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29 Jan 2015

Meander Through Macon, Georgia

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January 29, 2015 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  New Tubman Museum

By Renée S. Gordon

“I look back on my life, comin’ out of Macon, Georgia – I never thought I’d be a superstar, a living legend. I never heard of no rock and roll in my life.”  –Little Richard

Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Rock n Roll icon Little Richard, is Macon, Georgia’s Goodwill Ambassador for Tourism and I don’t think a better choice is possible. As an African American, the “Architect of Rock and Roll” and native son of Macon he represents both the multicultural history and the sound of the city. Macon has a way of producing unique individuals like Little Richard and this ability carries over into the singular sites and stories the city has to tell.

Your first stop must be the visitor center. A large, walk-thru, mural introduces guests to the chronological history of the city beginning with the original Indian inhabitants. Photographs, artifacts and interpretive signs enhance your tour and assist in your selection of which stories you are most interested in pursuing. A second mural is dedicated to the music makers who hailed from the area. Foremost among them are the Allman Brothers, Otis Redding and Little Richard.

Macon boasts 5,500 National Register historic structures and an African American history trail with more than 20 sites situated in 11 designated historic districts. There are physical sites that represent Macon’s history, and that of the region, dating from more than 16,000-years ago even though the 50-sq.-mile city was not incorporated until 1823.

Ocmulgee National Monument is the site of the largest archeological excavation in the country, was the site of a Civil War battle and skirmish and presents and interprets the area Native American civilization from 10,000-years ago. The site was abandoned around 1100 AD but the importance of this 782-acre park cannot be overstated. In 1690 a trading post was established at Ocmulgee and the location became a settlement for Creek Indians. William Bartram, who visited the region 84-years later, documented his astonishment at the size of the existing mounds.

Excavations were undertaken in 1934 as part of FDR’s WPA and CCC projects. More than 2.5-million artifacts were unearthed including 3,000-year old pottery and an Ice Age Clovis spear point. Tours of the site begin in the visitor center with a 17-minute film, “Mysteries of the Mounds.” Displays inside the museum relate the history of the site through more than 2,000 site-specific artifacts, dioramas and text.

Seven sites are located on the park trail including the only extant spiral mound in North America and the Earthlodge, a reconstruction of the building used for important meetings. The 1,000-year old floor is original, the 4 pillars are aligned in the cardinal directions and twice a year, in October and February, light enters the lodge via a tunnel and illuminates the seat of power. The 56-ft. high Great Temple Mound is situated on the top of the Macon Plateau and provides an outstanding view of the surroundings. Tribal leaders were interred within the Funeral Mound most likely after being readied for burial in a structure on top of the mound. More than 100 burials took place there. Old Ocmulgee Fields was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 as a Traditional Cultural Property.

Fort Benjamin Hawkins preceded the city, it was established by President Jefferson in 1806, and was named after a US Indian Agent. The fort included a number of buildings but the 3-story Southeastern Blockhouse on view today in Fort Hawkins Archaeological Park is a reconstruction.

Hernando de Soto led the first documented European entry into the land that is now Macon in 1540. More than 300 years later in 1821, the Creek Indians ceded the land between the Flint and Ocmulgee Rivers and Macon was platted on the western shore of the Ocmulgee. The town boomed instantly based largely on the cotton industry. The railroad came to the state in the 1830s and Macon became an important rail connection during the Civil War. It also functioned as a supply and manufacturing center, site of a three acre prison camp, hospital center and seat of the state government after Sherman took Milledgeville in 1864.

The Greek Revival Cowels-Bond House was constructed in 1836 and later purchased by Joseph Bond, one of the South’s richest plantation owners and owner of 1300 slaves, the largest slaveholding in the state. He was shot and killed in 1859 by an overseer he had fired for abusing a slave. The house was visited by Jefferson Davis in 1887 and was the Union headquarters of General Wilson during Macon’s occupation in 1865. The house, now the Woodruff House, is owned by Mercer University and is not open for tours. It is a designated National Register site and retains its panoramic view of the city.

The 1853 Greek Revival Cannonball House is the only city residence hit by a cannonball during the Civil War. The site consists of the six room townhouse and a two story kitchen and slave quarters. Evidence of the cannonball that struck the house can still be seen on the exterior and a replica of the shot is on display in the foyer. The house also showcases a Confederate Museum. Guided tours are offered and a highlight of the tour is the dining room where chairs feature the state seals of the seceding states arranged in their order of secession.

The owners, the Holts, decided to leave Macon for their plantation for safety. They fled directly into Sherman’s path. Their house was spared but everything else was lost. Asa Holt was hung in the swamps three separate times in an effort to make him reveal where his gold was hidden. At the age of 74 he survived all of the attempts.

The 1859 Hay House, the “Palace of the South,” has been featured on A&E’s “America’s Castles” and CSPAN’s Cities Tours. The 18,000-sq. ft. mansion has seven levels, 24 rooms and a cupola. This Italian Neo-Renaissance Revival villa was constructed while the owner, William Butler Johnston, was on a 42-month honeymoon. Architecturally, it is stunning, designed to optimize natural ventilation and with the shelves in the larder suspended from the ceiling to protect the food.  The Art Gallery has 31-ft. tall clear windows and there are 19 marble fireplaces with the only pink one being in the Green Parlor. There were three bathrooms with hot and cold running water as well as central heating. The villa cost $100,000 to build and $100,000 to furnish. This house must be seen to be believed.

