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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The Continuing Mystery of the Georgia Guidestones

Posted by southwrite on September 14, 2014

Elbert County's granite mystery.

Elbert County’s granite mystery.

Seeing the Georgia Guidestones for the first time can be a startling experience. Driving north on GA 77 from Elberton, you pass through hill country dominated by brick ranch-style houses and barn-fronted pastures. Suddenly, about seven miles out of town, they appear to your right, rising up from the highest point in the county.

Four imposing 19-foot-tall, 119-ton granite blocks with a center column supporting an equally massive capstone. Closer observation reveals an even stranger sight. On each of the stones are a series of carvings—aphorisms for living, in languages ranging from modern English and Russian to Egyptian hieroglyphics and Babylonian cuneiform—12 in all.

Obviously, this isn’t your typical North Georgia roadside attraction. Although the area surrounding the guidestones is well-kept, with freshly mowed grass, shrubs and even a rose garden— thanks to a foundation established to maintain it—the location seems to draw few vistiors these days.

Elbert County locals are just as happy to keep their treasure under wraps. They prefer to be known as the World’s Granite Capital, not as the home to an oddity that has generated worldwide interest and controversy.

Although at first glance they may evoke images of Stonehenge, the guidestones are actually of more recent, but somewhat mysterious origin. According to local lore, one day in 1979 a mysterious stranger calling himself simply R.C. Christian showed up at the office of Joe Fendley, then president of the Elberton Granite Finishing Company. He carried plans for a large monument that a small, anonymous group of men wanted to build near Elberton.

The mysterious Mr. Christian (most say it’s not his real name) came with funds to back his odd request. He and his backers had chosen the area because of its famed granite, he said at the time. After a brief search, a five-acre hilltop pasture belonging to local contractor Wayne Mullenix was purchased and work began.

Guidestones 2Never during all these mysterious goings-on did Mr. Christian disclose the purpose for the construction effort. He merely smiled and said it would all be revealed soon enough. Upon completion of the project, he left and was never seen again.

Wyatt Martin, the banker who acted as Mr. Christian’s agent, said in an interview with CNN: “He told me, ‘If you were to tell who put the money up for this, it wouldn’t be a mystery any more, and no one would come and read it.’ That had to be part of the attraction, to get people to come and read his 10 rules that he came up with.”

More than two decades later, the Georgia Guidestones remain steeped in mystery. Following precise specifications, the upright stones are aligned to follow the trajectory of the moon during the course of a year. A slot cut into the center stone aligns with the position of the rising sun at the summer and winter solstices. During the equinoxes, the noon sun shines through to indicate midday. A small hole in the overhead capstone serves as a crude sun calendar.

Since the site was unveiled to the public in a ceremony attended by more than 400 people in 1980, it has been the object of both wonder and controversy. Local ministers denounced it as satanic. Wiccans have traveled from near and far to hold pagan ceremonies.

The Guidestones have often been the target of conspiracy theorists.

The Guidestones have often been the target of conspiracy theorists.

A more down to earth theory is the Guidestones, built during the Cold War, are a guide for civilization’s future in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Among the advice carved into their granite sides is a call to “unite humanity with a living new language” and a call to “Maintain humanity under 500 million in perpetual balance with nature.” Other sayings are straightforward maxims for living— “Avoid petty laws and useless officials.”

Over the years the stones have been often defaced with graffiti, but local officials concede it’s the county’s most visited attraction. Last year there was talk of staging a festival around the Guidestones to attract more visitors to this small sparsely populated county where unemployment runs high. So far nothing has come of the idea due to prohibitions against charging admission to the site or constructing any types of building. Although there has been considerable effort by researchers to ferret out the secret of the Guidelines, locals hope the mystery stays just that — a mystery. Take away the doubt and the wonder and you remove a big reason for people coming here.

So the Georgia Guidestones continue their lonely watch from this hill in Northeast Georgia and keep their secrets.


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The Music of the Big House

Posted by southwrite on August 13, 2014

The Filmore East painting of the Allman Brothers Band by  Steve Penley.

The Filmore East painting of the Allman Brothers Band by Steve Penley.

It’s really kind of amazing when you think about it. How did the little city of Macon, stuck in the rural center of Georgia, produce so much great musical talent? Start first with the legends – Little Richard, Otis Redding, and the Allman Brothers. Then consider all the other musicians who have called it home and the list just gets longer and longer.

Music seemed to be everywhere on these hot Middle Georgia streets. There’s the Douglass Theatre where Otis Redding was discovered and on whose stage Ma Rainey, Cab Calloway, and a host of other African American talent performed. A few blocks away is Grant’s Lounge, whose wonderfully seedy interior boasts a photo crowded “wall of fame” filled with now legendary artists who came through its back doors on the way to worldwide fame. You can see a lot of younger (and some not so young) performers at the many concerts that fill Macon such as the annual Bragg Jam.

