Thursday, December 27, 2018

Take A Government Subsidized Vacation

The Burnham House at General Coffee State Park in Georgia. 

            One of the best ways our tax money is spent is on the large network of state park cabins.  Nestled in scenic areas throughout the country, they offer a great way for an inexpensive family vacation.  The accommodations are basic but comfortable; they’re in beautiful natural areas and the prices can’t be beat.  Generally there are two or more bedrooms, private bathrooms, equipped kitchens, linens and towels, pull out sofas, picnic tables, fire pits and grills. There is also AC and heat. Right outside, are all the amenities the parks have to offer:  everything from swimming to guided boat rides. They were begun by the conservation minded president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public works program that operated from 1933 to 1942. Three million men constructed trails, built lodges and facilities in remote areas that continue to provide recreation today. 
The cabin at Laura Walker State Park.
Our view at Laura Walker State Park.
            My husband and I just returned from a stay at Laura Walker State Park in Folkston, Georgia.    Walking trails around a picturesque lake started at our back door and the Okefenokee Swamp, just up the road, filled our days with exploration by bike and boat.  From the rockers on our large screen porch, all we could hear were woodpeckers.  It was so enjoyable we stayed a fifth day.  On another Okefenokee exploration, we stayed at a Stephen Foster State Park cabin near the swamp’s main entrance where a memorable encounter with bears at our picnic table surprised us. 
Our granddaughter's guest book entry
For a weekend with our kids and grand kids, we booked two cabins at Myrtle Beach State Park.  They call that park the “last stand on the Grand Strand” because it’s the only swath of nature amidst miles of cheesy fun:  a great combination for families.  The park is right on the beach and set up for crowds but during our off-season visit a few of us had the run of the place.
            A favorite family memory is our staycation at James Island County Park one December weekend.  Despite a relative in a wheelchair, the cabin accommodated us well.  Many of the state parks offer handicapped accessible cabins. How exciting to be there when the light show was going on!  Especially on Christmas Day when we had it all to ourselves.  It was magical.
            When our extended family vacationed in Georgia, we rented the historic Burnham House at General Coffee State Park.  This is not a rustic, basic cabin.  The 19th century house features chandeliers, Queen Anne furniture and four comfortable bedrooms set within a park known for its agricultural history displays and farm animals.  Three generations of family members fished, made bonfires, hiked and relaxed in a beautiful setting. 
            Another historic stay was at the fabulous Lodge at Walkulla Springs in Florida.  This meticulously restored 1930’s Spanish style inn sits amidst the world’s largest and deepest freshwater spring surrounded by cypress swamps.  The rooms are small but the lodge is full of history.  As we walked along the park’s boardwalks, we were excited to spot several massive manatees lolling. 
The cozy indoor lounge at Len Foote Lodge. 
One of the Southeast’s greatest adventures is the Len Foote Inn.  It can only be reached by hiking about five miles through the foothills of northern Georgia near Dahlonega.  Before heading up the mountain, a stay at Amicalola Falls State Park is convenient. A couple of days enjoying the park’s paddle board courses, fly fishing classes and guided hikes will get you in the mood for the next phase of the adventure. The path to Len Foote starts nearby.  Backpacker Magazine called this trek one of the best hikes in America. Len Foote is a state park facility nestled in the Chattahoochee National Forest.  Their mission is to make experiencing nature easy while protecting it through recreation and   It’s a pleasant, gently uphill walk through strands of mountain laurel and rhododendron, across streams and ridges.  It took us about three hours.  After we stashed our gear in a small private bunk room, we explored the wonderful common spaces including indoor and outdoor lounges and a dining hall where filling communal meals are served twice a day. Hot showers and Adirondack chairs with mountain views welcomed us after a day of hiking. Some visitors were planning to walk another 4 miles to the beginning of the Appalachian Trail and keep the adventure going for months! 

            When our family was in Myrtle Beach in March, the weather was cold.  Out our window we could see a few hardy campers in tents and RV’s shivering around meager campfires.  I was afraid we might be besieged by families begging for shelter in our warm, cozy cabin but we had it to ourselves.  We snuggled up and made a toast:  Thanks FDR.  

