Florida Finds: Historic Haile Homestead 

The Historic Haile Homestead at 8500 SW Archer Road in Gainesville.
The Historic Haile Homestead at 8500 SW Archer Road in Gainesville.
Photo by Ronnie Lovler

If you want to get a taste of what plantation life might have been like for wealthy white landowners and their families and the African Americans they brought with them as enslaved people, visiting Historic Haile Homestead on the outskirts of Gainesville will give you a glimpse of the past. 

The homestead is just off Archer Road, on the outskirts of Gainesville, hidden away but not far from subdivisions that have gone up in recent years. It stands in glorious isolation, close enough to the main highway, without being a part of it.  

Thomas Evans Haile and his wife, Esther Serena Chesnut Haile, moved to Alachua County from Camden, South Carolina, in 1854. They brought their dream of establishing a Sea Island Cotton plantation and 56 enslaved people to build their 6,200 square-foot home.  

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House Party at the Historic Haile Homestead at Kanapaha Plantation - circa 1903. Evans and Maud Haile are the couple second from the right. The man standing with the ladies on the left is Lee Graham.
Courtesy of The Historic Haile Homestead House Party at the Historic Haile Homestead at Kanapaha Plantation – circa 1903. Evans and Maud Haile are the couple second from the right. The man standing with the ladies on the left is Lee Graham.

Sea Island cotton was unique to South Carolina’s low country. Apparently, the Haile family thought this part of Florida’s sticky, humid climate would work for their plantation. But the Haile family went bankrupt in 1868 and were forced to switch directions, turning the 1,500-acre property into a farm that produced fruits and vegetables.  

Their story tells us something about life in Florida in the pre-Civil War days, but it also tells us something unusual about the family homestead—its “talking walls.” The Haile family and their friends and guests wrote on the residence walls for reasons only they know. In all, more than 12,500 words have been counted there. 

One of the original pianos in the Homestead. Behind the piano is a talking wall.
Photo by Ronnie Lovler One of the original pianos in the Homestead. Behind the piano is a “talking wall.”

As far as we know, the first words were written in 1859 in the Trunk Room by Benjamin Haile, who simply penned his name. Other family members jotted down personal observations, including the names of visitors, growth charts of children and grandchildren, recipes for household solutions, and inventories of household items. 

Some of the more interesting wall writers were the guests invited to weekend and holiday house parties. There are 150 individual writings in the Music Room and Parlor, where most festivities occurred. One writer remarked that everyone at that holiday celebration “had a jolly good time and plenty to eat.” Right above that comment was a list of the young ladies present.  

The docent who accompanied us said these two rooms on the ground floor were designed as entertainment and party rooms, which is why so many signatures can be found in these rooms.  

He also noted that as hot and muggy as it could get in Gainesville, the home’s high ceilings kept everyone cool, although the lack of screens over the windows meant plenty of mosquitos could get in.  

The mosquitos are still around, as they are everywhere in Florida, but the grounds of Historic Haile Homestead also lend themselves to a nice little walkabout where you might even encounter a family of deer. 

Freedmen standing in front of the old kitchen. In 1860 there were 66 enslaved people working here. This may be William and Louisa Watts standing on the right. We believe the taller man on the left might be Bennet Kelley. If we're correct, all three had been enslaved here.
Courtesy of The Historic Haile Homestead Freedmen standing in front of the old kitchen. In 1860 there were 66 enslaved people working here. This may be William and Louisa Watts standing on the right. We believe the taller man on the left might be Bennet Kelley. If we’re correct, all three had been enslaved here.

What’s particularly interesting about visiting the Haile Homestead is just how much one learns about enslaved people who served the Haile family as well as the Hailes themselves. It all gets an up-close and personal look with exhibits and videos about the lives of the enslaved people and who they were.  

The plantation house at Historic Haile Homestead is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, which it joined in 1986. Today, the homestead is owned by the Alachua Conservation Trust (ACT) and the Haile Family Trust.  

Historic Haile Homestead is at 8500 SW Archer Road. It is open on weekends only—from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $5. Tours are offered on the quarter hour both days.  

A parlor at Historic Haile Homestead with an example of another talking wall.
Photo by Ronnie Lovler A parlor at Historic Haile Homestead with an example of another “talking wall.”

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