Macon is truly a Mecca for music fans from around the world and no attraction is more visited and revered than the Big House out on Vineville Avenue. In late 1969 this rambling Tudor style home with its lush gardens became home to members of the Allman Brothers Band and assorted roadies, friends and family. Until 1973, it was the place where the band gathered for tours and returned after months on the road.

Linda Oakley originally rented the house while husband Berry was recording with the band at Capricorn Records. Duane Allman and his family moved in, as did Gregg Allman and other extended family members. After longs weeks on the road, it was this house to which they all returned. It was here that music was written and for a short time some of them enjoyed a form of domestic bliss.

Duane Allman's famous guitar.

Duane Allman’s famous guitar.

All that ended with the deaths of Duane Allman in 1971 and a year later Barry Oakley. Both were killed in motorcycle accidents on the streets of Macon. Band and family members went elsewhere and for a time it looked as if this place would be forgotten.

With the breakup of the Band and the closing of Capricorn Records, which had nurtured and promoted the Allmans  and so many other southern talents, the era of Southern Rock music with Macon as its epicenter seemed to have passed. For a time you could ride through the city and never know that so much great music had taken place here.

Yet, thanks to the love and dedication of Allman fans the Big House and its history was preserved.

Today, The Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House is open with one of the most extensive and intriguing collections of musical artifacts you are likely to find anywhere. If you want to understand and appreciate the Allman Brother and their place in music and cultural history this is the place to start. Here you can see carefully curated exhibits that tell the story of their impact on music, their concert and gold record successes and the popular culture that sprang up around here.

Front entrance to The Big House.

Front entrance to The Big House.

Here you’ll also find living spaces lovingly preserved much as they would have been while the band and their families lived here.

Come inside the Big House and walk past the front desk into the parlor and the first thing that grabs your attention is Macon native Steve Penley’s large scale painting of the Allman’s Fillmore East album cover. It’s flanked by chronologically arranged posters from all eras of the Allman Brothers Band’s history, as well as their many Gold Records. You can see Duane Allman’s famed gold top guitar that produced those amazing slide guitar riffs on Derek and the Dominos’ classic Layla. Founding guitarist Dickey Betts often slept on the pull out coach here.

Among the other areas is the Old Dining Room with the pool table once owned by Gregg Allman and Cher – they married briefly. Surrounding it are display cases filled with items such as the jacket Lamar Williams wore while performing at a benefit for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign in 1975. There’s the Living Room with its display cases with instruments, hand written song lyrics and other items. The windows face the church across the highway that inspired Dickey Betts’ classic Blue Sky.

Upstairs the bedrooms have been recreated much as they were when the band lived there and provide an intimate glimpse of how they lived.

Everywhere you look are the personal items and artifacts that form an impressive collection that tells the story of music’s legendary groups.




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Lighting Macon’s Past and Present

Posted by southwrite on July 22, 2014

lights-on-macon-04[The second  of a three part series on Macon’s College Hill Corridor.]

Preservation is always high on the to-do list of cities with a good stock of historic properties. In Macon, Ga.’s College Hill Corridor, they’ve taken it one step beyond simple upkeep to showing off an amazing collection of fine homes.

Lights on Macon, an illumination tour of this hilltop neighborhood of Intown Macon, got started in 1995. In the decades since, it’s grown to include more than 112 historic and architecturally significant homes – with more being added each year. It’s also remained a unique feature of the city that is unmatched anywhere else.

A self-guided walking tour features houses that are theatrically lit with carefully positioned spotlights trained on unique design features, such as a sunburst in the gable of a late Victorian and the 30-foot Doric columns on a classic Greek Revival. Homes range from simple bungalows to stately mansions.  Signs on front lawns designate the stops along the route. And, the best part is that this is no seasonal occurrence, but takes place every night of the year.

lights-on-macon-05A 1988 study had suggested that Macon “put a fence around the InTown historic neighborhood and charge admission. Or better yet, show it off with free nightly programming!”  The end result was Lights on Macon.

With a compact network of historic residential streets between Mercer University and downtown, the College Hill Corridor was ideally suited for an illumination tour that would provide something to do every night of the year. Some 60 architecturally significant houses and structures are now part of the tour.

The nightly tour got its start when the local CVB invited lighting consultant Ken Dresser, who had designed lighting for presidential inaugurations along with Disney’s electric light parade to makes suggestions for illuminating city landmarks.

