"Welcome to one of Washington's traveling houses," said Robert M. Willingham Jr. as he opened the door to his asymmetrical house.

Willingham's house is one of a dozen 19th-century "mobile" homes in the idiosyncratic northeast Georgia town of Washington.

"In the early 1800s, when boards were handhewn and nails were handmade, houses were not simply demolished when no longer needed. They were recycled," said Willingham as he displayed his rebuilt house with the not-quite-square corners.

"Our 19th-century counterparts knew much more about recyling than we do. If a certain home was no longer needed, it was either disassembled and rebuilt in another form or moved as it was to another location," Willingham said.

Most of the 12 "prefab" houses in Washington were manor houses that were brought in from nearby plantations as it became fashionable to live in town. This happened between 1820 and 1840, when the local farmers prospered as a result of the switch from tobacco to cotton farming.

Although nobody knows exactly how the houses were moved (no contemporary accounts have been found), court records, oral tradition and physical evidence atest to the moving.

Willingham, a historian by profession, speculates that several teams of fire oxen could have carried the load placed on a flat wagon made of long logs.

According to the historian, it would take a group of neighbors and slaves severl days to move a house 10 or 15 miles and then reassemble it.

But Willingham stressed that there was "nothing fancy" about the houses when they were originally brought in. "All the houses in this area were small. I don't know of one that was built with the columns in mind," he said.

The Wilkes Countian noted that the houses "evolved" as their owners gained wealth. The houses expanded and the columns were added later on, probably in the 1850s. (Willingham noted that the columns of all the houses in Washington are so similar that they are probably put on by the same mason.)

The historian noted that the movement to town was an unusual development peculiar to Washington.

Although other houses were moved in various parts of the country in the 19th century, few cities can boast a collection of traveling houses as large as Washington's.

Each of the traveling house has a story behind it, and one of the favorites is the story of what is now the Frank Colley house.

"A Methodist preacher came to a revival in the town in 1838, and he was so loved that he was asked to stay. He almost refused because of a lack of a place to stay. But Mrs. Mary Semmons sent out to the country and brought back her manor house for the new parson and so he remained," said Mrs. Colley.

"When the workers put the home back together again, they must have been in a rush, because the windows in the right-hand side of the house are not placed in the same position as those on the left," Mrs. Colley added.

Although the Colley house is relatively small, Elizabeth Johnson's traveling house is an imposing mansion complete with a large front stair-case and four 20-foot columns.

The original part of the Holly Court, as the house is called, now makes up the back of the house.

"Nobody comes up the front steps but people like you who don't know any better!" Mrs Johnson kidded her guests as she led them into one of the grandest and most history-laden houses of Washington.

Mrs. Jefferson Davis spent a night in this house as she awaited the return of her husband from Richmond at the end of the Civil War. (It was in Washington, home of four top Confederate officers, that the Confederate cabinet met for the last time).

According to legend, part of the Confederate treasure should be buried in the yard of Holly Court, as it was allegedly placed there before Jefferson Davis' retreat farther south.

But whether or not real gold is buried in the gardens of Washington (several other houses are reputed to have buried treasures), much historical gold already has been unearthed in this antebellum town that claims to be the first city in the nation incorporated (in 1780) under the name of the first president.