1 Tank Trip: Thomasville and Thomas County

By Jay Polk - bio | email

September 11, 2008

THOMASVILLE, GA (WALB) - It was once one of the great resort towns in America, where the elite of American society would spend their Winters.

Today, some of those homes and buildings stand as a legacy of that long ago era. An era when Thomasville was the kind of town that would have attracted the rich and famous.

Our own Jay Polk is neither rich nor famous, but this week he travels to Thomasville on his One Tank Trip.

It's the late 1800s. The damage done by the Civil War is being repaired in Georgia and the economy is being forced to adapt to new realities. The old days of the cotton plantations are over.

Meanwhile in the North, the Industrial Revolution is making some people very wealthy. But there's a problem. The cities in the North are getting very dirty with all of the factories, and no amount of industrial know- how can stop the harsh Winters. So how do you preserve your health and thaw out during the Winter months? You come south.

There was a small town in Georgia called Thomasville where the city leaders had a novel idea.  Ann Harrison, the Executive Director of the Thomas County Museum of History tells the story:  "after the war, the local people realized that to revitalize their economy, they had to do something other than produce cotton. So they built a luxury hotel and invited those same people that they'd been fighting against to come down and breathe the pine scented air which was believed to be good for your health."

But why Thomasville?  asked Harrison, "The key was, of course, railroads."

Unlike other parts of the state, the rail lines in Southwest Georgia were mostly intact. In 1869, a line from Albany to Thomasville was completed, and the resort era was on. Lasting until the early 20th century, Thomasville was Palm Beach before there was a Palm Beach. How many visitors would come here?

"About 15,000 visitors came here every Winter to spend the season," said Harrison.

To get a sense of what this long ago era meant here, start your tour at the Thomas County Museum of History, in the historic district, just to the west of downtown. And while they've added on to the 1923 building that houses the museum, some features haven't changed at all. Like the bowling alley.

"It was built for one family who lived on this property in 1893 in their backyard," said Harrison.

If you were a wealthy industrialist, then you could afford to have your own bowling alley. And if you were a survivor of the fire that nearly destroyed Chicago in 1871, you could afford to spend a staggering $4,500 to build a house that would ensure the safety of you and your family, like the Lapham-Patterson House. Built in 1885 by Charles Lapham, it is truly one of the most unique houses in America.

Cheryl Walter, the Curator of the Lapham-Patterson House said, "it doesn't have any right angles in the rooms. And Lapham wanted to make sure that he and his family could get out in case there were a fire. So there are 19 rooms in this house, 45 doors, 24 of those are exterior, and 53 windows."

There is even an early fire extinguisher in the dining room. But Lapham was also able to afford some of the finer things in life, like hot and cold running water, gas lighting and closets, making this the first home in Thomasville to have the three. In 1905, James Patterson purchased the home, giving it the other half of its name.

"He was in the turpentine business, and of course the turpentine business was very big in Southwest Georgia in those days," said Walter.

The Lapham-Patterson house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975. The house itself is the star of any visit here, with it's unusual rooms and unique central stairwell. There's no better example of that than here on the dining room floor. Notice how it doesn't quite match up.

At about the same time that the Lapham-Patterson house was being built, the old cotton plantations were selling for only about $3 an acre, less than the cost of a night at the hotels in town. So some families, like the Hannas of Cleveland, Ohio, began to buy the old plantations, like Pebble Hill a few miles south of town. Unlike the other old plantations here, this one is unique.  Sue White, the Assistant General Manager of Pebble Hill Plantation told us why:

"It is the only one that operates today as a museum. It's open to the public because the last family member to own it, Elizabeth Ireland Poe, determined that she would like to share it with the world," said White.

The house has that "wow" factor-- it's a true American castle. And Poe didn't leave it bare when she moved out. She donated everything in the house to the foundation that runs the museum...even the dishes. But it's not just the house that visitors should see here.

"We have a wonderful stable complex that contains our visitor center, but also houses our carriage collection, main house garage has a wonderful collection of vintage automobiles in it. We have Noah's Ark on the grounds, children love that. It contains paintings by J. Clinton Shepherd, who did the murals here in the main house. And in the Ark, he painted Noah and the animals," said White.

Not surprisingly given the beauty of the house and grounds here, weddings are very popular.

"We have about 45 or 50 weddings here a year," said White.

And Pebble Hill is opening up a new facility called Uno Hill Barn to allow brides and grooms to cut the cake and stay cool at the same time.

It's "a newly renovated barn that is climate controlled and has some 3000 square feet. It's going to be a wonderful area for receptions, corporate events, wedding rehearsal dinners, that sort of thing," said White.

Couples like to get their picture taken next to the big oak tree in front of the main house. But no oak here is as big as the one at our next stop. It's actually called The Big Oak.

The more than 300 year old oak tree is one of the main attractions that people want to see when they come here to downtown Thomasville. And if you want to get your picture taken in front of the big guy, you don't necessarily need a television camera, all you need is a cell phone.

The Big Oak draws people from all over to get their picture taken in front of it. Like these FSU students who wanted to celebrate a special occasion.

"And it's my birthday, I turned 20 today. And my two best friends dragged me here and I really didn't know what was going on. But now I'm in front of this giant tree," said Claire Sipple of Tampa, Florida.

The Big Oak isn't the only natural thing that shows off for the camera. Thomasville is nicknamed the Rose City, after all. And the city celebrates the name on a year round basis with a beautiful Rose Garden. But if you want to escape the city life and get back to nature, a great place to go is the Birdsong Nature Center.

Only a few miles north of the Florida border, Birdsong Nature Center sits on land that was owned by Betty and Ed Komarek. While the Komareks have passed on, this is one of their legacies.

"So they decided to leave this place as a nature center for the public to come to. And they managed it primarily with fire for the last 20 years," said Kathleen Brady, the Executive Director of the Birdsong Nature Center.

Did she say fire?  Yes, she did.

"Prescribed burning really started right here in this area," said Brady.

While it's common to use fire to control underbrush in the forest today, it wasn't until the last few years that it was shown to have positive benefits.

But the best thing about Birdsong is the peaceful feeling that you get when you visit. Whether it's watching the birds from the picture window, or going to the appropriately named Listening Place far away from the main entrance, the chance to get back to nature is what sets this place apart. And they've just made some changes to improve one of the attractions here.

"We're very proud to show them our newly renovated butterfly garden," said Brady

Making this worth the drive from Thomasville itself. Meanwhile, back in town other changes are taking place as well. The city leaders are once again trying to draw in people from other parts of the country.

"And they're really reaching out to attract more retirees who are looking for a place a little less congested than Florida.", said Harrison

Thomasville is about 60 miles south of Albany of U.S. Highway 19, about 45 miles west of Valdosta on U.S. Highway 84 and is easily accessible on a single tank of gas.