horse pulling wagon with people

A horse-drawn wagon carries guests from the Hardman Farm Visitors Center to the historic West End mansion. In the background is the gazebo-topped Indian mound across Ga. Hwy. 17 from the mansion.

The aromas of warm mulled wine and apple cider greet holiday travelers anticipating a trip back to a Victorian Christmas at Hardman Farm State Historic Site. A horse-drawn wagon awaits outside the visitor’s center to carry guests along a lantern-lit path to the green-shuttered country mansion. Inside, boughs of holly, magnolia leaves, red ribbons and handmade ornaments adorn Christmas trees in each room. Impersonators of the home’s original inhabitants from the 1870s bustle about, retelling tales from holidays long past in the Sautee Nacoochee Valley. A harp, banjo or vintage piano serenade the tourists. Across the breezeway in the kitchen behind the house, sorghum cookies bake in a wood stove.

Now in its fifth year, the Victorian Christmas at the historic farm has attracted thousands of holiday celebrants seeking an evening steeped in 19th-century traditions. The historic Mansion at West End, near Lake Lanier’s headwaters on the Chattahoochee River, sits across Ga. Hwy. 17 from the gazebo-topped Indian mound in White County just south of Helen.

Event coordinator Sarah Summers described the holiday festivities, held Friday and Saturday evenings Dec. 4-18,  as an annual highlight for those who staff and volunteer at the historic site. She said staff members and Friends of Hardman Farm work for months on “carefully chosen well-thought-out period attire.” They research what each original household member might do and say as Christmas approached.

Docent in front of Christmas tree

Docents in Victorian period attire meet visitors at Hardman Farm. Christmas trees decorated by community groups as they might have been in the 1870s adorn every room.

Docents will portray Captain James Nichols, his wife Kate, and daughter Anna Ruby, namesake of the national forest waterfall near Helen. Nichols, a businessman and Governor’s House Guard during the Civil War, retired from work in Gainesville and bought up land in the Nacoochee Valley. In 1870 he built the Victorian mansion, an exact replica of his home in Milledgeville, to overlook the gazebo he constructed on the Indian mound. He called it “West End” for its location near the western edge of his 2,600 acres. The home is still furnished with Nichols family possessions.

The second owners, the Honeycutt family, retreated there in summers from 1893 to around 1903, when Dr. Lamaratine Hardman bought it. Hardman, one of the wealthiest men in north Georgia due to his success in medicine and agriculture, served two terms as governor. The Hardman family donated the property to the state in 1999.

The Victorian Christmas is “a beautiful thing to see,” said Scarlett Fuller, historic site assistant manager. The event engages all the senses with the sights, sounds, tastes and scents emanating from some of the home’s original fixtures. The ivory keys of Hardman’s piano will chime with carols. The 1940s era wood stove will warm the kitchen with the sweet scent of sorghum cookies, made from sorghum grown on the farm and baked by a cook in period clothing. “They’re like a ginger snap, so delicious!” Fuller said. Expect to see Santa and Mrs. Claus, likely hearing requests for electronic gizmos not wooden rocking horses or porcelain-faced dolls.

Santa and Mrs. Claus with two children

Santa and Mrs. Claus interact with children at a previous Victorian Christmas at Hardman Farm State Historic Site.

The organizers urge guests to purchase tickets in advance online for 30-minute intervals from 4-7 p.m. Attendees can stay as long as they want until closing time. Before or after visiting the mansion, visitors can make s’mores at a bonfire outside the visitor’s center and sip hot chocolate, cider or mulled estate wine from Creekstone Winery on the Hardman property. Those arriving before dark might enjoy a two-mile round-trip stroll along the Chattahoochee River on the paved Helen to Hardman trail.

Parking for the event will be in the upper paved parking lot along Hardman Farm Road off Ga. Hwy 17. Charter buses must call the site to register and reserve special parking. Tickets: Adults $12, youth (6-17) $7, children 5 and under free, family rate (2 adults + their children) $40., 706-878-1077.

See the December Outdoor Column for other North Georgia holiday events offering a variety of festivities, from parades to fireworks.

Photos: courtesy Georgia State Parks