Westville conserves and perpetuates the work skills of antebellum west Georgia. Blacksmithing, split-white-oak basketmaking, cotton weaving, quilting, potting, hearth cooking, clothes washing, soapmaking, planting, animal-powered cotton ginning and baling, and cane syrup making are some of the work skills practiced for the public.
These activities take place against the backdrop of an antebellum town, which consists mostly of actual period buildings. These structures were rescued from destruction, moved to the site, and placed in a simulated environmental context to ensure historical accuracy.
West corresponded with oil tycoon and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had begun Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia about that time, and also with automotive pioneer Henry Ford, who founded Greenfield Village in Michigan. West's motives of bringing history to life for posterity were similar but more regional. He wanted to preserve the Old South's material and intangible cultures, which he felt were being obliterated by the move away from agrarian society.
Westville Village was founded after West's death, in part to acquire and maintain West's collection. Joseph B. Mahan Jr., curator of the Columbus Museum of Arts and Crafts (later the Columbus Museum), encouraged a group of volunteers in Stewart County to establish a living history museum. Mahan picked the location (between Columbus and Albany) because he felt the leadership there was already organized. In 1965 a group of local volunteers began Georgia's earliest small-town effort in historic preservation by restoring an 1830s stagecoach hotel, the Bedingfield Inn, in Lumpkin. Mahan infected the group with a zeal for creative education and a hope for economic revival through heritage tourism. The volunteers gamely founded Westville Historic Handicrafts, Incorporated, in 1966. The founders consulted with staff from Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, which had a similar mission and governance (private, nonprofit). This consultancy began a professional relationship between Old Sturbridge and Westville that still continues.
Along with buying the Fair of 1850 for $25,000 in 1966, the Westville board began assembling a group of locally endangered antebellum buildings.
Becoming a Reality
Westville came to life in 1969 through a federal grant to "change teacher behavior and teaching methods." With a paid administrator and a crafts staff, the village opened for teacher workshops and school groups. It opened permanently for daily visitors in April 1970.
Nearly all of the current collection of buildings were in place by 1975. Of Westville's thirty historical buildings and two reproductions, there are several of great importance. The Chattahoochee County Courthouse (1854) is one of two extant wooden courthouses in Georgia. The Bagley Cotton Gin (1845) and the Johnson Baling Press (1851), both of which are animal-powered, provide a rare glimpse into the cotton culture. Native Americans built one log room of the Wells House (ca. 1810).
Many of Westville's furnishings were manufactured in the North, as was generally true in the antebellum period. However, many inland southerners did make and use their own furniture; Westville has perhaps the largest public display of Georgia-made antebellum furniture. Westville also features five antebellum gardens, specializing in antique varieties of boxwoods and roses, as well as heritage food crops including sugar cane and corn, and cotton.
Although most of Westville's activities are "third-person,"
In 1973 Westville revived blacksmithing by hosting a conference of traditionalists and academic professionals from around the country. The group founded the Artist-Blacksmiths Association of North America during the conference. ABANA is now the world's largest blacksmithing association, with more than 5,000 members.
With its realistic historical appearance, Westville has furnished a setting for scenes in several major movies, including a "James Gang" western called The Long Riders (1980) and Ken Burns's The Civil War (1990). (Burns later decided to use only actual period images and cut the Westville footage.) In 1988 Westville won a Governor's Award in the Humanities.
Westville's service to school groups is one of the living museum's greatest successes. About 625 schools send children to Westville annually. Westville Village is located at 1850 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Lumpkin.
William W. Winn, The Magic and Mystery of Westville (Lumpkin, Ga.: Westville Historic Handicrafts, 1999).
Matthew M. Moye, Lumpkin
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.