If You go:

Monday, November 12, 2018

Make your Trip Historic

The Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C. 

            If you’re ready to venture away from the predictability of chain hotels, curb your impulse to book a room on Expedia and click instead on the Historic Hotels of America website.  It’s a tempting selection of over 300 unique accommodations in 46 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico that have been admitted to this official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  To become a member, the properties have to be faithfully authentic, possess a sense of place, have architectural integrity and be at least 50 years old.  Additionally, they are all designated by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark or recognized as having historic significance by the National Register of Historic Places.  Those who appreciate architectural detail and craftsmanship will especially enjoy these locations and the care that has gone into maintaining them.                  
Bechtler Museum 
            When my husband and I stayed at The Dunhill Hotel in Charlotte, we had the best seats in the house for an epic bike race that sped through this prime location in the cultural district.   In 2017 the Dunhill was named Best Small Inn by Historic Hotels for its architecture inspired by Italian craftsmen.  We  appreciated being able to walk to museums, especially the jewel-box sized Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the nearby restaurants and nightlife. 
            Exit the interstate onto a private launch!   The Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island can only be reached by boat from St. Marys, Georgia. Guests disembark into an unmanicured forested island where wild horses share the rough paths leading to the beach, ruins of mansions and primitive campgrounds.  With only 16 rooms, the all-inclusive gourmet dinners are friendly affairs where you can share tales of island adventures like visiting the tiny rustic chapel where John Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Bessette were married. 
            At the Martha Washington Inn and Spa in Abingdon, Virginia my two sisters and I spread out in our huge 3rd floor room.  General Robert Preston built the hotel in 1832 for his wife and nine children after his successes in the War of 1812.  Much of the original architecture has been meticulously preserved including the 9-foot tall Dutch baroque grandfather clock in the lobby which was brought from  England by one of the Preston daughters.  The hotel is close to the (almost all downhill) Virginia Creeper Trail which draws thousands of bicyclists.  While luxuriating in the cascading pools we spied a bride escaping her photo shoot to hide in the bushes and smoke a cigarette.  She invited us to crash her wedding which featured the macabre theme of Chicago Gangsters complete with plastic Tommy-gun toting groomsmen. 
            History surrounds you at these hotels.  At the Jekyll Island Club in Georgia you can sit in the room where the groundwork for the Federal Reserve was written, or where the president of AT&T placed the first intercontinental telephone call.  You can actually stay in one of the grand summer cottages of the rich industrialists.  Looking out my window I easily imagined myself as one of the country’s elite industrialist wives like Alma Rockefeller who vacationed here in the 1880’s.  She disembarked from her namesake yacht at the dock right outside followed by a parade of servants toting dozens of steamer trunks containing the ten changes of clothes required daily of Victorian women. It was like being in two centuries at once.
            Elsewhere on Georgia’s Golden Isle is the sprawling King and Prince Hotel where beach-side dances were held in 1935 before the hotel housed military in World War II.  Today its Mediterranean architecture and a variety of room styles welcomes guests to the homey community of St. Simons Island.

Grove Park Inn lobby
            After Edwin Wiley Grove became a millionaire by selling his malaria-fighting Tasteless Chill Tonic (it sold more bottles than Coca Cola in the 1890’s) he constructed Asheville’s Grove Park Inn.  Massive stone boulders were excavated and fitted together like puzzle pieces by Italian stone masons and local craftsmen.  The grand hall lobby includes the much-photographed 14-foot wide fireplaces.  Alongside the chimney shafts, surrounded by boulders weighing up to 5 tons, are the original Otis elevators.  Their unique design has been featured in Ripley’s Believe it or Not.  When the inn opened in 1913, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan proclaimed that the Grove Park Inn was “built for the ages.”  How true.  It has remained one of the Southeast’s premier destinations.
            Charleston has its own Historic Hotels:  the Wentworth Mansion and the Francis Marion.  These are iconic places that represent our city’s history and the passion our citizenry has from preservation.  Together, these hotels and their partner The National Trust for Historic Preservation inspire people to save places where history happened, connect Americans to diverse pasts and are a leading voice in preserving our nation’s culture. 

