Westville: Pre-Civil War town is living museum

Westville is a living, outdoor museum, not an actual town; its only residents are its squirrels, rabbits and other natural wildlife. But stepping into its boundaries instantly takes visitors back to a bygone era. Many of the structures along its dirt roads date from the pre-Civil War period and were hauled to the Westville site from their original locations. Others are reproductions of buildings that would have been part of a typical small Georgian town in the middle of the 1800s.

When the project got under way in 1970, there was just one building; today, more 30 buildings are clustered in the town that takes up about 25 acres of the 80-acre site.

"All of our buildings are authentic," said Westville's executive director, Leo Goodsell. "We have three reproductions, including the slave house that was built last November. The blacksmith's shop is reproduction of one that was in Lumpkin. The rest of the structures were brought to this site to set up the town."

Tour guides are outfitted as residents of the period and, when they're not showing guests around, they may be found making candles, brooms and benches to stock the shelves of the general store. They'll also share the history of Westville, a private nonprofit organization that was named for Col. John West of Jonesboro. West devoted his life to preserving the folkways of Georgia, Goodsell said.

"He wanted to share that with kids," he said. "He worried that the way the world was advancing, the old skills and trades would be lost. He also paid attention to the stories his grandparents told and tried to preserve them."

When West died in 1961, the nonprofit purchased his collection of furniture, shoemaking supplies, tools, decorative arts, cotton press and more. Today, they are part of the tour visitors will see as they traipse through the courthouse, churches, houses, several businesses and general store. Guided tours focus on three key sections:

• Residences — The buildings that depict day-to-day life in a small town are represented here, including two houses, a doctor's office and an academy. "We even have a couple of privys around for people to see the structure," Goodsell said.

• Agriculture — a scaled-down cotton plantation is complete with a "big house," slave quarters, cotton patch, gin and press.

• Business — shops for the blacksmith, bootmaker and woodworker show off the industry of the day. The general store dates to 1842 and is the showplace for items such as cane syrup, quilts, iron items and pottery.

Tours last as long as two hours, and visitors are welcome to join or take a break as they prefer. In between, the public is invited to meander leisurely through the village. Most of the structures have interpretive panels that explain their uses and ownership.

If the kids aren't amazed by how tough it was to live in those days, they'll at least leave with a new appreciation for air conditioning: The restaurant is the only building on the grounds that is artificially cooled.

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