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History of Orange Hall Museum

The story of Orange Hall begins when the north half of Lot 43 in St. Marys was purchased by the Reverend Horace S. Pratt and his father-in-law, John Wood in 1826. However, the history of the property extends back thousands of years prior to this event.  Physical evidence of human activity on the site dating from prehistoric times through the founding and early settlement of St. Marys has been found during archaeological investigation.  Analysis of the recovered artifacts coupled with historical research has led to a broader understanding of the earliest history of the property.    

Horace Southworth Pratt, a graduate of Yale University and the Princeton Theological Seminary arrived in St. Marys around 1820 as a young missionary and soon thereafter helped to organize the First Presbyterian Church.  The purchased property was conveniently located across from the church and was therefore an ideal location for Pratt to establish a home for himself and his young family.  His plans however were interrupted by the sudden death of his wife and father-in-law in 1829.  He remarried and after much internal debate made the decision to remain in St. Marys.  Proceeding with inheritance from his deceased wife’s family, Pratt employed a Massachusetts builder named Isaac Slayton to construct his new home.  Once again, however circumstance would prevent him from completing his plan.  A few years prior, the University of Alabama had attempted to recruit Pratt to join their faculty.  At the time he had given a “qualified promise” to accept the position if a more experienced candidate could not be found.  It was only after considerable time passed and thinking that he would not be required to accept that Pratt proceeded with the construction of his residence.  The University ultimately demanded he honor his earlier promise and as a man of his word Pratt reluctantly left St. Marys and his home which was in the final stages of completion.  

The residence that Pratt constructed was at the time a statement in modern architecture, its style and scale unprecedented in St. Marys and along the lower Georgia coast.  As its timber structure was raised and the building took shape, it would have been a spectacle attracting the attention of local citizens and visitors alike.  The project required Slayton, the builder, bring to bare all of the skills and experience he had accumulated executing similar projects in the northeast.  However, the building would never serve the purpose it was intended.     Although Pratt retained ownership of the property when he left town, less than two years later in 1840, he fell sick and died during travel between Tuscaloosa and St. Marys.   The heirs to Pratt’s estate held onto Orange Hall until it was sold at public auction in 1846.  

The string of owners and occupants that would succeed Pratt include the names of many important figures in local history.  Famed military general Duncan Lamont Clinch rented Orange Hall from Pratt after he had departed to Alabama, and therefore Clinch may have been the first true occupant of the house.  James Mongin Smith, a wealthy planter was the second owner of the property residing at Orange Hall for ten years.  Smith sold the property to Francis Adams who was the Mayor of St. Marys, Principal of the local academy and delegate to the Secession Convention in 1862.

During the Civil War, Orange Hall was occupied by the Union Army, however, for reasons that remain unknown the building was spared from destruction. Following the War, Orange Hall was purchased by Silas Fordham a real estate speculator from upstate New York who used the property as a winter retreat.  Fordham and his family owned the property for over thirty years and during this time the house became known as the social center of the town.   

After the turn of the century, Orange Hall was owned by Joel Lee Sweat, a Judge and Senator from Waycross, Georgia, who was said to be partly responsible for bringing the railroad to St. Marys.  Sweat held the property for eight years, seling it to James Howard Becker, an automobile manufacturing tycoon who made extensive improvements to the property but fell out of favor with St. Marys after a short time due to “local political disputes.” During the late 1920s, the effects of the Great Depression were felt in St. Marys and Orange Hall fell into a state of neglect and disrepair.  Times were so bad that the property was seized by the county when owner George Fryhofer failed to pay the property taxes.  The amount owed was a mere $252.66 and the owners were eventually able to reconcile.

Orange Hall was purchased by S.C Townsend in the 1930s and the upper floors converted to apartments.  This configuration would later attract the St. Marys Kraft Corporation which purchased the property in 1951 using it to house mill employees for ten years.  Recognizing the value of Orange Hall as a significant architectural resource and community asset, the property was purchased by the City of St. Marys in 1965. As a testament to its commitment to preserving this important resource, the city has now been in possession of Orange Hall longer than any of its previous owners.