If you Go:

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free

            Numb from the ceaseless clamor of news about immigrant bans, terrorism, border walls and fear, my husband and I visited the Tenement Museum in New York hoping for some perspective. We are both second generation Americans; all of our grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century.  Here they lived the epitome of the American Dream:  they arrived virtually penniless and left behind thriving Americanized families that have continued to excel. We came with the conviction that new immigration policies are an abrogation of American ideals.  We left with a much more complex understanding.

            The mission of the museum is to “tell stories of immigrants who started their lives anew on Manhattan’s Lower East Side between the 19th and 21st centuries through the recreated apartment and businesses of real families…”  Unlike museums that are housed in grand buildings, this one consists of two historic tenement apartments. When the founders, Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson stumbled upon the buildings in 1988, they were like time capsules.  “It was like the people had just picked up and left,” Jacobson recalls.  Today 8 different tours take visitors into the buildings that are set up as if the occupants still lived and worked there.  One tour highlights sweatshops; Under One Roof shows the diverse lives of Jewish, Chinese and Hispanic neighbors; one highlights the Depression years; Irish Outsiders shows their struggle against prejudice; opportunities to extend the experiences include workshops, discussions and behind the scenes tours and even a tasting tour of the neighborhood.  Our tour, Shop Life, took us through the apartment and saloon of John and Caroline Schneider.  Interactive elements brought the experience alive.  Our guide, Raj Varma, gave us each a bio of someone who actually lived in the neighborhood and prompted us to stay in character and playact an evening in the neighborhood tavern which was once one of the 720 bars within the 15 block neighborhood.
      The immigrant experience, Raj stressed, is of equivalent importance to the Civil War in defining who we are as a nation. In the 1840’s, the Lower East Side of New York was the most densely populated place in the world.  It was the first area in the country where people spoke a different language, German.  It also housed the largest number of families with the worst amenities:  few windows and no running water or gas. Eighty percent of babies born in hospitals died. Immigrants who came to this crowded, smelly, noisy, dirty destination may have asked themselves, “Is this the America I was dreaming of?”                 

            Throughout the tour, Raj gave us examples of the disconnect in our country’s attitude towards immigrants.  On the one hand we celebrate and encourage them and on the other hand we pass laws to subjugate them.  “The American Dream is a narrative to make us feel good.” Raj said. “But it’s a narrative.”  The museum shows the lives of typical people who worked hard to build the factories and buildings only to die forgotten and poor while the lives of rich people are memorialized.  In fact “We’ve always been anti-immigration in this country,” he reasoned as he cited laws that barred certain “undesirables”, set unreasonable barriers or quotas and turned a blind eye to genocide.   I’d always taken the Statue of Liberty’s inscription as a shining example of our country’s fundamental truth but my perspective shifted.  “Every citizen of our country has to reconcile themselves to this duality,” Raj concluded.

            In today’s highly charged political climate, I was interested to learn that tours at the museum are often disrupted by controversy. In an article written by Sebastien Malo for Reuters, the museum’s director of education Miriam Bader says, “People will now share stronger opinions about whether or not they think immigrants are sort of bleeding the country, they’re taking too much that other people should have, or they’re taking our jobs.  You’ll hear … comments like ‘You know the immigrants of the past aren’t like those of today’.”  The museum has added training for its guides who have always encouraged interaction and discussion but are now frequently confronted by antagonistic opinions.  “The political climate has created a need for new skills or superpowers to facilitate the conversation,” Ms. Bader explained.             
            It was an eye-opening experience that left us with increased admiration for our grandparents who overcame immense obstacles: escaping murderous hordes, travelling across Europe alone as teenagers, arriving destitute in a country and then scraping together a livelihood amidst degrading conditions.  We felt gratitude for their fortitude and for this county that gave them opportunities.  But also, our disdain of recent immigration policy changes shifted.  As Raj stated, “People who criticize our president for immigration laws have never studied our immigration laws.  Our laws have never been about who is let in, they’re about who to exclude.”
If You Go:


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Unforgettable by Design

Smith School designed by John M. Johansen in 1969

            “You want to go WHERE?” my two sisters and I asked our mother when she suggested another girl’s trip.  “You could choose anywhere. Paris is nice this time of year!  Why Columbus, Indiana??” “But it’s been my dream to go there,” she insisted.  Truly we’d follow her anywhere and so the four of us drove from Indianapolis through miles of corn fields to this town of 45,000.

