After closing for cleanup and repairs from damage sustained during the tornado on March 1, the Hickory Hill historic site has reopened for tours. Dexter Rhodes, the landscaping manager for the Watson-Brown Foundation and Hickory Hill, said it took the entire staff, including the office staff, to get the property back in shape.
Close to 250 trees were downed during the storm, most of them well over 100 feet tall and with an equally wide spread.
"It got all the largest and prettiest trees on the property," Mr. Rhodes said. "But we were very lucky that it did not do more damage than it did."
The loss of trees was significant not only due to their size, but because they were planted there by Tom Watson himself. Mr. Rhodes said there are photos of the mansion before Tom Watson, and the yard is free of trees. An invoice was found that showed Mr. Watson purchased 196 trees from Fruitland Nurseries in Augusta in 1906.
The day after the tornado, Mr. Rhodes said he had John Sunday from the Forestry Commission assess the date of the fallen trees and they were between 85 and 110 years old.
"We can now say without a shadow of a doubt that Tom Watson planted those trees there," Mr. Rhodes said.
Mr. Rhodes said they did not have volunteers help them clean up after the storm because "the clean up is less about presentation than it is about keeping it accurate. It has to be like it was."
As a historic site, the property must be maintained as it was in the early 1900's when Tom Watson lived there. Mr. Rhodes said he couldn't have heavy equipment driving through the property to clean it up. Instead, they walked through on foot and used chain saws.
"It was more like dissecting. It was a lot of hard work, but I keep reminding myself that I'm making history every day that I'm working there," he said. "Somebody 100 years from now will look back at how the place was run, and I am trying to take Tom Watson's lead and continue with it."
Although the funnel hit the property on the west side, crossed the front lawn of Hickory Hill, and tore through the east side of the property, the mansion and support cottages were not damaged. Mr. Rhodes said the trees "dominoed," landing on and destroying the smokehouse, the Delco electricity shed and the top of the corncrib.
Michelle Zupan, the curator for Hickory Hill, said the lost structures will be rebuilt using as much of the original materials as possible. Mr. Rhodes has already begun replacing the lost trees with nearly full-grown specimens.
"I took great pains to measure it, and the new trees are in the same spot where Tom Watson planted them," he said.
Because both Mr. Rhodes and Ms. Zupan live in the Augusta area, they had to rely on news reports for information of the tornado as it was happening. When Mr. Rhodes heard on a scanner that the Hickory Hills subdivision had been leveled, he said he could not stand to wait until the next morning, but immediately drove out to Hickory Hill.
"It was very emotional for me," he said. "The trees have been here and survived I don't know how many storms and ice storms. I think of all the damage they have been through, and they were still healthy trees. And now they are gone."
The first thing Mr. Rhodes did upon his arrival after the storm was get his copy of the disaster survival guide previously drawn up by Ms. Zupan. According to the curator, a disaster plan is common for museums because historical items cannot be replaced, "so you have to figure out how to minimize your losses." In order to design the plan, she had to imagine a catastrophic disaster - a task Ms. Zupan described as painful.
"You never want to think about losing your collection. This is what we do for a living, and it's so much a part of who we are," she said. "But, it could've been so much worse. We lost the buildings, but we didn't lose the mansion. We lost a lot of trees, but we have a lot of light now in our grape arbor... You have to find that, otherwise you go crazy."
Hickory Hill is located at 502 Hickory Hill Drive in Thomson, where Tom Watson Way splits off from Camak Road. For more information, call 706-595-7777.