“When we brought him here (to College Hill), he said ‘why don’t you do architectural lighting,’” recalls Maryel Battin, a preservationist and member of Historic Macon Foundation. “You’ve got these amazing houses, but you don’t want to blast everybody with light. It’s got to be subtle, so use low voltage and highlight the architectural details. And, don’t just do it at Christmas do it year round.”

lights-on-macon-03The tour and the lighting of homes have been managed by the InTown Macon Neighborhood Association. Over the years non-profits such as the Peyton Anderson and Knight Foundation have contributed funds to buy the lights. The Association installs the lights, but the homeowners are responsible for paying for the electricity (equivalent to a couple of lamps says Battin) and replacing bulbs when they burn out.

The number of homes grows each year and there is always a waiting list of homeowners who want to be a part of the tour.

“When we first stated the tour we believed we were the only neighborhood association in the country that had done a program like this,” says Battin. “Today, I can’t find anything like it, except people doing individual houses. So this is a very unusual idea that it’s a neighborhood project rather than just individual owners doing it.”

The tour is self-guided. All you need to do is download the free map and tour guide from the association’s website. You can complete the walk quickly, but more likely once you begin looking at the homes and illuminated features you’ll want to linger.




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Big City Dreams in The College Hill Corridor

Posted by southwrite on July 19, 2014

Mercer University has been a driving force in the transformation of the College Hill Corridor.

Mercer University has been a driving force in the transformation of the College Hill Corridor.

[The first of a three part series on Macon’s College Hill Corridor.]

Big dreams are not always fulfilled in big cities. Consider Tim Regan-Porter. The co-founder of the highly successful cultural publication, Paste Magazine, turned down a “dream job” with New York publisher Condé Nast to move to Macon. He decided that he could live a better life and make a bigger impact on journalism in this small Middle Georgia city than he could in the acknowledged world capital of publishing.

A growing number of people with big dreams and sophisticated tastes are coming here. They’re drawn by a sense that this is a city in the midst of transformation and the heart of change can be found in the historic College Hill Corridor.

Regan-Porter was in the midst of final interviews at Conde Nast, which publishes a number of magazines, and was eager to hire the man who had successfully developed the third-largest popular music title in the English-speaking world, trailing only Rolling Stone and Spin. He saw that he could be part of something even more exciting than big city publishing when he was offered the directorship of Mercer University’s new Center for Collaborative Journalism and its innovative approach to training journalists.

“It was basically seeing where he would fit best with his skills. We were most likely going to move somewhere like Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and had already scoped out some apartments,” recalls wife Leila, a freelance journalist and editor.

Instead the Regan-Porters moved to Macon’s College Hill Corridor. This roughly two mile area of historic neighborhoods between Mercer University and the city’s downtown was a part of the reason the couple passed on Prospect Park for Macon.

College Hill is an intown urban district in the midst of far reaching revitalization. In the process, it’s become a model of how public/private partnership and dedicated citizen participation can turn an aging city district into a highly livable, vibrant and ever evolving urban center.

The stately Carmichael House is a Greek Revival mansion built in 1848. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1973.

One of many fine homes in the College Hill Corridor, the Carmichael House at 1183 Georgia Avenue is a Greek Revival mansion built in 1848. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1973.

One of the first things you notice about College Hill is its impressive stock of well-preserved historic homes. Macon has more than 5,000 structures ion the National Register of Historic Places and there are at least that many eligible for the designation, according to the Historic Macon Foundation. Many of them are in neighborhoods that comprise the corridor.

The Regan-Porters quickly became part of this revitalization. They’re renovating a circa 1890s house on High Street in the corridor. Known as the Wise Blood house, the film adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel of the same name was shot here.

College Hill is a place that local boosters like to call “hip and historic” and it’s hard to argue with that phrase after spending a few days “in the corridor.” It’s preserved its history while fostering a rich and available culture of music and the arts, coupled with all the walkable amenities that draw young (and not so young) highly educated professionals to an urban setting. Here you’ll find streets of historic million dollar mansions not far from neat rows of attractive affordable housing where students and professionals live side by side with the elderly and working class.

The area has benefited from the many residents who care and get involved in the community. That passion for progress has also attracted a lot of money. Mercer University has helped lead the charge in transforming the areas around its campus from a decaying (and crime-infested) slum – without making it unaffordable for lower income residents.

A half dozen years ago, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation issued a $250,000 grant to jump start the community-driven planning of the neighborhood’s revitalization. It was the first of many to come. A master plan for the community was drawn and the College Hill Alliance, a nonprofit group housed on the Mercer campus, began the work of turning the plan into reality.

The Second Sunday concert in Washington Park.

The Second Sunday concert in Washington Park.

