Years ago, prior to the building of the U.S. Interstate Highway system, people traveled by rural highway, criss-crossing the land on two-lane blacktop, through small towns and countrysides, of which they could become a part. Traveling on interstates, we now bypass little towns and quirky places of character with hidden stories. We’re missing out on a lot. Travel became sterilized through the interstates. Its another way in which we’ve distanced ourselves from the real world. Back roads force us to interact with the people and places lying between points A and B.
I frequently travel the narrow two-lane roads of Georgia in my work. I visit small places with names like Ailey, Enigma, Climax, TyTY, Willacoochee, Mystic, Hahira, Sardis, Lumber City, Canoochee, and Philomath, which is immortalized in a great song by R.E.M. Of all the backroads I’ve driven around this state, there is one drive that stirs in me the boy that I was. The drive doesn’t have majestic vistas or major attractions along the way. Heck, restrooms and burger joints are even few and far between. It’s the kind of drive in which you pass countless fruit stands selling peaches and hot boiled peanuts. Along this route, lurk the ghosts of lost loved ones and I am happy to have them ride along and whisper memories in my ear. But, there is more to it than that.
Though I was born in Georgia and have lived here all my life, in a way, I am a child of two worlds. As such, I spent many years as a nomad migrating within a territory bound by my mother’s hometown of Moreland to the North and Cordele, my father’s hometown to the South. I lived in both places at times throughout my childhood and kept the road hot between the two visiting grandparents, and following the divorce, parents as well.
Our original route took us from Cordele to Americus, Buena Vista, Talbotton, Manchester, and Warm Springs, where we hit state Highway 27, which took us on to Moreland. Later we began taking a more direct route through Dooly, Macon, Taylor, and Talbot counties, where we picked up the old route again. Back and forth we plied the roads throughout my youth. Along the way I learned stories about some of the places we moved through and we added a few new stories of our own.
Strange the things one remembers. Strange the things one forgets. Somewhere along the first leg of the drive from Cordele there lies an unfamiliar ditch where I woke up one summer Sunday afternoon. After my parents divorced, I moved to Moreland with my Mother for the next 3 years and made the trip to Cordele every two weeks. Upon my first visit back, my Father picked me up in a powder blue late 70’s era Corvette. He acquired the car partly as a result of a mid-life crisis (though he was only 31 years old at the time) and partly in attempt to show his affection for me. He knew that the corvette had been my favorite among the cars in my Hot Wheels collection.
After spending a week or two with him and my grandparents in Cordele, we made the trip back up to Moreland. Somewhere among the pines between Montezuma and Ideal, as I slept in the passenger seat, my Father reached down to change the radio dial and took his eye off the road for a second. When he looked up we were in the other lane and a car was approaching. He jerked the wheel back and lost control. We hit a culvert and the lightweight fiberglass body of the corvette flipped. Daddy was thrown out of the car’s T-top, shredding off a piece of his ear lobe. Eyewitnesses say it threw him high into the tops of the pine trees along the roadside. When he came down he cracked 3 vertebrae.
As the accident was happening, I remember Daddy grabbing me, pushing me down, and then I woke up. The passenger side roof and T-top had caved in. The paramedics told the doctor I wouldn’t have survived had Daddy not pushed me down in the floorboard. I awoke to the sound of him calling my name. My head and left shoulder were gashed open and bleeding but I was ok. I crawled out of the car and made my way to him in the ditch as the ambulance arrived and strangers gathered around.
I spent a couple of nights in the hospital and was released with the hair shaved from about 1/3 of the left side of my head where the doctor had sewn it up. Daddy would have a long and painful recovery of over a year. In the end, we were both fortunate to survive and make full recoveries. Although I’ve been along the same route many times since, I’ve never been sure of the exact spot where the accident happened. Without memory of this site, the road itself serves as a substitute for the connection that still holds me to this place.
Along this road, I first learned about Georgia’s geology, though at the time I didn’t even realize it. Our state has six physiographic regions, and the road from Cordele to Moreland passes through half of them. Cordele lies deep within the Coastal Plain and the landscape doesn’t change much until you reach Butler, in Taylor County. Loamy sand fields of cotton and peanuts, pine trees, hardwood bottoms, sluggish rivers, and tea-stained creeks, all in perpetual succession. They are dotted here and there with little communities, many supported by little more than a store and two churches, Baptist on one side of the road and Methodist on the other.
The land changes in Eastern Taylor county, near Howard, Ga., along what is known as the Fall Line—the boundary between the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont, where the shoreline of the pre-historic Ocean that once covered the Coastal Plain lay. The Fall Line comprises a 20 mile wide strip that runs from Northeast to Southwest from just south of Augusta angling southwesterly to Columbus. The ancient beach on which Howard rests is easily observed in the deep sandy soil that grows little besides the scrubby oaks and pine trees that make up the landscape.
