The little town of Washington, Georgia, is a quiet, charming place nestled about halfway between Augusta and Athens. It had an early involvement in Georgia’s history and features a handsome collection of architecture through the centuries, as well as an inviting population of people and businesses who make it an interesting, educational, and fun place to stop and explore.
Washington is one of the oldest cities in Georgia, established in 1780 during the Revolutionary War; it was the first chartered town in the New World to bear George Washington’s name. At the time, Washington was residence to 40 percent of Georgia’s population. Many political figures settled there, as well as farmers who built plantations on land ceded from Creek and Cherokee Indians in 1773.
These early settlers built their homes in antebellum architectural styles that evolved through time. Early homes were built in log cabin or Colonial style, and newer homes and renovations were made with Federal and Greek Revival styles. After the Civil War, various forms of Victorian style became prominent.
An unusual number of antebellum homes built in Washington’s early years still stand today; Washington boasts the most antebellum homes per capita in the state of Georgia, with more than 100 homes that have maintained their structural and design integrity.
The Tour of Homes, held twice a year at Christmas and in the Spring, is an ideal time to see many antebellum homes at their finest, when homeowners open their doors to the public. Others can be toured any time of year; these homes have been converted to public historical museums featuring artifacts from the 1700s through the early 1900s.
One such historical museum is the “Brick House” that sits at the front of Callaway Plantation, across from the Wilkes County airport on Highway 78. Its visibility on the main highway between Athens and Augusta makes it a well-recognized historic site in Washington. Spread across 56 acres, 16 sites on the Plantation property include several homes, a school house, and multiple utility buildings built between 1783 and 1869.
Job Callaway of the plantation’s namesake moved to Georgia from North Carolina in 1780. In 1785, he built a temporary one-room log cabin for his family and settled a cotton plantation. Five years later, he finished construction of a much larger, two-story “Federal Plain style” home with multiple windows. Today this house is known as the “Gray House.”
Wilkes County cotton was a fruitful venture, and descendants of Job Callaway used their prosperity to grow the plantation to 3,000 acres, and build what is now called the Brick House. The “Greek Revival style” home was finished in 1869, and displays features unique to a home built during Reconstruction, like closets, a double brick exterior, faux-finish woodwork, and Parisian stained glass. These special features, like the windows in the Gray House, were a sign of wealth for the period.
The Brick House, Grey House, and Log Cabin are each decorated with era-appropriate furnishings and household items to offer a glimpse into life in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s. The Callaway property was given to the City of Washington in 1963, and underwent a 27-year restoration that transformed it into the beautiful tourism site it is today.
Back in town, other antebellum mansions featuring beautiful columns, staircases, and entryways are open for tours. The Robert Toombs House was named for its most famous resident, a successful man whose résumé included planter, lawyer, Civil War leader, and state and U.S. politician. General Robert Toombs helped Georgia write its own Constitution in 1877, a document which was not amended until 1945.
The décor of the Toombs home is primarily from the Toombs family, but some goes back further to the family of the home’s builder, Doctor Joel Abbott. Dr. Abbot built the original house in 1797 and made several additions in 1810. Toombs bought his home in 1837 and lived there nearly 50 years, adding on a few more rooms including the colonnade and the west wing in 1870. Now, the Toombs House is a popular museum that portrays artifacts from its residents and guests, with educational maps and timelines to explain the history of Toombs.
Several times a year, the House hosts Living History programs: Independence in late winter, Heritage in the spring, Toombs’ birthday in May, and Christmas in December. These programs are like plays, with actors portraying historical figures from the home’s past or fictional characters depending on the story. In December, the Christmas program will present “A Christmas Carol,” with each room as the setting for a different scene from the classic Charles Dickens tale.
The grounds outside the Robert Toombs House display other buildings used by its inhabitants: a barn, a smokehouse, a washhouse, a well house, and a dovecote. A Shakespeare’s Garden tastefully displays flora native to Washington and the South, and pays homage to Toombs’ love of William Shakespeare’s written work.
From the garden, it is just a short walk to the Washington-Wilkes Historical Museum, Washington’s oldest museum. Built in 1835 by Albert Semmes, it was acquired by the City of Washington in 1957 and became a museum in 1960.
