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What is Orton Plantation?

Ben Steelman
StarNews

One of the oldest plantations on the Lower Cape Fear and the only one with a manor house still standing, Orton has become a privately owned tourist attraction, celebrated for its elaborate gardens. In recent years, the plantation and its grounds have served as locations on a number of motion pictures.

The house and grounds are located at 9149 Orton Road S.E., Brunswick County [Map this], off N.C. 133, close to the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site. The impending sale of most of the property will lead to the closing of the popular gardens as of June 1, 2010, and its future as a tourist attraction is unclear.

Orton was founded by Roger Moore, brother of Col. Maurice Moore, who led the push for settlement in the region from South Carolina. Roger’s first house at Orton was allegedly burned by Indians in 1725, but he returned, settled and built the original portions of the house that now stands there in 1735.

Roger Moore died in 1751, and his tomb — with the proud epitaph, “Here lies King Roger Moore …” can still be seen in the small colonial cemetery on the north end of the Orton grounds.

After Moore’s death, the plantation passed through a number of hands. For much of the 1700s, it was owned by Richard Quince, a judge in Brunswick Town and a Patriot leader during the Revolution. In 1796, it was acquired by Benjamin Smith, a former aide to Gen. George Washington and a future governor of North Carolina.

In the 1820s, after Smith died a pauper, the plantation passed to Dr. Frederick Jones Hill, a descendent of the Moores. He added the second floor and attic to the Orton house, as well as the four distinctive Doric columns out front.

In 1865, Union troops used the house as a hospital.

In 1904, the plantation was bought by James Sprunt, the wealthy Wilmington cotton broker, who gave it as a present to his wife, Luola. Her father, Kenneth Murchison, had owned Orton and largely restored it after the damage and decay following the Civil War.

The Sprunts added the wings to the mansion (designed by Luola’s brother, architect Kenneth Murchison Jr.) in 1910. That same year, they began the layout of the gardens as these appear today. In 1915, they added the small, charming family chapel on the property. After his wife died in 1916, Sprunt renamed it “Luola’s Chapel” in her honor. (The name can still be seen on the stained glass.)

Sprunt’s son, J. Lawrence Sprunt, and his wife, Annie Gray, inherited Orton and expanded the gardens to the colonial cemetery in the 1920s. During the 1930s and ’40s, they added live oak trees, azaleas, camellias, flowering peach, dogwoods, crepe myrtles and other flowering trees and shrubs, much of it on the advice of the horticulturist Churchill Bragaw.

The gardens were first open to the public in the 1930s — the story goes, to help pay a cousin’s medical bills after a serious car accident — and have been a favorite attraction ever since, especially during azalea season.

In 1982, film producer Frank Capra Jr. discovered a photo of Orton on the cover of Southern Accents magazine, in a location manager’s file. After scouting the plantation by helicopter, he and director Mark Lester concluded that Orton would be ideal as headquarters for “The Shop,” the sinister rogue spy agency in the film version of Stephen King’s “Firestarter.” Scenes from the movie were filmed in the house and on the grounds — and a replica of the manor was burned nearby for the big climax. “Firestarter” helped convince executive producer Dino De Laurentiis to open his “mini-major” studio, DEG, in Wilmington and to erect the film complex now operated by EUE Screen Gems Studios — launching Wilmington’s career as “Hollywood East.”

Many other feature films and TV projects have been filmed at Orton since then, including “Crimes of the Heart,” “Raw Deal” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, “The Road to Wellville,” “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” the 1998 version of “Lolita,” “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” and “A Walk to Remember.” (The wedding of Mandy Moore’s character was staged in Luola’s Chapel.)

On May 7, 2010, the Sprunt family announced the sale of most of the property to Louis Moore Bacon of New York, a hedge-fund trader and founder of Moore Capital Management; in 2006, Fortune magazine identified him as the 707th richest person in the world. Moore, who was born in Raleigh, is reportedly a descendant of Orton founder Roger Moore and has other Wilmington ties on his mother’s side of the family. He has a reputation for managing his other properties — including a ranch in Colorado, a Beverly Hills mansion that once belonged to William Randolph Hearst, a hunting lodge on Robins Island, N.Y., and a grouse moorland in Scotland — in an environmentally sensitive maner. Most of the heavily wooded property is under conservation easements with the N.C. Coastal Land Trust.

The Sprunt family will retain a portion of the Orton property near the plantation pond. No sale price was disclosed. Brunswick County tax records show that Orton is divided into a number of parcels, the largest of which, at 4,900 acres, is valued at $21 million.

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