Cotton Avenue cuts through the heart of the historic downtown. The street was originally the Lower Creek Trading Path. It was widened to 6-ft. and was a thoroughfare to take cotton to warehouses that lined the street and then on to the river. A downtown walking tour brochure is available that includes a map and historic information.

travel_02-01-15aSM01PHOTO:  Plantation field markers

The Tubman African American Museum for Spiritual and Cultural Awareness was founded in 1981 by Father Richard Keil and opened its doors in 1985. In its current location it is the largest museum in the Southeast dedicated solely to African American culture and heritage. A self-guided tour showcases Wilfred Stroud’s outstanding nine panel, 63-ft., mural depicting the scope and breadth of the African American journey, 14 thematic galleries and Little Richard’s piano. Also on display inside the Tubman Museum is the uniform and Medal of Honor of Sergeant Rodney Maxwell Davis, Jr. Twenty-five-year-old Davis sacrificed himself by jumping atop a live grenade on his second tour in Vietnam. A memorial to Davis is situated near City Hall.

The most unique items showcased in the museum are original field markers. These markers were used to indicate where the slaves were to plant. Carvings helped differentiate between markers because the slaves were unable to read. In my travels these are the only ones I have ever seen.

A film is shown recounting the daring and unique escape of William and Ellen Craft from slavery in Macon to freedom in Philadelphia in 1848. Ellen posed as a white planter and William as her enslaved valet.  They later wrote a book, “Running A Thousand Miles For Freedom.” A historic plaque is located at the site of Ellen’s enslavement.

This year a new, 49,000-sq, ft. facility will become a more expansive Tubman Museum. It will feature the latest technology, classroom space and an expansion of its already spectacular gift shop.

The country’s largest state sports museum is the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Your tour of the 43,000-sq. ft. GSHF begins with a film, Dare to Be Great, shown in a stadium setting. Galleries are devoted to Georgia players, every sport and every aspect of sports from training to the history of sports medicine. Thousands of artifacts are on display and numerous immersive activities are available including test-driving a racecar and broadcasting live on the radio. The 350 member Hall of Fame Corridor is located on the first floor.

Mercer University’s Robert McDuffie Center for Strings will open on February 21, 2015 in the historic Bell Mansion. Robert McDuffie, a violin virtuoso, will head the new world-class center, the “Julliard of the South.” The official opening will feature a music and spoken word performance by McDuffie and actress/activist Anna Deavere Smith. The center is another link in the chain of Macon’s musical heritage that boasts such names as Little Richard, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers.

From 1970 until 1973, 2321 Vineville Avenue was the place where the Allman Brothers Band, their crew and their families lived. Known as the Big House, it is now the Allman Brothers Band Museum dedicated to maintaining and promoting their legacy and influence as the forefathers of Southern Rock.  The museum also has a stated mission of giving back to the community with scheduled events such as concerts in the gazebo and free entertainment on Sundays.

The Allman Brothers Band was an integrated band in the South during a less than ideal time period and they were the first band to have two guitar players and two drummers on stage. Self-guided tours begin on the ground floor and proceed through the rooms turned galleries in the house.  On display are documents, posters, clothing, memorabilia, photographs and original instruments. One of only 3 remaining guitars that Duane played is on view.

On May 22, 1986, the Pleasant Hill Historic District became one of the first African American districts to be added to the National Register of Historic Places. Little Richard’s 850-sq. ft., two bedroom, childhood home was constructed there in 1920. Pleasant Hill is also the setting for the Otis Redding Memorial Library.

Macon born Otis Redding perished tragically in a plane crash in 1967. The city has named a bridge over the Ocmulgee River in his honor and has erected a statue of him in Gateway Park complete with music. The life-sized bronze sculpture by Bradley Cooley was placed overlooking the river in 2003.

The Rookery Restaurant & Bar has been serving the best burgers in the region since 1976. This is a favorite of visiting musicians and locals and the food is fantastic. The Rookery is also renowned for Eddie Hinton’s Extremely Dangerous Cocktail and the musical performances by local and regional entertainers.

The Wingate by Windham is ideally located for visitors who plan to do it all. Located near the interstate it features all the standard amenities plus breakfast, concierge service, pool, hot tub, free WIFI and free parking.

Macon was named AARP’s first “Age-Friendly” community based on its accessibility, livability, walkability, affordability and sustainability. This, added to the number of historic sites, the musical heritage and opportunities for active tourism, makes this a great destination for all ages. There is a lot to see and do in Macon and it even provides its own soundtrack.

I wish you smooth travels!

Travel Tips:

Baltimore’s Hampton Inn & Suites Baltimore Inner Harbor has created a special package, the ‘Play at Power Plant Live!’ Party Package. It is available from now until March 31st, perfect for a February rendezvous, and includes a studio suite, discount coupons, fitness center, heated pool, hot breakfast, a bottle of champagne and easy access to Power Plant Live, a one-block district chock full of entertainment and dining venues. The 116-room hotel is situated inside a historic building and is ideally located for visiting local sites and attractions. Advance reservations are necessary and packages begin at $109.00. 410-539-7888.

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