            “Everyone has their arm around someone,” my sister Lila noticed as we dined at Henry’s Social Club.  This was our first indication that Columbus was realizing the dream of one of its benefactors, J. Irwin Miller who said “What is built reflects what a city thinks of itself and what it hopes to be”. What he wanted Columbus to be and what it has become is an improbable architectural Mecca that has fostered a creative, friendly community.  As the CEO of Cummins Engine, he initiated a program to pay architects’ fees resulting in a city full of celebrated designs by notables such as Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese, Kevin Roche, and I.M. Pei.
North Christian Church
      Beginning in 1957, Cummins Engine’s largesse spurred the development of over 80 buildings, landscapes and public works or art by internationally known designers.  Mr. Miller wanted buildings that were “not monuments to architect’s egos,” but would instead transform the texture of the resident’s daily lives.  Today almost 20 unique schools whose designs were inspired by such things as gerbil runs, silos, farmhouses, a tannery and bridges are the cornerstone of the town’s modernist designs.  “Mediocrity is expe  nsive,” Mr. Miller decreed.
A fire station
 If you take one of the very popular bus tours as we did, you can see several of the iconic buildings in town including The North Christian Church designed by Eero Saarinen.  His soaring design is built around a spire “because the spire is a marvelous symbol of reaching upward to God,” he said. An oculus at the top focuses dramatic light onto the communion table.  A massive pipe organ is a sculptural centerpiece. Famous artists such as Chihuly, Henry Moore and Martin Beach have added sculptures to parks and gathering places that contrast with the covered bridges that dot the area.
      Functional, striking designs even include several fire stations and the AT&T Switching
Station designed in 1978 by Paul Kennon. Its huge primary colored “organ pipes” are not only a colorful accent, they are part of the HVAC system and have become an iconic image of the city’s modern architecture. Cummins’ corporate headquarters which takes up several downtown blocks is a zigzag design in a park-like setting conceived by Kevin Roche and landscape designer Jack Curtis. It features cast-in-place octagonal concrete columns with infilled precast concrete spandrels and narrow windows to provide noise and sun control, innovations when it was designed in 1984.

Jonathan Nesci
       Jonathan Nesci who is an internationally known furniture designer moved to Columbus in 2009.  “I felt like I could really work from anywhere, and the thought of my kids getting a chance to grow up in a place like Columbus was and continues to be very appealing,” he said.  “It’s energizing to see the Henry Moore sculpture at different times of day and catch a different view of an Eero Saarinen project…I feel very fortunate to get to interact with these places on a regular basis.”  In 2017 he became the curator for Exhibit Columbus, an annual celebration of architecture, art, design and community that alternates programming between symposium years and exhibit years.  He walked us down Washington Street to highlight some of the 15
temporary site-responsive installations which were designed by artists chosen from five international galleries he’d invited to “spark new conversations about the power of design”.  Outside the Rogers Library we climbed atop the massive wooden sculpture Conversation Plinth and then explored the wigwam-inspired construction Wiikiaami that undulated down a walkway. Along the sidewalk, he pointed out discrete interconnected seats, aptly named Pause, placed intermittently to offer a place to stop and get a new perspective.  Snarkitecture was designed to attract children down a fun-filled alley and a popular colored fiber maze made by high school students drew in pedestrians.  “I wanted the designers to dig deep into the city’s incredible design and cultural history and make a design that would allow visitors and residents alike to see Columbus in a new way.”
    Vision and investment have had  big payoffs.  Economic vitality has followed:  stores report a three-fold sales increase during Exhibit Columbus.  The downtown is revitalized and sprawl contained.  Visitors fill tours year round. Columbus’s motto “Unexpected, Unforgettable” is apt. And so, as usual, mom was right.  Columbus is a dream destination. As Jonathan Nesci says, “Architecture and design can make a difference and are doing so here.  That’s really powerful.”

