First published in Southern Destinations
It’s called simply The Wheeler Plantation. A large white house sitting almost shyly near the Southern Railway tracks outside Hillsboro. But its roots reach deeply into the Alabama soil. The first owners, the Sharrods, began working the land in 1818. But its real story is that of the last resident, not the first.
As anyone who’s spent any time in the South can tell you, the image of the frail, helpless Southern lass is a stereotype without foundation. Miss Lillian, Dixie Carter, and Oprah Winfrey never dressed in crinolines or poured punch at garden parties.
But those strong-willed, successful ladies are only following the examples set by women who were feminists long before the term was coined. Many were well-bred ladies from families with the kind of social standing that seemed at odds with their trend-setting behavior.
One of those women was Annie Wheeler. Born in 1868, at a time when proper ladies led anonymous, well-ordered lives, she was in the middle of wars and insurrections, defining the curriculum of Alabama’s school system, involved in early conservation efforts, and meeting European royalty.
Her spunk came, in part at least, from her adored father, General “Fighting Joe” Wheeler. A graduate of West Point, he resigned his commission to join the Confederate Army in 1861 as a junior Second Lieutenant. Four years later, he was the youngest Lieutenant General in the Confederate Army and in charge of all Confederate Cavalry. During the War, he was wounded three times, had 16 horses shot from underneath him, and was involved in 800 engagements.
While engaged in fighting near Decatur, he met Daniella Sharrod, a recently widowed young woman with a pedigree that included many prominent Southern families. The story goes that they mutually charmed each other. Their romance survived the War years, and they were finally married in 1866. Annie was one of their seven children.
After Appomattox, General Joe retired to Pond Spring, Daniella’s 17,000 acre plantation, 17 miles west of Decatur. Farming and business may have been his plan, but it wasn’t long before he returned to the public eye, not as a military leader this time, but as a member of Congress. For nearly twenty years, he represented his Alabama district.
During those years, Annie Wheeler spent her time between the plantation in Alabama and the nation’s capital. A dainty figure, the vibrant young woman was popular in the social circles wherever she was living. She was especially known for her equestrian skills. From most accounts, she would have been comfortable riding alongside her father during a cavalry charge. One account calls her an “intrepid rider, absolutely without fear, frequently performing feats of horsemanship which make a strong man hold his breath.”
Miss Annie hung up her spurs, though, at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. Her father was recalled to active military service (one of only two former Confederates to be so summoned to serve the United States). President McKinley commissioned him a Brigadier General and sent him to Cuba. Joe, Jr., her brother, was assigned as her father’s aide-de-camp.
Saying she couldn’t stand staying in the Washington social whirl while her father and brother were in danger, Annie started looking for a way to join them at their base in Florida as they prepared to sail to Cuba. Visits to the War Department were met with advice to stay home. The only dignified thing for a woman to do, she was told, was to stand on the doorstep and bid the men farewell and be standing there to welcome them IF they came back.
Annie hopped a train headed south the next morning.
Her father was surprised, but pleased, when his headstrong daughter appeared. Over the winter, she watched the soldiers’ drills, reviews and parades. She also began planning how she could tag along when the troops left for Cuba. Although she had no training as a nurse, she managed to wrangle an OK from Clara Barton to join the medical teams and was on the first transport to enter Santiago harbor.
A natural organizer, Annie was named administrator of a hospital for the sick and wounded soldiers in Cuba. She returned with the wounded to a military hospital on Long Island. The press picked up her story and dubbed Annie “The Angel of Santiago.” Her trip back to Alabama was a triumphant one. The special train, commissioned to carry her hero father home, had a passenger list that included President McKinley and other government officials.
They no sooner unpacked than General Joe was headed back to active duty, this time to help quell the Philippine Insurrection in 1899. Once again, Annie had no intention of being left behind. She scooted off to Washington and had her travel papers approved and ready to go before her father knew she was there. The two sailed across the Pacific to Manila, where Annie resumed her nursing duties.
A lull in world politics gave her a chance to return to the States, but Europe beckoned. She toured the continent’s capitals and was presented to the King and Queen of England at the Court of St. James. Her wanderlust finally exhausted, she sailed back home, happy to act as her father’s aide in his business and professional life.
When “Fighting Joe” died in 1906, Annie decided that the plantation house would become a shrine to his memory and life. She displayed his uniforms, medals, sword, awards and documents in the parlors and would tell visitors many stories about his life and adventures.
World War I took her away for one last time. She donned a nurse’s uniform once more, serving in base and advance hospitals in France. When the battles ended, she settled in Alabama once and for all.
For many people, that would have been enough adventures for a lifetime, but while her travels were over, “Miss” Annie’s active life was not. She simply focused her energies on tackling other issues. Not surprisingly, she became very active in women’s organizations. Determined that women should be independent, she introduced sewing and cooking classes in Alabama schools, creating the prototype that became the basis of home economics’ studies in the state’s public schools.
The gardens at the Wheeler Plantation were her special pride. The large, formal garden behind the house was filled with boxwood, crepe myrtle, weeping cherries, and rose arbors. Long before ecology and conservation were part of the popular vocabulary, she was planting trees, shrubs, and flowers along the highways near her home.
The beloved garden became her final resting place when she died in 1955.
After her death, the Plantation was held in trust for the General’s grandchildren. His surviving granddaughter gave the 50 acres and 12 buildings on the grounds and all of their contents to Alabama in 1994. Most of the General’s belongings are still in the house. One of the most important preservation efforts is installing climate control to the main house to protect the fabrics from deterioration.
The Master Plan will restore the plantation’s original buildings from 1830 through the 19th century, the pecan grove, slave area, and gardens at the entrance to the house. Teams of archeologists who’ve surveyed the site are excited at what they’ve unearthed. Their discoveries show that the land that eventually became Pond Spring Plantation was popular even in prehistoric times. They’ve uncovered primitive tools and animal bones. Later finds show postholes, tool parts, buttons, stove legs, ceramics, screws, nails, and window glass dating back to the Sherrod’s first buildings.
The Wheeler Plantation welcomes visitors Thursday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. There’s a $4 charge for adults; $2 for children. The Plantation’s website is great. www.wheelerplantation.org.