To start, the Knight Foundation awarded $5 million to the revitalization efforts with $3 million earmarked for the Knight Neighborhood Challenge. Challenge grants of more than $2.1 million have been issued for a variety of community led purposes. Awards have ranged from $200 for a composting workshop to $180,000 for community wayfinding. The “Lights on Macon” which provides nightly illumination of the districts historic homes has been expanded annually by Knight’s grants.  These grants have helped spur an estimated  $90 million of investment in the area.

Locals say that even with all the progress the best is yet to come. The College Hill Alliance will close its doors next year and turn this work over to the community-led College Hill Corridor Commission. This organization recently unveiled a new master plan that is focused on economic development and entrepreneurship. College Hill is a great place to live, but now it just needs more jobs to keep all those young professionals here. And with this endeavor the corridor will be opening a new chapter in its ongoing transformation.

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The Loneliness of the Forgotten Rail Stop

Posted by southwrite on July 8, 2014

Train oldWhenever I hear a distant train whistle, I stop and listen and think for a moment of where it’s going and where it might have been. I’m not the only one. Trains are still popular these days. Trainwatching or railfanning, as it’s sometimes called, is a passion for a growing subculture of enthusiasts. Yet, for most of us, they’ve become a novelty and don’t have the same impact on our lives  they once did. We look at trains apart from the role they play in commerce, and transportation because they are no longer a part of our everyday life.

Not so long ago it wasn’t that way. Trains were a vital and essential part of everyday life — even in tiny rural communities.

The images of train schedules you see here are from the collection of Eastman, Ga.-resident Bob Braswell, who says they are most likely from the 1890s. I was really struck by the long string of stops at tiny communities throughout the Middle Georgia area – some I had heard of and some not.

Uplands Hotel AdScanning through the schedules, I see stops at Garretta, Mayberry, Rentz, Batson, and Leon on the way to Eastman. These are names likely to draw a blank stare from all but the oldest and most historically minded residents of the county. I look at them and try to imagine what the stops might have looked like. I wonder how many people rode the trains and what become of them and their lives?

The rail line to Eastman ran by the house in which I grew up although  the rails and cross ties had been removed long before I was born. One of the stops on the Wrightsville and Tennille Railroad Co. is named Sutherland (a common misspelling of our family name).  I’m not sure where the stop had been, but no doubt passengers disembarked somewhere near my family home.

In the 19th and well into the 20th century, these little communities were thriving and busy enough to warrant passenger train service. It was a time when train travel was the primary way of getting from one place to another. Braswell also provided this early ad for the Uplands Hotel in Eastman. It  indicates a busy stop on the line from Cincinnati, Ohio, which many well-to-do travelers rode to Florida in the 1800s.  They stopped in towns along the way giving rise to a thriving hotel business. Some of these hotels are still standing. Most are empty shells or have been converted to other uses. The Uplands burned to the ground long before I was born and a  bank now sits on the site.

Railway schedule 2Another former rail stop called Plainfield is a few miles from  my parent’s old home and it’s still hanging on. Today, little remains of this once thriving community, which was declining even when I was growing up. Most people have moved away and the main shopping area off the main highway is now mostly gone.

Ben Horne’s, a classic tin roofed country store at the intersection of Ga. 117 and Plainfield Road closed some years ago. Now it sits at the main intersection with  its gas pumps long removed and its walls crumbling. In better days my parents sometimes bought groceries there and I was usually able to spend some time with the out of date comic books in a rack near the wooden front counter. Like hundreds of other country  stores, it served the needs of the surrounding community. Also like them it couldn’t survive.

Decades before, Plainfield and the others were all vibrant communities supported to a significant degree by regular train service. When the trains stopped and the rail disappeared much of the reason for their existence was also gone. Like so much of rural life and culture its vanishing leaves us to wonder and dream of what was and might have been..



Railway schedule

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As Gods of the Air

Posted by southwrite on June 30, 2014

Plane Stormy SkyYou can’t imagine how loud and cramped the cockpit of a Cessna 150 is until you’re sitting in it, engine revving. As the red and white machine taxis down the runway of the small airport in the East Georgia town of Covington, I glance at my pilot. Jack is thin and bearded with sandy hair just beginning to gray.

I’m impressed with how diligent he is in his pre-flight checks. He goes over the plane making sure everything is in order and carefully follows a printed list of checks. These prop-driven marvels haven’t changed much in design since they were first introduced back before World War II, and neither has the flight inspection that ensures all systems are working.

A few days before, Jack had called asking if I’d like to go for a ride in his new plane. “We can fly up to Tocca for lunch,’ he says. It’s a joke among pilots. To provide an excuse for the expense of going up, you plan a flight somewhere to eat. It becomes “the world’s most expensive hamburger.”

