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'Who knew?’ discoveries abundant in Statesboro: Ancient oceans, evolving whales, farm cuisine

06/03/2012 – Original Article

Rugged and interesting, these people and their plants.

Hearing that to be so while strolling native landscapes with the director of a southern botanical garden piqued my interest in exploring a Georgia town I didn’t know–Statesboro.

Glad I did. Now I know what to recommend. For touring, for eating. And for musing.

“These gardens are the place where I came to understand how creative and industrious people living here have always been,” says Carolyn Altman, director of the gardens connected to Georgia Southern University.

That was a journey for her, hailing from Oregon and arriving in South Georgia in 2004.

“We know this as the Southeast Coastal Plain,” she easily tells garden visitors strolling from a grassy Grand Allee to carefully shaped butterfly and hummingbird borders.

“All this was under an ancient ocean so the soil’s very sandy and that makes for rugged farmers.”

Georgia Model Farm of the Year in 1929 she’s quick to point out—Dan and Catharine Bland whose land and home comprise today’s Botanical Garden.

“They were featured on the cover of “Georgia Magazine,” hungry learners, Altman says of them,” and self-taught naturalists.

“Mr. Dan and Miss Catharine rotated crops and lived lightly on the land; we reduce, reuse and re-cyle here every day,” Altman says, “and so did they.”

By choice, the Blends lived in the tenant farmer house, built of heart pine, filled with what she calls “strange and wonderful artifacts” and open for visitors.

“Dan Bland was a whimsical guy with a great spirit,” Altman says and his whirligigs, the Weather Vane Museum with treasures from the 1920s and ‘30s and the one-room schoolhouse along Botanical Garden pathways round out that story.

So does wildlife, which Altman finds abundant, including “a big bird collection throughout the garden.”

To underscore the point that habitat can encourage wildlife, she’s sometimes seen playing what she calls “extinction tag” with school groups.

Allow several hours when you go to experience the long leaf pine loop and the native azalea garden, the woodland native plant collection, endangered plant area and the camellia gardens.

Humans adapting to habitat: that triggers thoughtful conversation with Altman among the gardens and woodland trails.

“People loved their own plants and counted on them to make a place feel like a home; that’s why we embrace heritage plants in the Botanical Garden.

“People’s hearts are in them,” Altman knows with assurance. Maybe that’s part of the reason she shares her own heart so readily in the sandy-soil, once-an-ocean gardens.

Ancient ocean lifestyles trigger visiting options elsewhere in the ‘boro, as insiders say, 78 million years worth.

Saw my first, and maybe only ever, Mosasaur in the Georgia Southern Museum. Dinosaur bones and casts of remarkable skeletons available to see in numerous fine museums elsewhere.

Land-dwellers those. This one lived at sea.  “T Rex of the oceans, the most complete anywhere,” suggests Museum Director Dr. Brent Tharpe.

“The snake is its closest relative today, dating to the Cretaceous Period. Equally interesting is the Vogtle Whale, a mere 48 million years old notes Tharpe, yet the oldest whale skeleton from North America.

Why found here? Deep digging in 1983 to construct nearby Plant Vogtle, a two-unit nuclear power facility that came on line in 1987 and 1989.

“The whale skeleton is key to understanding ancient oceans,” says Tharpe. “This is a transitional fossil, land life to sea with a leg and ball and socket, but not fused to the spine, showing a crucial stage in whale evolution.”

Smaller shapes of history trigger exhibitions at the Museum too, representing “how human populations adapted specifically to these soils and environment.

“What we learn here differs from north Georgia,” Tharpe says.

Sewing baskets from longleaf pine needles and native wiry grass were woven in the African slave cultural style, and cotton baskets shaped from white oak in European traditions.

Place them near the Mosasaur to contrast the ages, and to hear the stories told here about interchange and adaptation in South Georgia.

Nearby digging turned up surprises for the Museum to tell about the Civil War too, especially prisoners of war.

Camp Lawton lasted only six weeks, autumn 1864, hastily constructed to alleviate overcrowding at Andersonville.  Who knew?

That’s what Dr. Sue M. Moore who heads the archeology team says, acknowledging the dearth of awareness.

“We didn’t expect to find much,” she says, along with graduate archeology student J. Kevin Chapman.

Instead, they discovered an abundance of artifacts to back up the claim of its builder, Brig. Gen. John H. Winder that Camp Lawton was the largest prison in the world.

Perhaps this is the reason why: today the land of the camp is Magnolia Springs State Park, protected land, not excavated for buildings.

Plus, the who knew? No looters because little or no information about Camp Lawton existed.

An artist should get at least some of the discovery credit. Robert Knox Sneden is his name, and “Eye of the Storm” his diary.

Captured in Richmond, Va. while serving with the Union Army of the Potomac, he ended up at Andersonville and then Camp Lawton for 13 months.

Sneden was an architect, and he sketched what he saw, sewing his work in the lining of his coat.

Fluent in Latin, he also fielded requests from camp doctors to transcribe prescriptions. That might have given him flexibility.

A prisoner exchange put him back in New York where Sneden turned his sketches into watercolors, discovered in 1994 and published by the Virginia Historical Society.

“Images from the Storm” is the collection, and Museum officials say it’s

the largest known collection of Civil War art.

The Camp Lawton gallery at the Georgia Southern Museum is modest, and growing.

It’s also personal, and visitors can make it more so. Meet some descendents. Jesse Carter was a camp guard and his great grandson Doug Carter shared his rifle, and comes to visit.

Nina Raeth shows up too; she gave the Museum her grandfather’s portrait. Sebastian Glamser was a prisoner who survived interment.

For me, that’s fine living history to encounter . . . and fodder for musing. After all, by the time I got to Camp Lawton, I’d encountered more than I imagined for my Statesboro exploration.

Sort of like the archeologists — my expectations shortchanged realities. Half a day at the Center for Wildlife Education provided the same high level of quality and pleasure.

Eighteen acres of natural habitats, showing, as Director Steven Hein says, “What it takes for a species to survive.”

For visitors like me, that translates to wetlands, old-growth forests, waterfowl pond with dabbling ducks and blue-beaked ruddy ducks easily accessed along a wide smooth boardwalk. Animals easy to see and signage providing bits of facts, not too much to be a reading burden.

The Center for Wildlife Education is in the middle of the university campus, but so wooded that I forgot.

With evolving optimism after three outstanding experiences thanks to the Botanical Garden, Museum and Wildlife Center, I headed out for food.

Not the fast kind 20,000 university students might support. I prefer discovering family farms, farm-to-table restaurants, foodies with a passion selling their cooking.

Guess where? The Statesboro Holiday Inn. Really. A restaurant called Emma’s where Chef Jason Scarborough gets it.

Shaved spring vegetables from B and G Farms, rainbow carrots with caraway, thyme and lime from Walker Spring Farms.

Stone ground yellow grits from Freeman’s Mill, with creamed farmer’s cheese from nearby Flat Creek Lodge, and roasted pork from Painted Pig Farms.

Braswell jellies and syrups; onions from nearby Vidalia.

Families work behind these menu choices, feeding of the animals and raising the plants. Local people, with stories and passion. Free-ranging, chemical-free kind of farm families fuel this chef.

Oh yes, also cast-iron seared herbed beef from Hunter Cattle. That better be another story because this farm family lets you spend the night too.

Tell you more after I stay in their loft above the former tobacco barn. Farm daughter Kristan Fretwell, mother of three, expecting a fourth son soon, promises, “We’ll show you why we do what we do.”

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