If You Go:

Exhibit Columbus National Symposia will be held Sept. 26 to 29, 2018:

Plan an architectural visit or tour:

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Wild Horses Couldn’t Keep Me Away

      Snubs, cultural differences and misunderstandings are the back stories of Cumberland Island and St. Marys Georgia. The misguided Seal sisters for example were just waving their handkerchiefs good-bye as the Yankees finally abandoned the occupation of their town. Captain Higginson, the commanding officer, saw it differently. “They’re sending a signal to the Confederates to return,” he thought. So he made a U-turn and burned down the town. Oops. In 1814, the British Vice Admiral William Cochran invited anyone who wanted to leave the country to board his ship. Hundreds of slaves went to live a free life in Bermuda and Nova Scotia. Aaron Burr expected a friendly reception 
from Catherine Green Miller on Cumberland Island. But “She could not receive as a guest one whose hands were “crimsoned” with (Hamilton’s) blood,” according to author Elizabeth Ellet. She left him stranded. And then there was the shocking case of Thomas Carnegie being snubbed by the Millionaire’s Club. He and his brother Andrew seemed like naturals for the exclusive group of rich industrialists that summered on Jekyll Island in the 1880’s. But the Carnegies were too nouveau riche for the group somehow. So they did what nouveau riche millionaires do: they bought a large portion of nearby Cumberland Island where their descendants still own vacation mansions today. 
      Today, St. Marys prides itself on being one of the safest small towns in America. It’s full of Victorian houses and 35 churches bordering a quiet coastline. After watching the short film “Simple Pleasure of Small Town America” at the Visitor’s Center, we took the handy self-guided walking tour leaflet to stroll to picturesque parks, a cemetery and historic buildings. The park has free bike fixing tools. Light hearted signs remind visitors: “Practice Civility Every Day” “Stupidity is not a handicap. Park somewhere Else!” Several B&B’s offer charming overnight stays for the 60,000 people a year who visit Cumberland Island National Seashore. Our Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara room at 
Goodbread House featured a huge bathroom and beaucoup memorabilia. The porch swing on the sunny porch was especially nice. At Spencer House Inn, where guests have been hosted since 1872, the breakfast buffet and packed lunches fueled us bountifully for our bike riding on Cumberland.
      “It’s like a time warp. I can just see the buggies and horses,” Babs Kall, another day tripper,
remarked as we docked after a 45 minute ferry ride. Those heading to the upscale Greyfield Inn on the island take a private launch. There are no stores and limited drinking water on its 18 miles. Trash must be hauled off. Campers schlepped bungee-corded wagons of gear a half mile to the closest beach campground. Some folks rented beach cruiser bikes. Some picnicked. Once on the dirt trails, we had to keep stopping to admire the wild horses that nonchalantly grazed along the path. But we kept our distance as the ranger had warned. 
 We cruised past the still-occupied Stafford House with peacocks strutting behind tabby walls topped with animal skulls and a private plane landing in the yard. After about an hour and a half, we came to Plum Orchard built for the Carnegies’ son George and his wife in 1898 and donated to the National Park Foundation in 1971. Tours of the Georgian Revival house are available. Fifteen minutes south of the dock are the ruins of Dungeness. It’s a shell today after being gutted by fire in 1959, reputed set by a poacher. But when Catherine Green Miller built it in 1800, it featured 6-foot thick walls, 16 fireplaces, a pool, golf course and room for 200 servants. Gala parties and extravagance filled the house until the Depression when the family abandoned it to decay.

      Turning some of the island from a refuge for the rich into a National Seashore was a long, complicated process. It took years of wrangling, lawyering, politics and acts of Congress. The efforts continue. A new debate began last year when the Camden County Planning Commission approved a hardship variance that would allow construction of a 10-home subdivision on the federally protected island. Environmental groups and local citizens have been engaged in a contentious process to balance property rights and conservation. Alex Kearns, chair of St. Marys Earthkeepers, was quoted in the Brunswick News: “I believe that there is a middle-ground and that if the NPS, the environmental organizations, and the property owners come to a position of accord and unity, the future of the Island will be secured.” The group is working towards an agreement that respects mutual interests and lasts for over 100 years. Being among the carefully regulated number of visitors to come to this special place is an experience to value and must be protected.

