A visit to Historic Westville

Most of the filming for the new Tommy Lee Jones-Hilary Swank movie “The Homesman” occurred in New Mexico, but some key scenes took place in Historic Westville, a living history museum in the tiny southwest Georgia town of Lumpkin, about 150 miles south of downtown Atlanta.

During our brief interview, Jones was characteristically gruff, but grew temporarily giddy when discussing the unique property, where historically significant buildings including a church, a general store, a cotton gin, a school, a wagon shop, a cobbler and numerous homes are laid out like a little town dating to the 1800s — perfect for the movie.

“The cast really enjoyed Westville and Lumpkin and were so appreciative,” said Gail Lynch, who spent some time on the set and helped prepare a meal that Jones’ character ate in one scene.

“The Homesman,” set in the 1830s Midwest, set up shop there for about a month, although the actual filming was completed in about a week. We won’t give away any plot twists other than to say Meryl Streep and Hailee Steinfeld, who play supporting characters in this haunting, powerful Western, appear in the scenes filmed there.

“My friend Sara Singer has a beautiful wildflower garden and provided flowers in the house Meryl Streep’s character lived in,” Lynch said proudly.

Westville is named for Col. John West, who started a collection of historic buildings at his Jonesboro home in 1928 and christened it “Fair of 1850.” After he died in 1961, a group of Columbus and Stewart County citizens established Westville Village in 1966, “on land donated by the Julian Singer family of Lumpkin,” according to the facility.

“The Village was laid out in the county seat grid pattern of such area towns as Blakely, Hamilton, Buena Vista, Cuthbert, Lumpkin, Americus, and Talbotton,” Westville’s historical documents note. What started as a collection of six buildings has grown to more than 30 buildings on 83 acres of land.

Westville announced last year that it eventually plans to move to Columbus, but “will continue to operate as normal in Lumpkin while the staff and board undertake a capital campaign to underwrite the costs of the move, finalize interpretive plans, and have the new site prepared.”

For now, it’s located just a stone’s throw from the Stewart County Courthouse in the center of the Lumpkin town square.

Gillian Wong, one of the costumed docents who provide fun, informative tours of Westville, pointed out a few interesting buildings during our recent visit. The original Chattahoochee County Courthouse is historically significant not only for its age but for some of the people who once spent time there.

“This courthouse is particularly important to us because Jimmy Carter has connections to it,” Wong said. “His grandfather and great-grandfather worked at this courthouse, and in the 1970s when it was moved here to Westville, he came and dedicated the building himself, on the Fourth of July. At the time, he was a presidential candidate.”

The handsome structure, originally located in the Chattahoochee County seat of Cusseta, was built in 1854 for about $6,000, and is one of only two wooden courthouses still in Georgia today, she added.

Structures you can look for in “The Homesman” include the Stewart County Academy building, dating to 1832. Other fun buildings to visit if you trek down to Westville include the cotton gin, still operated by two mules. They’ve been at it so long that a stomp on the floor above their workspace gets them moving. If you want to see one of the fancy, newfangled gadgets at Westville, there’s an Eli Whitney model on the floor above where the mules work.

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