In the past two centuries, countless lives have come and gone, but the Thurleston House is still standing, grand as ever. The historic antebellum home sitting on 35 acres in Madison, Ga known for its luxurious gardens turned 200-years-old this year. The current owners, Clarence and Kathy Whiteside, have maintained the property’s historical integrity while creating lush gardens across the estate since the early 1980s. Kathy, a retired master gardener, once described the gardens as being “lovingly created” by her and her husband.
“It took me 20 years make what was in my head happen here,” said Kathy. “We have had so many wonderful experiences in this house. This is where we raised our children. This is where our daughter had her wedding. This is where we hosted many events for the City of Madison and the Cultural Center.”
For years, the Thurleston House has been a prime attraction for Madison’s annual Tour of Homes. The Whitesides have also opened up their home for various film projects over the years, including the popular 1990s television series “In the Heat of the Night,” starring Carol O’Connor, “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, a made for TV movie starring Donald Sutherland and Diane Lane, and even a segment for a Japanese program. The Thurleston House also drew then First Lady Laura Bush in for a tour when she visited Madison during George W. Bush’s presidency.
“It’s been an incredible life in this house,” said Kathy.
Now, Kathy and Clarence are preparing to say goodbye to the Thurleston House and find the next steward to keep the house and its traditions alive.
“We are putting the house on the market soon,” said Kathy. “I have grieved for the last four months over this decision, but I am also relieved because it is time for us to downsize. It will take someone very special to take on this house. You have to work hard to maintain old houses like this or they fall into ruin.”
Throughout its long history, the Thurleston house has been expanded, updated and even relocated as it was passed down from generation to generation among several different families.
Built in 1818 by John Walker, the house originally served as the Piedmont Plain farmhouse on a piece of land between Indian Creek and Little River. Walker’s sons used a mule and log to move the modest five-room farmhouse to its current location in 1841.
According to Susan Hitchcock with the Morgan County Landmark’s Society, “After passing through several hands, and serving for a time as a boy’s school, the house became the property of Elijah E. Jones, who added the massive front gable in 1848. A new house emerged under the guidance of architect Benjamin Peeples, more than double its original size.”
The Butler Family took over the Thurleston estate in the 1860s when Col. David E. Butler and his wife, Virginia Walton Butler bought the house. One of the couple’s daughters, Miss Bessie Butler inherited the house and cultivated a magnificent garden, beginning a tradition the property carries on to this day. In 1930, the Atlanta Journal described Thurleston’s gardens “to be one of the most beautiful sights in Georgia.”
Bessie Butler told the newspaper, “I have evolved a wonderful, hardy garden. In March the jonquils, the forsythias and the spireas bloom; in April the iris come, when there are thousands of feet of the Bowers of Louis; in May and June we have the lilies and roses and the rest of the year the hydrangeas and the lovely hardy sweet peas, all on the same walks and beds, all perfectly hardy and thriving, without work, water or enriching.”
Today, the gardens have been meticulously maintained and elaborated upon by Kathy and Clarence Whiteside.
Thurleston’s landscape consists of thriving woodlands, a children’s garden, a vegetable garden, fields of wild flowers, a cutting garden, and other garden rooms. According to Kathy, native plants abound, as well as a collection of antique roses and many unusual, hard-to-find plants, trees and shrubs. Rock walls, a wet weather pond with a waterfall, a fire pit, and arbors and trellis’ accent the diverse plant life across the property.
“We just went by each little piece of earth to create what we have today,” said Kathy.
Because of her painstaking care of the immense grounds, a foster breathtakingly regal gardens across 19 acres of the land, the Thurleston estate has become one of the most sought-after private homes to tour and photograph.
“It has been an honor and an awesome responsibility,” said Kathy. “We are hoping the next person to take on this house will love every inch of it, just as we did.”