What’s good for the community is good for business — entrepreneur Fuller Callaway’s lessons for today
In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
By Jamil Zainaldin
It is easy to forget the past. In the urgency of the present moment, we humans seem destined to do so. But there is irony in that tendency: to neglect the past is also to misunderstand why things are as they are. And sometimes, tragic consequences can follow.
One way not to forget is to seek out the stories of heroes whose lives are lessons to us, another urge we humans share. We are especially drawn to men and women who live lives of excellence — indeed whose lives help define what it means to live well, to live right, to live with distinction and greatness.
One recent discovery for me is the story behind the name many of us equate with Georgia: Callaway. In a new biography by the historians Buckner Melton and Carol Willcox Melton, Fuller E. Callaway: Portrait of a New South Citizen, we find a fresh portrait of a progressive American with lessons for today. (Georgia Humanities is a co-publisher of the book.)
Fuller E. Callaway was born in Troup County to a Baptist preacher (and later educator) soon after the Civil War. With the rise of sharecropping that doomed farmers to a semi-subsistence existence, his life (1870-1928) spanned an era of massive displacement of Georgia’s rural population. There was to be, however, a silver lining: Fuller Callaway himself.
Going into business at the age of 18 with a $500 investment from savings, young Fuller opened the “Famous and Mammoth Five-and-Ten Cent Store” in the west Georgia town of LaGrange and pioneered the “one price” innovation in the South. “Our terms are strictly cash. Our prices are strictly low” was his motto. Each item was sold at the bargain price marked; a no-haggling policy introduced high-volume low-price sales to the South.
Business boomed, and so was launched a career of entrepreneurship that would grow into an impressive network of west Georgia cotton mills, a railroad trunk line to haul freight and passengers, a holding company (“The Calumet”), and a wholesale merchandising business that served 32 states.
Besides serving on the LaGrange city council, this dynamo also founded or partnered with LaGrange and Troup County banks (including a forerunner of the historic C&S bank), warehouses, utilities, and insurance. An 18-hour day and six-day workweek was for him the norm. (Dying at age 58, a shortened life would be the toll this pace took.)
By mid-career Callaway began making time to serve on Georgia’s railway commission, present testimony on economic conditions and business before the U.S. Congress, and act as a steward of the nation’s (and eventually Europe’s) cotton manufacturing associations. Because he was a proven southern entrepreneur and a shrewd investor, Presidents Wilson and Harding sought him out for senior appointments in their administrations, but Callaway always preferred staying close to his business involvements in west Georgia.
Callaway would never permit himself to be called — or seen — as a do-gooder. His interest was always the bottom line. He would be the first, however, to say that what is good for the community is good for business.
He was universally known, and admired, for the benefits extended to his mill employees and their families. Ida Tarbell, the famous “muckraker” and founder of investigative journalism who did more than anyone to forever sully the name of the oil baron John D. Rockefeller, wrote a glowing article in a 1921 magazine that extolled Callaway (she met him on the Council of National Defense board during World War I). The title of her article says it all: “Making American Citizens and Running Cotton Mills to Pay the Expenses.” It was the perfect description of the one “capitalist” she admired.
Our core values, as a society, are renewed in each generation. We see hopeful signs of this everywhere today. Certainly Callaway represented the best of his own time, and his children and grandchildren — Cason, Fuller Jr., Howard Hollis “Bo,” and others — magnified that legacy in their own ways in the state and beyond.
Business greats like Callaway invite us to examine how we give back. If you’ve not been before, a trip to LaGrange in this beautiful autumn season will confirm that Callaway’s ethic of hard work and serving others laid the foundation of a model community. LaGrange’s municipal services, a vibrant independent college (LaGrange College), a prospering 21st-century industrial base, a wonderfully preserved historic downtown, art and history museums, Fuller and Ida Callaway’s publicly accessible home and estate (Hills and Dales), and two philanthropic foundations that bear the Callaway name are all part of this remarkable family legacy.
Fuller Callaway is an enduring figure with lessons for today — the bright side of the sunny South that harnessed a gift for making money to the civic good.
For more information and to purchase a copy of Fuller E. Callaway: Portrait of a New South Citizen, visit www.fullercallaway.org.
Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.