The wonder of Wormsloe

Pristine coastal land provides a place for UGA students and faculty to do research

The wonder of Wormsloe

Alyssa Gehman spends spring break at Wormsloe Plantation in Isle of Hope, near Savannah. A Wormsloe Fellow, Gehman receives funding to research parasites in mud crabs and has access to the facilities at Wormsloe and surrounding coastal areas. 

It is cold on the Moon River near Savannah on this March morning, a blustery 40 degrees. Alyssa Gehman lowers herself from the bow of the boat into the 56-degree water and trudges through the thick muck to reach the oyster reef that lines the marsh.

At the reef she breaks off chunks of the oyster shells. Once her two buckets are filled, she wades back to the boat.

Later she’ll rinse off the pieces of shell and use an oyster knife to look for tiny mud crabs, some of which are infected with parasites nicknamed body snatchers for their practice of castrating their hosts and reproducing. If the host is male, the parasite converts it into a female to reproduce.

From this batch of shells she finds 15 crabs, only two infected with the parasite.

“It’s usually 40 percent,” she says of the number caught that are infected. “That kind of goes along with my salinity hypothesis.”

Since these came from farther up river from the ocean, the water is less salty. Gehman’s hypothesis is that the parasites would be less prevalent in areas with less salinity.

The saltiness of the water is among the factors Gehman is researching in order to determine in what environment the parasites thrive. Another is how well parasites handle changes in water temperature.

Gehman finds a tiny mud crab on a shell pulled from an oyster reef along the river.

“There’s a whole body of literature that says parasites will do well as temperature increases,” she says. Which means that if the Earth continues to warm, the number of parasites will increase, an issue not just for the mud crabs but for all living organisms.

Gehman, a doctoral student in the Odum School of Ecology, is spending spring break at Wormsloe Plantation in Isle of Hope. One of six Wormsloe Fellows, Gehman is allowed to use the site and facilities for her research, even living in a renovated former slave cabin that provides housing for faculty and students.

Funded by the Wormsloe Foundation, founded in 1954 as a charitable organization, the fellows study the human and natural history of Wormsloe and the surrounding coastal community. The first six were selected in 2008; so far there have been 14 fellows.

In June 2013, the foundation gave UGA a 15-acre tract (which includes the cabin) on which to build a research facility and additional housing.

Students and faculty are not new to Wormsloe. Craig Barrow, whose family has owned the property for nearly 300 years, says Eugene Odum, for whom the Odum School of Ecology was named, conducted research on the site in the 1940s.

“We’re tickled that they’re here,” says Barrow (AB ’65). “Every one of them are just wonderful people.”

In addition to Gehman, current fellows include graduate students in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, the College of Environment and Design and the Department of Geography. Faculty members from those disciplines, as well as the departments of history and anthropology, both in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, work on the site.

UGA faculty Andy Davis and Sonia Altizer, from the Odum School of Ecology, are tracking butterfly activity in 12 large gardens at Wormsloe containing exotic and native plants. Together with Ph.D. student Ania Majewska, they monitor the plants for eggs and caterpillars to assess reproduction, capture and assess the caterpillars to check for parasites, and study predators in the area. They mark the butterflies and recapture them to study their survivorship and abundance. Their findings will help determine what kinds of gardens are beneficial to the pollinators, which are declining as the climate changes and habitats disappear.

Wormsloe Fellow Paul Cady, who is pursuing a master’s in landscape architecture, is writing a cultural landscape report on the slave cabin area, the main house, the farm complex and fort house ruins. The report will serve as a guide for future preservation efforts on the site.

Barrow says the report could help Wormsloe’s chances of being recognized as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). World Heritage sites in the South include the Great Smoky Mountains, Monticello and the University of Virginia, and the Florida Everglades.


Barrow is the ninth generation of his family to own Wormsloe, which was given to his ancestor, Georgia colonist Noble Jones, in 1736 after he and his family arrived from England. The 500 acres was a grant to Jones from King George II. The family would later receive an additional 500 acres.

Diana and Craig Barrow live in the 186-year-old house on land granted to Barrow’s ancestor, Noble Jones, in 1736. They are the ninth generation of the family to live on the property.

Despite threats of war from Spanish troops in St. Augustine and later Union troops during the Civil War, the family has maintained the property since then. Alonzo Church, Barrow’s great-great-great-grandfather, was president of the University of Georgia from 1829-1859, the longest-serving UGA president in history.

“The Barrow family had a huge influence on the university,” Barrow says. “We were bonded to it.”

So much so, in fact, that Barrow had no choice but to attend UGA when it was time for college.

“My father made it perfectly clear that his check was going to Georgia,” Barrow says. “I could do whatever I wanted.”

He would later tell his son the same thing.

Several years ago, Barrow says he and wife Diana decided they needed to do something to make sure Wormsloe was preserved into the future. Barrow approached UGA President Emeritus Chuck Knapp, who was on the Wormsloe Foundation board, and asked for his help in getting the university involved. Knapp took the idea of the Wormsloe Institute for Environmental History to then-President Michael Adams and then-Senior Vice President for External Affairs Tom Landrum. With Sarah Ross as the executive director, they agreed to develop the institute and a fellows program.

