Georgia On My Mind

Washington Does Christmas Right!

Historic Washington, in Wilkes County, offers a full slate of activities for the Holidays
The Washinton Square and the Fitzpatrick Hotel
Scenes from a Christmas parade

Ten of Georgia’s Best Halloween Events

https://www.tripstodiscover.com/best-halloween-events-georgia/

Dahlonega’s Gold Rush Days festival

The Dahlonega square typically teems with visitors during the annual Gold Rush Days festival every October

Gold Rush Days

Date: October 18, 2019 – October 20, 2019

Gold Rush Days are always held the third full weekend in October. It is a time for thousands to come and see fall colors peaking and celebrate Dahlonega’s 1828 discovery of gold. Over 300 art and craft exhibitors and food vendors gather around the Public Square and Historic District in support of this annual event. It is estimated that a crowd of over 200,000 visits over the weekend to join in the fun and excitement!

For more information go to https://goldrushdaysfestival.com/

Panning for gold is for fun (and maybe profit) in Dahlonega
Gold Rush Days still brings a rush to Dahlonega’s downtown.

Toccoa Welcomes Currahee Military Weekend this weekend, beginning Friday, October 4

Toccoa’s Currahee Military Weekend typically begins with a parade

TOCCOA − It’s a long way from Guildford, in southeastern England, to a converted train depot in north Georgia, but for Matthew Pellett it was a pilgrimage he had to make.

  “I’ve seen “The Band of Brothers” over and over and I wanted to come to Toccoa,” said the self-described history buff. “This was one of the things I felt I had to do whilst I could.”

So, not yet ready to start college, the young Englishman flew to the U.S., hopped a train and arrived at the Toccoa depot just like a lot of young American men did almost 70 years ago.

Only now the depot, built in 1922, plus a more recent extension, houses the Currahee Military Museum, most of which celebrates the legacy of the four regiments of U.S. Army paratroopers − the 501st, 506th, 511th and the 517th − that trained at the base called Camp Toccoa, in the shadow of Currahee Mountain, from mid-1942 until early 1944. Easy Company of the 506th of the 101st Airborne is the “Band of Brothers” immortalized in books and the HBO series, but the museum tries to play no favorites.

For the nearly two years that Camp Toccoa operated, estimates are it pumped at least $2 million a year into Toccoa’s and Stephens County’s economy. In a way, Camp Toccoa is still proving a boon to the town.

The museum draws every year about 20,000 people like Matthew Pellett to Toccoa, including those attending the Currahee Military Weekend and reunion that has become a fall feature. It has drawn visitors from over 65 countries.

From a collection that just a few years ago was displayed in a 16-feet by 16-feet room of a house that was the Stephens County Historical Society Museum, the museum now takes up over 17,000 square feet. And even now it is expanding..

Just over eight years ago the Pacolet-Milliken company donated to the historical society nearly six acres that made up part of Camp Toccoa as well as the last remaining building of the camp, a long concrete block building that was once a mess hall. The company once had a plant on the site.

Renovating and expanding the museum on the remote site, along with other related facilities has been and ongoing project since.

Toccoa’s circa 1922 railroad depot is the home of the Currahee Military Museum
The interior of the museum;s famous horse stable, which served as a barrack for some of the paratroopers in England, from where this reconstructed stable was moved.

Camp Toccoa

     In the beginning it was a small camp built by the Georgia National Guard and the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, finished in 1940 and named Camp Toombs, in honor of the 19th century Georgia politician, Confederate secretary of state and Confederate general Robert Toombs.

     It stood about three miles southwest of downtown Toccoa, spreading near the base of Currahee Mountain, a 1,740-foot promontory that took its name from a Cherokee word said to mean “stands alone.”  The mountain is indeed higher than any of the adjoining hills, so much so that it does not appear to be a part of the Blue Ridge mountains when in fact is considered the tailend of the chain. For the men who trained at Camp Toccoa, especially the 506th, who took the name “Currahees” and whose unit patch still bears the mountain’s outline, the mountain would take on an almost spiritual significance.

     Regular runs up the mountain − three miles up and three miles down − were among the grueling physical tests that winnowed out those men who would never wear paratrooper wings. For the 506th regiment, the first to begin training in July 1942, 500 volunteer officers and 5,300 volunteer enlisted men were rendered down to 148 officers and 1,800 men who passed the 13-week test. About 17,000 men in all would try to make it through the camp.

