Augusta, GA (WJBF)- How many times have you driven down Berckmans Road, or passed an historical marker in a random place beside the road? Have you wondered who those people were or what happened near that marker?
Starting this month, WJBF will begin a new monthly segment called Hometown History, where Kim Vickers will explore the history of the CSRA.
This month we go into the Ezekiel Harris House on Broad Street in Harrisburg. The historical home is part of the Augusta Museum of History and school children have been touring it for decades.
But who exactly was Ezekiel Harris?
Dr. Leeann Caldwell is the Director of Center for the study of GA History at Augusta University and an historian.
“He was a tobacco merchant. Tobacco was the original cash crop in this area.”
Not much is known about Ezekiel Harris because very few primary sources from him exist. What we do know came from old newspaper articles and court documents.
“You know, some of the things you read about him in the newspaper would lead you to believe he was an irascible neighbor. He was definitely an entrepreneur, but he didn’t always manage his business very well,” said Dr. Caldwell.
Records suggest that Harris fought for the Americans in the Revolutionary war before becoming a tobacco merchant. He came to Georgia from Edgefield, South Carolina in the late 1790’s, purchased more than 300 acres from Leonard Marbury, which he named Harrisburg and built his home overlooking the Savannah River.
Dr. Caldwell said Harris had a reason for his choice of location.
“Behind me, what we call Broad Street, was the original pathway that the native American peoples used to come down to the Savannah River,” she explained, standing on the steps of the house with a busy Broad Street behind her.
Harris built his home and business on that highway to attract more customers and possibly farmers selling their tobacco. His hope was that the farmers would sell to him and not to his competitors across the river.
Harris was very wealthy which he showed off with his large house and expensive architecture.
“This is a wonderful Georgian architecture, which was very popular in the late 18th, early 19th century. And it has some fantastic features, including that wonderful arched mid hallway that shows some care in the building of the house,” said Dr. Caldwell.
According to historical records, Harris was a slave owner. He had big plans for Harrisburg and hoped it would eventually be bigger than Augusta.
“And so he was hoping to become master of his 323 1/2 acres. He was an owner of enslaved people. Not many, probably house servants and people who worked around here because he wasn’t really a planter. He grew corn and so he needed the extra labor he thought.”
Harris focused on business and some of his business practices made him enemies.
Dr. Caldwell wrote in a paper that competition among tobacco merchants in the Augusta area was fierce and much of the controversy was centered around Harris.
“John Hammond owned a ferry. Ezekiel Harris owned a ferry. Ezekiel Harris made his ferry free so that he could attract more people to him and to this side of the river. Hammond was angry because that was cutting into his business. At one point they found Hammond’s ferry chopped up,” she said.
She said Hammond sued Harris and sometime during the feud, Harris’s ferry was burned. Not long after, Hammond was shot to death in his yard and his house burned down.
It couldn’t be proven, but many believe Harris was responsible, partially because of another murder in which he was implicated.
Harris and three other men were tried and found not guilty in 1797 for the murder of Matthew Brady. It was believed to be over the theft of a slave.
For decades a ghost story was tied to the house. It has since been debunked.
Nancy Glaser is the Executive Director of Augusta Museum of History. She said people still believe in the ghost story at the Ezekiel Harris House, but it’s just not possible.
“At one time, the though was, or the story was, that there were thirteen patriots, this was after the first siege of Augusta, which happened right down the road here. There were thirteen patriots that were supposedly hung on this porch. Well, the revolution ended in 1783. This house wasn’t built until 1797 and that’s what I’ve had to explain to people. So it could not have happened. Now did the thirteen patriots get hung? Absolutely,” said Glaser.
Glaser said the confusion came because the Ezekiel Harris House was thought to be the Mackay Trading Post for a long time.
It was described as a white stone house within 80 feet of the Savannah River. The Harris House was a white clapboard house which was much further away from the river.
In the mid 1970’s historians confirmed that the Harris House was not the Mackay Trading Post, also known as the White House, and that the White House had likely been destroyed during the Revolution.
As for Ezekiel Harris, Dr. Caldwell said he died in 1829, nearly penniless.
“But he didn’t always manage his business very well. As a result of some of these court cases and judgments against him, he sold of pieces of his 323 1/2 acres. And eventually he did what a lot of people do when they get in debt. He moved. and in his case he moved west to Washington, Georgia and that’s where he died,” Dr. Caldwell explained.
Harris sold the house to the Pearson-Walker family who owned it until 1873. Afterwards, it became a rental property then fell into disrepair.
It was rescued and renovated in 1948 by the Richmond County Historical Society who believed it to be the Mackay Trading Post.
The Ezekiel Harris House is currently owned by the City of Augusta and maintained by the Augusta Museum of History.
Glaser said keeping these historic places in good shape is important.
“It’s a key in understanding what’s going to happen in the future if you understand what’s happened in the past. So keeping these properties, whether its an historic home, whether it’s an historic downtown building, it’s important to keep these buildings properly preserved.”
The Ezekiel Harris House is open for tours Monday through Friday by appointment and Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm for walk ins.
And that’s just part of your Hometown History.
Photojournalist: Mark Gaskins