Lunch N Learn focuses on Historic Westville

Published 6:00 am Saturday, January 25, 2020

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VALLEY — Bradshaw-Chambers County Library hosted its first Lunch N Learn program of 2020 on Friday morning. A good-sized crowd was on hand in the Lanier Room to hear Ryan Clements and George Singer talk about Historic Westville’s recent relocation from Lumpkin, Georgia to nearby Columbus. A total of 17 nineteenth century era buildings have been relocated to a site not far from the National Infantry Museum and daily attendance has picked up significantly from the visits that were being made in Lumpkin.

Westville is a recreation of an antebellum village with demonstrations and interpretations of life and culture of 19th century south Georgia. This is accomplished by maintaining an authentic village environment, collecting and preserving artifacts, demonstrating traditional work skills, working areas and special events. The 17 buildings include a 19th century courthouse, two churches, stores, craft shops and homes.

Every day “villagers” in period dress demonstrate woodworking, dressmaking, blacksmithing and other necessary skills of the 1850s.

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Ryan is with Aaron & Clements, a program and construction management consulting firm that was founded in 1992. A graduate of both Kennesaw State University and Georgia Tech, Ryan has been with the company since 2004 and has been involved in projects for the National Infantry Museum, multiple projects for the Springer Opera House, three renovations of the Eagle & Phenix Mill, the Chattahoochee River Whitewater project and the Columbus Public Library.

Being at the library was something of a homecoming for George Singer. He’s named for his grandfather, George Cobb Jr. Cobb Memorial Archives is named in honor of Mr. Cobb and his wife Edna. Singer is a member of the Westville board and is knowledgeable about what was at Historic Westville in Lumpkin and what has been relocated thus far to Columbus.

“Westville opened in Lumpkin in 1967,” he said. “It had previously been in Jonesboro, Georgia. It had been in Lumpkin for 50 years, but the (US 27) bypass really hurt it.”

Historic Westville had 33 structures. Almost half of them have been relocated to the Columbus site, which opened to the public on June 22, 2019.

“In the last year, we were open in Lumpkin we had 8,000 visitors,” Singer said. “In our first nine months in Columbus, we have gotten 12,000. The National Infantry Museum gets 300,000 visitors a year. If we could get a fraction of that, we will be doing great. We are getting a lot more student visits now than we did in Lumpkin. We’ve been filled up with field trips.”

The new location of Westville is a short distance away from the Infantry Museum and is next to Oxbow Meadows.

The City of Columbus donated the land for the site and private donations covered most of the costs of moving to the new site.

“We’ve had to overcome some challenges in making the move,” Clement said, crediting I.C. Davis Home Movers for doing great work in getting it done. At a speed of 45 miles per hour, it’s a 45-minute trip from Lumpkin to Columbus. The Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office escorted every move.

“In some cases, we had to detour through Alabama because of the height of the building,” Clement said.

One bridge over US 27 on the Fort Benning Military Reservation was too low for the transported buildings to safely clear.

The one building currently on the site that’s not from Lumpkin is a two-story antebellum house that’s been brought in from Harris County. It’s known as the Billingsley House and was donated by the Lewis family from Pine Mountain.

“Another challenge for us involved codes,” Clements said. “There’s nothing in existing codes governing the relocation of old buildings. How much separation do you have between them?”

The village streets posed another problem. To look like the 1850s, they have to be dirt, but codes require them to be sturdy enough to support the weight of a 72,000-pound fire truck. Thanks to some modern technology, the streets look like dirt roads but can handle big trucks. The top is a dirt surface but underneath is a very sturdy manmade product that can support heavy vehicles.

A change from Westville is that the foundations of the buildings are compliant with 21st century codes.

It took 40 trips to move the 17 buildings now at Westville, and that was only the first phase. Additional moves will be taking place in the coming years, one of which will be for the very popular Westville cotton gin.

Singer said that moving Westville was not a popular move with Westville residents but was good for the village itself. He said restoration work had to be done. Rotten wood had to be replaced and each of the buildings now have new roofs made of cedar shingles to maintain the 1850s look.

“It will last far into the future,” he said. “We don’t know if that’s true keeping it in Lumpkin.”

In a PowerPoint presentation, Clements showed how the buildings were taken apart, transported and reassembled in Columbus. Each piece that was taken apart was individually numbered. He compared the resembling of the buildings to putting together giant jigsaw puzzles. The chimneys couldn’t be moved. New ones were built on site. This was an especially difficult problem for the courthouse building, which has four very tall chimneys.

The Westville courthouse was formerly the seat of government in Chattahoochee County. It’s best known for the many soldier weddings that took place there.

One of the more interesting buildings in the new Westville is the blacksmith shop. Visitors can see a Westville legend, “Mr. Fred,” at work there three days a week. Another must-see stop is the Singer House and the nearby Singer Boot House.

“The Boot House is a tall structure,” Clements said. “We had to take it all apart and put it back together after we’d transported it to Columbus.”

Another popular stopping place is a cabinet shop where visitors can see woodworking done 1850s style.

Rebuilding a new Westville was a massive undertaking. Clements said that 40 to 50 skilled carpenters were on the site every work day.

When asked about the cotton gin, Clements said it was high on the list for a future relocation.

One attendee asked if they were still making biscuits and cooking ham over an open flame.

“We are planning on doing that,” Singer said. “Eventually, we will be doing everything we’ve done in Lumpkin.”

Singer added that small farms will likely be located on site. The Georgia Forestry Commission recently donated 500 trees and plants.

“We will be planting them very soon,” Singer said.

Thought is being given to having animals there. Historic Westville in Lumpkin had mule-drawn wagons.

Westville is a living legacy to its founder, Lt. Col. John Word West (1876-1961). A history professor at North Georgia College in Dahlonega, West saw much economic and social change during his lifetime. As a boy, he loved hearing his grandparents tell him stories about the old days in Georgia and as an adult feared that that way of life would disappear forever unless people passed on those stories of the old skills people once had. He would later convert those experiences into a museum and in 1928 committed himself to “Georgiana,” a place of old buildings, tools, furniture and work skills of 19th century Georgians.

He called it “The Fair of 1850” and opened it to the public off US 41 in Jonesboro. For the rest of his life, he tried (and failed) to get the Georgia legislature to take over the project.

Five years after his death, the people of Stewart County, Georgia. decided to take on this project as a new industry, something that would draw tourists to the county seat of Lumpkin. Dr. Joseph Mahan, director of the Columbus Museum, backed the idea. A 59-acre site on the south side of Lumpkin was donated to this cause in 1966 and Westville Historic Handcrafts was organized. By 1969, the new museum purchased the West Collection and opened to the public in the spring of 1970. The six oldest buildings in Jonesboro were moved to Lumpkin, along with many West artifacts. Many additional donations came in from all over.

In 2001, Westville Historic Crafts became Historic Westville with the goal of expanding from interpreting handicrafts to interpreting living history and having demonstrations and crafts while telling the history of the west Georgia region.

At the new site in Columbus, Historic Westville has five interpreters that are skilled in traditional trades. Leather making and boot making are shown in the Singer Boot Shop while south Georgia quilting takes place in the Singer House. Traditional carpentry is in the West Wood Shop while blacksmithing is in the Woodruff Blacksmith Shop.

Historic methods and techniques are used by the craftspeople. Tools from the time period are on display in the houses, and sometimes, still used.