Under the direction of President Jere Morehead, what began as an informal partnership with the Wormsloe Foundation developed into the UGA Center for Research and Education at Wormsloe, which provides a range of interdisciplinary graduate education experiences and opportunities for applied research. Financial support for Wormsloe Fellows from the Wormsloe Foundation attracts graduate students from across the country, who recognize the value of fully integrated research and educational experiences.

This public-private partnership is shepherded by Ross, who is full-time faculty in the College of Environment and Design and Wormsloe Foundation president. Ongoing support for students from the Wormsloe Foundation includes coastal ecology field trips, hands-on habitat restoration and ecosystem remediation with site planning, design and implementation.

The property already is listed as a state historic site with tours and educational activities for the public. The work done on the property means more to the public now that it is linked with UGA, Barrow says.

Wormsloe Fellow Paul Cady, a master’s student in landscape architecture, spends time in a Savannah library researching the cultural history of the Wormsloe property dating back to 1736.

“It carries more clout.”

Having Wormsloe as a research center also has become a way for faculty to recruit top students, Ross says.

“Wormsloe is attracting students who are interested in applying classroom and studio knowledge in a real-life situation,” she says.

Once here, students in units across campus work together, meeting every month for a half day to share what they are doing and finding in their research. This allows them to collaborate and learn skills from other disciplines, Ross says.

“Interdisciplinary experiences and applied research give students a competitive edge when they enter the job market,” she says. “Real-world experiences give them street credentials.”


More than 400 live oak trees line the 1-mile unpaved road from the gates of the plantation to the main house. The limbs of the trees, planted in the 1890s, bend inward to form an arch over the road known as an oak allée.

Barrow calls himself a lucky man to be able to live on the pristine grounds of Wormsloe, with views of the river and salt marsh. He’s accompanied on the pier by Honey, an English cocker spaniel.

On one side of the drive is a wooded area—new growth from decades past, not centuries. Once the land was covered with cotton, a strong commodity for the South from the late 18th into the 20th centuries. Several cabins once stood alongside the one now used for student and faculty housing. Archaeologists have been studying that area to recover artifacts before the center and additional housing are built. Pieces of ceramics and a pipe are among the things they had found by this spring.

Built in 1828, the house—10,000-square feet and three stories tall—is near the river, once the primary passageway for cargo ships headed to and from Savannah. The Army Corps of Engineers dredged a deeper channel years ago, leaving a vista of marsh grass and water, through which dolphins sometimes pass.

A stone building also graces the site on the waterfront. The library, as it’s called, was built in 1907 to protect the many historic documents the Barrow family had amassed since Noble Jones’ arrival. At one time it held the manuscript for the Confederate States of America Constitution, which was sold to the family by a New York woman after the Civil War. That document, as well as many others, are now housed at UGA in the Special Collections Libraries as the DeRenne Collection. More than 10,000 documents show how the landscape has changed over time, Barrow says. The collection also includes letters between Noble Jones and Benjamin Franklin.

“Since the place stayed with our family all the documents are intact,” Barrow says.

Between the library and the cabin site is a small cemetery, where Barrow’s mother, father and grandparents are buried. There are plots there for him and Diana as well. The cemetery, and an elaborate flower garden near the house, are encircled by walls built from bricks left when other buildings on the site, like the dairy and rice processing plant, were razed.

And there is the forest of live oaks, some believed to be upwards of 400 years old. You can tell from Wormsloe land-use history maps which parts of the property have always been forest, says Holly Campbell, a Wormsloe Fellow and master’s degree student in soil science.

Holly Campbell, a master’s student in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, digs a hole and lays out the different levels of soil to observe its color, texture and structure. The characteristics vary from one section of the plantation grounds to another based on how the land was used.

Campbell is also spending her spring break at Wormsloe, collecting samples from the different areas on the property and studying them to determine how the history of land use on the site has influenced the soil properties.

Using an auger, Campbell extracts a core of soil, four inches in diameter, sometimes to a depth of eight feet. Laying the soil on a large measuring tape, she gathers data to classify the soil.

She studies the color, texture and structure of each layer. Typically, a black, sandy topsoil horizon overlays colorful, sandy subsurface horizons at Wormsloe. Currently she is investigating a reddish, hardened layer she finds at a depth of about five feet.

What she finds differs from place to place, the soil affected over time by wind and rain, massive storms and hurricanes, agricultural use and human activity. The land was home to Native Americans prior to Jones’ arrival. Shell middens (shell refuse heaps) on the property indicate marine foraging activity. Middens contain the remains of food that was eaten, fragments of ceramics and other artifacts involved in daily life. The middens slowly release calcium into the soil, having a long-term effect on soil chemistry.

Campbell also has found charcoal in the soil in some areas, which can indicate controlled forest fires, field burning, or less commonly, fire for residential use.

In areas that are burned, the acidity of the soil is different because of the ash. Depending on when the activity occurred, soil pH may be elevated by charcoal and shell additions and soil phosphorous may be elevated by human activity and manure application.

Campbell, a Wormsloe Fellow, uses the Munsell color book for soils to determine what kinds of minerals are in each soil level. With that information she can theorize how the land was previously used.

It’s a near perfect site for her research, Campbell says, since the property includes areas that have remained relatively untouched.

“Compared to a lot of other places, this is a fairly pristine site,” she says. “It makes Wormsloe a unique site to do this study.”

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