If You Go:

Goodbread House:

Spencer House Inn:

Ferry reservations: www.cumberlandislandferrycom

Camping reservations:

For history of the National Park Service on the island:

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Woman Behind the Songs: Quiana Parler of Ranky Tanky

            Quiana Parler was 7 years old when she started voice lessons with the renowned June Bonner.  “Sing your ass off no matter the audience.” June told her.  “I wish I could say ‘thank-you’ now,” Quiana says. So would local and international audiences.  “I’ve always been a singer; I’ve never had a 9-to-5. I didn’t go to my prom; I was doing the show.” She sang in church growing up in Harleyville and at the College of Charleston where she caught the attention of Quentin Baxter and Tommy Gill.  They recruited her to sing at the Charleston Music Hall when she was only 15 years old. She met Carlton Singleton there when she performed in “Serenade”.  “Quiana was polished,” he says. “She’s the perfect blend of raw talent, polished talent and professional coaching.  She knows how to breathe.  She knows how to go operatic, she knows when to go church; she knows when to go pop.  She can switch on and off and make it sound effortless.” Since then, she’s performed at the Music Hall over 30 times. “Her energy is amazing. Her voice and talent are amazing,” said Charles Carmody who manages the venue. A measure of fame followed when Quiana finished near the top in the 2003 season of American Idol.  For the next ten years she toured with contest winners Clay Aiken and Ruben Stoddard.  It’s a hard life.  “I’m a full time mom when I’m home,” Quiana says while describing the patchwork of care she arranged for her son.  Her popular wedding band kept her in town sometimes but she describes becoming aware of a “hard-to-reach itch”.  “I felt I was supposed to be doing something more.” So she decided to be still and wait for it to come to her.  About a week later, Clay Ross called with an idea for Ranky Tanky.  
            It’s a little surprising that Clay, the only white member of the quintet, had the vision to take Gullah church music, play songs, chants and spirituals and juice them up with global rhythms and jazz.  Quiana wasn’t familiar with the repertoire since she’d grown up inland. Carlton Singleton, Quentin Baxter and Kevin Hamilton “thought the idea was lame because the music was so familiar.  They’d been doing it all their lives,” Quiana remembers.  But now she says, “We just want to spread the culture.  It’s a beautiful culture.  We had no idea that this style of music and Gullah culture would put us on NPR!” During that interview with Terry Gross, Clay described the music’s appeal:  “I think…these songs bring people in touch with their suffering that is just the common thread of all humanity.   And everybody deals with that… these songs allow us to get close to that in a safe space, and to share that together and commune with one another around that.  And it’s just powerful and beautiful.”  
            They’ve struck a chord with audiences even if, as Quiana laughs, most people have never heard of Gullah.  “They call it goulash or something.”   It was her first trip abroad when they began their European tour with an 18 hour flight from California.  As the audience in the Czech Republic chanted their name and hollered for an encore, “It hit me that we were onto something here,” she remembers.  “It’s because of the rhythm.  People can feel that we’re coming from a good place.  You give off good energy, you get good energy back,” she said.  Rave reviews followed the band’s performance at the 2016 globalFEST in New York:  “The biggest surprise of globalFEST, Ranky Tanky proved that exotic music can be both unfamiliar enough to be surprising, and yet familiar enough to provoke swinging hips and nodding heads.” (Paste Magazine).  “Combining revered Gullah kinship with a jazz sensibility, Ranky Tanky accentuates the spirituality connected to the ring shouts and praise houses, proposing a modern rendition of their ancestral music.” (All About Jazz).  Their debut album, released on the Music Alliance label in October 2017, has risen to the top of the Billboard and ITunes charts and was one of the best reviewed albums of the year.
   So does Quiana feel successful?  “It’s a blessing to do what I love my entire life.  Music chose me.  Success has always been a goal but fame is not success.  Longevity is success.  I define my success as being able to pay the bills.”  She’s especially grateful to the community that has helped nurture her talent. “Now I understand that this is what I’ve been meant to be: music with a purpose. We want to thank Charleston for their support.  To be part of Spoleto and to sell out is amazing.  I’m so excited for what’s ahead for Ranky Tanky.”
For More Information
Tour dates:
The Spoleto performance is June 2 at the Cistern

Thursday, April 26, 2018

A visit to Freewoods Farm : The Only African-American Living History Site in the U.S.

