This historic homestead, tucked away in the rolling pastures of north Florida, is truly a hidden gem. If we hadn’t been looking for it, we wouldn’t have found it. Fortunately, our GPS didn’t have any trouble leading us to this over 150-year-old home – a must-see stop on the Florida Black Heritage Trail. It's a worthwhile trip, rich with history, that researches are still uncovering today.
The House with Talking Walls
Thomas Evans Haile designed the Haile Homestead, built by slave laborers, on his 1,500-acre Sea Island cotton plantation in 1854. They completed it in 1856. This 6,200-square-foot home, constructed of heart pine and cypress siding, contains a mixture of architectural styles. Thomas Haile named his new plantation “Kanapaha,” Timucua words, which, when put together, mean “little houses with thatched roofs.”
The most unique features of this home are its “talking walls.” For reasons still not understood by historians, the Haile family wrote on their unpainted, plastered walls. Among these writings are recipes, growth charts, notes, inventories of household items, and general thoughts.
Thomas Haile’s fourteenth child, Evans Haile, inherited the house after his parents’ deaths. During this time, he used the house for weekend gatherings, where party guests continued the tradition of writing on the walls. Visitors can see what the intoxicated party goers from the early 20th century wrote on the first-floor walls, in the music room and in the parlor.
After the parties stopped, Haile boarded the house and left it abandoned. It stayed that way for decades until it was rediscovered by filmmaker Victor Nunez in the 1970s. While Nunez filmed a fight scene in one of the downstairs rooms, an actor fell into the wall. Nunez had the damage repaired, and visitors today can see a large, clean plastered area in the middle of one of the talking walls.
Another unique feature of this house is its lack of additions. In the past, families who could afford to would add rooms as the family increased in size. Despite having fourteen children in the house, the Haile Homestead held them all, and no expansions were required.
Historical documents, notably the 1860 Slave Schedule, showed that Thomas Evans Haile had sixty-six enslaved people in eighteen dwellings. However, none of those dwellings exist on the property today.
Thanks to a grant from the state of Florida, the Historic Haile Homestead not-for-profit organization has restored the house, which is now open for tours to the public.
The Haile Family
Thomas Evans Haile and his wife, Esther “Serena” Chesnut Haile, moved to Alachua County, Florida in 1854, after several failed attempts to grow crops at their home in South Carolina. They arrived with four of their children and fifty-six slaves.
Members of Thomas and Serena’s families followed them to Florida’s fertile plantation belt. There were seven plantation houses between the Haile and Chesnut families. Only the Haile Homestead remains today.
The Haile family sold off some of their property in 1868 after another crop failure. Serena decided to diversify their crops, which greatly improved the family’s ability to farm their remaining land.
The Haile family’s success came at the hands of the free labor they received from enslaved workers until emancipation in the mid-1860s. But the Haile family kept little information about their slaves. Most of what visitors learn at the Haile Homestead is thanks to the efforts of local historians who've gathered information from meager records and oral histories from the slaves’ descendants.
When President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in “the rebellious states,” the newly freed people needed to choose a last name for themselves, and many took the name of their previous owners. During our tour, our guide mentioned one notable skilled slave, Johnson Chestnut, who built some of the Haile’s furniture. Johnson took Serena Haile’s maiden name, Chesnut, but placed his own mark on it by adding the letter t.
The Haile Homestead states on their website that they do not allow reproductions of their pictures and information. To view their research about the former slaves of the Haile and Chesnut plantations, click here: https://www.hailehomestead.org/enslaved-laborers.
Visitor’s Center and Information
When you arrive at the address for the Haile Homestead, you’ll enter a parking lot outside of the Allen & Ethel Graham Visitor’s Center. As you approach the building, you’ll find restrooms on the right, and the visitor’s center to the left.
You will want to arrive early for your tour so you’ll have time to browse the visitor’s center’s exhibits, which include: a replica of the property, artifacts and history from the Haile family, history of the enslaved laborers, and two short videos about the area. Visitors can view the historic homestead by guided tour only, which are paid for at the visitor’s center. When your tour begins, a tour guide will lead you down a short walkway to the homestead. The tour takes about forty-five minutes to an hour.
Hours, Fees, and Other Information
The Haile Homestead (including the Allen & Ethel Graham Visitor’s Center) is open:
Saturdays 10am-2pm, with tours at 10:15am, 11:15am, 12:15pm, 1:15pm
Sundays 12pm-4pm, with tours at 12:15pm, 1:15pm, 2:15pm, 3:15pm
Cost: $5/person, children under 12 are free
Because the Haile Homestead is a historic home, it does not have air conditioning. If you plan to take your tour during the summer months (like we did) you’ll want to plan accordingly. By the end of our 10:15am tour in September, we were dripping with sweat and grateful for the water we’d brought with us. For more information about visiting the homestead, please contact the center at 352-336-9096.
Broaden Your Horizons
Have you visited the Historic Haile Homestead? Do you plan to? How do you find the hidden gems in your area? Leave a comment below and let us know!