Sunday, December 14, 2008

Richmond Hill - Christmas

This is the first year Griffin Lewis has sold Christmas trees. A self described renaissance man, he builds houses, hauls dirt, and clears land among other things, Griffin probably got this idea from his wife who owns a store in nearby Richmond Hill (20 minutes south of Savannah). His wife sells arts and crafts along with seasonal items, such as pumpkins and Christmas trees. While she’s been doing this for years, Griffin just recently decided to try his go at selling Christmas trees for $36 a piece. His stand is located along US17, just south of Richmond Hill, on land where an old motel once stood now owned by his father-in-law. After spending a couple of days clearing the land, Griffin set up the North Carolina Frasier Firs and parked his RV out back, knowing he’d need a place to hang out when business was slow (he’d never actually sleep there). Fortunately for me, business was slow when I met Griffin on a Friday night coming back from work, and we had a chance to talk about many things, including college, photography, and the economy. Still in work mode, I asked him about sales to see if he had a chance at giving his wife a run for her money. Without hesitation, he said he didn’t stand a chance. But he had a redneck theme going this year, with tacky lights, a Now Open sign, and an RV parked in the back, things his wife would never allow at her store. And he’ll have a print in his mailbox next week.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Rayle - Taste Test

The best way to get from Athens to Augusta is on US78. You don't have to worry about traffic lights in Oglethorpe County (there aren't any) and Washington, the seat of Wilkes County, has a nice collection of restored antebellum homes. The rest of the drive, until you reach Interstate 20, passes through rolling farmland and wildlife management areas. Before you know it, the trip is over and you're in Augusta or you've got one more hour to see the Dawgs visit the Ol' Ball Coach. But of course, this blog isn't about Athens, Augusta, or Columbia. It's about the places you've probably never heard of, like Camak, Dearing, and Rayle, all small towns between those "big" cities. A year and a half back, I passed through Rayle right when the prime time commercial spots air, coming across a simple advertisement that made its point. The message, touting the dominance of the home state's most famous product against a bitter rival, was an advertising executive's dream.

Taste Test

Almost two years later, taking advantage of my time in Athens, and needing some alone time, I set out on this same route, knowing that much had changed. During this time, the Pepsi machine had vanished, Hogan’s Store had reopened, and the Jesus Saves – Vote sign was preparing for another Presidential election. Driving back towards Athens, I came across the perfect scene as a light rain began to fall. Ms. Ruby’s, an aging daytime general store / night time bar, was lit up against the darkening sky. Facing west, I began to photograph the building, making sure to include the parking lot’s fresh tire marks and the lonely mailbox sitting along US78. I had taken three, maybe four, photographs when I heard the voice of an old lady, presumably Ms. Ruby, yell at me to get off her property. Standing on the porch of a neighboring trailer, this was a voice I didn’t want to argue with. While the vast majority of people I’ve met during my travels have been accepting of me, every now and then I’ve come across a person who's been suspicious of my activities. This was the first time I met somebody who would not even give me a chance to explain what I was doing. I apologized and walked quickly back to my car, thinking that maybe I didn’t deserve a chance to explain what I was doing. Maybe I was intruding on these people’s lives. Maybe I had no business being here on a Saturday night in August. Leaving Rayle, I drove a little faster. A heavy rain began to fall, and I wanted to get back to Athens as fast as I could.

 Ms. Ruby's

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Money, MS - Bryant's Grocery & Meat Market

Bryant's Grocery & Meat Market
What is Southern? Coca-Cola, plantations, sweet tea, trains, kudzu, front porches, and small towns all invoke images of the South. These are images that romanticize the South. But there's another type of image that is also Southern, an image that went hand in hand with sweet tea and front porches.

