Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Putting Georgia on the map: Tallulah Point

"Since 1912, Tallulah Point has been offering the traveling public the only free roadside view of Tallulah Gorge from our covered overlook porch. We also offer an unique gift shop filled with "a little bit of everything and a lot you will remember". An authentic experience!" - Tallulah Point Overlook website

When I noticed that fellow blogger Mod Betty's blog Retro Roadmap had no posts for the neighboring state of Georgia, I felt compelled to write about one of my favorite spots, Tallulah Point, in Northeast George. We used to stop there when I was a kid on the way to see our relatives in Clayton and the place has changed very little since then. Basically a gift shop with an observation deck, the Point overlooking Tallulah Gorge has been pulling folks off the highway since 1912.

It is near this spot that Karl Wallenda crossed the Gorge in 1970 and there is a small display celebrating that momentous event in the Gorge's history. As a kid I remember seeing the cable stretched across the chasm and being amazed that someone would be brave enough to walk across. And I remember there used to be a train locomotive from Disney's The Great Locomotive Chase that was filmed nearby. This place captured my imagination and was a symbol that our long drive from Gainesville, Florida was near its end.

Looking at the business today with adult eyes I see the history in the rusty distressed signs still left around the place. The gift shop is pretty well equipped, although the only thing I was tempted to buy on two trips there this year was box of assorted moonpies. The porch still has a great view of the gorge, and a hillbilly to boot, but it seems much smaller than when I was kid. While the gorge itself is certainly no Grand Canyon it is always a great contrast from the flat Florida topography and a great way to start any trip to the mountains.

The gorge was formed as the Tallulah River eroded rock over millions of years leaving a 1,000 foot gouge in the earth. The first tourist hotel opened in 1840 and a railroad built between the Gorge and Atlanta in 1882 secured the gorge as North Georgia's first tourist attraction. The town of Tallulah Falls sprang up in 1885 and at one point there were seventeen hotels and boarding houses for visitors to the "Niagara of the South." Many of those burned down in 1921. The depression put a further hurtin' on tourism, yet somehow the little business at the edge of the gorge has endured.

Images from The Vanishing Georgia Photographic Collection

When I visit, I can feel the history in the place and my mind races back to childhood. My imagination roams from the days when locomotives brought in fancy tourists from Atlanta, to the feat of daring when Wallenda walked the equivalent of 3 city blocks on a thin wire in 1970. I can think of nothing better to represent the state of Georgia on the Retro Roadmap.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mesmerized by Marsh's

An old girlfriend used to accuse me of having Horror Vacui, a fear of open spaces, because of my tendency to like visually overwhelming decor where ones senses are bombarded with visual imagery. There is an element of truth to this, because I find myself energized and excited when I walk into an antique store packed full of old stuff, and my attic office is becoming more and more packed with knick knacks. On my recent vacation to the Pacific Northwest, I visited a place that delighted that side of me, where surprises were packed around every corner and the unexpected was often hanging right above your head.

Marsh's Free Museum in Long Beach, Washington goes back to 1935 when Wellington Marsh, Sr. opened up a business to sell hamburgers to "curious onlookers" who flocked to the beach to see a ship that ran aground in the fog. Over the years Marsh's has accumulated all sort of bizarre objects and artifacts for "curious onlookers", today known as tourists. In reality Marsh's is about as much a museum as Hillbilly Village is an actual mountain community. In other words it's a bunch of cool stuff arranged to lure you into a tourist gift shop.

Marsh's reminded me of Ripley's Believe It or Not with a shrunken head, a two-headed calf and their resident celebrity, Jake the Alligator Man. I'd become aware of Marsh's because of Vintage Roadside's work with Jake and Marsh's, and I was fortunate to be able to squeeze in a visit to meet Jake. The legend of Jake has taken on mythic proportions as some claim they saw him when he was alive in carnival sideshows or working as a New Orleans valet. On our July trip Jake was still sporting a Christmas hat with shells glued around the bottom, I like to think he put it on so he looked fancy for us.

Jeff from Vintage Roadside advised me to make sure I looked up when I was there, as there are all manner of bizarre critters hanging from the ceiling and perched on high places throughout the space. This was by far the most complete collection of taxidermy treasures I'd seen since the Shell World and the juxtaposition of life-like animals, antique arcade games and contemporary tourist kitsch is surreal. I have to admit I was very inspired by the bizarreness of this place and I liked most of the photos I took. It was provocative, slightly creepy and incredibly inspiring all at the same time. And on the opposite side of the continent from the mountains of South they even had a hillbilly. Yee haw!

Friday, September 10, 2010

In a hillbilly hole

It may be tough for me to post on a frequent basis as I have less than a month to prepare my paper for presentation at the SCA Conference and there is a great deal of work left to be done. One thing that I've noticed lately is that once you tune into something, it seemingly pops up everywhere. In this instance hillbillia seems to be everywhere I look. The History Channel has run their show about hillbillies twice recently. By accident I stumbled upon Robert Mitchum's story of a tragic moonshine runner "Thunder Road" on TCM the other night. For years my dad has quoted the classic line "that don't hurt the workin' of it none" he claims was from that movie. I must have missed it. Just yesterday the paper said that contoversial minister in Gainesville looked like "Jed Clampett with a Hulk Hogan mustache" and that horrible "Beverly Hillbillies" remake is all over HBO right now. Then on the way to lunch, one of those sign holding guys was standing next to Colonial Drive advertising a Halloween costume store. His get-up? Why of course he chose the hillbilly outfit.

