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

Spotlight on Shannon Garst

Among the age group who grew up in the 1950's and 60's, there are many readers who fondly remember the writings of Shannon Garst. In a career that spanned nearly 4 decades, Mrs. Garst wrote some 38 volumes of the most popular and most respected children's literature of the 20th century, both fiction and non-fiction.

Born in Ironwood, Michigan on July 24, 1894, Doris Shannon (her step-father's surname) initially trained to be a school teacher and principal. She married Joseph Garst, an attorney, and settled in Douglas, Wyoming, the county seat of Converse County, Wyoming. Here she continued her teaching career, and began to write. Her first book, "The Story of Wyoming," was published in 1938. Because the publisher did not believe that a Western-themed book for young people written by a woman would be saleable, she adopted the pen name of "Shannon Garst," a name she would use for the rest of her writing career.

To both her surprise and the publisher's, "The Story of Wyoming" proved to be so successful that Mrs. Garst soon abandoned her teaching career and turned to writing on a full-time basis. Since she lived in ranch country, and with her background as a school teacher and principal, it was only natural that most if not all of her 38 books were oriented toward what today would be called a "tween" audience--that is, kids (especially boys) between the ages of 10 and 13--and that, especially during that era, cowboys and Native Americans would play a major role in most of those books.

In addition to juvenile Western fiction, however, Mrs. Garst authored a number of biographies of well-known figures of her time, including Will Rogers, Amelia Earhart, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Daniel Boone, and Wild Bill Hickok. Her last book, published in 1965, was a biography of Hans Christian Andersen. In addition, Mrs. Garst co-authored 3 books with her son, Warren Garst, who for many years was closely associated with the beloved TV series, "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."

After the death of her husband, Joseph, in 1965, Mrs. Garst, now in her 70's, retired from writing. She lived very quietly in her adopted home town of Douglas, Wyoming, until her death in 1981. The Children's Reading Room of the Converse County, Wyoming Public Library is named in her memory.

Sadly, with the changing tastes of later years, juvenile Western fiction has largely gone out of style, and the works of Mrs. Garst and other authors of her time and genre have been largely forgotten, and have been allowed to go out of print. Indeed, many libraries, due to space and budget constraints, have withdrawn Mrs. Garst's works from their collections, selling their copies in order to make room and raise much-needed funds for newer books. More's the pity, in my opinion, for Mrs. Garst's books, even today, can still hold the reader's interest. One major reason for this is that character growth and development on the part of the characters in the stories involved is an integral part of the story lines in most if not all of Mrs. Garst's books, in a way that is sadly lacking in many tween-oriented books that are currently available.

Among the best-known of Mrs. Garst's books are "Cowboy Boots" (1946), "Silver Spurs for Cowboy Boots" (1949), "Rusty at Ram's Horn Ranch" (1951), and "Ten Gallon Hat" (1953). All of these, and many if not most of Mrs. Garst's other works can often be found on eBay, Amazon, and such used book websites as Alibris, at extremely reasonable prices.

UPDATE:  Since I originally posted this entry in 2010, a number of Mrs. Garst's best-known books have been reprinted (presumably under license from the original publishers), and are available on eBay (and possibly through other websites as well).  Unfortunately, these new editions do NOT include reproductions of the original dust jackets--possibly due to licensing and/or copyright issues, especially since the dust jackets were created by a number of different illustrators.  Also, the prices of these reprints are substantially higher than one might expect, even given the rate of inflation since the books in question were originally published.  Also, since Mrs. Garst is no longer as well-known an author as she once was, the demand for her works is considerably less than it was during the mid-20th century, when Western-related juvenile fiction was in its heyday.  This in turn virtually eliminates the economy of scale which helped keep the prices of these books low.  Given all of that, however, it is still heartening to see at some of Mrs. Garst's works coming back into circulation, especially for use in homeschooling situations, which still place a high value on character development.