Down South — hospitality and history

Main Street in Plains, Ga., is very short. It is the hometown of former President Jimmy Carter. (Roxanne Rowley/Courtesy photo)

Special to the News Advocate

Almost every winter we head down South for about three weeks or so in our trusty vehicle for a road trip to seek a little reprieve from winter. Along with gracious southern hospitality we have also discovered some interesting history on our travels.

We like to visit presidential hometowns when we are close to one. So we went to Plains, Ga., hometown of former President Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States.

Pictured is a cemetery at Andersonville, one of the largest Confederate military prisons created during the Civil War. (Roxanne Rowley/Courtesy photo)

The tiny town has fewer than 700 people and a really, really short Main Street. We visited the little hardware store, which also had an ice cream counter that featured peanut butter ice cream. The friendly proprietor gave us a sample and happily told us about the Carter family as we perused the wares in his store. We enjoyed our visit there and purchased an ice cream cone before we left — peanut butter of course. To reach Plains we passed through Americus, Ga. The country roads featured neat farms, cotton fields and pecan orchards. It was a very lovely drive.

There is a heartrending National Historic Site near Americus known as Andersonville (Fort Sumter), one of the largest Confederate military prisons created during the Civil War. Both sides believed the war would only last a few months, so there were no real provisions for prisoners of war. When shelters were built they were done hastily and of poor quality.

Over the 14 months of its existence it housed over 45,000 prisoners. More than 13,000 of them died due to the horrific conditions — disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding (prisoners had about

An aligator suns itself at Wakulla Springs, Fla. (Roxanne Rowley/Courtesy photo)

an arms length of personal space), exposure.

What a sad, haunting place. It was said that when the winds were right the stench from Andersonville could be smelled by the residents in Americus, about 10 miles away. There is a cemetery on the grounds with thousands of graves — a sobering sight.

Sopchoppy, Fla., is a little village famous for the Sopchoppy Opry. The Opry is modeled after the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, Tenn., and showcases regional talent with performances featuring country, bluegrass and gospel music. It began in 2000 as a way to raise funds to restore the High School. It is still going strong and the last Saturday of the month it is a very entertaining place to be.

One of our favorite places to visit is St. George Island in Florida’s Panhandle.

Many of the homes there are built on stilts because of flooding from hurricanes. And hurricanes have rearranged the sand dunes several times at the state park on the island.

The gardens and home of Bellingrath Gardens, near Theodore, Ala., belonged to Walter and Bessie Bellingrath. (Roxanne Rowley/Courtesy photo)

We have seen many dolphins and pelicans playing in the Gulf of Mexico. Watching dolphins frolic is not only fun it is always a thrill to see them jump out of the water. Walking on the beaches and collecting seashells is a favorite pastime, as well. Our nieces and nephews are well supplied with seashells. St. George also features a cool restored lighthouse. It has been reconstructed a few times due to damage from hurricanes thanks to volunteers who are committed to preserving its history.

There is an interesting place where we have stopped for walks on our way to St. George called Tate’s Hell State Forest.

The curious name comes from an unusual legend. The story goes a farmer by the name of Cebe Tate, carrying a shotgun and accompanied by his hunting dogs, went deep into the swamp to search for the panther that was killing his livestock. It is said that Tate got lost for seven days and nights. He was bitten by a snake, plagued by mosquito bites and drank from putrid waters to quench his thirst. He emerged from the forest long enough to say the words, “I am Cebe Tate and I just came from Hell,” before he dropped dead. This happened in 1875 and the place has been known as Tate’s Hell ever since.

Wakulla Springs is another state park in Florida. It is a 6,000 acre wildlife sanctuary. We took the river tour and saw lots of birds and turtles. However, I was most fascinated by the alligators. They look so prehistoric. The day was sunny so there were lots of gators warming themselves on the banks of the river. They looked like they were asleep but when we went past in the boat they would half open their eyes. They say a human can outrun an alligator on land if you run a zigzag pattern, but I would not want to try it.

There are many lovely gardens down South and one of our favorite ones is Bellingrath Gardens near Theodore, Ala. The gardens and home belonged to Walter and Bessie Bellingrath.

He was one of the first distributors for Coca-Cola in the south which helped him make his fortune. He purchased the area where the gardens are now as a fishing retreat. Bessie was an excellent gardener and she was responsible for turning the 65 acres into spectacularly beautiful gardens, where there is always something in bloom.

Around 1956 the gardens and home were open to the public. Water features abound and there are countless paths with benches to rest and admire the gardens and flowering trees.

Meeting new people, trying different foods, learning the history of a region are all part of the process. There is a lot to see and learn, that is for sure. Travel is fun and enlightening, no matter where you go. This anonymous quote sums it up well, “Life is short and the world is wide.”


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