By Renée S. Gordon
On January 18, 1861 Georgia, the last of the 13 original colonies, became the 5th of 11 states to secede from the Union and, on July 15, 1870, the final Confederate state to return. During the intervening years, the state was a staging ground for a number of important Civil War battles and the setting for General Sherman’s March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah, from November 15th to December 21, 1864. In Savannah on January 16, 1865, Sherman, with the permission of President Lincoln, issued Special Field Order 15, granting freedmen confiscated land. The order, later rescinded by President Johnson, is commonly referred to as awarding “40-acres and a mule.” Though Lee surrendered in April of 1865 it was the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis near Irwinsville, Georgia on May 10, 1865 that allowed the North to finally exhale.
During Georgia’s occupation by federal soldiers the capital was moved, for the fifth time, to Atlanta. The city was chosen because of its accessibility by rail. The move facilitated the growth of Atlanta and towns and communities in the region. Atlanta and the surrounding area has maintained its accessibility with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, ranked the busiest airport in the world for the 12th year, moving more than 85 million passengers annually.
Georgia has four of the nation’s twenty-two Civil War National Parks and hundreds of antebellum structures but it also has a trove of small towns and cities with unique histories and singular sites that should not be overlooked. There is something to catch your eye, capture your fancy or satisfy your inner gourmand around every corner. Follow me on this jaunt and I promise you too will have Georgia on your mind.
You’ll think you’ve already been to Covington, in Newton County, as you drive around. The area has been used as a film and television location since the 50s and the list of productions is long and familiar. Seven years of filming “In the Heat of the Night” has made the courthouse one of the most recognized in the country with ten additional film sites high on the list. The initial episodes of “The Dukes of Hazzard” were filmed in the county and fans continue to gather yearly to pay homage to the show. Other significant locations include settings for “I’ll Fly Away”, “Remember the Titans,” “Madea’s Family Reunion,” “My Cousin Vinny” and parts of “The Fighting Temptations.”
Your first stop should be the Visitors Center where you can not only pick up location driving tour maps but you can also have your star picture taken. www.newtonchamber.com
The land that is now Coweta County was once belonged to the Creek Nation. In 1825 the leader of the Coweta Tribe, William McIntosh, Jr., of mixed Scottish and Creek blood, ceded the land to the US government in the Treaty of Indian Springs. The county is comprised of eight towns, each of which is charming and three boast particularly interesting attractions. www.explorecoweta.com
General Daniel Newnan, a Georgia Secretary of State, gave his name to the county seat. Established in 1828, Newnan became a hospital town for both the Union and the Confederates during the Civil War. It has six nationally registered historic districts that date from the ante-bellum period through the 19th-century. Self-guided and guided tours introduce you to outstanding examples of Victorian painted ladies, gingerbread trim, brick sidewalks, and ornate streetlamps. Of special interest are the downtown locations used in “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”
The goal of the African American Alliance is to preserve Coweta County’s African American cultural, historical, and architectural heritage. It is headquartered in and operates the Coweta County Heritage Museum and Research Center housed in the Caswell House, a shotgun house moved to its current location at 92 Farmer Street. The facility’s primary mission is to assist individuals in researching their family history.
Located adjacent to the museum is the Farmer Street Cemetery, allegedly the largest slave cemetery in the South. Scheduled for development in 1999 it was saved by the protests of a local citizen. The mayor authorized an archeological survey and a few months later a 4.4-acre cemetery containing 249 graves had been identified. Poignantly, the only surviving marker dates from 1869 and is that of three-month old Charlie Burch. www.africanamericanalliance.net
The original log Coweta County Courthouse was replaced in 1829. More than 10,000 soldiers were treated there during the Civil War and it was peppered with still visible bullets on July 30, 1864. The current, Neo-Greek courthouse replaced it in 1904 at a cost of $58,000. The structure stands more than 100-ft and is topped with a copper dome with a clock on each of its four sides. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. www.ci.newnan.ga.us
The town of Senoia was named in honor of Chief McIntosh’s mother and developed into a railroad town. It incorporated in 1866 and five families owned all of the commercial property. Through the years these families refused to sell and Senoia became a sleeping princess and more than 20 films were shot there because of its arrested perfection.