The Fall Line gets its name from the way in which the rivers flowing South from the higher ground of the Piedmont gather speed and “fall” as they pass through the area into the Coastal Plain. Before road systems were developed, the rivers were roads. Because the rivers grew wide and sluggish in the Coastal Plain, they became manageable by boats that carried goods to and from the landings near towns along the Fall Line. The less navigable portions of the rivers, forced earlier settlers to transport goods overland as they traveled North from this point.
As a result, trading posts developed along the Fall Line where goods from the two regions were traded. Augusta, Milledgeville, Macon, and Columbus all sprang up from such trade. The little towns of Howard in Taylor County and Johnson City just across the Talbot County line have never known the growth of these larger cities and each still has a population of under 200 people.
I knew we had reached the Piedmont when the Zion Episcopal Church in Talbotton came in to view. The land began to roll more, dense pines and scrubby oaks gave way to larger hickory and towering white oak. Red clay peeked from between the vegetation and in each patch of thinning grass. Zion Episcopal is an English Tudor Gothic church, made of heart pine in 1848, still standing as a testament to the artistry of that day. The church is covered with vertical pine boards, painted dark brown in color. Narrow lancet windows harness the light and matching white shutters arch to their peaks. A bell tower is attached out front, which once projected the clear tones of the church bell across the countryside. Zion Episcopal rests, just as it was built, in the shade of a small grove of trees. The church in the wildwood.
The interior of Zion Episcopal is said to be a marvel in itself, though I’ve never seen it. Photographs reveal a rich, all- wooden interior, aged to perfection, with heart pine walls and floors, narrow box pews, furnishings of black walnut, white cedar support beams cut from the surrounding forests of Talbot County, a gallery above the sanctuary where slaves were forced to sit, and a still functioning Pilcher hand pump organ installed in 1850, and said to be the oldest of its kind in the U.S.
Though simple in its own way, the elaborately crafted church appears out of place in this little town of rural West Georgia, now far from any centers of commerce. Talbotton, a Fall Line town, founded in 1828, was once quite an active place, known as an educational and commercial center prior to the Civil War. Talbotton was home to the Collingsworth Institute, whose proud graduates included Nathan and Isidor Straus , who would go on to become the owners of Macy’s department store. Today Talbotton is home to just over 850 people. The red brick Queen Ann style courthouse with its clock tower looms over the town square. Like many towns of its size, the neat, square grid of the downtown streets is in a state of decline, with little commerce to keep the town going.
Leaving Talbotton, the road continues Northward through Woodland on the Manchester Highway. The approach to Manchester goes around a bug curve and as you look to the left , the lower Chattahoochee River valley stretches out below to the West toward Pine Mountain. Such a wide, elevated view is rare in this part of Georgia.
Perhaps my favorite part of this journey as a boy was arriving in the village of Warm Springs. Just outside of Warm Springs we would pass the ponds of the Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. World renown as the 2nd home of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Warm Springs looks like something out of an old movie. Vintage storefronts align both sides of Broad Street just South of the old train depot where Roosevelt greeted people from his passenger car on trips to Warm Springs. The tracks that famously carried FDR on his final journey to Washington have now been taken up except for a small section next to the depot which houses a train car-turned diner.
People outside this part of Georgia old enough to have heard of Warm Springs, know it as FDR’s retreat, where he first came at the suggestion of George Peabody in 1924 with the hope that the naturally occurring 88 degree water found in the pools emanating from the local springs would cure his polio.
While he struggled with polio for the rest of his life, FDR found something else in Warm Springs. Though the waters didn’t heal him, they did soothe his body and with that, he began to look outside himself, and in so doing, somehow, this little town touched something in Roosevelt. Some would say, the little village of Warm Springs restored FDR’s spirit.
Roosevelt founded the Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation in 1927, where others suffering with polio could come for treatment in the warm, mineral-laden waters. Over the years, FDR became a friend to the people of this West Georgia community as well. He drove through the countryside in his specially made automobiles using hand controls, stopping to converse with local famers and asking what their needs may be. Unlike many politicians, who simply show up only at election time to garner votes, Roosevelt actually listened. Along the way he came up with a little plan called the New Deal designed to help the people he met along these same Georgia backroads. How our country longs for such leadership now. The only three term President would die in Warm Springs in 1945 at his cottage, known affectionately as “The Little White House”.
One of the store-fronts on the east side of Broad Street in Warm Springs used to be home to an old fashioned General Store, at least through the early 1980s. During the first half of the decade as my grandparents drove me back to Moreland on Sunday afternoons, after visiting with them and my Dad, we made it a point to stop here. The store served hand dipped, hard scoop ice cream in the cone. Without fail, we stopped here every trip, parked out front along the street, went inside and browsed the merchandise. For a nostalgic kid like me, even at that age, it was a treasure trove. Like stepping back in time. An old cash register sat atop the counter. The kind that rang a bell and popped up a little tag with the price on it when the drawer was opened. Both the display cabinets lining the floor and the shelves along the wall were over-filled with everything from tools to denim shirts and shotgun shells, hats, groceries, fishing tackle, and medicines.