We taxi down the runway, the engine’s roar getting louder, our progress faster. Slowly, much too slowly, we start to lift off and by the time the runway expires we are aloft. The plane climbs gaining altitude.

While most people start thinking about flying as kids and many have their pilot’s license before leaving their teens, Jack didn’t do his check ride until he was 66. That was the fulfillment of a long-delayed dream that began decades before when he first took a few lessons while working in Montana during the 70s. The heavy snows of a tough Western winter cut short his training, and job demands kept him from pursuing it further – until retirement.

“I always had this fantasy about flying at the top of the trees,” he tells me over the headphone we have to wear in order to communicate in the roaring cockpit. Jack is not the kind of guy who is content with a safe, mundane life.

Being the passenger in a tiny plane is a true “living in the moment” exercise. I’ve traveled in big passenger jets and prop driven puddle jumpers often, but this is a different experience. Wedged into this cramped metal can, you become acutely aware that you are thousands of feet above the earth with only a single engine to keep you up. There is an overwhelming feeling of being aloft as the ground passes below and you look upon the horizon in a way you’re never quite seen it before.

If you’re afraid of heights – as I am – the terror will start to well up and, despite your best efforts to focus on all the things going on around you, it will be there – just below the surface. At the same time you see how different – and how beautiful – the world looks from up in the sky.

Jack wants a Diet Coke. Spotting a small airport in the distance he pilots the plane in for landing. Like just about every other small town general aviation airport, the single building is closed for the weekend. There is a drink machine outside which allows him to satisfy his need for caffeine.

As he walk back to the plane the older man stops and looks at me intently. “Let me tell you something,” he beings. “If I should have a heart attack, try to pop one of these into my mouth and maybe I’ll come back to life.” He holds up a small pill bottle. I nod as he turns away and strides back to the plane.

Jack tells me to watch for birds. Hitting one could be a “really bad thing” for the plane he says. I scan the horizon knowing that I probably won’t see the flock of geese in time to avoid a fatal collision. At least it takes my mind off the thought of what might happen if the engine suddenly stopped and we have to make an emergency landing. “I’m always looking around for open fields and highways that I can put her down on,” he explains.

Pilots are always thinking ahead to the time when their equipment doesn’t work.

If we do develop engine trouble, the plane won’t drop like a rock, but will continue to sail along losing altitude until it finally hits the earth. Using the flaps, Jack can guide its slow descent onto a good makeshift runway – I hope.

I think of my own mortality. In this plane, I’ll know I’m going to die long before I actually do. What possessed me to think that going up with this guy was a good idea?

As we near our destination, Jack offers more droll wisdom on the dangers of flight. “There are only two kinds of landings,” says Jack calmly. “Good and crash.”

The trip is the first of several we take together. Flying from the Covington airport we visit other small towns in East and South Georgia. It’s always a thrill mingled with terror. I’m drawn to it and drink it in and begin to understand the appeal of risky occupations. You’re never more fully alive until you’re deeply immersed in an experience that scares and constantly demands your full attention.

Flying is like that. It’s that odd mixture of boundless freedom mingled with the realization that it could all end in a moment. It’s life.



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For the Love of Trains

Posted by southwrite on June 29, 2014

The northbound stack gliding through the Folkston funnel. (Photo: Dylan Jones)

The northbound stack gliding through the Folkston funnel. (Photo: Dylan Jones)

(The second  of a two part series on the romance of trains and trainwatching.)

Many people love trains, but for some it’s an obsession. (At least it might seem so to family members and by-standers with less passion for the big machines.)

Collecting model trains is a well-established hobby, but one of the most exciting aspects of trains is seeing the real thing – as up close and personal as possible.

If you like watching trains, there are many placed to see them. Across the country towns large and small have set aside viewing platforms and refurbished depots to accommodate the hobby of  trainwatching (or railfanning as some call it.)

That’s especially true in Georgia. Trains go through big cities and small towns alike. Atlanta, along with many other communities, owe their very existence to the railroad. Austell, Blue Ridge, Cartersville, Cordele, Macon, Marietta, Manchester, Savannah and a host of other cities are great train viewing locations. Few of these places are stops anymore, but many still offer the thrill of seeing a crossing guard fall and a long precession of metal come rumbling through.

While some regard trains as a nuisance – nobody likes waiting at a noisy crossing guard – some communities have embraced trains as a tourist attraction and created venues to make viewing easier and safer.

No place has done more to make itself a “railfan” capitol than the tiny town of Folkston on the Georgia border just 40 miles northwest of Jacksonville.

