When I first started my Gone with the Wind Tour (over 25 years ago) I was quick to jump into any argument regarding the existence of Tara and where it was located….and there were many. At that time most brochures and articles stated that Tara, “never existed and was in our imagination only”. But Tara DID exist I would respond because Margaret Mitchell said so….
Yes, when interviewed during the time of her book’s arrival in 1936 and the movies Premier in 1939, Margaret “Peggy” Mitchell told all who asked that “her Tara” was Rural Home, the old Fitzgerald Plantation that stood just south of Jonesboro, Georgia. It was there that many of the stories were lived out and shared with her mother (Mae Belle) and then on to Peggy and her brother Stephens Mitchell. After David O. Selznick bought the rights to the story, Peggy and her friend Wilbur Kurtz (later historical consultant for the movie) took the executives (she referred to as the Selznicker’s) on a tour of “her south”,….which included a visit to Rural Home, the neighboring Crawford Plantation (now the Crawford-Talmadge farm where the Tara façade resides) and a number of smaller dwellings in the area. Peggy wanted them to understand the rustic, pioneering spirit of those who settled the upper Georgia Piedmont although she admitted in a number of those same letters that Selznick’s Tara would not only have columns (a horrible thought for Peggy) but would more than likely look like “something out of Savannah”.
After all the festivities involved in her Pulitzer Prize winning Novel and then movie Premier that it spawned, Peggy began to withdrawn from so much of the limelight and at times claimed that there was no connection to any true stories in her book….but her words of 1936 were published and could not be withdrawn so she simply avoided the subject of locations, characters and tours until her death in 1949. In Mrs. Betty Talmadge’s files are letters from Atlanta Historian Franklin Garrett, Wilbur Kurtz and Julian Foster (the man responsible for bringing the Tara façade to Georgia) all suggesting that the world hungered for Tara as described in both the book and the movie and should therefore be preserved for the world to see. It was Kurtz who said to find the stories in GWTW one must simply, “ride the red earth trail from Jonesboro to Lovejoy”.
But rather than just recount the words of Peggy, or Franklin of her beloved Wilbur,….let me share a few of the facts about the Fitzgerald’s so you can see (or not see) the connections for yourself. Phillip Fitzgerald was born in 1798 (the year of the Irish rebellion) in County Tipperary, Ireland, to a father who was still on the run from British authorities for being a rebel, whose grandfather had been tortured to death by the same authorities seeking information on those who would rise against the crown. While his two- story home was sparse he was the richest man in the county and had one of the largest plantations in three counties. His wife’s name was Eleanor (Ms. Ellen) and while his daughters numbered seven, Peggy’s connection was to her grandmother Annie, and Mammie and Sis (the tow who lost their beaus to the war and lived their days out on the grounds of Rural Home). It was Mr. Phillips desire to preserve the property long after his death so that, “any family member seeking refuge and needing a place to live might reside there”.
Mr. Phillip was a rough and tumble leader of the community who was not above drinking before breakfast, and jumping his horse over the highest fence in a bet with another of the planter class who thought his horse was best (today a headstone mars the spot near a fence line where one of Fitzgerald’s neighbors was bested by Mr. Phillip and lost his life in the process). A future governor of Georgia reflected on Mr. Phillips pulling of a knife to protect him when the ruffians in a crowd pulled a gun and said, “let’s just shoot him and we won’t have to vote on him”…when Phillip drew his knife front his boot, scaled the platform, “like a monkey” and faced down the evil doers they holstered their guns and made no more threats.
I have no doubt as one who has investigated (and continue to investigate) the stories from Peggy’s family and friends, that these are the tales that she was recounting in her book. That these were the tales that she was identifying when she said in all earnest, “practically all of the incidences were true”. The Fitzgerald House was her Tara (she even said she had to imagine it up on a hill) and that is why after the book and movie made such a hit that the road near Rural Home was named, “Tara Road” and later the adjoining highway, Tara Boulevard…because that was the area where the story of the O’Hara’s took shape and the tales of the Fitzgerald’s and their neighbors the Crawford’s (who made new dresses from their draperies in January of 1865) and their cousins the Holliday’s (and too many more to mention now) were experienced in real time.
Today, the Fitzgerald House (Rural Home) still exists but does not stand. A number of years ago when a tornado destroyed much of the grandstands of the Atlanta Motor Speedway, it first took off the roof of the Fitzgerald House main structure. Ms. Betty Talmadge had the opportunity to save Rural Home from the wrecking ball and had it moved the few miles to the Crawford-Talmadge farm. It seemed the best location since the Fitzgerald’s and the Crawford’s were neighbors and were considered by most to be the models for Tara and Twelve Oaks when Peggy’s book became the talk of the town. After the tornado it was decided that the house should be dismantled to save it from destruction and so it too awaits its new home in a bigger and better building on the property.
I hope soon to have a place large enough on the Crawford-Talmadge grounds to house the Tara façade and the Fitzgerald House so that the full story of the book and the movie can be told and these icons of history and cinema can become part of the Gone with the Wind Trail that runs from the Museum in Marietta thru Atlanta, to Jonesboro and finally Lovejoy. A few years ago it was my pleasure to purchase the last only Fitzgerald building that still stands, the spring house that for many years was on display in Jonesboro as, “Margaret Mitchells Playhouse” since it was said that she spent so much time as a child writing stories on its porch. I hope soon it will welcome visitors to the Crawford-Talmadge Plantation as they come to tour these houses.
So does, Tara exist somewhere other than just our imagination? Yes, Rural Home (Tara) was a real place and its stories (I only shared a few of them) were the basis for a book and later a movie house which is still the most recognizable of all movie sets….a story of gumption and passion… and family…a place to call home.