Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would one day be writing the sentence “I had a good time at Mule Day.” Yet it is true.
The trip to Washington, Ga., for this annual event held on the second Saturday in October was well worth the drive. The weather last Saturday was perfect –, sunny and cool – and Calloway Plantation, a 56-acre historic restoration project boasting buildings that encompass nearly 200 years of rural life, offered a spectacular setting for the event.
I have to admit, as well, that the mules themselves were quite fetching. When my party arrived around 10 in the morning, we were just in time for one of a number of “beauty contests” for this noble hybrid of a male donkey and a female horse. The competition in question was for “working pairs,” a reminder that these animals had once served a major role in plantation life by pulling heavy loads.
As we learned from the public commentator that morning, the mule is making a comeback in the American South; they are popular once again as draft animals – this time pulling wagons on seasonal hayrides and not propelling a plow. We also learned from the judge of this particular contest that he had never seen finer specimens than those paraded before the spectators on that day – their legs were straight and their heads large.
Although some in the crowd were rooting for a pair named Laverne and Shirley – out of some misguided loyalty to vintage television, I suspect – my metaphorical bet was on Kit and Kate. Sure enough, they won, not only that contest but also the grand prize awarded later that hour.
Up from the pasture where the judging takes place each year is a complex of more than a dozen historical structures, and that is where we headed next. The first in vintage is a log cabin dating from 1785 when the site was only about five miles from Indian territory – Cherokee lands, to be precise. This particular single-room structure was moved from another location in Wilkes County to replace the original Calloway cabin of the same period; the white wash on its interior walls is said to be original.
Right next door, preservationists have located what is today called the Grey House. Built by Job Calloway around 1790 out of his astute acknowledgment that the one-room cabin provided inadequate shelter for his progeny that eventually numbered nine, this Federal plain-style farmhouse boasts a two-over-two floor plan with a parlor and dining area below and two bedrooms above. When the county airport was built in the 1960s, the building was moved across the road to its current site, not far from the splendid mansion into which the family moved in 1869.
Called the Brick House because its walls are composed of two layers of George red-clay brick, this third and final Calloway residence reflects the high water mark of the family’s fortunes when they possessed a cotton plantation of approximately 3,000 acres. At first blush, one might wonder where they acquired the funds to finish the mansion in 1869, just four years after the devastating collapse of the Confederate economy; but the Calloways had made an astute overseas financial arrangement. Their English cotton broker put the money from the sale of their crop in the bank in England so they were able to draw upon those funds at the end of the war.
The house that Aristides Calloway, Job’s great-grandson, built from the sale of his cotton, boasts a Greek Revival portico, typical of the period, with six hollow Doric columns. The 10 rooms, including a detached kitchen, are now furnished with period pieces, some of which were owned by the Calloway family, including two Buhl tables whose top surface is covered in tortoiseshell heated so that it could be molded like leather.
During Mule Day, all of the buildings in the complex – the three houses that represent the upward trajectory of the Calloway family fortune and many other historic structures, such as an 1891 schoolhouse and a 1930 general store – are populated by interpreters in period costume. The log cabin, for example, is customarily surrounded by Revolutionary War re-enactors; the Brick House usually has a cadre of Confederate soldiers in attendance.
Tours of the all of the structures are available year-round, Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information on Calloway Plantation, located about five miles west of Washington, Ga., on Highway 78, call (706) 678-7060 or visit www.historyofwilkes.org.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book ì”Hidden History of Aiken County” has just been published by The History Press (Charleston, SC and London, UK).