Wednesday, September 26, 2012

This blog is a work in progress by the Committee to Save Sweetwater Mansion. Parts are still in outline form. More information will be added as it is obtained and verified. Thank you for your interest in a property that has been used and abused for much too long.


It has come to our attention that Cynthia Colburn Johnson no longer lists herself as director of Sweetwater. After being informed of this and checking out the information, we still have no idea what may have precipitated this change. We still feel that time grows short to save the old plantation home. We are urgently seeking a buyer for this property. Below is a link to some of the last photographs taken of the dilapidated ante bellum home:


This committee does not seek any funding for its work. Any funds received by any member of this committee will be immediately returned. This committee does seek an honest private buyer for the Sweetwater Estate, one who will use the property a as vacation getaway or as a small corporate office. This committee has been formed because we have no believable assurances that the land will not be sold for retail development once (and if) the ostensibly planned Bed & Breakfast business proves undoable or unprofitable for current owner Susan Leigh Smithson.

Part I
- Genesis

Where does the history of Sweetwater Mansion begin? Certainly the land on which the venerable home sits has a much longer history, but for the purposes of this account we'll begin with the foundations of the building itself. John Brahan, who served as a major general in the War of 1812, owned the land the Indians had called Sweetwater and began construction of the two story, eight room house in 1828. When Brahan died of pneumonia six years later, the house had risen only to the sills of the first floor windows.

Despite a historical marker adjacent to Florence Boulevard, and despite what publicists for the current owner Susan Leigh Smithson have reported, John Brahan never lived in the home before his death. Brahan willed the property to his son Maj. Robert Brahan. The younger Brahan chose not to reside on the plantation and traded the estate to his sister's husband, Robert Miller Patton. Robert and Jane Patton finished the home in 1835 and became the first family to reside there.

Part II - The Pattons & Weedens

Gov. Robert Miller Patton and his wife Jane Locke Brahan Patton lived in the plantation house at Sweetwater for many years. After their deaths, the mansion passed to their daughter Martha Hayes Patton and her husband Col. John David Weeden.

John David Weeden and Martha Patton Weeden resided in the home until their demise, at which time their son John Dowling Weeden and his wife Jessie Ora Earthman Weeden took possession of the mansion, now almost universally known as the Weeden Home. John, who died in 1960, and Jessie, who followed in 1972, had one child. Their daughter Elizabeth married James Minton and chose not to live on the family plantation.

Now the home that had sheltered the Patton-Weeden families for 138 years became part of what was known as the John D. Weeden Estate. In 1976, the Patton-Weeden home was added to the National Register of Historic Places, a distinctly different designation than that of a Federal Landmark as Dorcas Jane King Bowers, current Sweetwater social media advisor, recently claimed.

According to Billy Ray Warren of Heritage Preservation, the home was placed on the market by January 2005, or approximately six months after the death of caretaker Emmer Lettie Region. At that time, Heritage Preservation was unable to ascertain the asking price of owner Susan Leigh Smithson.

From HP's minutes in 2007:

Part III - Emmer Lettie Region

Emmer Lettie Region was the lone caretaker at Sweetwater until her death in June 2004. From the 6/28/04 notes of Heritage Preservation Inc.:

It was noted that Lettie Region, the caretaker of Sweetwater, died recently. Iva McClure reported that the mother of the owner of Sweetwater has said that the family will secure the house while waiting for the owner to come to town. Iva McClure agreed to stay in touch with the mother of the owner. Charlotte Dean will arrange for a title search regarding the Sweetwater property. Billy Warren will make contact with Robert Gonce. Bill McDonald added that the cemetery at Sweetwater also needs to be restored.

Sadly, the home was never secured, and vandals wreaked tremendous damage on the mansion. It should also be noted that at the time of her death, Lettie Region was 74 and had been in declining health for some time. Martin Dean's letter (see Part V) states that Miss Region should be held partially responsible for the condition of the house. Possibly Miss Region kept her ill health a secret from current owner Susan Leigh Smithson, but it is also possible that Smithson expected much more from the caretaker than any woman, no matter her age, was able to give.

