By Renée S. Gordon
“Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation”
– GA State Motto
Most people could contribute a paragraph to any story titled “Everything I Know About Georgia I Learned from Gone With the Wind.” For many their ideas about the South in general, and Georgia specifically, begin and end with the burning of Atlanta and the devastation that followed but there is so much more to Georgia that it boggles the mind. www.exploregeorgia.com
It is the largest state east of The Mississippi River and ranks 24th in overall state size. Georgia has several topographical regions, the Mountains, the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont foothills and offshore islands that are part of the Sea Island Chain and more than most states the history of the state is tied to its geography.
The early native inhabitants of Georgia were part of the Moundbuilder culture as evidenced by archeological remains. In 1540 when De Soto entered the territory the Creek and the Cherokee inhabited it. Prior ownership and an earlier Spanish claim failed to prevent Charles II of England from granting the land to eight proprietors in 1663. In June of 1732 James Oglethorpe was granted a charter from George II and in turn named the settlement in his honor.
The Spanish and English continued to dispute the land claim and eventually the Spanish encouraged the settlement of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, Fort Mose. Escaping slaves ran south at this time, the first Underground Railroad, to freedom in the Spanish colony. In 1738 they were given land north of St. Augustine and in return they were to act as the colony’s first defenders and a buffer to the English. Mose is considered the first free black settlement in this country. The Spanish were ultimately defeated in 1742 and the site is now part of Florida. www.fortmose.org
Georgia is divided into nine, thematic, tourism regions and the sites and attractions included in this article are in two of them, Magnolia Midlands and Historic Highlands. They spotlight the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s emphasis on their “Georgia Grown” program, using local products and produce to create exceptional cuisine and promote the unique heritage of the regions. We’ll begin in Magnolia Midlands in Statesboro.
Two-hundred-acres of land was gifted by George Siebald to the county in 1801 for the creation of Statesboro. Some believe that the name was in recognition of states’ rights. A number of structures in the downtown area are today listed on the National Register of Historic Places and walking tours of the historic district should include the 1911 Averitt Center for the Arts, the 1905 City Hall and the 1917 Donehoo-Brannen House.
Statesboro has a large number of specialty shops, unique restaurants and first-rate accommodations for a small town. This is primarily due to the fact that the city is on the 11,000-mile Route 301 that runs from Delaware to Florida and was once the last major stop before Florida. www.visitstatesboroga.com
Statesboro’s Main Street Farmers Market is a model for markets in the state. Open on Saturdays from 9 AM to 12:30 PM, it is a mecca for lovers of locally grown produce, baked goods and meats. You can even order items you love online at www.statesboromarket2go.
The local farmers are wonderful to talk to and they have taken on the dual mission of producing the best and healthiest food they can and educating the public as to how the food is produced and the benefits.
Hunter Cattle Company focuses on all natural beef, pork and poultry. They welcome visitors for fun and educational farm activities and even authentic farm stays in the Barn Lofts. www.huntercattle.com
Freeman’s Mill is a fifth generation, full-service grits, flour and saw mill operation and their grits are exceptional. Visitors are invited to come and watch the process on their historic granite mills. Reservations are required. wwwfreemansmill.com
First District Agricultural & Mechanical School was founded in 1906 and after several name changes it became Georgia Southern College in 1959 and in 1990 was granted university status. This much lauded university is the third largest in the state and supports many community-oriented institutions and activities.
A high point of any visit to Statesboro is catching a glimpse of Freedom, GSU’s mascot. Freedom, a Bald Eagle who was found injured in Florida, was treated but because of an injury to his beak he could not be returned to the wild. GSU obtained Freedom in 2004 and he serves as their Wildlife Ambassador and flies over the Allen Paulson Stadium at the start of each football game. www.georgiasoutherneagles.com
The 17-acre Wildlife Center and the Lamar Q. Ball, Jr. Raptor Center features five acres of habitats, a 12-acre Wetland Preserve, a no-barrier nature trail and scheduled programs and exhibitions. The display animals are all native to the state. www.georgiasouthern.edu/wildlife
Georgia Southern University Museum interprets regional history from the Mesozoic Era onward and a visit here is mandatory for an overall understanding of the area. The museum presents both permanent and traveling exhibitions.
