Story By: Casey Whitaker.
Hidden behind a curtain of changing trees and evergreens is a staircase of hills, each one identical to the next, leading up to an estate with a garden as rich as the family who once graced its walkways. Boxwood parterres line yellow pea gravel paths with religious statues and benches scattered throughout like chess pieces.
Structured with terraces and boxwoods, the garden was created by Sarah Ferrell, from the first generation of Callaways who lived at the estate, which is now about 170 years old. The garden rests on 35 acres in LaGrange, Georgia, just around the corner from LaGrange College and attracts about 7,000 to 10,000 guests every year.
The last person who lived at the estate and tended to the garden was Alice Callaway, from the second generation of Callaways, in 1998. She tended to the gardens for 62 years.
Since then, the estate has been opened up for the public to visit and experience the elegance and love that Alice left for the world to see. To maintain such a garden, some say only a woman’s touch will do.
Jo Phillips is starting her 20th year at the Hills and Dales Estate as horticulture manager and was hired by Alice herself. They met while Jo was working retail at a nearby nursery where Alice was a regular customer.
“I didn’t realize I made an impression,” Jo said. “It was very opportune.”
Jo was hired to be on the horticulture staff to help Alice maintain the garden. “She was in her 80’s, and she was remarkable,” Jo said about Alice. “She was a classic southern lady, the kind they just don’t make anymore.”
Jo added that although Alice was a classic southern lady, she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty in the garden every day.
As Jo sits on the white bench smiling as she looks over the herb garden and towards the greenhouse filled with maidenhair ferns, she remembers Alice walking the same paths she now walks when she comes to work. She remembers how Alice used to hand pick the fallen leaves out of the boxwoods and how she was out in the garden tending to all her plants and supervising everyone’s activity in the garden.
“I didn’t have a problem with that because it was her garden,” Jo said. “Gardening was a passion of hers, and it consumed her.”
Now, 16 years later, Jo supervises her own staff of workers at what was once Alice’s utopia. Her responsibilities include purchasing plants and supplies needed to maintain the garden, getting things scheduled and making sure things get done on time and the garden is presentable every day they are open.
“It’s a real gift to have this job,” Jo said. “For a woman that has horticulture skills and to have the job I have in semi-rural Georgia, I’m very fortunate.”
Walking through the garden, small identifier labels peak out from behind leaves, flowers and in planting pots like eggs on Easter morning, waiting to be found. The edges of each label are dusted with soil from the plant it accompanies.
One reads “Pineapple Sage” with its scientific name below – “Salvia elegans.” Another plant sitting in a sun-bleached pot has a label that reads, “Mahogany fern” with “Didymochlaena truncatula” in smaller letters beneath.
Tina Eturralde, one of Jo’s staff members and friends, has worked in the gardens alongside Jo for 10 years and is just as passionate about her work. Standing in the church garden with hand shears, pruning plants to prepare for the winter, she looks around and smiles at what surrounds her.
“To be the steward of taking care of it, it just takes it to the heart every day we come to work,” Tina said. “I’m getting paid to do something I love.”
The church garden is comprised of several religious symbols sculpted in the boxwood parterres and was once called the “sanctuary.” The woman who started everything in the garden, Sarah Ferrell, was inspired by her Christian faith when creating the church garden.
“I think goodness grows a garden,” Dominic, a visitor at the estate, said.
An evergreen harp sits in the center of the garden with a bed of yellow flowers symbolizing an offering plate, and more boxwoods are sculpted in the background to resemble pews that worshipers would kneel on. In the far left is an organ that overlooks the entire church garden.
“It’s a very serene place and not overrun with visitors, but we would love a few more,” Jo said.
Jo and her staff’s hard work pays off when visitors first notice the breathtaking and seemingly untouched landscapes from when Alice graced the pea gravel paths 16 years ago.
“It’s really great to see the historical property and how its been maintained and how it’s as beautiful as when it began,” Dominic said. “It’s like they [the Callaways] just left for the day – like they said ‘we’ll be back’.”
Dominic and her husband Bill are from New Jersey and travel around the country visiting different estates.
Bill said he finds it remarkable that the last housekeeper only retired six years ago and still lives in the house the Callaways gave her. The Callaways gave everyone who worked for them a house to call their own until the day they died. “It’s unique when you find these kinds of estates,” Bill said.
“The house and garden is a treasure that the Callaways left, and the experience is generally an inspiring one,” said Carrie Mills, manager of the Hills and Dales visitor center.
What is even more remarkable about the 170-year-old estate is what they are doing present day to keep the Callaway’s vision of a better tomorrow alive.
Educational programs and workshops for all ages are available to teach various aspects of gardening and seasonal topics. The educational programs include workshops, lectures, outreach programs, a 5th grade program for youth and a young visitors booklet.
Carleton Wood, executive director of the estate, wanted to connect visitors to the Callaway’s values when starting the programs. “We thought what else could we do for the community to make it a better place?”
The lectures and hands-on workshops are conducted in the spring and fall with topics revolving around the history of the estate and garden. “We wanted to have an engaging, fun and educational program, so the workshops just seemed natural,” Wood said.
Past seasonal workshops have included “fall tablescapes,” Christmas wreath workshops and an annual Children’s Christmas Celebration, where children can come to decorate gingerbread houses for the holiday season with Santa.
The lectures include a noted expert called in to talk about something that the estate thinks the public will find interesting and valuable.
The 5th grade program is open to every 5th grade student in Troup County, Georgia, and includes three stations with a goal to enrich young lives and provide them an opportunity to experience the rich history of the garden and estate. The program also aims to instill in them the sense of importance that the Callaway legacy has on their community.
“We now have about 900 5th graders coming to the estate for the program every year, which is a lot more than we ever expected,” Wood said.
The stations include a history station, garden station and a math station, which all relate to the set 5th grade curriculum.
The outreach programs are prepared by members of the Hills and Dales staff to be presented to any community or civic group that wishes to learn about the plants and garden features throughout the estate and about the Callaway family values.
The topics range from container planting and growing orchids to Fuller Callaway’s business savvy ideas and the life of Fuller E. Callaway Sr. “Even though it’s small, there’s so much history to learn,” Bill, a visitor of the estate, said.
They have even created a booklet that children can use to guide them through the garden and estate with a prize at the end if they finish the activities in the booklet. The children will learn about the plants used in the garden and the history behind the estate in a fun way.
All educational programs are presented on the estate grounds and help to carry on the legacy of the Callaways. “We just thought if they left the house open, we might as well do something educational with it,” Wood said.
Alan, the trolley driver at the estate, grew up across the street from the Callaway estate and described them as “just a great family who did a lot for the community.”
He added, “Leaving the house and garden open to the public was great thing.”