LaGRANGE — Attendees were packed out into the hallway of the Visitor Center at Hills & Dales on Tuesday for a lecture by the authors of the Fuller E. Callaway biography.
“We’ve had a big turnout, we (filled up) because we had more people than we expected,” said Carleton Wood, executive director of the estate, during the packed reception prior to the lecture. “… We wanted a good turnout, but didn’t know we would get so many.”
The event kicked off a year of events celebrating the centennial of Hills & Dales, the Callaway family home. It also served as the opening celebration for the biography, “Fuller E. Callaway: Portrait of a New South Citizen,” written and researched by Buck and Carol Melton. It was released last year, but this was the first time the authors were in town since the book’s publication, Wood said.
Buck Melton is a former Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Mercer University, and he currently teaches at Middle Georgia State University. He said he became interested in researching Callaway because of his significance not only locally and regionally, but nationally in influencing cotton manufacturing and railroad policy.
“I’ve always been fascinated by an individual who shapes his time,” he told the Daily News before his lecture. “Callaway was someone who met that description. And somehow, he didn’t have a biography yet.”
His wife, Carol Melton, an associate professor of history at Middle Georgia State University, spent the most time in LaGrange researching, her husband said. In her trips, she found LaGrange to be “a lovely town and very welcoming.”
Buck Melton described Callaway as a modest man who would promote paying cash over mortgage, but he set out to construct the large Hills & Dales Estate as the number of relatives living with his family grew. Melton said Callaway had grown up admiring the Ferrell Gardens where the estate sits.
He commissioned classical architect Neel Reid in 1913 to design a home that would fit the Italianate style matching the gardens. Callaway served as contractor, and the home opened June 15, 1916, on the Callaways’ 25th wedding anniversary.
Wood, in his opening to the Meltons’ lecture, called back to the beginning of the estate.
“Just imagine 100 years ago at this spot, Fuller and Ida Callaway were excited to see their family home nearing completion,” he said.
In the lecture, Buck Melton said that there are generally “two views of history: one that great men make history, and the second that history produces great men.”
He learned that Callaway was more than a textile leader and philanthropist, as many people identify him, but helped charter the Atlanta, Birmingham and Atlantic Railroad in 1905 to create competition with the Atlanta and West Point Railroad, helping lower rates. Callaway made the move after he took a case to the U.S. Supreme Court over the Atlanta and West Point Railroad’s high rates and lost.
He also noted that Callaway’s influence spread beyond LaGrange. He caught the attention of the new Progressive movement in Georgia, which helped get him on the state railroad commission 1907 at the behest of new Gov. Hoke Smith. He then caught the eye of the national Progressive movement, chosen to testify before Congress on protective tariffs for cotton dyeing, taking the post of president of the American Cotton Association in 1917 and meeting President Woodrow Wilson to pledge support of the cotton industry during World War I.
Locally, Callaway also invested in the mill communities with mill housing, playgrounds, fruit trees for every yard and selling milking cows for cheap to employees, Melton said. Callaway felt employees having a stake in the company was “just good business,” Melton noted.
Carol Melton also noted Callaway’s relationship with his wife, Ida, and her patience and understanding in her husband’s 16-hour work days. It was also their teamwork that helped Fuller Callaway in his initiatives.
“I think Ida, though unassuming, did a lot of the heavy lifting,” she said. “… While Fuller Callaway Sr. was so generous in his impulses, it was often her who had to follow through on his philanthropy.”
“Fuller E. Callaway: Portrait of a New South Citizen” is available at the Hills & Dales gift shop, 1916 Hills and Dales Drive off Broad Street, or www.fullercallaway.org. More events for the centennial are planned and a calendar of events for the estate is available at www.hillsanddales.org/index.php/visitors/calendar_events.
Matthew Strother is the editor of LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2153.