Every town has its own history and attractions; some well-known and some not very. Haunted houses, churches and other buildings are always interesting. Court houses and old jails, too. Sometimes small towns are more appealing and accessible than the bigger ones. Fewer people with less interest in what you’re looking for. The locals have sometimes lost interest in their own little treasures; that leaves more room for you and me us to touch, shake and sniff.
Civil War sites can be both inspiring and adventurous, depending on how far you want to push it. When Atlanta became vulnerable, the state government started moving around. A marker in Cordele reminds us that the state capitol was there at one time – as was Milledgeville.
In Blackshear, there’s a large vacant lot with a historical marker on it edge. It was a prisoner of war camp during the period when Andersonville was breaking down and the prisoners were being transferred. There was another such camp in Thomasville, for the same reasons. I always wanted to get permission from the owners, take a metal detector and go looking. Probably not very much to dig up, but there’ always the possibility of some metal stuff: belt buckles, buttons, keys – maybe even a knife. Or maybe a coin. You never know what some soldier had lost or hidden.
In Cook County there’s an Indian mound on the farm property of a friend of mine. He won’t let anyone near it. Even good and honest people might be tempted to dig into it when no one’s looking. A few years ago he did let some UGA students do a little digging. They had to leave it looking the same way they had found it. I’ve wondered how many more of them are still undiscovered in the big woods and hills around the state; and others hiding in plain sight, as the saying goes.
In Waycross (the Biggest City in the Largest County in the Largest State East of the Mississippi) there’s a marker commemorating the death of an entire family at the hands of the local Indians: The Wildes Family Massacre. President Jackson sent troops to destroy them and/or force them into the swamps (Okefenokee.) The troops made a large encampment by the road, about half way between Waycross and Folkston. The camp is long gone but the ground still has evidence of that period. For entertainment, they would race their horses around a large pond nearby. The outline of the track is still there; best seen from the air in a slow-moving plane. On the map it’s called Racepond.
Some places have unclear histories. My work landed us – my small family – in Jesup for a few months. East from Jesup, near Gardi, is a small community called Finn Town by the locals. It’s not listed on any map that I can find. Regional lore says it began as a communal enclave of Finnish immigrants. Agriculture mostly, with some native Finnish arts and crafts. The names on the mailboxes seemed to go along with what they called it. They looked about as Finnish as I could imagine: short, random and hard to pronounce.
Near Blackshear again, and one of the oldest and prettiest churches I’ve ever seen: Shiloh. I learned about it from some who were familiar with its history. Don Berryhill – a biology professor at the UGA Off-Campus Center in Waycross knew about it (and more about the Okefenokee Swamp than I’ll ever remember.) Pam Brewer – an English Professor at the same place, seemed to have catalogued much of the area history. I met them both at the Center. Jim Brewer, Pam’s brother and a fellow employee with the company I worked for, was a recent UGA grad and shared his sister’s interests. I had heard of the church and convinced him to take me there so I could see it for myself. Besides, there was a tale about it that had nipped at my curiosity.
It was really something. Built about the time of the Civil War, it was made of rough-cut cypress and had survived many seasons of fires, winds and rain. Cypress gets prettier as it ages, from the different colorations it toys with. Shiloh was mostly grey but had muted splashes of tans, greens, light yellows and many others between. It sat atop a small bluff near the wide creek nearby; the old growth of native pine, cedar and magnolia gave it a pretty setting. The clean and soft fragrances of all three could be enjoyed at different times of the year. The creek would combine with others before finally emptying into the Atlantic on the Georgia coast.
Jim described some of the inside furnishings – plain and somewhat miserly: the benches were rock-hard and cushion-less. Faith was celebrated in song, but there was neither piano nor pitch pipe; only the determined voices of the congregation.
The membership still held to the mores and dogma that had been practiced by their movement for decades. Not as strict as the Amish, say, but still unwilling to accept some of the newer freedoms being practiced by modern youth. That was enough to cause some friction among the church leadership and the parent-members of a couple wishing to be married there. Their style had gone astray of some of the old-line membership.
At first they refused. But after much discussion and reasoning, permission was finally given with limitations. The ceremony could be held there, but only on the church steps. Nobody would be allowed inside.
Upon hearing the decision, the couple was disappointed and maybe a little embarrassed. But the essence and stark beauty of the building they had grown to consider a trophy pushed everything into the background and they agreed.
Early on the morning of the affair the parents and some of the bride’s friends brought roses and mums and decorated the rails and framework surrounding the deck. The ceremony was a tribute to simplicity and brevity. The bride wore white, the groom a business suit, and the pastor—looking the part, stood facing them. Rings were produced, vows exchanged, sentences passed, and kisses sealed the compact. Small but reliable cameras had recorded much of everything. Shortly, they removed the few decorations, tidied up everything, and the couple left for their honeymoon. Everyone else went home.
A few minutes later and unseen by any of the wedding party, a small army of parishioners arrived with enough tools, material and collective resolve to undo whatever damages to belief, doctrine and custom had been done.
A week later the regular congregation showed up for their monthly fellowship. They noticed the new steps and smiled knowingly but silently at one another. Only the slightest odor of burnt wood remained in the still air. The older steps were just ashes in the burn pit, and everything was back to normal.