After her milk truck swapped paint with a logging truck in the predawn hours of 1934, a pistol-toting Ophelia Troup Dent single-handedly persuaded the drunken loggers responsible for the crash that they would fare better waiting on law enforcement to arrive and handle the outcome.
While hobnobbing with society swells such as the DuPonts, she donned high-end hand-me-downs, shining no less for wear and tear thanks to her resourcefulness with needle and thread. And, this lifelong bachelorette was no wilting spinster, but rather a victim of the dearth of worthy suitors and an excess of “tamed husband.”
As if these anecdotes are not enough to embrace Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation’s last matriarch as a local historical treasure, there is this: “Upon her death, she left all her property to the state of Georgia,” said Sudy Leavy, author of Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, an Arcadia Publishing Co. book.
Ophelia’s endowment to posterity is known today as Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation State Historic Site, located on U.S. Highway 17 in northern Glynn County. Folks can get a better look into the richly-full and extraordinary life of Ophelia Dent by coming out Sunday to Hofwyl-Broadfield historic site to hear Leavy’s historical presentation.
It begins at 3 p.m. and is free with the cost of admission to the state historic site, which is $8 for adults, $5 for children ages 5 to 17 and free to those younger.
As she has done so many times over the years, Sudy Leavy will dress the part and assume the role of Ophelia Dent for this historical interpretation. (Over the years, Leavy also has imbued to personas of such local historical figures as romance novelist Eugenia Price and Lydia Parrish, author of the book Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands.)
Leavy will read largely from the correspondence that transpired between Ophelia and her longtime friend, Arabella Clark Cleveland of Massachusetts. Leavy first gained access to the letters by striking a friendship with Arabella’s daughter, Arabella Young. The correspondence is now housed at the University of Georgia.
Ophelia Dent died on the morning of Sept. 5, 1973, passing away quietly while sitting over coffee in the family home’s downstairs parlor. Her death at age 85 ended the estate’s operation as an agricultural concern under the same family for five generations.
It was a modest but thriving dairy farm during Ophelia’s time there. But Hofwyl-Broadfield was among the most productive and highly-regarded rice plantations in all of the Georgia/Carolina Low Country during the antebellum era. Visitors to the state historic site today can get a good idea of the complexities of 19th century rice cultivation and the vital role the Altamaha River delta’s tidal rhythms played in its irrigation.
With no heirs to carry the family name forward, Ophelia’s legacy was to preserve the land where rice once flourished under her family’s name. “She wanted people to know rice had actually been grown on the Georgia coast,” said Leavy, noting that the decision also kept the sprawling Hofwyl-Broadfield estate from being developed into subdivisions.
When the Low Country was the world’s leading commercial rice producer in the 1850s, perhaps no crop was more prized than that produced on the 1,700 acres at Hofwyl-Broadfield.
“It had a name, Broadfield Rice, in the markets in Savannah and Charleston,” Leavy said.
Ophelia’s father, James Troup Dent (1848-1913), continued to cultivate rice there after the Civil War, paying newly freedmen to work the field for wages. Hofwyl-Broadfield produced its last rice crop in 1917, under the direction of Ophelia’s brother, Gratz Dent (1881-1932).
Gratz, Ophelia and her sister Miriam Gratz Dent (1883-1953) began operating Hofwyl-Broadfield as a dairy farm sometime afterward. “She and her sister Miriam ran the dairy farm for 30 years,” Leavy said. “They really needed it. Her father had died, and they could no longer grow rice. Her brother Gratz thought that a dairy would be a good way for them to have income.”
Among other things, Ophelia was up before dawn to drive the delivery truck — a route that took her to St. Simons Island, Brunswick and Jekyll Island. “I guess they took it on a boat to Jekyll before there was a bridge,” Leavy said.
And then there was that above-referenced incident in 1934. Ophelia was known to pack a pistol as she traveled the lonely roads on dark mornings with only her spaniel, Rags, for company. One morning an erratically oncoming log truck ran her off the road. Unfazed, the trusty weapon at her side, Ophelia “sauntered up to a group of drunken men in the log truck,” Leavy said. “She was able to get somebody to listen to her. They got arrested and then the logging company paid to fix her truck.”
Leavy came across this tantalizing tale in Ophelia’s correspondence with Arabella. “She starts her letter, ‘I am a hero,’” Leavy said.
Of course, Ophelia’s life was not all milk truck deliveries and standoffs with loggers. In her younger days, she taught at Wykeham Rise girls school in Washington, Conn. That is where she met Arabella, forming a lasting friendship. In between an exchange of letters that stretched from 1912, Arabella visited her friend often at Hofwyl- Broadfield.
Ophelia also had friends in high places. She was a friend and neighbor to the DuPont family, who owned Altama Plantation just up the road in northwestern Glynn County. “Later, they would derive much of their income through wise investment advice from Pierre DuPont,” Leavy said.
Leavy herself had a memorable encounter with Ophelia back in the 1960s. After a short teaching stint at Glynn Academy, Leavy tried her hand at several business opportunities. One of these involved selling a line of mail-order fashion. “It was like Tupperware, only you sold it in your home,” she explained.
But perhaps not so modestly priced as Tupperware. “So I put Miss Dent on my list. She was very charming when I called her. She said, ‘My dear, I am familiar with the clothing, as I see their ads in the New Yorker. But I don’t spend that much on clothing.’ She was real cute about it.”
And with friends like her’s, Ophelia apparently did not have to spend that kind of money on good clothes. “She was quite adept at sewing,” Leavy said. “And she had rich friends who would give her hand-me-downs.”
But enough about Ophelia. And we have not scratched the surface of what Leavy has to share about her favorite subject. Head out to Hofwyl-Broadfield Sunday to hear the rest of the story.
Leavy presently lives in Athens, but is a long-time St. Simons Islander and the mother of Brunswick News Publisher Buff Leavy.