On August 24, 1955, Emmett Till, a 14 year old black boy from Chicago, and some friends went to this store to buy some candy and soda. Following a dare, Emmett said "Bye, baby" to Carolyn Bryant, a white woman whose husband owned the grocery. Three days later, Emmett's body was found in the Tallahatchie River with a 75 pound cotton gin tied to his neck. Carolyn's husband and his half-brother were acquitted of this heinous crime a month later by an all-white, male jury. Deliberation lasted 67 minutes, which included a "soda break" to stretch the time and "make it look good."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

North of Wrightsville - Pure

It was a late Saturday afternoon in April when I left my brother's apartment in Milledgeville and drove out to Wrightsville, thirty minutes away. I took the back roads, going through a couple of small towns and taking a few pictures along the way. It was a pleasant drive, but I didn't come across anything memorable or special. I was heading to Wrightsville because I knew there was an old Pure gas station several miles north of town on US 221. I'd seen the gas station before, in the middle of the day, and figured the gas station would make a nice picture just around dusk. Leaving Wrighstville, I drove past an old, weathered recruitment sign for Sons of Confederate Veterans and farm after farm. The sky was overcast and when I reached the gas station, thirty minutes before dark, my immediate prospects for a picture were not looking good. I decided to stick around for a little while, hoping the sun could somehow find a way out of the clouds before it reached the horizon. A cold front was on its way, and I felt one of those perfect sunsets would happen if the sun just made an appearance. As I walked around waiting for the sun to go down, the clouds slowly began to light up, as if Hopper was putting his finishing brush strokes on a painting I recognized but had never seen before. As I began photographing the scene, knowing I could never capture what my eyes saw or how I felt, I wished that someone else would drive by and see the remarkable scene that was unfolding before me.

While I was having these thoughts, a pickup truck trailering an old fishing boat pulled up on the other side of the road. The driver rolled down his window, and we began to talk. I don't remember his name, it's been almost five months since then, but I'll never forget our conversation and the backdrop for it. He was a couple of years older than me and lived down the road, somewhere behind the gas station. We made some small talk about college and sports, he'd gone to Georgia Southern for a couple of years, but had moved back home because this is where he wanted to be. His family owned the gas station but they hadn't sold gas in 20 years. Now it was just a reminder of a time when things were different. We talked a little longer and ended our conversation on fishing, which was where he was originally headed. He was on his way to pick up a buddy, hoping they could get in some night fishing before the front came through. I wished him luck, knowing he'd have an enjoyable time whether or not the fish were biting. As he left, I thought about our conversation and how lucky I was to be here on a Saturday night in April. He seemed more concerned with the fishing, almost like he'd seen this painting before.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sparta - Baker House

The Baker House is gone. After a long battle in bankruptcy court between developers and local preservationists, the outcome is clear. I learned the news from Jim Youmans, a Sparta resident, who sent me an email with a link to some pictures he took this weekend. Located 25 miles southwest of Bill's Grocery, the Baker House and its 10.7 acres will be rezoned into commercial property to make way for a shopping center. In my opinion, Sparta, with a poverty rate of over 30%, doesn't necessarily have the ideal demographics for a new shopping center. The developers know this. My bet is they sell the lumber from the house, turn around and resell the property, and walk away with a nice profit since they bought the house for dirt cheap through a bankruptcy auction. In the mean time, the city of Sparta, which has been able to preserve most of the historic houses that once lined its city streets, loses an architecturally significant house, and another one of my pictures becomes a piece of history in a year's time.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Crawfordville - Crushed Orange

Crushed Orange
I fell in love with Bill's Grocery the first time I saw it. I fell in love with its fading Orange Crush mural, the green lettering above the windows, and the idea that at one time this was a thriving grocery where a community gathered, in good times and bad. But when I first saw this building a little more than a year ago, something didn't feel right. The outside facade was still standing but the inside had been gutted, leaving essentially an empty shell. I left that day wondering how many more of these buildings were scattered across Georgia. Since then, I've traveled across the South and seen buildings of all shapes and sizes, each with their own story to share. But with all the miles I've traveled, I can't say I've found a place that has been more special to me than Bill's Grocery. I made it a point to travel through Crawfordville whenever I had a chance, even if it added thirty minutes to my trip, just so I could check on Bill's Gro. Each time I went, the building seemed to be in worse shape, as if it was slowly dieing. While I secretly longed for the building to be gone, because it didn't deserve to end up like this, I still held on to the hope that it could possibly be preserved and restored one day.

