By: Katie Kaplan | WCTV Eyewitness News
November 7, 2019
THOMAS COUNTY, Ga. (WCTV) -- Across North Florida and South Georgia, there are more than 200 hunting properties. The properties are former cotton plantations that transitioned into quail hunting properties after the Civil War.
Now, these properties are being reinvented again, in a way that will carry their diverse history well into the future.
Beyond a gate and down a long dirt road in Thomas County is nestled one of the most exclusive pieces of land in the southeast.
"There is something inherent about these properties," said Jon Kohler of Jon Kohler and Associates. "The history, the rareness, uniqueness."
Behind another gate lies one of the most-storied plantation homes in history. Once owned by the prominent Whitney family, it was a refuge for their rich and famous friends.
"This is really hallowed ground," Kohler said. "His net worth was measured against the Gross Domestic Product. Right after JFK was assassinated, the world didn't even know where Jackie Kennedy was and she was right here."
It is a house full of iconic connections and tragic loss. The Oscar-winning movie Gone With the Wind has ties to the home, which has remained vacant since the 1990s, when a fire nearly destroyed it.
Kohler specializes in these estates and said the Greenwood Plantation recently sold for the first time in more than 100 years, adding to the more than half-a-billion dollars in sales he has facilitated in the region over the last decade.
"People that love fine land, they love the outdoors, they love the outdoor lifestyle," he explained.
However, the properties do more than just provide a recreational outlet for the wealthy: They create a refuge for native wildlife and their habitats.
"These landowners are really the greatest conservationists," Kohler said.
"Post Civil War, we had a conversion," said researcher Brian Wiebler. "We call it, 'from cotton to quail.'"
Wiebler works as an education coordinator with the Tall Timbers Research Station and said more than 100 years of taking care of the land for hunting yielded some unexpected results.
The research station is also a land conservancy and is headquartered on a former plantation in Tallahassee. It is a leading expert in the study of fire and how it can regenerate a landscape, returning it to a native habitat, Wiebler said.
"When we're managing for quail, we're actually managing for a bunch of other species," he explained. "In the woods behind me, there is an open pine Savannah, but when fire is excluded, hardwood trees encroach and converts it into a different type of habitat that native animals can't use."
Wiebler says that habitat used to exist in 90 million acres. But, it's now down to three million.
Part of why, Kohler says, it's so important to keep the legacy of these properties going.
"Less than 3% of these woods are left," he said. "That's it."
Tall Timbers works with private landowners who are willing to donate development rights, which ensures the land is protected well into the future.
40% of the Red Hills, according the research center, is now permanently protected.
When you start to see the landscape change on the drive from Tallahassee to Thomasville, you see pine trees with a clear-cut, grassy low area; they say that is land that has been managed with prescribed fire.
For people wanting to learn more, you can visit the learning center at Tall Timbers or visit the Pebble Hill Plantation to explore for yourself.