     It all began as an experiment that the U.S. War Department believed had no chance of succeeding.

     “The War Department thought it was impossible to take men off the street and turn them into paratroopers,” said Lamar Davis, a Toccoa historian who volunteers at the museum. “They said you had to train a man to be a soldier first and then train him to be a paratrooper. Col. (Robert) Sink told them he could do it and asked for the chance to try.”

     Sink, a North Carolinian and a career soldier who was already a veteran paratrooper, was given Camp Toccoa to try his way of training.

     “There are three reasons usually given for why they sent him to Toccoa,” said Brenda Carlan, executive director of the Currahee Military Museum. “The first is that the government already owned the land. The second is that the environment was similar to where they would be serving. And third, if the experiment failed, Toccoa was so small and isolated nobody would know about it. That’s probably the most accurate.”

     To new arrivals, the town did seem a small backwater, even though it was known as a manufacturing center for furniture, caskets and, since 1938, of LeTourneau earthmoving equipment. According to Stan Harvey, now a Toccoa businessman, when his father arrived in Toccoa from Texas as one of the trainers for the new recruits, the smallness of the town did not make a good impression. “He said he couldn’t believe it was a town,” Harvey said.

     One young paratrooper hopeful from Minnesota is said to have gotten off the train in Toccoa, had one look at the red Georgia clay, mistook it for bloody ground, and blanched, thinking, “My God, they’re killing them as soon as they get off the train.”

     The camp itself had to grow fast. At first tents served as shelter, and then sturdier buildings, but just barely.

     “The first barracks were tar-paper shacks moved from a (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp down in Franklin County,” said Lamar Davis. “Then they started throwing up buildings. If you could swing a hammer you could get a job helping build the camp.”

     One of the first things Sink did was change the camp’s name. The name Camp Toombs was too gloomy for his purpose, according to Sink. It also didn’t help that the route to reach the camp took new arrivals right by Toccoa’s coffin factory. So Camp Toccoa it became.

     In time the population of the camp would about equal that of the town itself. It would have an amphitheatre for USO shows and movies, a bowling alley, a service club. A chapel, a post office, post exchanges, an auditorium and a movie theater among other amenities. It would also have a water treatment system that the city would eventually buy as the basis of its municipal water department.

     Almost directly across the road from the main gate stood “The Wagonwheel,” a beer joint that was a haven for enlisted men. The “Hi-De-Ho,” further down the road, catered to the officers. The town itself offered two movie theaters and a USO club run by the Toccoa Women’s Club. Newspaper accounts of the time tell of soldiers filling the streets of Toccoa on Friday and Saturday nights, in the words of one editorial, “in search of the diversions high-spirited young men habitually seek.” But it was wartime, so a little leeway was in order.

     Bob Hope brought his Pepsodent Radio Show to entertain in May 1943, one of the standout moments of the camp’s public history. Another future celebrity also passed through the camp in 1943. Private Rodman Edward “Rod” Serling didn’t meet the minimum height requirements to be a paratrooper but he cajoled his commanding officer to overlook that and completed training with the 511th regiment. He served in the Philippines and after the war went to Hollywood, becoming one of television’s most original writers and creator of “The Twilight Zone,” among other shows.

     In all, four regiments of paratroopers were trained, and then, almost as quickly as it had begun, Camp Toccoa’s time passed.

     On May 4, 1944, an article appeared in The Toccoa Record that the camp would officially close on May 15. It had operated for 22 months. Later the Army would announce the camp was being returned to the Georgia National Guard. For a brief time after the war it served as a branch of the Georgia State Prison, holding mainly youthful offenders. It proved too easy to escape from, however, and that ended. Buildings had been moved off or demolished and the site became an industrial park. Only the long concrete block messhall and some lengths of sidewalk remained.

Camp Toccoa
“Three miles up, three miles down” – the run up and down Currahee Mountain
Training for D-Day

Revival of Camp Toccoa

     Brenda Carlan credits a number of things coming together with making the museum what it is so far.

     As far back as 1990, Lamar Davis had organized a Camp Toccoa reunion and had spearheaded the placing of a monument at the training site, but it took help from a popular historian and Hollywood to jumpstart the veneration of Camp Toccoa and the men who trained there.

