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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

Five Oaks and Its Musical Past

SOURCES: Ghosts of Grandeur: Georgia’s Lost Antebellum Homes and Plantations by Michael W. Kitchens, 2012. Columbus on the Chattahoochee by Etta Blanchard Worsley, 1951.


Another of the country estates on the outskirts of Columbus was Five Oaks. The original builder of the home is believed to have been one of the early settlers in the area, General James N. Bethune. Bethune was a planter, owning a large plantation in Muscogee County known as Solitude. He was a lawyer, surveyor, and successor to Mirabeau B. Lamar as a newspaper editor of the Columbus Enquirer. In 1845, Bethune built a large Italianate home on his Wynnton Road property. The wood-sided home stood two stories above an uncommonly tall brick basement. Features that distinguished Bethune’s house from most others being built during that period were its deep eaves that were adorned with decorative brackets, and its long lacework wrought iron enclosed porch along the width of its façade. Painted a light shade of white or cream, the house stood in stark contrast to the lush dark greens of the grove of trees and gardens circumventing the structure.

Five Oaks. Artwork by Rick Spitzmiller.

In addition to his many other vocations, Bethune was also the business manager for “Blind Tom,” world-renowned pianist and entertainer of the mid-nineteenth century. Thomas Wiggins was born into slavery on May 25, 1849, on the Wiley Edward Jones Plantation in Harris County. Blind from birth, he was sold in 1850 when General Bethune purchased his enslaved parents, Charity and Mingo Wiggins, and two of his brothers. General Bethune also had a plantation, Solitude, that was located on part of what is now the main campus for Columbus State University. From infancy Tom manifested an extraordinary fondness for the musical sounds he heard and had shown exceptional retentive skills. Tom began going outside at all hours of the night, following, and imitating any animal noises he heard. Though his behavior was labeled as that of an "idiot" at the time, most experts today believe that Tom was a person with autism, explaining his extraordinary memory and talent for mimicry.

General Bethune and Thomas Wiggins

According to most accounts, Tom demonstrated his aptitude for music before his fourth birthday, having slipped unnoticed to the piano and picked out several tunes he had heard played by the Bethune daughters, all of whom were accomplished musicians. General Bethune then moved Tom into the main house, and he learned quickly by taking lessons from local musicians and playing for hours each day. Soon after, his love of music and music-making led him to write original songs and imitate sounds of nature and other musical instruments on the piano. At the age of five, he gave his first performance and composed a version of his first piece, "Rainstorm," describing it as "what the wind, thunder, and rain said to me." Blind Tom was a human mockingbird. What he heard; he could reproduce. Tom’s total mimicry of music was also nearly matched by his ability to hear a speech and then repeat it word for word, with his own voice sounding curiously like the tones of the speaker. After a long and difficult career as an entertainer, Blind Tom died in 1908. His body was returned to Georgia where he was buried on the Westmoreland plantation near Columbus.

In 1863, Colonel William Grey Woolfolk purchased the Bethune house and its surrounding property. Despite financial reverses during the Civil War, he could afford a large house and acreage after inheriting a substantial estate, to include land and those enslaved by his father, John Woolfolk in 1861. John Woolfolk had arrived in west central Georgia shortly after purchasing vast acreage in the 1820s and 1830s. The area around Columbus has been home to the Lower Creeks for generations. One of their most important towns was Kasihta, which was a peace town that the Creeks established as a refuge from all violence and bloodshed. Shortly after purchasing this land, Woolfolk began building a vast plantation that he named Cusseta, in recognition of the Creek town it encompassed. Cusseta became an expansive plantation with cotton as its main cash crop, but it also produced vast quantities of corn, oats, and hay. He planted as many as eight acres in peach trees and three acres in mulberry trees. By 1860, Cusseta had expanded to almost 5,000 acres. Woolfolk also had other plantations and acreage, totaling 13,400 acres.

John Woolfolk home on 12th Avenue in Wynnton

William Woolfolk and his brother, Joseph, considered Cusseta as home during their younger years, although their father had another home in Columbus (on what is now Twelfth Avenue in Wynnton) at which they lived part of the year. The brothers would attend college in the north – William at Yale and Joseph at Princeton. Both sons returned to Cusseta following college. By the end of the Civil War, Joseph had been killed and their father, John, had passed away. William became the patriarch of the family with the responsibility of managing all of the vast landholdings. Around 1863, William began selling some of the family’s lands and purchased Bethune’s former Columbus home to use as a city residence for his family. For twenty years, he was able to hold on to the Cusseta plantation, but the property had to be sold in 1883 to raise cash. After a succession of owners, the Cusseta plantation became a part of Fort Benning.

During the last years of Bethune’s ownership of Five Oaks, the home was not well maintained. Woolfolk acquired it in a sad state of repair for the minimal sum of $1,500. William Woolfolk renovated the home and gave it the name Five Oaks. William and his wife, Mary Byrd Nelson, daughter of Major Thomas Nelson of Virginia, raised ten children there. They would spend their summers at Five Oaks and their winters in the five-room cottage at Cusseta until it was sold in 1883. Five Oaks remained in the Woolfolk family for more than a hundred years until it was sold to the American Family Life Assurance Company (AFLAC) in 1964. This became the site of the new company headquarters.

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