City of Florence employee Frank Chaney had this to say concerning Miss Region and her stay at the Weeden Home:
I don’t know how long Miss Lettie Region was at the Sweetwater Plantation but I know it was a good many years. She kept a pistol in the pocket of her apron and she wasn’t afraid to use it. If it wasn’t for her, that place would have been torched. This city and the owners owed her a lot of gratitude and thanks for her efforts to protect it.
The only heat she ever had in that place was a few ceramic heaters and sometimes she would use the oven on cold winter nights. She could have gone into an apartment, but she did not want to leave that old place because she loved it so well. I would visit her on occasions and we both would have coffee and tea cakes and talk about the old mansion. I miss her because she reminded me a lot of my grandmother and had a heart of gold.
In my opinion, Lettie Region should be applauded for her efforts keeping away thieves that could have destroyed the house. Miss Lettie was the caretaker of the plantation who actually lived in the old mansion until her death several years ago. I remember visiting her on occasions to see how she was doing. We would share stories about the old plantation while drinking coffee. She loved caring and living at the Sweetwater Plantation.
I believe this old place should deserve a more deep respect than “haunted.”

I would like to comment on the article “Ghost hunters tell Sweetwater tales.” A statement was said in this article about the former curator who lived in the Sweetwater mansion before she died. Her name was Lettie Region and she was a pistol-packing lady who didn’t allow anyone to come near the old mansion unless they had special permission.
Ms. Lettie was not scared of anything, and that includes a so-called ghost. She only stayed in one of the front rooms and that was because she had a window unit to keep her cool in the hot summers and heaters to keep her warm in the winters, and it was not because she was scared.
Ms. Lettie was a great friend to my wife and I, and we would sit tirelessly listening to tales of strange happenings that went on at the old mansion. I personally do not believe anyone can remain here after they have died. That is against what the Bible teaches.
In my personal opinion, promote it like it should be, “historical” not “haunted.”

Part IV - Susan Leigh Smithson

(Susan Leigh Smithson Genealogy)

Known names used by current owner:

Susan Leigh Smithson
Suzan Smithson
Suzan Jacques
Mrs. Steven Clark Jacques

Click to Enlarge

Susan Leigh Smithson, 57, and her mother currently live in a five bedroom home in Northeast Atlanta which sold for 866K in 2007. Now Smithson is charging admission to the historic Sweetwater Mansion in order to finance its renovations--renovations needed in most part due to its lack of upkeep the past twenty years while in her possession.

Note our graphics on Red Baron Antiques and SCANA, an energy corporation. These are not advertisements, but businesses that will later play a role in this account.

Part V - Condition in 2009

Letter from Martin Dean, realtor, dated 09/21/2009:

 Greetings all posters.

I do not have the pleasure of being acquainted with anyone on this site, to my current knowledge. I'm not hiding behind a pseudonym and can be easily contacted through my office. I am going to try to 'set the record straight' here so several of you can relax.

Sweetwater Plantation is for sale.
The current asking price is 9 million dollars.
The current owner has not parceled off any of the property she owns. (The hotel is on a separate parcel owned by someone else and not sold by the owner of Sweetwater.)
The listing company has requested that the owner clean up or renovate the property on numerous occasions.

Now to answer the first question...

Is there an event being planned at Sweetwater Plantation?


Will We be allowed to enter the home?

No. Restoration work IS being done. The floor, while not rotten has had some structural issues, mostly revolving around some floor joists that had been inadvertently removed during the addition of an interior staircase to the basement... This work was done several years ago by a previous owner. The floors are intact but will not bear the weight of groups people moving through the house.

Who is to blame for the condition of Sweetwater?

This is a big, difficult question to answer. There have been family illnesses, neglect from a caretaker, vandalism by high school students and... nature.

Where is the construction permit?

None needed, first of all the main interior walls are not being taken down or moved. They can't be (this makes me smile as I write this) the interior walls are brick with wood lathe and plaster... The work being done on the building is exterior and quasi cosmetic... the side porch has been fully restored, the roof and columns on the front porch (collapsed several years ago) and have been cleared from the front of the house, these will be rebuilt with new materials, using old photographs for reference.

