The Bed & Breakfast Period - 1980 to 2000
In 1980, A. Heywood Mason, II, sold the big house and 115 acres to Robert and Ann Marie Walker. She was from Sweden but they had been living in California. They had two sons, Anders and Bengt. They added four bathrooms and a swimming pool about 40 yards north of the big house. The big house was used as a bed and breakfast while the family lived in the Cottage. The big house was also used for mystery dinners and as a stop for tour buses. Robert Walker, an engineer originally from England, moved back to California and the boys stayed at Susina with Anne Marie.
Notable guests during this period included Paul Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward, a native of Thomasville. The picture below from Life magazine is of an admiring Paul Newman as Joanne holds her Best Actress Oscar for her role as Eve White in The Three Faces of Eve.
Anders and Bengt grew and eventually headed off to college. Anne Marie was left with the responsibilities of maintenance, cooking, cleaning and mowing. Over time, the portion of the yard that was maintained withdrew ever closer to the big house and finances grew tight. Old growth longleaf was cut on the entire property and 30 acres on the west side of the property was sold.
Randall & Marilynn Rhea Acquire Susina in 2000
The Rheas had lived in Atlanta for 27 years where he worked for Scientific-Atlanta. Later, he founded Eagleware-Elanix Corporation and Noble Publishing. Marilynn cared for their two children and later opened a gift shop in the Village of Stone Mountain.
They began looking for an historical property to make there new home. They searched throughout Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. Of the score of properties they looked at, some were in towns that time had passed years before, some were surrounded by encroaching suburbia, some were beyond repair, and some had undergone renovation so extensive and insensitive that their historic quality was lost. Mr. Rhea located Susina during a web search and contacted the listing agent to arrange a visit. The agent replied, "Mr. Rhea, I must tell you that some of the maintenance has been deferred." While that fact was an accurate assessment, the Rheas quickly fell in love with Susina. Also, Thomasville was a thriving community with arts, an appreciation of its rich history, and resources for supporting historic properties. The beauty of the Red Hills and easy access to nearby Cairo and Tallahassee iced the cake. Like none of the other properties they considered, Susina retained a unique sense of time and place. It is a rare treasure.
They acquired Susina in September of 2000 and hired Luke's Land Service of Ochlocknee to restore the land. They hired the late Terrell Singletary of Thomasville to oversee repair and renovation of the big house. Because of his work with other historic properties in the area, his skill, and more importantly, his integrity, renovations went relatively smoothly, despite a few minor surprises.
[T. Williams, Singletary leaves legacy of good deeds, Thomasville Times-Enterprise, September 6, 2010]
The kitchen was remodeled with new cabinets and appliances and walls were removed to open the layout. Three bathrooms were removed while retaining 5 1/2 baths. An air conditioning race was removed and a second level sleeping porch was removed to return the exterior to an earlier period. The sleeping porch was a memorable feature for the Mason family, and its removal was only justified because of its neglected condition. Work also included replacing broken window panes with old glass from the property, replacing rotted soffit and fascia, repairing portions of both the portico and side porch columns with millwork from Bracey Lumber, and roof repairs. All of the plumbing, including source and drain, were replaced and extensive electrical work was completed. Finally, the entire interior and exterior were painted. The picture below is Terrell introducing the Rheas and the newly renovated property at a Grady County Historical Society picnic.
Renovation of Dependencies
A small residence 400 yards southwest of the big house had been built in the 1950s but abandoned by the bed and breakfast. The Rheas were unaware of this structure because it had been overgrown and was not visible from the road or pastures. After acquiring Susina, Mr. Rhea discovered the residence while examining a satellite image of Susina. The building is pictured below on the left after a bulldozer cleared the area immediately surrounding it. Notice a tree had grown through the roof of the back porch. Soon after renovation of the big house was completed, work began to restore this residence. The work was completed in time for the newly hired manager, Jack Schulz, and his wife Barb, to move in around Thanksgiving 2001. After the photo on the right was taken, the back porch was enclosed to create additional living space.
