It's Always 1850
Text by Kathleen Walls
Photographs by Martin Walls
Trudy Thomas relaxes after cooking on her wood stove.
Westville, Georgia is stuck in a time warp. The rest of the world is marching into the 21th century but in this tiny central Georgia village, it's always 1850. As for the residents, they wouldn't have it any other way.
People like Trudy Thomas and Fanny Smith, as they sample their own homemade biscuits slathered with the rich locally made syrup. In the distance, the blacksmith's hammer rings as he pounds the glowing iron into a useful shape. Fanny Wengerd expertly twists the cotton fibers as she spins thread on her spinning wheel.
Stephen Hawks creates a clay bowl.
Before you enter his shop, you can hear the whir of Stephen Hawks foot operated potters wheel as he fashions his simple yet beautiful pitchers, jugs and vases of his own design.
The vintage buildings, like the people of Westville, combine to draw you back to a more relaxed time. The twenty five plus structures range from the Chattahoochee County Court House to the cotton gin; from the elaborate Singer Home to the modest log cabin of the Wells family. They all contrive to recreate an authentic rural village circa mid 19th century.
Westville never existed as a real town. It began as the culmination of a dream. Colonel John West, history professor and former president of North Georgia College at Daholonega, longed for a way to preserve the rich heritage that was rapidly being swept away by progress. He began collection buildings and artifacts of that era. However, as just brick and wood, interest was limited. He even "took his show on the road" in October 1935 when he had six of the buildings assembles in Atlanta for the Southeastern Fair. It could not sustain an audience until, in 1968, his collection was purchased as the nucleus of a living history museum.
Ninteenth century Presbyterian Church
With the addition of flesh and blood, real craftpersons, Westville was born. Like any town, it is constantly evolving. It will always be 1850 there but new ideas and events to portray the time are always being added. some buildings are shuttered awaiting restoration, some lots stand empty until a proper building is donated and moved there and new crafters are always being enticed there.
Once you step through the Singer Gates, a replica of Georgia's most famous landmark in the mid eighteen hundreds, the old state capital's triple gates, you are hurled back in time to the pre-industrial era. Time moves at a slower pace. Towns produce their own basic necessities. Cotton is picked, spun and woven into cloth. Cane is ground by mulepower. Potters fashion the containers to hold the food. And the food, well that's cooked on wood stoves. You can judge the results for yourself.
Bailey Brunson creates a horseshoe.
The The Kiser House has been restored and is now a working restaurant. The evidences of modern improvements are disguised but the air conditioning is welcome on a hot summer day. Fanny Smith and Trudy Thomas will serve you a hearth cooked sausage sandwich. Smother it with Westville's own cane syrup for a delicious treat.
For dessert, wait until your nose leads you to the back kitchen of the McDonald house and enjoy fresh gingerbread cookies. Shirlene Ponder has just pulled a batch out of her wood stove oven.
To see the most important tradesman in any rural town of the 1800s, head over to the blacksmith's shop. Watch the sparks fly as Bailey Brunson pounds out a horseshoe and spins a few tall tales. Speaking of horseshoes, you may want to take a ride with Lonnie Bennett as his horse drawn wagon traverses the dirt streets filled with homes of the past.
Janette Green displays some of her work.
Speaking of important skills, quilting then was a necessity not a hobby. Janette Green will be proud to display her quilt artwork.
Like any place, Westville has its "rich folks" and its "just plain folks". The tiny log homes were build by the earliest settlers and used as temporary shelter until they could build better. The McDonald House, with its stately twin chimneys is furnished with Empire furniture and typifies the home of a wealthy merchant. The Grimes-Feagin House is a typical middle-class home of the era. The Wells Home is the oldest in the village and was originally built by Yuchi Indians around 1810. The most elaborate home in the village is The Singer House, which belonged to Stewart County's first shoemaker, Johann George Singer.
Appropriately enough, Singer's Shoemaker Shop is located next door. Here you will find Cindy Harden, probably with her dog. She will display her crafts and show you how leather products of the era were produced.
Rich and poor alike shopped in the general store. Stop in and chat with store keeper Lynn Brown.In its heyday, it sold staples. Today, you can get a memento of your visit. Many of the craft items you see being made can be purchased here.
The tiny doctor's office is furnished with typical medical paraphernalia as well as with dental instruments and mortal and pestle, hinting at the varied tasks of a nineteenth century physician in rural Georgia.
Every Southern town had its still.
The dignified Presbyterian Church and the little copper distillery both tell a tale of the early settlers. The still did serve a useful purpose as "moonshine" was the basis of many commonly used medicines and home remedies then.
Stephen Hawks will be found in his pottery shop most days. He tosses a lump of wet clay on his wheel and begins to spin it with his foot. Like magic, he draws out a delicately shaped pitcher or bowl from the shapeless mass. It is sat on the side to dry before it goes into his coal and wood burning kiln built into the hillside in the back yard of his shop. The kiln, which reaches over 2,700 degrees, is also used to fire bricks for use in Westville's buildings.
As in any small Southern town, the county courthouse occupies a special place on the square. This building is unique for two reasons. It was the original courthouse for Chattahoochee County and one of only two wooden courthouses left in Georgia. It links President Jimmy Carter to the past. His maternal great-grandfather served as tax collector and his grandfather was clerk in the historic building.
In the days when cotton was king, this millwheel turned the machinery in the cotton gin above it.
Here,too, you will find those two other necessary components of the rural south, the cotton gin and the cane mill. Cotton was king then and this gin was a fitting throne room. The screw press was built by R. M. Stevens in 1864 and is the last existing one of its kind. It foreshadows the coming industrial age with its complicated workmanship. The gin house itself was built by William Bagley in the 1840s. When you peer into its dim interior, you will probably see turfs of cotton strew around the floor. The cane mill produces the syrup used in Westville. You can watch the patient, or sometimes not so patient, mule turn the mill to grind the cane. The juice is then cooked down in a kettle to produce a syrup unlike any other. This activity usually takes place at the annual Fair of 1850, held from mid October through mid November.
Other festivals you won't want to miss are the Independence Day Celebration, July 4th. Participate in three-legged races, hop into a sack race, climb a greased pole and, if that works up your appetite, dig into slow cooked barbecue and watermelon. When your tummie's full, relax to toe tapping fiddling and watch the fireworks, 19th century style, as a blacksmith's anvil is blow into the sky with dynamite powder.
Summer, in the old days, meant a baseball game on the village green. You can take part in a vintage baseball game that gives new meaning to the "grass roots" of baseball. Young or old, male or female, you are eligible to play the first Sunday of the month April through September. You'll don a colored bib and a square wool hat and strike at vintage baseballs with white oak bats hand carved by Westville's own craftsman.
Halloween is a special time for little ghosts and goblins in Westville. They trick-or-treat from one scary building to the next. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is told around a flickering bonfire as the headless horseman himself prowls the dirt streets.
Christmas in Westville is celebrated with special handmade decorations, a Yule Log Ceremony, a German Christmas Tree Lighting and special activities throughout the village. The New Year is ushered in with the Ringing of the Bells and the Burning of the Green. No matter how many years they "ring in" remember, It's Always 1850 in Westville, where you will find it's fun to dwell in the past.