The kitchen was destroyed by a falling tree. Sad, but who are you really going to blame for that. (the youtube video shows the kitchen still standing in the 'derelict' pictures, these are not recent photos)

[On a side note here, the movies and pictures of Sweetwater are old... older than our companies involvement with the property. So just because you see it posted recently doesn't make it a recent picture. All of the furniture has been removed from the house (bed, piano) and taken for professional restoration this was done at least a year ago.]

Who is coordinating this event?

LOL no one on this site I assure you. Myself included. Local civic and volunteer groups have been contacted to assist with this project and all have responded favorably so far.

Is this a Haunted tour? Isn't that degrading to the importance of this home?

This will be a tour of the grounds. THERE WILL NOT be masked ghouls with chainsaws chasing scantily clad co-eds through the woods. Walking on the property is scary enough... trust me. There will be ghost stories... some associated with the property, some based in history, some not... You get to decide... It IS Halloween after all.

What about the shoddy workmanship?

The Contractor doing the work is experienced in historical restoration. A representative from the State Historical Board is touring the grounds today, I will be onsite to accompany her.

I haven't seen any work being done out there how do we know you aren't lying about it.

Ummm I hope you haven't seen the work, if you have then you were trespassing. I can't think of a site where you could stand and view the house clearly without being on someones private property. Our office is notified and must be present for anyone to be onsite, with the exception of licensed contractors. This property has not been shown without our direct involvement.

My hope, as is the hope of several of you is that Sweetwater be lovingly and respectfully restored. This project serves three fold; This serves as an impetus to see some much needed stabilization to the property occur. It allows the curious to become familiar with the property in a legal non obtrusive way. It exposes the property to a large number of people with the hopes that exposure will lead to the eventual sale of the property.

I hope that most of your concerns have been answered. Thank you.

Part VI - Sweetwater Myths

1. Sweetwater Mansion/Plantation is a 503(c) tax exempt organization.

False - Sweetwater is a private home owned by Susan Leigh Smithson, aka Suzan Smithson, of Atlanta. She must pay non-homestead property tax on the house yearly. She also must pay taxes on any income from events held at Sweetwater.

2. Susan Leigh Smithson is renovating the house with money she made from selling land to the new hotel complex.

False - According to Martin Dean, Smithson did not own the land on which the new hotel sits.

3. Sweetwater is a Federal landmark and cannot be razed for new construction.

False - Sweetwater is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2008 it was placed on the endangered list.

4. No one would buy Sweetwater with the intention of razing the old house.

False - Charlotte "Dean said many might not realize that the land is worth so much. 'That’s commercial property. The price is based on that,' she explained. The property has 1,000 feet of frontage on Florence Boulevard, a major commercial corridor in the city. And it’s the largest undeveloped tract of land fronting that corridor."

5. Susan Leigh Smithson will never sell the house for retail development.

False? - When the Residence Inn built next to Sweetwater, she increased her asking price from 6 million to 9 million.

6. Susan Leigh Smithson never intended to sell Sweetwater.

False? If the answer should be true, Ms. Smithson committed fraud when she entered into a contract with Cypress Realty to sell the property. Cypress Realty, owned by the Dean family, invested money in advertising and time in showing the property. If Ms. Smithson was "joking" about selling the estate, the Deans certainly would not find it amusing.

7. Sweetwater is exempt from "lead paint abatement" standards.

False - According to EPA documents dated May 6, 2010, no building designated for public use is exempt from Renovation, Repair & Painting codes established by the U.S. Government.

8. A person named Silverman purchased the plantation in 1913.

False - This statement was made by Robert Simone, infamous local ghost hunter, for some unknown purpose. The home remained with the original family until after c. 1976.

Part VII - Bed & Breakfast?

Is Sweetwater currently suitable for a Bed & Breakfast establishment? No.

Sweetwater has no indoor kitchen. The outdoor kitchen was destroyed during a storm some years ago. Former caretaker Lettie Region used a microwave for cooking.

