A Lasting Gift
If our life and work are divided between “a time to act” and “a time to contemplate,” it is often the latter that gets pushed aside. Perhaps that reticence comes from not recognizing the right time to pause and take stock. Recently we commemorated the centennial celebration of the Callaway home and are now into our second decade as a museum; it seems like an appropriate time to heed some sage advice and reflect on what our founders, Mr. and Mrs. Fuller Callaway Jr., envisioned for Hills & Dales.
When the estate was bequeathed to Fuller E. Callaway Foundation, the overarching objective was to preserve it for generations to come as a public facility. And while it was given by Alice H. Callaway in 1998, it was no less a gift from Fuller Jr. who passed away some years earlier. So what inspired them to leave their home and garden for the public to enjoy? Were they stirred by how Fuller Sr. and Ida saved the garden when they bought the property in 1912? Were they encouraged to treasure historic things by their parents? We’ll probably never know for sure, but clues found in Mr. and Mrs. Callaway’s library reveal an intrigue with conserving the past. A good number of books about the historic homes in America, Great Britain and across Europe grace the shelves. Even more telling is the 1976 Town & Country magazine on a side table with a note to see the article “The Gift of Preservation.” These certainly point to that interest, but there is a tangible example of their desire to save our heritage that occurred decades earlier.
Not far from Hills & Dales is ‘Bellevue,’ the fine Greek Revival home of U.S. Senator Benjamin H. Hill. In the early 1940s, when national interest in historic preservation was gaining momentum, Mrs. Callaway, with support from Fuller Jr., worked actively to save and restore this antebellum home. Alice was only thirty years old when this project began, but signs of a blossoming heart for preservation are evident. Her commitment was so strong she traveled to New York to select historically appropriate furniture, chandeliers and other decorative features. By the 1950s with renovations complete, Bellevue became the home of the LaGrange Woman’s Club and the first house museum in Troup County.
In many ways, their involvement with ‘Bellevue’ foreshadowed an even more comprehensive act of preservation—when Hills & Dales became a house and garden museum over fifty years later. The idea of opening Hills & Dales to the public was not a revolutionary idea, but it was a bold one. As early as 1868, George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon became the first house museum in the country. Since that time, the Mount Vernon model has been replicated thousands of times across the country. However, since the 1990s relatively few have been created, and many have closed. Against that backdrop, the opening of Hills & Dales in 2004 was a rare and courageous act of preservation.
With the Callaways’ gift, the legacy of the estate was assured, but that was not all they had in mind. In their wills was a request that the estate be “used for the enjoyment and instruction of the visiting public.” That desire was interpreted as a vision for a living, dynamic place woven into the fabric of the community, vibrant with culturally enriching experiences for all who visit.
This charge inspired our mission statement and consequently, the programs we offer. Some have become recurring events, such as the Annual Lecture, Picnic in the Garden and Stories in the Garden—all chosen to represent their love of education, family, and our region.
Several programs for children were also developed or expanded. The “Earle the Squirrel” garden activity book for young visitors has been a big success, and the time honored tradition of Halloween trick-or-treating at the estate is still going strong. Almost as popular (and even livelier) is the more recently born Children’s Christmas Celebration. What began as a small gathering of kids decorating cookies and making ornaments has grown into a much-anticipated event where hundreds of gingerbread houses are decorated. Given the family’s desire to support local schools, all Troup County fifth graders are invited to participate in a “Quest” field trip, where they learn about the estate’s history, tour the grounds and experience the garden. It has proven to be an enriching experience for them, and their enthusiasm has made it very gratifying for us. Perhaps it was witnessing their enjoyment of this historic property that made us realize how vital it is to engage each coming generation in order to keep our shared heritage relevant to them.
Now we want to do more. A big step forward will be later this year when we introduce our new children’s tour of the home. Previously, the age requirement was to be seven or older to go inside. Now, families with small children will enjoy a special abbreviated house tour designed for them. By welcoming our youth, we hope to encourage them to cherish the past, and appreciate how it impacts their present and future. After all, they are the next generation and we will need them to carry the historical legacy forward.
Looking back, we hope the Callaways would be pleased with the first chapter of the estate’s public narrative. Every time we plant in the garden, put a fresh coat of paint on a faded shutter or polish a piece of silver we are honoring their wishes for the home and garden they so lovingly preserved. And each visitor who walks through the door, whether young or old, is a testament to their vision.