The viewing platform for train watchers in Folkston.

The viewing platform for train watchers in Folkston.  (Photo John A. Leynes)

Here two CSX lines from Savanna and Jesup merge to form the “Folkston Funnel” The tracks run parallel until they split again in Florida running toward Jacksonville and Baldwin. As many as 40 to 70 trains a day hurtle through town. The traffic includes Amtrack passenger trains and the “Tropicana Juice Train” with its loads of orange juice bound for America’s breakfast tables.

It makes for quite a spectacle and frequently blocks traffic although an overpass near the depot has eased transit.

The town’s old depot has been preserved and a few years ago the city built a covered viewing platform next to tracks in the center of town. It’s outfitted with lights, chairs and other amenities. A web cam even streams train images over the Internet.

Driven by word of mouth among fans, Folkston attracts thousands of people from across the country to watch the trains each year. It’s also been recognized with media coverage by press ranging from CBS News to the Wall Street Journal.

Locals say this fascination with trains also has a definite economic impact. Over the years the increased tourism has helped fuel the opening of new shops and restaurants.

In fact, it’s made this little town in South Georgia the closet thing to a trainwatching Mecca you’re likely to find.


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Romancing the Rail

Posted by southwrite on June 28, 2014

Photo courtesy of Norfolk Southern.

Photo courtesy of Norfolk Southern.

(The first of a two part series on the romance of trains and trainwatching.)

I love trains. The sound of a distant whistle makes me stop and stirs an emotion that has been with me since childhood. Men instinctively know what I’m talking about – women not so much.

We probably played with toy trains when we were boys and when we see one passing by today, it brings back memories of what was probably our favorite possession. The lucky ones among us had an electric powered set of engine and cars that traveled on a circular train around the basement. Almost as good was having a friend with one.

In middle and old age, many a man has filled his home with trains and track and station. Instead of a Corvette or antique Thunderbird, they buy multiple Lionel Train sets and became expert in the different models. Their mistress is a model railroad club and their fortune is spent on meet-ups and train conventions.

Trains are mechanical marvels – the empowerment of the industrial age and the driver of commerce. Trains both opened up the West and closed it with the First Transcontinental Railroad connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory.

Trains have always been the embodiment of romance and travel to unknown places. These days few really dream of hopping a freight out of town to a new life of adventure on the road. The attraction is more in the trains themselves.

You just can’t imagine how powerful – and loud! – a locomotive can be until you watch it thundering past so close you can almost reach out and touch it. It inspires an almost primal feeling as the mammoth piece of metal and its stream of clattering freight and tanker cars passes the refurbished depot in the north Georgia city of Dalton.

Dalton Depot 006Today a small crowd of mostly middle aged and older men have gathered in front of the 1914 era depot downtown. A couple hastily ready cameras mounted on tripods while others listen to scanners to monitor conversations between conductors and dispatchers. Within minutes the long train has passed by leaving these viewers smiling and eager for the next one.

They don’t have long to wait. More trains thunder through the city – 50 to 60 daily – than almost any other place in the country. This is one of the few places in Georgia where the CSX and Norfolk Southern Railway cross each other at grade.

If you love watching trains this is perfect place to be. You can see them coming down the long expanse of track. A short distance north the Gordon Street Bridge provides a panoramic view of the city and the trains as they pass through. The depot, which also houses the Dalton Convention and Visitors Bureau, offers a large brightly lit waiting area inside equipped with a 42 inch monitor. An audio system is connected to the radio frequency used by dispatchers to talk to the engines.

The romantic era of rail travel may be long gone, but for a loyal cadre of hobbyists they still invoke a passion that sometimes borders on the fanatical. Railfans, as they’re called, travel across the country to find a good location for viewing their favorite engines. It’s both a passion and pleasure.

Watching the trails go always evokes some romantic notions of climbing aboard a boxcar and heading to new and unimagined places.

“You wonder when you see them where are they going and where they came from,” said one trainwatcher as a long expanse of cars lumbered past. I knew exactly what he meant. It was an emotion that had already welled up inside me from a place far away.


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Everything Old is New Again

Posted by southwrite on June 21, 2014

Atlanta's Margaret Mitchell House

Atlanta’s Margaret Mitchell House

Living in the South you soon realize that history isn’t found in buildings. In fact, in many communities there aren’t many, if any old historic structures from earlier times –not like New England and certainly not like Europe where history is measured in centuries and sometimes millenniums.

One reason is the Civil War which devastated the Southern states and particularly Georgia thanks to Sherman and his well-kept promise during the infamous march to the sea to “make Georgia howl.”