In 2006, one family decided to sell and the family-owned, 120-acre, Riverwood Studio purchased 22 lots. Basically the entire town is now a film set where all of the structures blend seamlessly to create a certain era or place and any new construction must be in keeping with existing edifices. All buildings have back alley access so that filming equipment does not block the streets. Almost the entire town is a historic district with more than 100 historic properties. New construction is planned and it has the only award-winning municipal parking lot I have ever seen.
Of course film set tours are available and they are great. The first thing I learned was that the house used in “Drop Dead Diva” is the same house we see in “Meet the Browns.” As the tour proceeds you are also treated to several locations used in “Fried Green Tomatoes,” including the bridge used in a pivotal scene. The 1896 church in “Fighting Temptations” and the house used in “Killers” are also on the tour. www.riverwoodstudios.com
Touring downtown Senoia you can browse in specialty shops along Main Street. Antique lovers come from miles around to visit the stores here. The Buggy Shop Museum was owned and operated by the Baggarly twin brothers from the 1800s to 1931. It became a museum displaying area artifacts and memorabilia in 1995. The 1906 Neo-Classical Hollbeg Hotel, just off Main, is now the Veranda Inn. Margaret Mitchell once sat on the Doric-columned veranda and interviewed Confederate veterans. Their stories would reappear, interwoven in her epic “Gone With the Wind.”
There are restaurants in town and, aside from delicious food, they display significant items of movie memorabilia. Mary Poppins’ bike adorns one wall of the fudge shop, armor from “The Last Samurai” is displayed in McGruder’s Pub and the Redneck Gourmet has Lt. Kilgore’s surfboard from “Apocalypse Now.” www.senoia.com
Dunaway Gardens is located in the small town of Roscoe. In the 1920s actress Hetty Jane Sewell’s husband moved the family there. In order to make Hetty stay, he promised that the house and grounds were hers to do with as she wished. She created a theatrical center that drew the rich and talented of the era and created Dunaway Gardens.
More than 25-acres of restored floral rock gardens are now on the National Register and are open for tours. The complex has 12 distinct areas including 5 terraces that gently descend to The Great Pool, with waterfalls and an observation deck that offers views of the nearby wetlands. www.dunawaygardens.com
Walton County dates from 1818 and Monroe became the county seat in 1821. Originally called Spring Place, it was renamed Monroe after President Monroe. The 1825 log William Harris cabin, an exemplary early plantation house, was recently designated one of Georgia’s Hidden Gems. The Homestead complex consists of the house, several dependencies and the farm. At one point 18 enslaved individuals worked on the plantation but by 1860 records indicate there were ten.
Tours are available and there is a complete schedule of demonstrations and activities. It was added to the National Register in 1982. www.williamharrishomestead.com
Social Circle, Georgia’s historic district is an easy drive from Atlanta, as are all the places mentioned, and an absolute must for any lover of great food. The Blue Willow Inn is located at 294 N. Cherokee Road inside what was the Bertha Upshaw House. Margaret Mitchell visited the house with Redd Upshaw, who became her first husband and the model for Rhett Butler.
The Blue Willow has received, justifiably, numerous awards and international accolades. The cuisine is served southern buffet style and there is every dish you can imagine. I strongly suggest you make reservations and get there as soon as you can. I promise you will thank me.
Lou’s Soda Fountain & Grille is also on the premises to provide a 50’s diner experience and the best milkshakes in the area. The Blue Willow Cookbook, on sale in the gift shop, is considered the Bible of southern cooking. www.bluewillowinn.com
Next week we explore Georgia’s musical heritage. Join me, you’ll be glad you did. Direct flights leave from Philadelphia and there are bargains to be had if you look. Information is available online. www.exploregeorgia.org
I wish you smooth and distinctive travels!