Another Noted Entertainer Visits Susina
Thomasville's rich history and surrounding plantations have been host to a variety of VIPs. It was generally agreed at a meeting in Thomasville that William McKinley would be the Republican nominee for President of the United States, John Philip Sousa entertained here, Eisenhower was a frequent visitor to Thomasville, and Jackie Kennedy stayed at Greenwood while mourning the loss of her husband. More recently, Dick Chaney visited here to hunt quail.
So it is no surprise that Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were not the last famous entertainers to visit Susina Plantation. Here is a picture from May of 2010 of Big Bird's visit to Susina.
As mentioned in the the Mason page, the nature of the original kitchen is in doubt. There is a 15 by 17 foot old brick dependency 30 yards southwest of the main house. It had an open hearth above, and what appeared to be a root cellar below ground level. The location and layout fit the standard for an antebellum detached kitchen. However, A. Heywood Mason, II, holds that this was never the kitchen but that the original kitchen was directly behind (West) the house and connected via a short, open, walkway. It was used as a laundry when he was growing up. The earliest photograph from the front of the big house shows no building at the location of the laundry, thus supporting Mr. Mason's beliefs. It is constructed of very old brick and appears in photographs dated circa 1925. It could be substantially older than that.
When the Rheas acquired Susina, the cellar of the laundry was flooded and the floor was unsafe. The cellar had an exterior entry under the porch, and the entry-door clearance height was about 5 feet. In 2003, the floor and joists were removed and replaced, and an interior stairway was added. The second level is used as a potting and storage shed and the below ground level was converted to a wine cellar, with racks and a counter made from bald cypress wood from the hundred year old tank on the water tower. In 2007, a green house was added on the north end of the laundry.
Below are picture of the front and rear of the Cottage at the time that the Rheas purchased Susina. Sometime much earlier, Jimmy Mason had moved a north portion of the Cottage to Thomasville as the basis of his residence there. That reduced the 6,000 to 7,000 square foot Cottage to about 5,000 square feet. The Rheas had little need of such a large guest cottage. Restoration and ongoing maintenance was unjustified, so they elected to totally rework the Cottage. Work began in 2003, with Terrell Singletary again overseeing the work.
The north 1/3 of the existing Cottage was demolished. Windows, cabinets, doors and bricks were saved for later use. The south 1/3, the oldest and closest portion to the big house, was renovated into a parlor, two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a large game room in the rear. The new Cottage is shown below.
The old gun room on the left became a business office for Mr. Rhea. The heart-of-pine flooring in the living and dining rooms was removed and reused as ceiling material for the game room in the renovated Cottage. A concrete garage floor and driveway aprons were poured, and carriage doors that had been stored on the property were used for the new four-car garage. The attic provided much needed storage space. The wooden porch was replaced with concrete which serves as a shade-porch for the pool. Bricks salvaged from the old cottage were used for porch-column plinths and to build a fence around the pool.
The old car garage at Susina was lost to tree damage during Hurricane Kate in 1985, so a garage was needed. The west 1/3 of the Cottage was detached and moved south to the pool. This wing had been a gun room on the left, a living room in the middle and a dining room an the right. Shown below is this wing after detachment and then nearing the pool.
Other added improvements include a well house to cover the pump and pressure tank in 2003, installation of a wooden fence along Meridian Road from the east property line to gate 4 in 2004, reconstruction of the front driveway system to eliminate soil erosion and improve traffic flow in December of 2005, the planting of an oak alley on the front driveway in April 2006, addition of a four-bay shed at the Schulz place in 2006, front yard garden work in the summer of 2009 and a planting of 1,000 longleaf, magnolia, red cedar and fruit trees in the early spring of 2011. The red cabin and carriage barn remain unimproved.
In March of 2005, the stable was restored and wire fencing was installed to create three pastures totaling about 6 acres.
In 2003, 15 acres of mature longleaf was acquired adjacent to the west timber at Susina, across Meridian Road. In 2006, 40 acres of the old Atkinson place, immediately south of the 15 acre longleaf, was acquired. In January of 2008, the old peanut field of the Atkinson place was planted in longleaf.