AT THE BROAD BEGINNING OF HER CAREER, Flannery O’Connor left the South, believing she could not do her best work in the place of her heritage. When illness, later diagnosed as lupus, abruptly sent her home to Milledgeville from Connecticut where she’d been residing with Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, her life and her work took an unexpected turn. Through frailty and suffering (which she did not dwell upon, of course, because a Southern lady doesn’t), she would be perfected, as would her literary contributions.
A prolific letter writer during her years living with her mother at Andalusia, a dairy farm owned by her uncle, operated by her mother and located far, far away from the expat life in the North that she envisioned for herself, she wrote to one of her correspondents, “This is a Return I have faced and when I faced it I was roped and tied and resigned the way it is necessary to be resigned to death, and largely because I thought it would be the end of any creation, any writing, any work from me. And as I told you by the fence, it was only the beginning.” Andalusia Farm proved a rich and endless source of inspiration for characters, plots and elements critical to emphasizing the importance of place.
…the 544-acre farm sat vacant from 1973-2001, when two of O’Conner’s cousins established the Flannery O’Connor Andalusia Foundation dedicated to the restoration, preservation and appreciation of Andalusia Farm.
“WE’RE IN AN AREA BECOMING RAPIDLY DEVELOPED,” says Elizabeth Wylie, the executive director of the Flannery O’Connor—Andalusia Foundation. Highway 441 North out of Milledgeville no longer resembles the two lane road that led to Andalusia in the 1950s and ’60s. Just outside of town proper it widens to four lanes with a turn lane ripping down the middle. Commerce masses alongside the highway. Traffic hums in both directions. Glass and metal and signs and flags and glare give no hint to the farmland hidden beneath asphalt and concrete.
More than 50 years ago, when Milledgeville was a small town in Middle Georgia, O’Connor already sensed the push of the city against the countryside. She hinted to the threats of urban sprawl in her story “A View of the Woods.” Her life was short, but her sight was long.
An unexpected break in the Hwy 441 circus calls attention to the white sign atop the small embankment on the left side of the road. Andalusia Farm it announces, followed immediately by a gravel driveway that curves through hardwoods and pines. Greening pastures roll along the south side. The metal farm gates are swung open. As the driveway passes through the last gate, the land slopes down on the left to a livestock pond and rises on the right to the white, two-story house in which Flannery and her mother lived from 1951 until O’Connor’s death at the age of 39 in 1964.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980, the 544-acre farm sat vacant from 1973 to 2001, when two of O’Connor’s cousins established the Flannery O’Connor Andalusia Foundation dedicated to the restoration, preservation and appreciation of Andalusia Farm. It soon opened to the public and, these many years later, restoration projects continue despite a slim operating budget dependent primarily on donations large and small.
Not only does it attract fans of O’Connor and her brand of Southern gothic literature laced with humor and spirituality, it also beckons those interested in mid-20th century farm life. Visitors can relax on the screened porch with a view across the south meadow where O’Connor and her mother received afternoon guests or step inside the door and view O’Connor’s bedroom where she spent two to three hours each morning composing stories such as “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and “The Partridge Festival.” The kitchen as it was when O’Connor and her mother occupied the house remains intact, including the Frigidaire refrigerator purchased with monies earned from the 1957 television adaptation of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”
OUTBACK, the old well house and the tall, white water tower tell a piece of the story of mid-century rural farm life. Other structures stand in various stages of repair and disrepair. The old Nail House, as it was called around the farm, lies in a partial heap of wood and hinges. Corroding farm implements and castoffs huddle beneath leaning boards, remnants of red paint still clinging to their edges. O’Connor raised her varieties of chickens, ducks, swans, peafowl and other domestic birds in pens and runs that extended from the east side of the Nail House when it was sturdy. Nearby, the old hand pump for calling up water from the earth waits in rusted expectation of one day regaining its function and purpose. For now, however, it’s bound, like O’Connor’s characters, to the constrictions of time and place.
Gazing into the barnyard, one is first struck by the gaping mouth of the hayloft, dark and coy with a protruding roofline like a puckered upper lip. An old wooden ladder fastened to the plank siding carried farmhands up to the loft’s higher air oft filled with humidity and the pungent odor of fescue. Stalls aligning the lower barn aisle look ready for bovine inhabitants. Storage of all manner of farm items takes up additional space, a reminder of the waste-not-want-not agrarian lifestyle that consumed Georgia in previous centuries. The click of hooves on the cement floor of the walk-through milking parlor where cows were lined up twice daily is nearly audible. Several yards away, the brick milk-processing shed, where milk was chilled and stored before being sold, huddles into the insulating earth.