     The jolt was the revival of general interest in World War II and the Toccoa paratroopers spawned by such movies as “Saving Private Ryan” in the 1990s and historian Stephen Ambrose’s book and  the 2001 HBO series “The Band of Brothers,” highlighting Easy Company of the 506th regiment.

     That, and the discovery by those with newfound interest that many of the young men portrayed were now older men they sometimes knew, and yet didn’t know.

     “We began to see more interest in the camp and what went on there,” Carlan said.

     And then, nearly two decades ago now, the museum was offered the horse stables.

     Built in 1922, they were 75 feet long, 15 feet wide, subdivided into six compartments and they stood in Aldbourne, Wiltshire, England. But men from Company A of the 506th had lived in these stables for about nine months prior to the D-Day invasion and men of Company E had lived in them from their return from France in July 1944 until September 1944, when they jumped into Holland. The owner intended to tear them down. Some paratrooper veterans wanted to save them. The owner offered them to the museum.

     “Brenda (Carlan) and Cynthia Brown (with the Toccoa Chamber of Commerce) deserve the credit for making that happen,” said Ray Ward, a volunteer with the Stephens County Historical Society.

     The women arranged for the stables to be disassembled by workmen in England and flown over by the Mississippi Air National Guard.  “But we still didn’t know what we would do with them,” Ward said.

     The problem became the impetus for building a whole new museum.

     The city was renovating the old depot for the Chamber of Commerce, Carlan said, and plans evolved to move the museum there, but to reassemble the stables, indoors for their protection, would take a lot more room. From that came the plan for the first expansion, a 40 feet by 160 feet expansion of the depot.

     As with moving the stables, the problem was money. Contributions flowed in, Carlan said, a good deal from outside of Georgia and some of it from Europe.

     “There were also a lot of services in kind in the building,” Carlan said. “It was all volunteer. No government money has been used here except on the outside of the depot.”

     The stables are now the mainstay of the museum, serving as displays themselves and also as dividers of various exhibits highlighting all four of the regiments that trained at Camp Toccoa and some individuals.

     Plans for the future do call for researching what grants might be available, Carlan said, but for now the museum is supported by the work of 60 volunteers, donations, admissions and sales of the Camp Toccoa T-shirt, with a trademarked logo making it identical to the ones worn by camp trainees and, since “The Band of Brothers” premiered 10 years ago, an item still in demand.

     Initial plans for the former Milliken  property called for a pavilion holding about 300 people, a place to hold the banquets that are part of the annual Currahee Military Weekend. Hopes are that the are can be prepared for use as a camping ground for reenactors associated the Military Weekend and as a camping and competition ground for active duty military units that visit.

For more information about the Currahee Military Museum and Currahee Military Weekend, go to https://www.toccoahistory.com/

Washington, Georgia

Explore the small Southern town where extraordinary people and events shaped history

Washington’s historic town square

     History has sometimes arrived in Washington, Ga., on cats’ feet, and other times to the clatter of horses’ hooves, but it has come from every direction for more than 200 years.

     History and its relics, both material and spiritual, continue to draw visitors to the county seat of Wilkes County, which boasts over 100 antebellum homes, more than any other county in Georgia.

     “What I like about Washington is its preserved charm and historic integrity,” says Daniel Day, an attorney from Seneca, S.C. “Those are things that even a lot of historic sites have lost.”

     Day has made the 70-mile trek to Washington’s Civil War roundtable, which meets the last Monday evening of each month in the ballroom of the Fitzpatrick Hotel on Washington’s town square and draws members from as far as Atlanta.

     Indeed, the Civil War looms large in the city’s history. Washington is the hometown of Robert A. Toombs, Georgia’s bombastic and brilliant U.S. senator who helped lead the fight for Georgia’s secession and served as the Confederacy’s secretary of state. He later served as a brigadier general. His home, a state historic site and museum, remains one of the town’s most famous landmarks.

The home of Confederate firebrand Robert Toombs

     Celebrated Confederate artillerist Gen. Edward Porter Alexander, whose home is still in his family’s hands, was also a Washington native, as was Eliza Frances Andrews, whose wartime diary and its descriptions of the time and place is one of the foremost primary historical sources of the period.

