The “Unique” Talking Walls of the Historic Haile Homestead

by Karen Kirkman

In 1854 Thomas Evans and Serena Chesnut Haile moved their family from Camden, South Carolina to Gainesville, Florida. Their 6,200 sq ft home was built by 56 enslaved laborers on 1,500 acres of land, some of which was purchased for only $1 per acre. The Hailes’ Sea Island Cotton plantation was called, Kanapaha, thought to be a Timucuan Indian word for house and palmetto leaf. Today most people know the Historic Haile Homestead at Kanapaha Plantation for its “Talking Walls.” For a reason lost to time, the Haile family wrote on the walls of their home, over 12,500 words in almost every room and closet! This makes the house unique in the Nation for the sheer volume of writing found when the walls were documented in 2001. Though quite a bit of the writing was done by party goers in the early 1900s, the family began writing on the walls in the 1850s. Serena Haile herself did the lion’s share of writing in the private rooms of the house; inventories of silverware and plates, business records, rat kills, a recipe for medicine, a menu, weather observations, etc. The children even got into the act! Visitors will see their math problems and artwork on some of the walls.

Standing left to right: Unknown, Unknown, Daphne Debose Kelley (Bennet Kelley’s 2nd wife whom he married in 1892); William Watts (formerly enslaved at Thomas Haile’s plantation; was a carpenter) Photo courtesy of the Historic Haile Homestead Archives

At the Historic Haile Homestead, visitors will not only learn about the Haile family, but will also learn about the enslaved laborers and freedmen, whose stories are intertwined into the fabric of the tours. In the Allen and Ethel Graham Visitors Center and Museum, there are powerful artifacts from the early plantation period of the Homestead, as well as photos of the Haile family members (5 plantations) and Chesnut family members (2 plantations), who moved to Alachua County in the 1850s. The names of many people enslaved on the Haile and Chesnut families’ seven plantations were recorded on a thought-provoking panel at the Haile Homestead. After much research of the inscriptions on that panel, various connections to living descendants of some of those enslaved people will be showcased in a new exhibit coming in early 2020.

The black & white picture of freedmen was taken before 1900. Seated left to right: Bennet Kelley and his father Edmund Kelley (both Bennet and his father Edmund were brought to Florida with the Hailes in 1854; both
had been enslaved at Thomas Haile’s plantation. Bennet was born ~ 1844 and died in 1933 – and is buried in the corner of the Haile family plot in the Kanapaha Church cemetery)

Walking down the path to the Homestead, one is struck by the enormity of the restored home, which is mostly original. Good thing the house was large, 14 of the Hailes’ 15 children grew up in it! The house is full of original furniture and other family pieces, which have returned to the Homestead over time. No longer standing are the 18 cabins that, by 1860, were occupied by 66 enslaved laborers. Sometime late this year or early 2020 the detached kitchen will be rebuilt, to enhance the interpretation of slavery. Though the Homestead was a working Sea Island Cotton plantation for only 10 years, the tours and exhibits are up front about the Haile’s dependence upon an enslaved workforce who toiled for free and had no control over their lives.