During one trip, I met a man who lived down the street from the grocery. I learned that Bill died twenty years ago, and ever since, the grocery has been empty. And the slow death of the building, which I had seen over the last year and attributed to time, had really been the work of the county which planned to replace it with a handicap accessible extension to the courthouse across the street. Local citizens were fighting the county but didn't have the resources to win a drawn out legal battle. He asked me if I could help, and I said I'll see what I could do. It was the worst feeling in the world. I was helpless. Here I was, on track to graduate with a masters degree in accounting and become a C.P.A., yet I couldn't do anything. All I could do was take pictures of a building that wouldn't be here a year from now. While the demolition was delayed, at least temporarily, it was only a matter of time before the building became a memory. Last month, I went through Crawfordville on my way to Milledgeville. Bill's Grocery was gone. All that remained was a fenced off foundation with a pile of bricks that had once been so much more. I took a couple of bricks and a piece of the mural with me but I didn't feel any better. A part of me was gone.

Crawfordville - Orange Crush

Orange Crush
Crawfordville, the county seat of Taliaferro County (pronounced Toliver) is a dieing town. To see this for yourself, check out local Athens photographer Daniel Fell's work. You'll get the point. The town, most famous for being the birth place of Alexander "Little Aleck" Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, proudly displays this fact on a building mural that welcomes the occasional traveler who's passing through town. Halfway between Atlanta and Augusta, the city at one time thrived because of its location. But with construction of I-20 a few miles south of town, Crawfordville has become just another poor, rural town over the last half century. Taliaferro, the smallest county in Georgia, has a poverty rate of over 30%. Other than its notorious speed traps along I-20, the county has little industry and a very small tax base. Unfortunately, this economic reality means county leaders and citizens see little value in preservation, even though the past is really all they have to hold on to.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Farmington - Carson's Super Market

Carson's Super Market
John Cleaveland, a local artist and carpenter, owns the building and uses it as a studio. Farmington, which is a 30 minute drive from Athens, has seen land prices sky rocket as the college town, with its Atlanta mindset on growth, continues to creep closer to this community of 3500. John, who graduated from the University of Georgia in 1986, lives across the street from the Super Market with his wife and son. Land was cheap when he moved out here fifteen years ago but he wouldn't be able to afford it today. With NPR blaring inside the studio, John gave me a tour of his workshop showing me several paintings of rural landscapes he's working on. He sells his work in Asheville but I have a feeling he'd have no problem selling it in Athens or Atlanta. I asked him how he did this for a living and he gave me some great advice. He doesn't do it for a living. Carpentry pays the bills but this is what he loves to do. I hope to find a similar balance between a career in accounting and my passion for the South and photography. The murals were restored a couple of years ago and John plans to touch up the front and other side of the building when he gets the time. Can it get any better than this?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Deepstep - Alonzo G. Veal & Son

Located between Milledgeville and Sandersville on Deepstep Road, this small town really is in the middle of nowhere. In fact, it's one of 519 communities that was erased off the Georgia Department of Transportation's official state map in 2007. While it used to be much larger, the town still has a population of 132, mainly in part to the area's strong kaolin industry, which produces a surprisingly large amount of this white clay mineral that's used in medicines, cosmetics, light bulbs, and toothpaste. Of course, you'll always have those people who just wouldn't live anywhere else. I spoke with one of them, the owner of the only gas station in town. He gave me some info on Deepstep and seemed very satisfied that Atlanta was 2 hours away. The Veal family, which once had a monopoly on most of the businesses in town, including the general store pictured, has long since left Deepstep. Alonzo Veal's granddaughters now live in Forsyth County. They use the building as storage but haven't been back in years. The future of this building seems safe but the gas station owner believes "there's good lumber in there that somebody might want one day" [to sell]. The fading Coke sign, which makes the bold statement of "What We Don't Have, We Can Get," is the only reminder of a family name that once made this town run.