Meandering through Milledgeville

January 18, 2013

This week in 1861, Georgia’s Secession Convention began meeting in the then-state capital of Milledgeville, center of state government from 1804-68. While the delegates voted to secede within three days, on Jan. 19 — an event marked with huge bonfires and wild parties — they stayed in session through March to finish writing a new Georgia Constitution.

They met, as you’d expect, in the old state capitol, which still exists today. Dominating the quad of Georgia Military College, it’s currently — and appropriately — the Old Capitol Museum, open to the public and supposedly the oldest public Gothic Revival building in America.

The Old Capitol Museum, former statehouse

The Old Capitol Museum, former statehouse

Interestingly, while Union troops ransacked the Capitol building during Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” they didn’t actually try to burn it. Indeed, most of Milledgeville escaped the torch, Sherman’s destruction limited to mostly military targets such as ammunition and train depots. (However, honey was poured down the organ pipes at one chapel.)

Speaking of Sherman, during his brief stay in Milledgeville he commandeered the old Governor’s Mansion as his personal headquarters. Today you can tour the huge, ornate Mansion, commonly considered one of the best examples of High Greek Revival architecture remaining in the U.S.

The Old Governors Mansion, with scaffolding from renovation

The Old Governors Mansion, with scaffolding from renovation

The old Governor’s Mansion today is operated by Milledgeville’s main employer, Georgia College and State University, one of the state’s leading public higher education institutions. However, GCSU is best known to the world as the alma mater of one of America’s greatest writers – and certainly one of the South’s – the altogether unique and fascinating Flannery O’Connor.

Though born and raised in Savannah, O’Connor moved in with her mother in Milledgeville after finding out she was stricken with lupus. Throughout her writing career, O’Connor’s work was an intriguing blend of Savannah’s notable Irish Catholic culture and inland Georgia’s Protestant folkways.

GCSU hosts the “O’Connor Room” of its main campus museum, which contains some charming memorabilia from her time at the college, where she was of course editor of the yearbook. Here I am with the typewriter on which she did most of her writing:

Me and Flannery's typewriter

Me and Flannery’s typewriter

The O’Connor/Cline family was prominent in Milledgeville. Here’s the handsome “Milledgeville Federal” house which belonged to the family, a mere stone’s throw from the Governor’s Mansion itself.

The Cline House downtown

The Cline House downtown

Milledgeville got sleepy after the Civil War, when the state capital was moved to up-and-coming Atlanta in a self-conscious effort to leave behind the antebellum years and embrace the “New South.” Here’s a nice downtown building, actually the oldest Masonic Hall in Georgia:

Georgia's oldest Masonic building

Georgia’s oldest Masonic building

But the main stop by far for any O’Connor fan is a bit north of downtown Milledgeville, at the farm called Andalusia. Currently run by a nonprofit and located on 500 acres of ancestral O’Connor/Cline land, Andalusia features a main house and several outbuildings. In addition to touring the grounds, you can tour the main house where O’Connor wrote almost all her major work, downstairs in a converted parlor to keep her from climbing stairs in her weakened state. Of course there’s a charming gift shop with many locally-produced O’Connor-related items not available anywhere else.

The main house at Andalusia, the O'Connor farm

The main house at Andalusia, the O’Connor farm

While Flannery O’Connor is without doubt Milledgeville’s most famous resident – quite a statement considering how long it was the state capital – for many Georgians the word “Milledgeville” is synonymous with the notorious Central State Hospital, which for much of the 20th Century was the largest insane asylum in the world.

It’s also one of the oldest, begun in the 1830s in an attempt to formalize the treatment of the mentally ill, called “lunatics” in the terminology of the day. Well-intentioned though it may have been, Central State eventually became overpopulated and poorly managed, becoming a byword for cruelty and neglect. Over the decades tens of thousands of patients who died in the course of confinement and “treatment” were buried in unmarked graves on the sprawling campus.

Today, Central State Hospital has been dramatically downscaled by budget cuts and a more modernized approach to mental health. But the old buildings still remain – off limits to the public and closely watched by security – as spooky, grandiose reminders of a time thankfully gone by.

A building at Central State Hospital, the old "Lunatic Asylum"

A building at Central State Hospital, the old “Lunatic Asylum”

You can read more about Milledgeville and Middle Georgia in my next Moon guidebook, Moon Georgia, coming out in Fall 2013….


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