inside pebble hill
By Whitney White, Main House Museum Manager
Featured in the Thomasville Scene magazine.
Pebble Hill Plantation was purchased by Cleveland, Ohio industrialist, Howard Melville Hanna in 1896. In 1901, he gifted the property to his daughter, Kate Hanna Ireland (later Harvey). She quickly set out to renovate and make additions, including a new kitchen wing, to the then 8-room Main House.
Mrs. Harvey and her family spent the winter months at Pebble Hill and enjoyed entertaining friends and family in the mild climate of southwest Georgia in the wintertime. Entertaining became a focus for the household, and Mrs. Harvey had house guests virtually the entire time she was in residence. Her daughter, Elisabeth (Pansy) Ireland (later Poe) became mistress of Pebble Hill upon her mother’s death, and she continued the tradition of entertaining that her mother had established.
In 1934, a disastrous fire destroyed all but the loggia wing of the Main House. Mrs. Harvey determined to have a new and larger house designed and constructed. Some 18 months later in January of 1936, the current house was complete.
The new and expansive kitchen at Pebble Hill was designed to be efficient and functional. Normally two cooks and a kitchen helper were the ones handling the meal preparation as well as having the responsibility of generally keeping the kitchen in good order. The main dining room table could seat up to 24 people. Three meals per day were regularly served during the season and often afternoon tea and picnic baskets were added as well. Therefore, being able to plan the work in an organized fashion was of utmost importance. Meticulous records were kept to ensure that all efforts ran like clockwork.
Meals were planned well in advance. Much of the food came from the plantation’s own resources – eggs, vegetables, citrus fruit, fresh meat, and game. And of course, Mrs. Harvey’s prize-winning herd of Jerseys kept the plantation well-supplied in fresh milk, cream, and butter. The family and guests spent a great deal of time shooting, so game birds were readily available, too. The former Plantation Store building on the property had cold storage lockers to store such items. The Main House staff would call for the needed supplies to be delivered straight to the kitchen. Menu books recorded the meals prepared for each day, and one of these books is on display in the kitchen today.
Shopping trips to stores in town or orders placed with regional suppliers provided the other necessary items. Lists were organized and complete, so that shopping could be done easily. One notation on a Main House kitchen record from circa 1927 states, “…Mrs. MacPherson to write orders which go to town to Mrs. Watt who will select fresh things.” Records from 1959 show monthly purchases from Vann’s Market and Grocery, Powell’s, Timberlake Grocery Company, Hudgins Fish Co., and Sunnyland. Not only were the purchase amounts for the various stores/companies noted, but in many cases the specific purchases as well. For example, on March 9th, one box of smoked salmon was for bought for $11.10, and on December 31st six hams were purchased for $42.99.
The kitchen is bright and spacious with numerous windows looking out on the grounds. The floor is comprised of cork tiles which allowed for more comfortable standing during the long work hours. The storage spaces in the kitchen are actually relatively few when one thinks about the large quantity of supplies needed to prepare all of the meals. However, the basement has additional pantries below the kitchen. An electric Otis dumbwaiter allowed food and supplies to be easily transported between the kitchen and basement, so that staff did not have to spend time and energy carrying items between the floors.
The anchor piece in the kitchen is the stove and oven unit manufactured by Duparquet, Huot, & Moneuse. This firm was started in the 1850’s when Imperial French ranges were all the rage in America. One advertisement for the company from 1890 states, “Special attention given to Hotels, Clubs, Private Mansions, Yachts, and Steamships.” The company was even written up in Fortune Magazine in 1935. The piece in the Pebble Hill kitchen has both the coal-burning double oven range (the base model for such units) as well as an electric modular range attached. Because the hood was tailored for the entire width of the range, the unit was most likely specifically ordered for the house. In instructional notes from Mrs. Harvey circa 1930, “The French range not to be overheated so that the tops get at all red. All dampers closed at night at bottom and top slightly removed for range to cool down.” Her note here is an example of Mrs. Harvey’s involvement with the fine details of running the household.
One of the most asked about pieces in the kitchen is the Kent’s Rotary Knife Cleaner. George Kent patented the machine in 1870. Before the invention of stainless steel, knife blades had to be cleaned and polished daily to keep rust and dulling from occurring. Knife blades were inserted into the open slots, which are lined with brushes, Kent’s emery powder was added through a side opening, and the handle crank started the cleaning process. This mechanical cleaner was a huge labor-saving device and popular in large households.
The house also boasts two General Electric commercial refrigerators. One of these was used for cold storage, but the other safely stored dry goods. Remember, large coolers located in the Plantation Store building were relied upon as well. Interestingly, a standard feature on the front of these refrigerators was a mirror. Staff could give a quick check of their appearance before heading to the dining room to serve.
There are two side pantries off of the kitchen – one for added counter space and cupboards, the other houses one of the refrigerators and has a marble countertop. The marble kept pastry dough cool and made it easier to work with by the staff. Even with the marble counter, there was still the chance that the pastry would not turn out quite right. In the Pebble Hill archives, there is a page written in Mrs. Poe’s handwriting giving some of the reasons for failed pastry. There is no indication about where she got the information, but there is also no disputing the information provided.
"The woman who has…light fingers has the ability to make good pastry...If pastry is hard, there is too much water, too little fat, or it has been overworked, perhaps with heavy fingers…If pastry is too crumbly, the opposite reasons apply…If it shrinks, it has been over rolled…If you use the same oven for meat or anything that generates steam, your results are unlikely to be crisp and good…If you are a compulsive open door opener and slammer, you’ll be no luckier…”
The collection of molds also draws interest from guests. Gelatin salads, ice cream, meat pies, and more were shaped into interesting designs that pleased the eye. A lamb-shaped cake provided a wonderful treat for the Easter holiday. Appropriately, there is even a horseshoe-shaped mold and one shaped like a pansy flower.
The Christmas season brought about even more kitchen preparations with expanded guest lists. Christmas Day was quite the affair with the family and guests sitting down for the dinner at 1 o’clock. The typical menu included: oyster soup, crackers, relish tray, turkey with chestnut dressing, cranberry mold, roast suckling pig, winter squash soufflé, green beans almondine, small dinner rolls, plum pudding with rum sauce, and demi tasse. The menu scarcely changed from year to year. With those delicious dishes, there was no reason to alter the fare.
When one walks into the kitchen today, there is a strong sense of the past. Gracious hospitality was always a hallmark at Pebble Hill. And, the kitchen was one of the key components for providing that extraordinary welcome to all who came.