Explore the past and savor spring festivals at small towns in southern Georgia.
By Lazelle Jones
A native of Mystic, Connecticut, and an accomplished traveler by sea, “Captain” Henry Harding Tift came to Georgia in the 1870s to buy a large tract of pine forest, where a sawmill and a company town soon grew. He eventually became a major contributor to the town’s growth, industrially and otherwise.
Today the town of Tifton, 65 miles north of the Georgia-Florida state line, carries his name. Tifton is located along Interstate 75 south of Perry — site of FMCA’s 89th Family Reunion & Motorhome Showcase March 17-20, 2014. Snowbirds traveling to Perry from the south will find Tifton to be a good stop, as it is only a 90-minute drive from there to the Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter where the Family Reunion will be held.
Tifton, Fitzgerald, and Ashburn form a triangle amid a bucolic countryside dotted with picturesque remnants of the Old South. The slow pace endemic to the rural lifestyle can help RVers remember to take their time and let history come to them.
The heritage of Tifton is displayed at the 95-acre Georgia Museum of Agriculture & Historic Village, formerly called the Tifton Agrirama. Now administered by Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, the complex is home to more than 35 restored structures that have been moved there, and it is set up to serve as an educational and historic landmark. It has six areas: a traditional farm community, a farmstead, an industrial site complex, a rural town, a national peanut complex, and the Museum of Agriculture Center. Plan to spend at least half a day when you visit.
The village’s mission statement is to let visitors experience the life and times of late 19th-century Georgia in an authentic way. The deportment of the docents and costumed interpreters provide an accurate representation of a late 1800s farm community.
The Victorian home of H.H. Tift and his family, with its wallpaper, china, paintings, and furnishings, is on the grounds as well. You also will see and may be able to ride on (depending on when you visit) an authentic steam train pulled by a 1917 locomotive. A country store and an art gallery also vie for attention.
The Georgia Museum of Agriculture & Historic Village is open Tuesday through Saturday. The admission price during the week is lower than on Saturdays, when entry includes the train ride. Plenty of motorhome parking is available. In addition, a large, gated RV overnight area is available with 40 to 45 spots, but it is open only to RV groups with six vehicles or more. For information about fees and availability, contact the museum at (229) 391-5205. For general museum info, visit www.abac.edu/museum.
“Captain” Tift’s influence in the area also can be found at the H.H. Tift building on the University of Georgia-Tifton campus, built in 1922 (coincidentally, the year of Tift’s death). The historic structure is scheduled to be renovated. Tift had a hand in the creation of the Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tift County and was instrumental in bringing the campus to Tifton. At the Coastal Plain Research Arboretum, visitors are welcome to enjoy the beauty of nature. Its 38 acres include streamside forests, wetlands, pinewoods, ponds, hundreds of native trees, an azalea collection, a bird sanctuary, arbors, and a gazebo. Admission is free. Check ahead regarding motorhome parking (229-391-6868; www.sgnpws.org/CPRA/cpra.php).
If you’re in search of beauty as well as picnic pavilions and open fields where events and concerts are hosted, then visit 28-acre Fulwood Park, located in the middle of town. Another pretty place with a similar name, Fulwood Garden Center, in Tifton’s historic district, also is open (free admission), delighting those who just want to enjoy a stroll through picturesque gardens.
Shopping in Tifton can include selecting from local art at the Atlantic Coastline Artists Station downtown (it’s located in a train depot), and antiques, thrift, and consignment stores; apparel boutiques; large retailers; gift shops; and jewelry stores.
Another way to choose what you buy is to pick fresh strawberries at Rutland Farms. If the weather cooperates, you-pick strawberries should be available in mid-March when FMCA members travel to Perry.
Even if the strawberries are not yet ready, a stop at Rutland Farms is still in order. In 1916, Charlie Rutland started a 36-acre farmstead that today (five generations later) has grown to 2,100 acres and continues to be family owned and operated. Jellies, homemade ice cream, and a huge selection of fresh produce is available at the Market at Rutland Farms. For more information, call (229) 821-0581; www.rutlandfarms.com/about-us.
After exploring Tifton, make a jaunt northeast before continuing north on I-75 toward Perry. Your destination is Fitzgerald, Georgia, a town with a quirky side and a serious one. It is about 28 miles northeast of Tifton via U.S. 319 and U.S. 129.
Fitzgerald is home to the famous wild chickens of Fitzgerald. The birds are actually Burmese red jungle fowl, apparently descended from birds released in the late 1960s by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Officials originally hoped the population would spread throughout the Georgia woods and thereby make the state more popular among hunters. Unfortunately, the majority of the birds died, and the project was scrapped. But somehow (stories say a few locals got involved) a few birds did carry on, and their descendants rule the roost today.
