Kept in the Family

When Augusta physician and pathologist Dr. Frank Mullins Jr. bought a 160-acre homestead in Evans in 1963 for about $150,000, some folks thought he got a raw deal.

His youngest son, Joe Mullins, heard that story during his recent campaign for the area’s District 122 Georgia House seat.

“When I was running for office, I met a guy who told me that the guy who sold it to him went around town saying, ‘I just took that doctor. He overpaid for a piece of property. I can’t believe he paid it,’” Joe said.

The seller also uttered this prediction: “He won’t be able to do anything but farm with that property.”

“But I think it’s worked out OK for us,” Joe said.

By “OK,” he is referring to the bustling Mullins Crossing shopping center in the 4200 block of Washington Road, just past the Club Car plant. A business headed by Joe’s older brother Frank III commercially developed the family property.

Next to Mullins Crossing, another shopping center, called Mullins Colony, is taking shape. The anchor business for that development, a Belk department store, is scheduled to open Oct. 11.

All that is on the land the Mullins family called home for decades – long overseen by a matriarch whose loving, driving purpose was to keep the land in the family.

“She had some incredible offers after Phase One was developed that would’ve immediately given her money,” Joe said of his mother, Joann. “But her vision was to never sell.”

When Dr. Mullins bought the property dubbed Pine Needle Ranch, he and Joann had been married five years. He wanted a place to raise a large family – which grew to two daughters and three sons – and a place to farm, like where he spent his childhood in north Georgia.

Dr. Mullins would work days at his medical practice and at his clinical pathology laboratory. Then he would try to make it home before sunset, often without bothering to change clothes, to tend to the farm as a form of relaxation.

He became a common sight – atop his tractor, wearing a shirt and tie – on that stretch of Washington Road. He also had his Cadillac equipped with a trailer hitch to perform any farm-related hauling.

Along with the main house of about 7,000 square feet, the property came with three smaller houses, a barn, a tractor shed, a chickenhouse, a large pond and – installed by the previous owner – a small golf course, which Evans High School used. Dr. Mullins opened the course for public use for a few years, but closed it down after a mishap with a visiting motorist injured his son Frank, then in elementary school.

Joann Mullins took that incident to heart. She decided then to make the place, in Joe’s words, “a fortress” where the family would be safe. The entire property was fenced and, until recently, had an elaborate entrance gate on Washington Road equipped with what looked like brick guardhouses. Actually, Joe said, they were meant to be shelters for the Mullins children to wait for the school bus.

“We were very protective over the property. She wanted a safe place for us to play and grow up, and spend our childhood,” he said.

Joe wasn’t always crazy about that protection.

“All my friends would talk about going over to their friends’ houses after school and they lived in neighborhoods,” Joe said. “I remember coming home from school and asking Mom, ‘Can we live in a neighborhood? Why do we have to live on such an isolated big place?’ Mom just kind of looked at me and said, ‘This is our home.’ And she taught us to defend the place. She taught us to respect it, take care of it.”

The wide-open space on the property also allowed Dr. Mullins to land his airplane, a Beechcraft Baron, and take off from his house on medical business.

On Groundhog Day in 1973, Dr. Mullins took off for the last time.

It’s believed while he attempted to land near Greenville, S.C., dense morning fog caused him not to see the approaching treeline. The crash in nearby Mauldin took Dr. Mullins’ life.

That left Joann Mullins, at age 36, a widow with five children. Joe was 2.

When Joe asked her years later why she had Dr. Mullins buried in what became a family cemetery at Pine Needle Ranch, she told him, “I never wanted him to leave us. It’s just a reminder of how precious life is.” All visitors to the house would pass the cemetery as they went up the driveway.

Many parts of the property were not as somber. There was a rose garden. An antique trolley car that used to serve downtown Augusta anchored a play area for the children. The chickenhouse, since there were no chickens, became a playhouse and a barbecue pit for social gatherings such as school parties and Easter egg hunts.

“Everybody we went to school with kind of knew our place was a big playground. There were no parks around at the time, but we had a big play yard with a fenced-in area, and we used to go out there and play, and all the kids would come in from school,” Joe said. “It was kind of the known place to have your kids play and have fun.”

Other people would visit Pine Needle Ranch for different reasons.

Not long after Dr. Mullins’ death, Joann Mullins was approached by men who produced documents they said showed her husband intended to sell the property to them.

“It was known that she was by herself, and people came up and tried to take advantage of her,” Joe said.

Because of the family’s community roots, public figures such as then-Columbia County commissioners Vince Robertson and Al Dempsey would rise to her defense, Joe said. The sheriff’s office routinely would send officers to check on the property. She also remarried, to John Attaway, who worked at Johnson Motor Co.

But over the decades, the five Mullins siblings encountered several speculators who would pitch ideas on what their mother should do with the ranch.

First there was the proposed housing development. Then a senior care home. An early plan for extending Riverwatch Parkway would have placed a bridge over the property’s pond, rendering all the land beneath it useless for future development.

The family fended off several unsolicited offers on Pine Needle Ranch. Meanwhile, the kids had to balance school, athletics and other extracurricular activities with their obligations to looking after the property. Joe said he and his older brother Fred were responsible for the property’s appearance, and Frank was in charge of “protecting” the property, both physically and later from outside developmental encroachment.

The family launched several enterprises to keep their property taxes paid. Farmers would graze cattle there. Later they grazed and stabled horses. In 1987, a golf driving range was erected on ranch land and stayed around until 2004, when site work began in earnest on the shopping center there today.

By then, Wal-Mart had approached the Mullins family about building a supercenter there, but the family considered the deal unsuitable. Instead, teaming with Charlotte, N.C.-based commercial real estate firm Collett and Associates, Frank Mullins began developing Mullins Crossing, with Target being the eventual anchor store.

One condition of Mullins’ deal with Target was a competing retailer could not be constructed adjacent to Mullins Crossing. But, Joe said a subsequent look at the property lines showed the ranch parcel next to Mullins Crossing actually belonged not to the siblings, but to their mother, who wasn’t bound by the Target agreement.

That cleared the way for what initially was referred to as Phase Two of Mullins Crossing. Hobby Lobby showed interest in being the new anchor store, but opted to locate instead at Augusta Exchange. That placed aspects of the new development in doubt.

Then the Georgia Department of Transportation paid the Mullins family a visit. As part of the ongoing Riverwatch extension project, the state needed fill dirt. The Mullins had it and the state was willing to pay for it.

After negotiating, Joe said, Frank Mullins informed the family they would be giving them the dirt for free. Mystified, Joe asked why.

Frank said the state gets the dirt on one condition: The state, in turn, would completely grade and level the property for development, which would save the family the steep costs of doing it themselves.

“I’ll never forget,” Joe said. “Mom hugged his neck and said, ‘Frank, that’s why I put you over this property when you were 10.’”

She died in 2013, the day after Thanksgiving. After her death, the house was demolished.

“When Mom passed away, Frank’s commitment was: This has got to be something more special than Phase One,” Joe said of the new shopping center. Based on that, Frank coined the development’s new name: Mullins Colony.

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