Pop would talk with the old man as he scooped our ice cream and later, we’d take a stroll on the sidewalk, licking our cones and talking before piling back into the old yellow LTD and heading on toward Moreland. Driving down the road we listened to the Chuck Wagon Gang’s old gospel hymns or laughed aloud for the one thousandth time as Jerry Clower told his down home tales of Marcel Ledbetter, Uncle Versey, and his boyhood coon hound, Highball. What I wouldn’t give for one more ride like that.
Ten miles up the road from Warm Springs we would pass the old Meriwether County jail, a tall, old red brick structure, still in use in the early 1980’s, on the right just at the Northern edge of downtown Greenville. This ominous-looking structure was built in 1896. It was the site of a pivotal event made famous in Margaret Ann Barnes’s book “Murder in Coweta County”, the true story of the 1948 killing of Wilson Turner, jailed here and released by a corrupt Sheriff so that local kingpin and bootlegger, John Wallace could exact his brutal revenge for the stealing of a cow.
Wallace and his cronies made the mistake of chasing Turner across the county line to Moreland, where Wallace bashed in Turner’s skull with the butt of a shotgun. Coweta County Sheriff Lamar Potts was not about to be intimidated by the big shot from the next county south. He arrested Wallace and investigated the killing and subsequent disposal of Turner’s body. The case became significant in that it turned out to be the first time a white man was convicted on the testimony of African Americans in Georgia.
Barnes’s book was published in 1976, but about the time I moved back to Moreland with my Mother, the book became famous locally. It saw a surge in popularity when a movie based on the story was filmed, starring Johnny Cash as Sheriff Lamar Potts and my childhood hero, Andy Griffith, in the role of John Wallace. A disturbing site for many of us who so loved Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor. I was fascinated by this story based on an actual event that took place practically in my grandparents’ back yard.
Wallace chased Turner up Highway 27, along this same route we traveled. Eighteen miles through rolling green hills and pastures, largely unchanged save for the fact that cotton was still grown in Meriwether and Coweta Counties in 1948.
Just past Luthersville, the road climbs a long hill. It was remarkable to me then that, miles away from my grandparents house, the crown of the enormous red oak tree in their front yard peeked out above the surrounding trees. It was the tallest thing in sight. Pop pointed this out to me on one of our trips and I looked for it every trip thereafter. It was a beacon to me, a sign-post guiding me to the end of this journey.
My grandmother lived in that same house with the red oak out front, the same house where my mother and her brother and sisters were raised, until she passed at the age of 85 in 2013. The same house Momma and I moved back to briefly in the summer of 1982. A short time before Nanny passed the old oak tree in the front yard started to shed limbs and began dying a slow death. I took it as a message from the old tree. Eventually the tree had to be removed. The stump was large enough to park a small car on with all 4 tires set firmly on its base of dead wood. The stark symbol of the trees’ absence foretold a change. Soon, our family would no longer be gathering at that old house that was a sturdy presence in each of our lives. It can be a harsh reality that change is what life is all about.
I don’t travel that old back road route as much as I used to. Partially because, like the rest of the world, my job, kids, and life’s responsibilities often have me searching for the fastest route, which leads often to the interstate. But also, the old route has changed as well and I get a bittersweet feeling, almost melancholy, each time I take that road.
Part of the route has been four-laned near Butler and the little towns of Howard and Junction City are now by-passed. Solar panels cover the land as far as the eye can see in places, which is a good thing I guess. The old General Store with the hard scoop ice cream in Warm Springs is no longer there. The old buildings along Broad Street now house trendy boutique shops and the types of stores designed to entertain tourists in town for the day. With the exception of Warm Springs, almost all the little towns on this route between Cordele and Moreland are in various states of decline, lying as they do away from the major interstate highways, and with little opportunity for the young people who grow up in those places. It’s a common tale these days.
Back roads can take us to surprising places. Places we often don’t know exist. All these little out of the way places, these small towns, the countryside that surrounds them, have their own stories. Stories you won’t come to know zooming down the interstate at 80 mph in search of the fastest way to get from point A to point B.
Sometimes this route takes me to a place I’m not sure existed at all. But, it’s a place that comes alive for me each time I find myself driving these forgotten roads with the memories of at time, a place, and people I cannot forget. A lot has changed over the years in time and space on that road between Cordele and Moreland. But for me, what lies at each end of that road has remained the same. For at each end I find myself at home, just as I always have.
©2020 Lenny Wells
2 thoughts on “Backroads”
I love this. Well said! I’m enjoying your blog.
Thanks Kathy. I hope y’all are all doing well!
LikeLiked by 1 person