The Hall of Natural History showcases the 78-million year old most complete Mosasaur, closely related to the snake, skeleton in the world as well as that of the Vogtle Whale. This is the oldest fossil that shows a whale in transition, it possessed characteristics of whales, dolphins and land mammals. An additional exhibit in this area features some of the earliest pottery in North America.
Camp Lawton was constructed to be the South’s largest prison POW camp but it functioned for only six weeks in 1864 and was evacuated as Sherman approached on his march to the sea. It was a stockade built on 42-acres with a 30-ft. space between the deadline and the stockade’s 15-ft. high wall. There were 10,299 prisoners and 900 guards. The museum’s exhibit tells the story through artifacts, photographs and maps. www.georgiasouthern.edu/museum
A visit to the 11.5-acre Georgia Southern Botanical Garden is both a trip back in time on a 1900’s homestead and a walk through a wide range of native plants and long leaf pine ecosystem from the southeastern high coastal plain. The complex consists of walking trails, the Heritage Pavilion, original farmhouse, barn and one-room school. www.georgiasouthern.edu/gardens
African American Blind Willie McTell, born in 1901, was without sight from birth. His mother moved to Statesboro when Willie was very young. He quickly learned to play several instruments, most notably the 12-string guitar, and performed on the streets of the city. After the death of his mother in 1917 he attended a school for the blind. He began his recording career in 1927 and went on to become a renowned blues singer and one of ten artists credited with starting the Blues Movement. He is the writer of “Statesboro Blues.” Statesboro’s one mile Blind Willie McTell Trail begins downtown and ends at Fair Road Memorial Park. The trail is paved and outfitted with custom-designed art deco benches.
Forty miles from Statesboro is the City of Vidalia best recognized for its production of some of the planet’s best onions. Enclosed by a trio of rivers, the Altamaha, Oconee and Ohoopee and gifted with sandy soil and mild climate that can grow a mild sweet onion produced nowhere else on earth. Vidalia ® onions, by law, are exclusively grown in this region, are available only April through mid-November and are a trademarked product. The taste is attributed to their higher water and sugar content. www.vidaliaonion.org
The 13,000-sq. ft. Vidalia Onion Museum is definitely the place to get your fill of onion info, onion lore and meet two of Vidalia’s most intriguing people. Yumion and the Onion High Sheriff may also be on the premises if he is not out enforcing the law to keep onions safe for democracy. It should be noted that if you assist in the enforcement of the law you become an Onion Posse deputy with a certificate and a pin.
The tour begins with the history of the area on video and a diorama regarding Mose Coleman’s discovery in 1931 that his onions were sweet and could command a higher price. The story of farming pioneer African American Ed Tensley is also recounted here. Other galleries display implements, memorabilia and artifacts and a children’s area allows kids to participate in interactive activities related to the industry. www.vidaliaonion.org/about_us/vidalia_onion_museum
In the vicinity there are several businesses that give a real insider’s look at the area’s culture. M&T Farms is a family operation in Lyons that walks visitors through onion processing from field to retail stores. www.vidaliaarea.com
Vidalia Valley has created a line of gourmet and country-style products, jams, sauces, salsas, etc., from their homegrown Vidalia® Onions. Guests can take a “breathtaking” tour of the plant and discover how these products are processed. The website offers tips and recipes for use at home. www.vidaliavalley.com
Elements Bistro is an excellent place to conclude this portion of our tour. Chef John Mark has made his mark creating gourmet selections using locally grown, farm fresh foods and his Vidalia Onion Strudel is on the list of “musts” when in the area. www.elementsbistro.com
I wish you smooth travels!