Georgia history in three small towns


The Antebellum Inn, a charming bed and breakfast in Milledgeville, Georgia, has a lovely curved staircase leading down to a dining room where visitors can enjoy a delicious breakfast, or appetizers and wine before dinner.

Pamela O’Mear photosa/Review The Old Governor’s Mansion is located in Milledgeville, which was the fourth capital of Georgia until the end of the Civil War, after which the capital moved to Atlanta. The mansion is a National Historic Landmark and was occupied by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman during the war.

The Uncle Remus Museum in Eatonton was made by combining two former slave cabins. The museum is dedicated to the work of writer Joel Chandler Harris, who created the Uncle Remus character to tell the stories of Civil War-era slaves in his books.

Musicians perform in this painting by Steffen Thomas, located in a museum just outside of Madison dedicated entirely to him by his wife after his death. Thomas was a prolific artist born in Germany. He worked in various media but favored sculpture.

This past November I found myself traveling to three towns along the Antebellum Trail in Georgia — Milledgeville, Madison and Eatonton. 

These historic towns — a stark contrast to my suburban neighborhood back home in Minnesota — were filled with white-columned mansions, stately old green trees and the history of slavery and the Civil War. 

The Antebellum Trail consists of seven communties that survived Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea through Georgia during the Civil War. 

Keeping this history in mind, the trip started with a trolley tour of Milledgeville, which was the fourth capital of Georgia from 1804 to 1868. The capital was moved to Atlanta after the Civil War. 

The tour included a stop at the Old Governor’s Mansion, which had been occupied by Sherman during his military campaign from Atlanta to Savannah in 1864. While many structures were torched, some buildings were left untouched due to friendships and connections with then-Georgia Sen. Joshua Hill, a Union sympathizer.

Our guide at the Old Governor’s Mansion pointed out several historic features, like a painted floorcloth in the home that was used to keep it cleaner and warmer by covering cracks in the floor boards to protect from drafts seeping through. 

She also pointed out a courting couch, which was divided in the middle to prevent an unmarried couple from sitting too close to each other. Fire screens placed in front of fireplaces in the home would keep women’s make-up, which had lead and wax in it, from melting, according to our guide. 

 

A literary town

Our next stop was Eatonton, which proved to be quite a literary town with both the Uncle Remus Museum and the Georgia Writers Museum. 

The Uncle Remus Museum is dedicated to the life and work of writer and journalist Joel Chandler Harris. Harris is best known for the fictional Uncle Remus, a character in many of Harris’ books that recount oral folklore of southern African Americans. Harris was also an editor at the Atlanta Constitution newspaper. 

The museum was made by combining two old slave cabins nestled in the woods. We looked at dioramas and pictures and then sat down to hear some of the Uncle Remus stories as told by Miss Georgia Smith, who said her mother told her Uncle Remus stories when she was a child. 

The Georgia Writers Museum, along with Harris, also featured Flannery O’Connor and Alice Walker. 

O’Connor, best known for her short stories like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and winner of the National Book Award, died in 1964 at the young age of 39 due to complications from lupus. Walker, best known for her book “The Color Purple,” for which she won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, was born to sharecropper parents. 

After the museums, we stopped at the Dot 2 Dot Inn, built in 1844. It was the first white-columned mansion in Eatonton. 

The owner, Karen Henry-Garrett, serves luncheons to various civic groups in the antebellum dining room, which has high ceilings and wide hallways. For us, she prepared a special lunch of sweet potato and chickpea soup, chicken with couscous and roasted vegetables, and two desserts — dark chocolate roulade and the best apple pie I’ve ever had.

 

Historic homes and art

After Eatonton, we headed to Madison, which has so many well-preserved antebellum homes in its historic district that it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of the largest historic districts in the state, and the city of roughly 4,000 is one Budget Travel’s “world’s 16 most pictureesque villages.”

To see the extravagant lifestyle of an old cotton plantation up close, we visited Heritage Hall, built in 1811 and often called Madison’s “Antebellum Dame.” It is one of three homes-turned-museums open daily in Madison. 

Docents lead tours and told stories about those who once lived there. We stayed overnight at the James Madison Inn and walked around Madison to explore antique shops and see more antebellum homes.

With an eye towards art, we visited the Steffen Thomas Museum of Art just outside of Madison, which is devoted entirely to Thomas. A young sculptor in Germany before moving to the U.S., he was a prolific artist, much honored, and worked in various media — watercolor, sculpture, encaustic, welded copper, mosaic and drawing.

His wife, who was from Atlanta, created the museum after his death to memorialize him. Their daughter, Lisa Thomas Conner, gave us a tour of his sculptures.

We visited Farmview Market in Madison to see locally sourced food including produce, meat and a grist mill for making fresh grits — a popular southern dish. We browsed around, sampling apples, pimento cheese — so good I bought a container to take home — and more before heading into the market’s dining room for brunch.

Visiting these towns was a fun change of pace, especially to escape the overwhelming grey November days in Minnesota. A simple flight to Atlanta and a little bit of driving will bring you to many small towns where you can immerse yourself in some history, culture and delicious southern food.

 

–Pamela O’Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or 651-748-7818.

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