The twin monuments in Ponder Cemetery are almost startling to come across when you’re driving along Fairplay Rd. in Morgan County, Georgia. From a distance they look like they don’t belong: tall gothic spires jutting out of rolling fields and farmland. It’s hard to make sense of them until you see the much smaller gravestones scattered around them and the white plantation house in the distance.
This part of Morgan County is cotton country. At the turn of the 20th century, multiple hamlets (too small to be called towns) sprung up around the county as the industry boomed. Successful landowners and farm families built up crossroad communities around cotton gins and country stores. The cotton gin at tiny Fairplay is long gone, though supposedly the town store is still there. I didn’t really notice it. All I could focus on was that cemetery and the still immaculate Ponder house.
It started out as the centerpiece of an antebellum plantation, worked by slaves. John H. Ponder had the house built sometime around 1850. According to 1860 census records1 his son George owned 54 slaves, more than most landowners in the area. But the Civil War hit the Ponders hard. In August of 1864, Union soldiers stopped at the plantation to rest and to pillage, leaving the house alone, but stealing horses and clearing out all of the food in storage. John H. Ponder had had enough. He died on November 17th, 1864, just as Sherman’s army was beginning to invade Morgan County on its march to the sea. Family lore has it that the elder Ponder was so worked up with anger at the thought of being raided by the Yankees again that he had a heart attack and died on the spot.2
I can’t find a whole lot of information about what came next for the Ponders. I know that George continued to run the plantation, focusing mainly on cotton after the war was lost and slavery was outlawed. Many of the former slaves stayed on as tenant farmers, forming their own culturally rich communities around the area. George Ponder and his wife Sara had sixteen children, all of whom are buried out in the family cemetery. None of them lived past the age of ten.3