Much was laid waste in the war, but much would be destroyed afterwards – and not by the Yankees. Following Reconstruction and the dawning of The New South, Georgia, and Atlanta in particular, acquired a particular distaste for the old and historic. Perhaps it was a way of forgetting the past and proving that the city wasn’t just some backwater. Beginning in the 1960s and moving forward, Atlanta began thinking of itself in much grander and less regional terms. By the 1980s were proclaiming it an “international city.”

It was modern and forward facing and no longer had time for either the old building that were spared Union torches or even those built soon afterwards.

While working for a small private college in North Georgia, I found myself traveling down Atlanta’s Peachtree Street. At the wheel was a trustee I was interviewing for a laudatory profile in the alumni magazine. He was rich, a successful developer and very much committed to raising new buildings up out of the dust of old Atlanta.

“When I see one of these old buildings I don’t see a waste and an opportunity,” he said.

And, he certainly helped contribute to the loss of what little remained of Atlanta history. For a while it seemed that the city was determined to erase everything that remained of the old to usher in the new and profitable.

The developers  largely succeeded, but not entirely.

One remarkable survivor of that era is the now preserved Margaret Mitchell House. This three-story, Tudor Revival built in 1899 was where the author  lived and wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning Gone With the Wind. Truth be told, the famous author never much cared for the building she referred to as “The Dump.”

It had been a grand home on this fashionable residential section of Peachtree. By 1919 it was subdivided into ten tiny apartments. Mitchell and her new husband, fellow writer John Marsh, moved into Apartment No.1. In those days it was known as the Crescent Apartments and later renamed the Windsor House. Mitchell moved on to better accommodations – particularly after the success of her bestselling novel and the classic motion picture. It remained apartments until 1978 when it was abandoned.

During those years, this section of Midtown became something of a desolate stretch populated by the poor, the runaways, the addicts and the occasional hippie. The house was sometimes a temporary home for the homeless and slipped further into disrepair.

Beginning in the 1980s, local preservationists tried to pull together enough funds to save and restore it. That was rough going in a city that didn’t much care for history or all that much for the arts. Atlanta designated it a landmark in 1989.

It’s something of a miracle that the house survived It was torched more than once. Perhaps the fires were started by the homeless trying to keep warm. I imagined it was a developer outraged that such a valuable piece of property was being kept off the market. With help from German automaker Daimler-Benz, the property was finally purchased and restored. It opened as a museum in 1997.

The house looks very much like it did when Mitchell was living there.

The first time I walked through Mitchell’s restored apartment my imagination was swept back to Atlanta between the world wars and teetering on Depression. It’s filled with period furniture and an old typewriter. I saw her sitting there typing; creating a grand portrait of a South that no longer existed. She was still there looking out the leaded glass window. I also thought about all those who had wanted to destroy this treasure and was happy, profoundly happy they had not succeeded.

That feeling of being in the past leaves when you step out and look up Peachtree to the towering white façade of the Federal Reserve building and the many other modern skyscrapers that line Peachtree Street now. It’s a different world.

It’s a shock.

These days Atlanta and small towns and cities through the state are friendlier to the past. There’s been a growing realization that historical sties mean tourist dollars and economic development. It’s not universal by any means. Big players in Atlanta such as Georgia Tech have moved to tear down historic buildings when it suited their expansion plans. Elected officials in small towns around the state can still be found pushing for demolition rather than preservation.

Yet, we still have the Mitchell house and other historic structures. We still have pieces of the past that we can treasure. I’m glad for all that have been saved.


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Don’t Panic, But There’s a Ghost in Your Town

Posted by southwrite on June 20, 2014

Gaither Main House 01I’ve visited just about every city, town and tiny  community in Georgia. One thing they all have in common is a ghost, or two or three. Every place a haunted house, or building or theatre. Anywhere there have been people, you will find ghosts, or at least stories and people who deeply believe those stories.

I can’t say that I’ve seen a ghost, but I know many rational and sober people who have. They believe ghosts exist and are attached to a particular place. At times they make themselves know and even seen.

One of the most convincing examples of the otherworldy lies in rural northeast Georgia, near the town of Covington.  Gaither Plantation is a pastoral beauty of rolling open fields and verdant woods where generations have picked wild black muscadines. The main house, built in 1850 of sturdy heart of pine, is a rambling white two-story home with large green shutters.

While today, the house and surrounding buildings have been transformed into a location for weddings, events and movie sets, many contend its long history still walks the grounds and hallways of this historic plantation.

The residents of Gaither have made many appearances over the years. One visitor glimpsed a woman sitting in an upstairs bedroom gently rocking a baby. Another opened the door to the basement to see a figure dressed in a Confederate uniform standing at the bottom of the stairs. Both apparitions vanished.