Hill House, an early 19th-century plantation cottage original to the property, occupies the same area and has been restored. Old newspapers used for insulation by former occupants, Jack and Louise Hill, during O’Connor’s tenure on the farm, smatter the walls of one of the rooms. The doors are always open and visitors to Andalusia are encouraged to tour and imagine the activity, the furnishings and the people who ate and slept and breathed and loved in those rooms.
…visitors to Andalusia are encouraged to tour and imagine the activity, the furnishings and the people who ate and slept and breathed…in those rooms.
Though Flannery suffered a debilitating illness—her crutches lean against a bookcase in her bedroom in the main house—her presence is everywhere at Andalusia. Her mind frolicked through the outbuildings, the open spaces, the comings and goings of laborers, the possibilities entangled with the human condition and the places and situations in which people labored against their own nature to understand their relationship with the God, who brought them from and would return them to the dust.
But Wylie says, “A static shrine will wither on the vine. Like any organization, the challenge is staying relevant.” Collections of O’Connor family and farm artifacts found in the house and on the property are being catalogued, archived and used in rotating installments in the main house. On April 24, Flannery Fashion: Mid-Century DIYwill open and display textiles, vintage clothing patterns and other objects. Wylie has plans to press the restored calf barn, next on the agenda of outbuilding restoration, into service as a pop-up café this summer. Looking further into the future, she hopes to repair the loft for viewing and for group use. Several other structures need attention and she hopes to have the funds to repair them before nature takes them back.
Andalusia profoundly influenced the strings of words O’Connor clacked out on the typewriter beside her bed.
Constant consideration of methods for maximizing Andalusia’s appeal infuses Wylie’s efforts. The bluegrass festival held every year in October expanded to three bands in 2014 and attracted about 600 spectators. Lectures and events are scheduled on the grounds throughout the year. “We’re in our adolescence,” says Wylie of the foundation’s development and progress toward its goals. An effort is afoot to establish an endowment.
Using today’s technology, Wylie broadcasts to a global audience Andalusia’s contributions to Georgia’s vibrant past and its influence on Georgia’s present and future. Starting with 2015, each presentation in the annual February lecture series is available as a podcast. Andalusia Farm has its own YouTube channel. A unique use of social media is being rolled out on the Snapchat platform this spring.
Nonetheless, some people drive out to Andalusia simply to escape things humans have built. “People are surprised how quiet and beautiful the farm is. It’s like going back in time,” says Wylie. They bring picnics and spread blankets on the lawn. They bring books and read under the shady tree canopies. They bring dogs on leashes and walk the mile-loop Lower Tobler Creek Trail. They bring binoculars to spy on wildlife oblivious to the buzz of tires on asphalt none too far from their sanctuary.
Anyone who lives close enough to go to Andalusia must. It’s an easy day trip from Augusta. Don’t wait for a formal event. “Arrive and let it speak to you,” advises Wylie, “and let it unfold. You can stay 15 minutes or stay all day.” Andalusia—the main house, grounds and outbuildings—are open for self-guided tour and exploration Thursday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. No fee is charged, but a $10 donation is suggested. Frequently, one has the luck to bump into someone knowledgeable on the high points and willing to share. Several markers strategically located provide overview information in absence of a self-proclaimed docent. Upon arriving or before leaving swing through the gift shop and pick up a volume of O’Connor’s short stories or one of her novels. Or purchase a collection of her cartoons and get to know her as a visual artist.
More adventurous O’Connor fans can do the entire Milledgeville tour of Flannery O’Connor sites. She attended daily mass as a habit at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on North Jefferson Street, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. She earned her bachelor of arts degree from Georgia State College for Women, which is now the campus of Georgia College and State University. The Georgia College Museum located in the campus library on North Clarke Street is home to the Flannery O’Connor Memorial Room. It’s furnished with items from Andalusia and open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. when the university is in session. From there, pay respects at her resting place aside her parents in Memory Hill Cemetery on West Franklin Street. Take a moment to come to grips with how she mastered living and writing and examining good and evil in such a short life. Ponder how everything might have been different had her illness not relegated her to Andalusia.
“Once she had accepted her destiny, she began to embrace it, and it is clear from her correspondence that she cherished her life there and knew that she had been brought back exactly where she belonged and where her best work would be done,” writes Sally Fitzgerald in the introduction to The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Andalusia profoundly influenced the strings of words O’Connor clacked out on the typewriter beside her bed. Andalusia Farm, where you can walk in the footsteps of farmhands and a literary giant, alike, will change you too.
This article appears in the April 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.