Orton Plantation

Orton Plantation is generally credited with bringing a thriving film industry to Wilmington—by planting that very first seed in the early 1980s. Dino DeLaurentiis was looking for a gracious Gone-With-the-Wind-style mansion to burn to the ground in his movie "Firestarter," starring Drew Barrymore and based on a novel by Stephen King.

He spotted a photo of the Orton mansion on the cover of a glossy magazine and booked a flight, Hollywood to Wilmington. Ultimately he shot the film on the premises but he burned a scaled-down model built by his crew, leaving the popular tourist attraction intact.

The succession of Orton owners over the centuries, with a recent plot twist that links the past to the present in a startling finale, is clearly Hollywood material.

"King" Roger Moore built a house on this low-lying acreage fronting the Cape Fear River in 1725, and the Indians fairly promptly burned that down. He rebuilt the center of the current house in 1735, a manor house that presided majestically over a thriving rice plantation. That enterprise flourished for more than a century until the Civil War put an end to slavery.

A succession of owners paraded through the plantation's scenic 4,974 acres, some of them filing bankruptcy, some putting the house and the land up for public auction, until James and Luola Sprunt came along in 1904. They added wings to the house and planted live oak, arborvitae and cedar trees. They built a chapel in 1915, now known as Luola's Chapel, the centerpiece of many garden weddings.

To create their private gardens they brought in an old friend, an architect from Massachusetts, and the landscape design they created clearly recalls a cathedral-style series of interior rooms, chambers and hallways. Their son Lawrence and his wife Annie Gray expanded the formal gardens, all the way to the grave of Roger Moore, one of the stops on the self-guided tour. The nearby historic Brunswick Town is another of several historic attractions.

The younger Sprunts planted live oaks, azaleas, camellias, flowering peach, daphne, hydrangeas, crepe myrtles and dogwoods. Then, in 1930, a cousin was involved in a disastrous car crash, and they opened the gardens to the public to raise money for medical bills. The gardens have been open ever since, and the family legacy continues.

In the current Sprunt generation, David began work in 2002 to open up panoramic views of the Cape Fear River, enhance and redesign flower beds, restore the colonial rice fields and refurbish the turf. The lavish landscaping includes ponds, statuary and charming little footbridges.

Surprise ending

In 2010 the gardens celebrated their 100th anniversary, and staff members planned special events throughout the year to mark the occasion. "Art at Orton" in April was pretty much the first and last of that anniversary calendar before the startling announcement was made in early May that the main portion of Orton's acreage, including the house, had been sold—to a buyer who was a descendant of Roger Moore.

Forbes magazine ranks Louis Moore Bacon as the 655th richest man in the world, with a net worth estimated at $1.5 billion. Bacon's grandfather, Louis Toomer Moore, is an author and historian in Wilmington. Distant family relatives in the Hill family owned the estate in 1826.

David Sprunt has publicly declared this to be a positive turn of events. "A great buyer came to us and it was a wonderful opportunity to continue the historical preservation and conservation efforts that we have done ourselves," he said.

However, the gardens were indefinitely closed to the public as of June 1, 2010. The Star News reports that the Sprunt family will continue to maintain the property surrounding Orton Pond, and that there will be an indefinite period of remodeling and renovation. At a minimum, this at least put a lid on the rest of the events planned for the 100th anniversary celebration. All that can be said right now is stay tuned for the next exciting episode.

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Orton Plantation

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