The Museum displays artifacts and other pieces of history from the 1800s, and also from before the Revolutionary War, when the area was inhabited by Creek and Cherokee Indians. The house’s curator, Stephanie Macchia, rotates displays for a unique experience each time visitors stop by for a tour. Permanent displays include pottery and a cotton gin in the African American room, furniture and military relics in the Confederate room, arrowheads and artifacts from Creek and Cherokee tribes in the Native American room, and one of the world’s most extensive exhibits of famed religious author E.M. Bounds, who was a resident of the home.
Not far from the museums along Robert Toombs Avenue, the Wood Home lies on one of Washington’s original thoroughfares, Spring Street. Mr. John Wood owned one of the city’s largest liveries at the turn of the twentieth century and was a supporter of horse racing, which was popular at the time, and co-owner of an omnibus, a 19th century horse-drawn taxi of sorts.
The Wood Home, currently owned by Mrs. Martha Read, is elegantly landscaped and offers a gorgeous corner view of one of Washington’s prettiest historical neighborhoods. Its interior is decorated in furnishings and décor from multiple eras that tastefully complement each other, and is a cheerful example of Southern Vernacular architecture.
These beautiful antebellum homes are just a few of the amazing historical properties throughout Washington and Wilkes County. The Fitzpatrick Hotel overlooking the Square is another; it was constructed in 1898 by the Fitzpatrick Brothers and has been an active hotel for much of its existence. It features 17 private rooms with gorgeous wood accents, high ceilings, and modern amenities, as well as a spacious ballroom and courtyard for special events. In 2004, an extensive two-year restoration was completed, and the Fitzpatrick’s renewed grandeur is a luxurious step back in time for its guests.
Locally-owned restaurants neighboring the Fitzpatrick keep things friendly and feature timeless Southern recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is never an empty seat at Talk of the Town’s Sunday buffet or weekday lunch, and Southern Scratch’s farm-to-table lunch and bakery is popular for catering as much as dine-in. Jockey Club across the Square lawn has a historic bar, artfully chosen wine list, and often features fresh oysters.
Next door to Jockey Club, artist Laura Connely operates the Connely Gallery, where she features local artists and teaches an art class to those who want to try their hand. The class, called Paint & Pour, includes wine and appetizers to get the creative juices flowing. Shops, the courthouse, and historic memorials fill out the Square and make downtown Washington an intimate, personal place to visit.
Just outside of town, Resthaven Cemetery is home to thousands of war veterans, settlers, and others from the early 1800s to today, including General Robert Toombs, E.M. Bounds, and Eliza Frances Andrews. Andrews was the author of The War-Time Journal of a Georgia Girl, and the inspiration for Margaret Mitchell’s heroine Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.
On the outskirts of Wilkes County just off Highway 44, Kettle Creek Battlefield is a historic site and monument to those who fought against the English in one of the only wins the Patriots earned in Georgia during the Revolutionary War. Fought on February 14, 1779, the Battle of Kettle Creek was a decisive victory for the Patriots, and kept the British from occupying the entire state.
Today, hikers can explore two miles of woodland trails with interpretive signs and native wildflowers. Burial sites for a dozen or so of the eighty fatalities have been marked along the trails. Kettle Creek is currently expanding with hopes of soon making it a national historic park.
Battlefields, cemeteries, hotels, and homes are a normal part of a historic city’s past; the ability to visit such landmarks in 2016 and see them in active use while learning of their detailed history is a remarkable thing that speaks to the historians and preservationists of Washington. Their passionate efforts have had an impact on the quality of the landmarks protected and on the city as a whole. Residents and local business owners are equally proud of their city’s history and landmarks, and further support efforts to maintain the old-world, friendly atmosphere that makes present-day Washington truly unique and worth a visit.
Written by Kathleen Mansfield
On May 4, 1865, in a branch of the Georgia State Bank on Washington’s downtown square, several members of the Confederate Cabinet met with President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, for the last time. Prior to the Civil War, Davis had major roles with both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, and served in the Mexican-American War. His last act as President was to appoint a new treasurer of the Confederacy to handle the reserves, which were en route to Washington; afterwards, Davis headed south, and a few days later, he was captured by Union forces.
Accounts vary regarding the “Legend of the Lost Confederate Gold.” Washington historians hold that when the Confederate Treasury reserves arrived in Washington on May 24, 1865, the new treasurer, Captain Micajah Clark, burned all paper currency, and prepared the gold and silver for delivery to various banks by distributing the coins in barrels. The valuable coins were stolen in the night just outside of Wilkes County. Most of the stolen reserves were recovered, but nearly $3 million in current value remains missing. The legend has been featured on several shows on A&E, the History Channel, and most recently, the Discovery Channel.