Some Florida hillbilly imagery from Hernando, FL
© RoadsideArchitecure.com

From the Archives of Orange County Regional History Center

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Debunking the Hillbilly myth

There is no such thing as a hillbilly. Not in real life anyways. Like any stereotype, there are people who share the characteristics associated with the fictional character. But the gun toting, barefoot, moonshine drinking, corn cob pipe smoking, overall wearing, lazy, backwoods character that is such a big part of the popular character in our pop culture is no more real today than a leprechaun or the Easter bunny. Somehow creating stereotypes of others makes us feel better about ourselves, but it really reflects back to how we feel about ourselves more than it does those we poke fun at.

The final stop overnight on the Great Hillbilly Road Trip was Clayton, Georgia smack dab between South Carolina to the west and North Carolina to the north. As we pulled off of U.S. 441 to go to my aunt's house on Warwoman road, there was one last surprise, a hillbilly restaurant called Shiners. Being Sunday it was closed so I never got to see more than the facade. The stereotype lives on.

I remember my late uncle, the youngest of my dad's six bothers and sisters telling me that he knew where a steel was. My response was "what?", and finally through an extended Abbott and Costello-like exchange I got the notion that he meant a "still" in his thick Georgia accent. And for a while I had a large Mason jar full of "peach brandy" I procured from a Georgia relative. The "brandy", (moonshine), was too strong for me to drink and I got rid of it by leaving it out at a party and letting my guests polish it off and pay the consequences for ingesting homemade rocket fuel. My dad still has a jar in his liquor cabinet. So like the clerk in the Mountaineer said, the moonshine tradition still lives on in the mountains of the South.

Warwoman Road is a twisty stretch of highway that takes you through a National Forest towards South Carolina. My relatives have resided off that road as long as I can remember, so I have lots of memories up and down its curvy asphalt path. My aunt and uncle live on top of a hill overlooking the road, and if you continue on the dirt road past their house you'll end up at the river they filmed the movie Deliverance on. I have fond memories of going out to their garden and picking vegetables that I later ate for dinner - now that is fresh. One of my favorite objects in their house is a painting of a rock house on a flying pan. My uncle's father worked for the Forestry Service and everyday he'd bring a river rock home with him when he returned from work. He eventually had enough to cover the entire house with rocks and that's the house that is now painted on the pan, his collapsible CCC frying pan. The artworks hangs in the dining room overlooking the valley where the house still sits as far as I know.

It was cool reuniting my dad with his two older sisters who are both facing health challenges. One of my aunts showed us pictures of her ten great-grandchildren, and gave us updates on relatives I've never heard of. The real treasure for me was hearing stories from when they grew up. The same aunt with the great grand kids eloped with my uncle at age 15, crossing the bridge into the adjacent state on foot because the person driving them refused to take them into South Carolina (should he be accused of transporting them across state lines.) Fifty-eight years later they are still happily married. My other aunt, the oldest in the family and the one responsible for getting them all in the Tallulah Gorge School, was the first person in our family to attend college, receiving a scholarship for her vocal talent to a nearby small college in South Carolina. My dad told me how the same aunt perhaps saved his life by fishing him out of a neighbor's spring when he was just a toddler. Both aunts returned to mountains after stints in Michigan.

Life in mountains is by no means easy as my aunt labored in a mill sewing clothes and my uncle loaded trucks for years. Today my uncle suffers chronic back pain from lifetime of exertions yet still manages to put up a load of homemade jelly while enduring excruciating pain just to stand.

The next day we went down to the community of Persimmon where my father grew up. Our objective was to visit the grave sites of those in his family who had departed. There were a small number of families who settled the region as evidenced by the many grave markers carved with the same last names. It's a peaceful spot with views of a valley and soft round hills in the distance. There is something very real about visiting a cemetery with your family buried in it. All the differences you may have while you are living melt away and it makes it easy to see beyond superficiality we normally live in. How we talk, what we were, how we acted all disappear when facing the absolute. There are no hillbillies.

We made two stops on the way home – first to see the hillbilly mannequin at Tallulah Gorge at a spot close to where it was crossed by Karl Wallenda in 1970. The second stop was to see the world's largest peanut in Ashburn, Georgia. I've passed it a zillion times and never stopped and my road trip companions were gracious enough to indulge me. And one more stop - Arby's for lunch and a great milkshake.

The road trip was supposed to be about exploring roadside hillbilly iconography and seeking connections to the "real life" hillbillies in my own family. I came away with a better understanding of what it was like for my dad's family to grow up in the Appalachians and a stronger connection to my own family, both those I traveled with and those in Georgia. I think I understood that some of the qualities associated with hillbilly character, namely resourcefulness and a connection to the natural environment may have been passed to my father and then to me. But most of all I re-affirmed that a road trip, putting some distance between yourself and your everyday life, is one of the best ways to get a better understanding about parts of yourself that go with you wherever you travel.