Friday, June 4, 2010

From Humble Beginnings--The Genesis of Callaway Gardens

There's an old saying that "mighty oaks from little acorns grow." In other words, sometimes a little incident can produce unexpectedly big results. So it was that, just 80 years ago, an incident in the life of a Georgia businessman set in motion a chain of events that would change his life forever. This is the story of that event.

In the summer of 1930, Georgia industrialist Cason Callaway, weary of the many business-related telephone calls that were even coming in on Sundays, began the custom of walking around a farm property that was for sale in the area of Pine Mountain, Georgia, some 75 miles south-southwest of Atlanta. The property in question was known as Blue Springs Farm. Like many similar properties in Georgia, its soil had been worn down by years of heavy over-cultivation and over-cropping, especially cotton. Yet, there were nooks and crannies, here and there, where there was still perceptible fertility in the soil. Although Callaway had been described by many of his friends as "a completely practical businessman," there was a strong streak of sensitivity in his character. That sensitivity made its presence known in a variety of ways, especially where his lovely wife, Virginia, was concerned. He was powerfully influenced by her love of nature, and he eagerly sought to share it.

On one Sunday in particular, Callaway was wandering around the more remote areas of Blue Springs Farm. Suddenly, he spotted a small valley he had never seen before. His curiosity aroused, he walked deeper into the valley to investigate. He little dreamed that that investigation would alter the entire course of his life.

As he reached the far end of the valley, Callaway spotted a small stream, boiling out of the ground at a rate that later tests would disclose to be some 300 gallons a minute. From that point on, on either side of the stream, flowing like the lava from a volcanic eruption, stood wave after wave after wave of the most gorgeously blazing orange-red flowers Callaway had ever beheld. A closer look revealed that all of the plants were of the same variety. He recognized that they were some type of azalea, but they were of a type that Callaway had never seen before. As it turned out, they would be a type of azalea he would never forget.

Callaway thereupon snapped off one of the flaming blossoms and took it home to his wife, Virginia, a self-taught and knowledgeable horticulturist. She promptly identified the flower as the plumleaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium). She explained to her husband that this particular variety of azalea was especially noteworthy, not only for its blazing orange-red color, but for its exceptionally late blooming season, which begins in June and, in some cases, extends all the way into early September. She further explained that this particular species was native only to an area within a 100-mile radius of the very area of Pine Mountain where he had found it. (Today, efforts are underway to have this species declared endangered.)

Virginia Callaway's explanation somehow struck a responsive chord within her husband. He promptly made arrangements to buy Blue Springs Farm, and began a campaign to nurture and protect this species from extinction. One of his first acts in this campaign was to employ a man to wander into the nooks and crannies, the ridges and valleys, of his newly-acquired property, and gather as many seeds of the plumleaf azalea as he could find. The resulting 20,000 seeds were carefully germinated and then tenderly planted beside the bubbling waters of the Blue Springs, in an area adjacent to the existing plantings. Five years later, to Callaway's great satisfaction, the transplanted seedlings burst into glorious, blazing bloom.

These were the first "baby steps" in the chain of events that would culminate in the formation, incorporation, and endowment of one of the premiere vacation resorts in the southeastern United States, appropriately named Callaway Gardens. Along the way, in 1946, the Garden Club of America presented Mr. Callaway with its "Frances K. Hutcherson Award" in recognition of his efforts to preserve and nurture the plumleaf azalea.

Today, plumleaf azalea plants are readily available from selected vendors, both online and by mail order. And from June through September, visitors to what is now known as Callaway Gardens Resort can enjoy and admire the extensive plantings of the plumleaf azalea, as well as many other azalea and rhododendron varieties, that form the glorious and colorful backdrop--the foundation--the backbone of the resort that all started from this truly humble beginning.

For more information about Callaway Gardens Resort, go to their website at

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