Saturday, November 22, 2014


                      A Pomological Polymath

    Thomas McCall, one of Laurens County's most successful early settlers, was known as having many of many talents, or a "polymath," if you know the obscure synonym for the term.  McCall, a talented mathematician and surveyor, was known far and wide across theyoung nation of the United States of America as a celebrated vineyardist.

     Thomas McCall, son of James McCall and Janet Harris McCall, was born on March
30, 1765 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.  At the age of six, Thomas and his family moved to South Carolina.   McCall served as a private  in the Colonial army as a member of Capt. Greene's Troup of Horses in Gen. Marion's Brigade.   His service to the new nation entitled him to a grant of land, which he took in Washington County in 1784.  

     Thomas, who possessed a great talent for mathematics and surveying, was appointed by the governor of Georgia as Assistant Surveyor General before his 20th birthday.  His first known survey was recorded in 1784.  For his services to the state, McCall received grants of lands along the eastern side of the Oconee River totaling more than 130,000 acres and eleven town lots in Brunswick.   The largest of his grants totaled 11,875 acres in Franklin County, which originally stretched from present day Oconee County to the South Carolina line.   McCall served as Surveyor General of Georgia from 1786-1795.  As Surveyor General, he found himself nearly embroiled in a controversy known as "The Pine Barren's Fraud," where unsuspecting northerners were granted, for a fee, thousands of acres of land in Montgomery County, which didn't even exist. 

     Included in his land holdings was a 500 acre tract opposite Dublin in the area known as Sandbar.  For years the strip of bottom land was known as the "Corral."  McCall acquired the land in 1794 and the property was subsequently purchased by his son-in-law Jeremiah H. Yopp.   George Gaines, the husband of his daughter Louisa, established the first ferry at Sandbar.  Once the town of Dublin was established, Gaines moved to the west side of the river and built a home in Dublin.  He lived on the street named in his honor.  

   Thomas McCall took the hand of Miss Henrietta Fall in marriage on April 17, 1787. He continued to receive large grants of land in Augusta and Franklin counties, which he turned into cash.  The McCalls lived in Savannah during the latter decade of the 18th Century.  Henrietta McCall died at the age of thirty in 1797. One year and one week later, Thomas married Elizabeth Mary Anne Smith, daughter of James Lawrence Smith and great-great-granddaughter of James Moore, one of South Carolina's early governors. 

     The McCall's moved to Camden County in the southeastern corner of the state.  They lived for a short time in McIntosh County, where McCall designed the layout of the town of Darien in 1806.    Apparently McCall stayed out of politics and left very few records of his existence in the coastal counties.  

     It appears that McCall suffered some sort of devastating business loss about the year 1815.  It was about the year 1816 when Thomas and Elizabeth McCall left the secure and glamorous life of the low country and moved to Dublin.  Curtis Bolton and Company recovered a multi thousand dollar judgment against McCall in the Superior Court of Laurens County in 1816.  Practically all of his personal possessions were subjected to a levy by the sheriff.  His brother, Capt. Hugh McCall, who wrote the first comprehensive history of Georgia, purchased the lien and saved his brothers precious library of two hundred volumes, as well as his slaves  

     No one for sure can tell where Thomas and Elizabeth McCall lived.  Their home "Retreat," was located somewhere between Fish Trap Cut and the Glenwood Road (Capt. Bobbie Brown Highway.)  Though there is no deed on record, McCall appears as an adjoining land owner in the area and did buy an island in the Oconee River, possibly the island just above Fish Trap Cut.

     McCall aptly named his plantation, for during the last quarter century of his life, he seemed to retreat from the public eye.  He was a regular member of the Laurens County grand jury from 1819 to 1830 as well as sitting on a few trial juries, but that was the extent of his recorded public service.  But, McCall wasn't a total loner.  He often opened his home to distinguished visitors, including U.S. Senator and Attorney General John M. Berrien and Rev. Patrick Calhoun, father of Vice President John C. Calhoun, who baptized his oldest three girls.  

     It has been said that McCall's closest friend in Laurens County was Governor George Troup.  Both men moved to the county at approximately the same time.  Both were highly educated. Both loved to fish.  It was well known that each man kept a skiff tied up on the their respective sides of the river, so they could quickly cross to visit one another.  George Troup liked to drink fine wine and in Thomas McCall, Troup had the ideal neighbor.  

     Perhaps McCall's greatest fame, not only locally, but on a regional scale, came from his remarkable ability to cultivate the natural grapes of the area, as well as imported ones,  and to create new varieties which could withstand the sweltering summer temperatures of 101 and frigid ones at ten degrees .   By some accounts, Thomas McCall was regarded as the best vineyardist in the South. 

     Among McCall's most successful varieties was the Warren/Warrenton.  The grape was first grown in Warren County and ably adapted by McCall, much to the delight of Prof. J. Jackson of Athens, who spent a day with the celebrated wine maker in 1820 sampling his Madeira made from the same grape Jackson had tasted fifteen years earlier.  McCall had success with a similar grape, known as the vilis sylvestris.   Of the native grapes, the Wild Muscadine, or Bullus, made a tart with a fine claret wine with a slight yellowish tint. 

     After reaching Laurens County, McCall began to keep detailed records of his vineyard and his wine making processes.  In 1825, McCall summarized his nine-year study  in a highly respected essay published in magazines and newspapers throughout the country.  One Pennsylvania news editor wrote, " No effort in the United States to raise or improve the grape, has been more successful than that of Thomas McCall, Esq. of Laurens County. His wine from the native grape is superior to any wine the writer of this article ever drank, excepting the first quality of foreign wine."   Wine from his grapes  was served at the Jubilee celebration in the summer of 1826 in Miledgeville. 

     McCall maintained hundreds of vines in his vineyard.  In 1828, he made nearly 500 gallons, which he sold at a premium price of two dollars per gallon.  McCall was cited by experts as the first person in Georgia to successfully cultivate grapes and make them into wine.   His success came from adding sugar to the wine before it fermented.

     According to some experts, McCall is considered the founding father of modern wine making in America. 

     Elizabeth McCall died on June 20, 1831.  Her body lies in a grave near the center of the old City Cemetery.  Her grave marker is reminiscent of the those found in ancient American cities like Savannah, Charleston and Williamsburg.  

          Thomas McCall died on April 4, 1840 and lies beside his wife.  His marker was placed there many years after his death by his descendants.

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