The people of Fitzgerald decided to celebrate their resident fowl with the Wild Chicken Festival, and its dates this year are March 14 and 15, the Friday and Saturday prior to FMCA’s Family Reunion. For more details, visit www.wildchickenfestival.com.
Fitzgerald’s Blue & Gray Museum takes on the Confederacy’s importance to this town — with a twist. Union fighters in search of a warmer location in which to spend their golden years arrived here, and the local Southerners kindly welcomed them. The Blue & Gray Museum, housed in the historic railroad depot, celebrates veterans of both sides and all wars. A documentary about the founding of Fitzgerald and archival photos are shown. Lifestyle objects and memorabilia and their importance in the local history are displayed and clearly labeled. A small admission fee is charged, and the museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, call (229) 426-5069, or visit www.blueandgraymuseum.com.
Fitzgerald also boasts architectural treasures such as the Grand Theater, an art-deco-style building from the 1920s, with a glass brick facade on the second floor, a majestic neon sign, and Tiffany-style interior features. Other places of note include the Ware-Mashburn House, a two-story Georgian-style home with stained-glass panels, a tin roof, and Doric columns; the Bowen-Sheppard House, another Georgian-style structure; and the W.R.C. Building, constructed in 1900 by Union veterans and their sons. The list continues with the Broadhurst-Paulk House, one of Fitzgerald’s most elegant; the Queen Anne-style Harris House; Faith Baptist Church; and the Fitzgerald Hebrew Congregation, among many others. Obtain a visitors directory, which includes a coded map with dining and shopping points identified.
Another important place near Fitzgerald is Jefferson Davis Memorial Historic Site, where the Confederate president spent his last night prior to being captured, as the Civil War had come to an end. It’s a must-see stop for history buffs.
Continue heading west back toward Interstate 75 via State Route 107 to Ashburn. It so happens that on the fourth full weekend each March, the Fire Ant Festival is held there. No, you do not have to meet or visit with the insects, but giant man-made likenesses of them have been spotted around town. The festival includes art shows, carnival rides, a pet parade, a strawberry cook-off, a barbecue competition, a health fair, and fireworks. This year the Fire Ant Festival takes place Saturday and Sunday, March 28 and 29, a week after FMCA’s Family Reunion.
A large, brick two-story home in Ashburn, built in 1906, served as the Turner County Jail for 87 years, until 1993. The jail was not closed for modernization purposes; rather, the sheriff got fed up with the nightly noise and antics of the inmates, who were housed above him on the second floor. Not too long after the prisoners clogged their toilets and flooded his home, they were permanently relocated.
Today the former jail, now known as the Crime & Punishment Museum, greets visitors with a replica electric chair, a hanging noose, and cells. Try lunch at the Last Meal Café while you’re there. They say the food there is to die for! The museum is open Tuesday through Friday. To verify hours of operation, call (229) 567-9696 or visit www.jailmuseum.com.
Another you-pick strawberry opportunity may be available in Ashburn at Calhoun Produce, if weather conditions cooperate. In addition to strawberries, Calhoun sells homemade strawberry ice cream, strawberry shortcake, and strawberry lemonade. Locally grown fruits and vegetables are offered as well, and blanched and frozen fruits and vegetables are sold year-round. Call (229) 273-1887 to make sure strawberries are ready, or visit www.calhounproduce.com.
Finally, as you leave Ashburn and head for the interstate, you can’t miss the World’s Largest Peanut, a monumentally proportioned piece of art. Other Georgia towns have salutes to the Georgia crop, but none is as big as this. The statue was erected in 1975 and is on a service road cul-de-sac if you wish to investigate it further.
Take time to slow down and explore the unique spots of southern Georgia on your way to or from the Family Reunion in Perry. Between the tasty food, historic sites, and fun festivals, you will be glad you did.
Tifton-Tift County Tourism Association
115 W. Second St.
Tifton, GA 31793
Fitzgerald Welcome Center
116 N. Johnston St.
Fitzgerald, GA 31750
Ashburn-Turner County Georgia Chamber of Commerce
238 E. College Ave.
Ashburn, GA 31714
The following is not a complete list, so please check other sources as well, such as the “RV Marketplace,” published at FMCA.com and in the January and June issue of FMC; local tourism bureaus; and your favorite campground directory.
Carroll’s Sausage and Meats (campground with hookups on-site)
315 Whittle Drive
Ashburn, GA 31714
I-75 RV Park
15 Casseta Road
Tifton, GA 31793
The Pines RV Campground
18 Casseta Road
Tifton, GA 31793
4632 Union Road
Tifton, GA 31794
(800) 562-7549 (reservations)