            “If you’ve ever had a desire to be a stripper in Myrtle Beach, you can come here,” O’Neal Smalls joked as he introduced us to Freewoods Farm.  They always need more hands to strip sugar cane stalks, he explained.  At this 40-acre living farm museum, sugar cane juice is extracted using mule-power and then boiled in a huge kettle to make their sought-after cane syrup.  It’s part of the farm’s comprehensive educational program depicting life on African American farms during the 100 years after the Civil War.  My husband and I stopped in the Burgess community on our way to Myrtle Beach.  During the short tour we learned how the version of African American history we’d been taught had been edited.  For example, the promise our government made to redistribute land to the freed slaves during Reconstruction was an unfulfilled promise.   “This is the symbolic 40 acres that they didn’t get.  We even have two mules.” Mr. Smalls went on to explain: “The big issue was ‘what are you going to do with 4 million freed slaves’?”  Many of them were illiterate and in a hostile   Thousands followed Sherman’s troops desperately hoping to acquire land as plantation owners were driven out.  Meanwhile, Lincoln was “dithering” on his promise as Mr. Smalls described it.   More government waffling resulted in laws to facilitate Black ownership followed by other laws to repossess the land.  The Southern Homestead Act offered a way for freed slaves to buy land at prices often beyond their reach.  Opportunities for economic advancement were missed.  Disenfranchisement and poverty resulted.   

           We learned that after the Civil War, over 80% of the freed slaves became farmers.  Some acquired land, some were sharecroppers.  In the 1860’s, freed slaves began to settle in the Burgess community.  By the third generation, the area was completely Black.  In the early 20th century Julius Rosenwald, influenced by Booker T. Washington, used the money he’d earned as a founder of Sears Roebuck to build over 5,000 schools for African American children, including one here.  As a result, over one-third of the country’s African American children at the time were educated at a Rosenwald school which contributed to significant gains in literacy.
            Freewoods Farm began in 2001.  It is the only living history farm devoted to recognizing and perpetuating the contributions of African-American farmers in the U.S..  Joel Schor, a Department of Agriculture historian who has extensively studied African American history said of the project, “Freewoods could make a valuable contribution to the history of Agriculture, and to the history of Black Americans, by carefully studying the agricultural activities and practices during these years.”  The project began by creating ditches and swells to provide drainage and irrigation using the system developed by post-Civil War farmers.   They planted acres of pumpkins, potatoes, peanuts and corn.  They learned the traditional way to make lime to feed the crops.  They also raise pigs and chickens. 
All of this farming is done without the use of modern machines except when neighbors lend a hand.  Doing things the historic way is part of the mission.  Joel Shor says that there’s a valuable lesson here to “…do more with what little one has.” Today they have a large market building where neighbors join them to sell produce as well as a livestock barn, grain barn, caretaker home and kettle shed. A 100-year old farmhouse has been restored and staged with interesting historic artifacts.  An outhouse, built from a Sears catalog kit, is on sight as well as a smokehouse.  Their grand vision includes a “Main Street” lined with buildings rented to tenants like a community theater, shops and cafes to represent the nerve center of the post-Civil War era.  But the main goal is education.  Events commemorating Emancipation Day and Black History Month impart information to large numbers of visitors.  A curriculum for school children about daily farm activities is being developed by Clemson University.   Field trips and summer camps for children are in the works.  With the millions of visitors to the area, the project also has potential as a business catalyst.  “Freewoods is ideal because it will contribute to a prideful replica of Black history; while at the same time creating jobs…” wrote Douglas Glasgow of the National Urban League.  Joseph McNutt of the Horry County Council sees it as a strategy for racial harmony:  “One of the interesting aspects of Freewoods Farm is that it will focus on the contributions and creativity of African American farmers rather than the more common issues of exploitative treatment.  This focus alone could advance race relations.” 
      For our small group of tourists though, it was like eating a plateful of nourishing fresh vegetables before the sugar overdose of Myrtle Beach. As Billy Williams, another in our group said, “We wish that our children understood this history. This is our country’s history, everybody should come.”

If You go Attend an event or email them to arrange a visit.