     On May 3, 1865, Toombs’ political nemesis, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who had been on the run since the fall of Richmond, Va., nearly a month before, gave Washington an enduring place in the legend of the Confederacy’s last days when he rode into the square with what remained of his government.

Davis held his last cabinet meeting in a bank building that stood on the site of the present Wilkes County courthouse, disbanded his government and disbursed what remained of the Confederate treasury (fostering several enduring legends of hidden Confederate gold around Washington) and continued his flight. Hours later, Union cavalry rode into the square on Davis’s trail.

     Those connections are a big part of Washington’s appeal to tourists, according to local chamber of commerce officials, but Washington and the environs has a lot more to offer.  The city has three main museums − the Robert Toombs House, the Washington Historical Museum and the Callaway Plantation − and only one, the Toombs House, deals mainly with the Civil War. About eight miles out of town, the Kettle Creek Battlefield ( kettlecreekbattlefield.org) is the site of the Feb. 14, 1779, victory of an approximately 350-man force of Georgia and South Carolina patriot militia over a Loyalist force more than twice their number. The victory was the first defeat for the British in the campaign to shift the main fighting of the American Revolution to the Southern colonies. Currently under way is an effort to turn the battlefield into a state park and major regional attraction.

     The Washington Historical Museum, housed in a circa- 1835 home, traces the entire story of Washington and Wilkes County from 1773, when the Georgia side of the upper Savannah River valley was opened to settlement, up to the present day. Visitors can learn about the area’s critical role in the American Revolution in the South, a spot so troublesome for the British they nicknamed it “the hornet’s nest.”

     Other Washington firsts include the first operating cotton gin; the first woman newspaper editor in Georgia, and perhaps the Southeast, Sarah Porter Hillhouse, editor of The Monitor in 1803; and the Mary Wills Library, established in 1888 as the state’s first free public library (still operating). Other famous residents include the Rev. Jesse Mercer, who founded Mercer University in Macon. And, of course, the museum offers more information on Washington’s role in the Civil War through the last days. One item on display is Jefferson Davis’ camp chest, left behind as excess baggage as he fled the Union force’s net.

Callaway Plantation outside Washington is a museum of upper Savannah River Valley culture from the late 1700s on through the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s also the scene of the annual Mule Day celebration every October.

     Outside of Washington is Callaway Plantation, a farm and living history museum that traces the area’s history and lifestyle through the evolution of houses, from a primitive log cabin to an early 19th-century Federal style to a plantation house built in 1869. The homes, all original, belonged mostly to one family of early settlers and their descendants, the Callaways, who owned a surrounding 3,000-acre plantation. Outlaw Jesse James, supposedly a family relation, is believed to have visited the 1868 house at least once.

     Since 1980, Callaway Plantation has hosted Mule Day every October (this year on October 12). One of the area’s largest festivals, it features mule shows and exhibitions of working crafts essential to rural life in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Visitors can even learn how to plow while walking behind a mule.

     Whether going to Washington or to its outlying attractions, visitors travel through rolling farmlands of rich soil that remind them of what drew the first settlers. Acres of tall pines, growing neatly in near perfect rows no hand of nature ever planted, also remind passersby where paper comes from. Both remind that the economies of Wilkes County and Washington have long depended on agriculture. But tourism is also now critical to the economy.

The renovation of the 1890s era Fitzpatrick Hotel has been the cornerstone of a renaissance of Washington’s town square and overall tourism appeal.

     A big part of that has been the revitalization of the square, led by the Washington Jockey Club restaurant, (tinyurl.com/washjockey), offering a menu of modern and traditional cuisine, and by the refurbished Fitzpatrick Hotel, (thefitzpatrickhotel.com).

     Built in 1898 by two merchant brothers, the once-exquisite Fitzpatrick was left to rats and bats for about 50 years until 2002, when it was purchased by Mike and Christy Todd, of Athens, and another partner. The partners had restored several of Athens’ early houses and decided to take a crack at what had in its time been one of the premiere hotels of the region. The restored and renovated 17-room Fitzpatrick Hotel reopened in June 2004. It is open on weekends and through the week for special events. Although ghost hunters once rented the whole hotel, most of its residents are tourists drawn to the city.

     The Fitzpatrick Hotel is the Washington’s crown jewel, say chamber of commerce officials, and it and the town, with its history, are a perfect fit.

     For more information about Washington and events there, go to https://www.washingtonwilkes.org/