautiful,” Epp said, noting the irony of leaving the most valuable trees and taking the rest. “That’s money standing right there.”
Foresters try to do the controlled burns during the growing season, because that’s when fires naturally happen (sparked by thunderstorms) and when the plants can grow back quickly. Standing in a section of forest that was burned in April, the trunks blackened near the ground, Epp points to clumps of wiregrass three feet tall, along with blackjack oak, bluestem, asters, turkey oak, sedge grass and wild blueberries. The forest floor is green.
“The restoration is way more than just pine trees,” Epp said. “It’s everything underneath them.”
Longleaf pine forests also provide great habitat for turkeys, bobwhite quail, the eastern fox squirrel and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, said John Hammond, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Hammond was among a group of government scientists who toured Orton for the first time last year, seeing the woodpecker nests they had long suspected were there.
“They gave us a tour and explained their management objectives,” Hammond said. “They wanted to make sure they were transparent in how they conducted these things.”
Restoring and maintaining a longleaf pine forest takes patience and dedication, as well as a willingness to work with fire, said Camilla Herlevich, executive director of the N.C. Coastal Land Trust in Wilmington. Other landowners do it, some with as few as 60 acres, Herlevich said. But Orton stands out.
“What’s really different is the scale of this,” Herlevich said. “The fact that he’s got the mission and the resources to do that is a pretty interesting and pretty wonderful combination.”
A vision for rice by 2014
The scale of Bacon’s rice ambitions are also unique, with as many as 363 acres of fallow rice fields at Orton. If he can restore even a fraction of them, he would be the largest rice grower in North Carolina.
The Moore family brought rice cultivation with them from South Carolina, establishing their rice fields in the marshes that surrounded the high-ground Roger Moore chose for his house. Slaves built dikes to keep out the brackish river water and turned the wetlands into fields that could be drained to plant rice in the spring and then carefully flooded with fresh water from man-made Orton Lake as the rice grew during the summer and into the fall.
The Civil War brought an end to large-scale rice production at Orton, though there were subsequent attempts to revive it. Rice hasn’t been grown here since 1931.
Over the years, after the arrival of steamships in the 19th century and deep-water freighters in the 20th, erosion ate away at the ribbon of marsh that protected the dikes and then began eating away at the dikes themselves.
Fiberglass sheets shore up the dike that separates the rice fields from the salty water of river. The ship channel is only about 100 yards away at its closest point, with passing freighters sending wakes like sea surf crashing into the rocks and concrete that have been dumped haphazardly over the years to try to protect the dike and the fields beyond.
“It’s a miracle this is still here,” said Nick Dawson, a landscape architect from Scotland who is overseeing restoration of the gardens as well as the cultural research.
What’s needed are steel sheets sunk deep into the base of the dikes, with big rocks on the channel to break the waves. But before Orton can take permanent steps to restore the rice fields, it needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps refused to comment on the permit, other than to release a statement saying the agency is nearly done with its work and is discussing a mitigation plan with Orton Plantation. “Our hope is to have a final permit decision in the near future,” the statement said.
Dawson said Orton could never get a permit to turn natural wetlands into rice fields. “They would never allow it,” he said. But to restore these fields is something else, and Dawson and Epp are confident they’ll get the permit they need.
To engineer these fields, with water flowing by gravity from Orton Lake through a series of coffers to each field, would be difficult from scratch even now. The work was carried out by countless slaves. Bacon has hired researchers to document the history of Orton plantation, in a report due in October, and they have found the foundations of the old slave village.
It’s important to acknowledge that history and the contributions of people who created the rice fields that Bacon wants to restore, Dawson said. “This is going to stand as testament to all the people who built it,” he said.
Only about 800 to 900 acres of rice are being cultivated in the Carolinas, nearly all in South Carolina, said Glenn Roberts, president of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the growing of heirloom rice in the region. Roberts helped produce a report on the history of rice at Orton and is impressed with Bacon’s undertaking.
“To have that much rice acres come on is a miracle,” Roberts said. “And to have it come on with this much sensitivity is phenomenal.”
Bacon hopes to have rice growing at Orton by 2014, the end of the first phase of the restoration, Dawson said. But the real goal is to have everything working well by 2025, the 300th birthday of the plantation.
“If you’re managing a landscape on a grand scale, you’re not talking about a couple of years,” Dawson said.
The house at Orton Plantation and 12 acres around it are on the National Registry of Historic Places. Bacon wants to expand the designation to include the rice fields, 465 acres in all.
Someday, he’d like to see the plantation named a National Historic Landmark, joining such places as the Biltmore Estate, Duke Homestead and the USS North Carolina.
By email, Bacon said he plans to invite groups involved in land conservation, horticulture, agriculture and wildlife, as well as his neighbors, on the property to “study the ongoing restoration projects at Orton.” But Orton will likely never be open to the public again the way it was when the Sprunt family ran it as a business.