The earliest recorded history of White Oak Plantation dates back to April 16, 1768 when the British Governor of Florida made a land grant to Andrew Way, his deputy surveyor of lands. Three years later, Jermyn Wright, also a recipient of a land grant on the St. Marys, purchased Way’s property. At that time, the land was still in an “uncleared state” and “entirely covered in woods.”
Among other things, the plantation produced timber and food stores for naval consumption. After removing the stands of cypress from the swamp, Wright also began the first cultivation of rice on the property, establishing the southernmost rice plantation on the Atlantic coast.
By 1833, Zephaniah Kingsley, a pre-Civil War agricultural baron, had become the Plantation’s sole owner. In 1842, White Oak Plantation was purchased by Abraham Bessent a St. Marys Georgia shopkeeper. This sale included extensive machinery and 118 slaves, 109 whose names were recorded on the deed.
Before the Civil War, White Oak had approximately 350 acres of rice paddy in cultivation. Rice farming was a far riskier business than the cultivation of cotton and other agricultural products. It was extraordinarily labor intensive and required a capital outlay of approximately $100,000. Complete failure of a rice plantation loomed one bad harvest away. From the Carolinas to the St. Marys, the rice economy depended on the know-how and agricultural implements brought by the West African slaves. Today, the abandoned rice paddies on White Oak are still visible, and across the road from the fields, there still stands a ruin from the Kingsley era. During the Civil War, most planters left their rice plantations and permanently relocated to their summer estates. It is probable that the Plantation was abandoned at this time.
The Gilman family acquired White Oak in 1938, and the original 7,400-acre property was used for timber production, the breeding, raising and training of horses, and recreational programs as part of the marketing program of Gilman Paper Company. In 1982, philanthropist Howard Gilman initiated a significant program for the conservation and propagation of threatened and endangered species on the property. Starting in 1993, The Howard Gilman Foundation hosted a variety of national and international conferences and seminars at White Oak directly related to its three fields of interest: arts and culture, conservation and the environment, and public policy.
White Oak was also home to the Mikhail Baryshnikov Dance Studio, which housed an active artists’ residency program, where noted choreographers and directors, such as Mark Morris, Julio Bocca, David Parsons, Alonzo King and Anne Bogart, developed and refined their work. The Dance Studio provided an exceptional setting for choreographers, dance troupes, and other theater groups from around the world to create and hone new works of dance and music. The 6,000 square foot studio, complete with locker rooms, kitchenette, dining area, and an abundance of natural light, offers ample privacy and space.
In March 2013, White Oak welcomed new owners Mark and Kimbra Walter. Both Mr. and Mrs. Walter are longstanding conservationists whose philanthropy already supports conservation and wildlife programs across North America. White Oak operations and facilities are managed by White Oak Conservation Holdings LLC, which the Walters established for this purpose.