Sweetwater has one small bathroom downstairs.

Sweetwater has no central heat or air. Lettie Region used small space heaters in conjunction with the fireplaces for warmth in winter.

What would be the cost of installing baths, a kitchen, central heat and air, etc.?

Would Susan Leigh Smithson decide to partition the huge bedrooms in order to accommodate more guests? Where would the kitchen be placed? The baths? Would this not involve the services of a historical architect...more expense for Ms. Smithson?

Who would run the bed and breakfast? Ms. Smithson seemingly chooses to reside in Atlanta where her retail business is located. At least one, and preferably two, employee(s) would need to be on payroll to act as caretakers and to assist guests--quite an expense for a 24/7 endeavor.

Part VII - Who Controls the Future?

There appears to be enough people running the project; the old adage about more chiefs than Indians comes to mind. It's been reported that Angela Zills is no longer on the committee due to problems with missing artifacts. Zills herself has refused to confirm this. Chad Dean and Reed Dudley have graduated from high school; will they continue now that they're in college? Will these three be replaced by others, other high school students? There are also reports that Scott Lyndon has become disenchanted with the procedures, or lack of such, at Sweetwater. Will he continue?

Note: Reed Dudley has since informed us that she is no longer a member of the Sweetwater Historical Tours Committee.

The most vocal of the committee is Dorcas Jeanette King Bowers, aka D. J. Bowers, who is Social Media Director. This position involves overseeing the Twitter account and Facebook Page. 

At the end of January 2012, someone created a blog in which those who have dared ask questions have been unfairly maligned. Four pillars of the Shoals community have been attacked, and from our perspective, for no other reason. Let's clear up some of these lies:

Brian Schweighardt is a Shoals area blogger and works in his family business. Data from the intelligence service we use have failed to produce any record of jail or prison time for Mr. Schweighardt, as the writer has asserted.

E. A. Truitt is a former Shoals resident now residing in the Birmingham metropolitan area. He owns a computer software business and property in Lauderdale County. Critics have accused Truitt of assuming the identity of a federal judge, Ed Emmett. There is no record of Truitt ever claiming to be a judge. He does have a similar name to Emmett, who is not a federal judge at all, but a circuit court judge in Texas. It appears that Mr. Truitt or an employee may have used Emmett's photo in his profile. We have no idea why Truitt would have used the photograph of someone else, but this is hardly an impersonation and is certainly not identity theft. Current social media sites for Mr. Truitt use other photos. We find no record of his ever being listed as Shoalanda Speaks' partner, but was listed as publisher until two years ago. We assume he severed ties with the blog when he moved from the area.

Bette Terry is a registered nurse and local historian. She has published two short histories on the Shoals and currently writes two blogs, as well as being co-owner of and writer for The Connection, a north Alabama online magazine. At one time Miss Terry wrote Nurse Nan for the Shoalanda Group, but moved her blog when she and another Shoalanda blogger branched out on their own. These are the only ties that we find to Shoalanda Speaks.

Debra Glass is a noted local  author with a nationwide following. At one time Mrs. Glass was active in historical research on Sweetwater, but we have found no connection with her and any so-called trespassers on the property. Other than an ad for Mrs. Glass' current novel, we can find no relationship to Shoalanda Speaks. Apparently the Art Director at Sweetwater at one time had a relationship with Mrs. Glass' ex-husband. If much of what is posted on this blog or Facebook site seems personal, apparently it is.

Part VII - Recent Status

No matter the owner, the condition of the house does not change. We understand only certain renovation firms licensed to deal with lead found in such buildings may participate in any work. According to well informed sources, OSHA has been called in to investigate any use of volunteers in Ms. Smithson's renovation plans.

We have an update from Charles Brookins of the Alabama Department of Public Health. He has stated on March 7, 2011, that the department is looking into the current renovations.

To be continued...

Sources: Lauderdale County Property Records, Martin Dean, Frank Chaney, Remembering Sweetwater by William L. McDonald, TimesDaily, Fulton County Court System, OB's Corner, Alabama Department of Public Health, Shoalanda Speaks.