To get an idea of just how much the past is part of the present, I talked to Judy Gaither Dial. A local school teacher and direct descendent of the plantation’s owners and member of the historical society that is working to preserve the plantation, she has experienced a continuing series of encounters with the spectral inhabitants of the house.

Gaither Sign 04Her father lived there in the early 1930s up until he was about three years old.  By then the family had lost ownership of the house for back taxes totaling $28.  Over the years he often told her stories of the grand old house such as the family hiding Confederate soldiers from Sherman’s advancing legions. The Union troops searched the house and took the livestock, but never discovered the Rebs who had scurried up a secret ladder to the attic. Her father died in 1985, but she believes that he is still there.

“When I’m there I feel like I’m at home and my family is around me,” says Dial. “The first experience I had at Gaither Plantation was on the front porch of the house sitting in the swing and there was nobody there.”

As she sat there relaxing, she felt someone sit down beside her and the swing begin to move back and forth. She didn’t open her eyes, but she knew she was swinging. At just under five feet tall her feet didn’t touch the floor.

Another time she was changing clothes in what was once the house’s bridal dress room. The door, which typically sticks when closed, suddenly opened by itself after the doorknob jiggled. Startled, she immediately looked out at the wall size mirror which provided a clear view of the hallway. Nobody was there.

She and a caretaker were waiting in the house for a busload of school children to arrive for a tour. Suddenly they both heard the sounds of laughing children and adults carrying on a conversation outside. Opening the door expecting to see a group of middle school kids, they were greeted by an empty yard with open pasture beyond. The voices still seemed to coming from nearby, but no one was to be seen. Startled, they began looking around the house trying to locate the owners of the voices and the laughing children. They saw no one and the voices eventually faded away.

Ghostly experiences haven’t been limited to locals. The plantation has been a set for several movies and TV shows. Filming of Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion was constantly interrupted by noises from upstairs – when there was no one there. The cast and crew of The Vampire Diaries experienced sudden blasts of music and lights that went on and off by themselves.

As stories of ghostly residents spread, teams of paranormal investigators were engaged in hopes their instruments and scientific approach might squelch the rumors.

The old church where three people met their deaths.

The old church where three people met their deaths.

Over a two year period nine different “ghost hunter” teams set up shop in the old house and plantation grounds. Each deployed sensitive listening devices, video cameras and other instruments. Each invited a “sensitive” or a psychically inclined and trained parapsychologist who could sense ghostly entities. The results were dramatic. A wide variety of ghosts were identified ranging from former slaves to confederate soldiers to Cecilia Gaither herself.

It was during one of these investigations that Judy Dial came face-to-face with the spirit of her dead father. East Georgia Paranormal was on its second investigation of Gaither when they invited her to accompany them. Convinced by her previous experiences that the house was haunted, she quickly agreed.

Late that night inside the old house, the term’s sensitive or psychic member said “someone’s, a man’s voice is telling me to ask you if you remember Little One.” Startled she replied yes, that was her nickname. The psychic conveyed other facts only her father could have known such as her love for playing “horsey” and how he stayed up with her all night when she was sick.

After settling down the entire investigation team heard what seemed to be an argument between a man and a woman coming from upstairs. Members rushed to investigate and found no one there, but now the argument was coming from the attic. Two team members climbed a ladder to the upper level but found nothing. Suddenly everyone heard the voices again, but this time they were downstairs. Once the first person descended the stairs, there was silence.

Not far from the main house, an old wood frame Primitive Baptist Church, built in 1916, is home to a host of memories and ghosts. The paranormal team found it alive with apparitions and strange phenomena. Chief among them is a photo and video that clearly reveals the misty figure of a woman in a white dress. Disembodied sounds could be heard echoing through the sanctuary. While taking readings with a non-contact infrared thermometer, an investigator witnessed the laser beam on the thermometer being broken three times, twice on demand.

Decades before, the pastor, a prominent member of the choir and her husband had been found slain just inside the back door of the church decades before. Police concluded that a jealous husband had discovered the two together and shot them before turning the gun on himself.

This ghostly activity has converted a number of skeptics. A few years ago, a reporter from the local newspaper who had planned to spend the night admits that she ran from the house in the wake of strange noises, continually unplugged coffee pots, and a well handle that suddenly began spinning on its own.

Whether the ghosts are real or a just a part of some over active imaginations, I don’t know for sure. When I walked through the old main house in the middle of a sunny day, I could feel a presence around me – watching. It was the kind of feeling that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck and caused me to look around thinking I had heard a footstep.

I felt relieved stepping back out into the broad front lawn. It was even better when my car was finally rolling down the long dirt road to the gate and home.

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