Showplace

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AS SEEN ON THE CUSP of spring, Thomasville, Georgia, might be any small town in the Deep South. But beneath the sultry perfume and soft palette of wisteria and azalea, wisps of Spanish moss drifting from gnarled live oak trees, and big, white-columned houses, lies an unusual story.

Thomasville’s rich, loamy soil and thick pine forests drew its earliest settlers, winners of the Georgia Land Lottery of 1820. Later, second sons of wealthy planters along the Atlantic Coast bought up tracts of land to grow cotton and rice and build showy houses. It looked as though the classic plantation culture had taken irrevocable hold until, with the Civil War, the town’s history swerved. Tom Hill, whose lively patter makes him not just curator of the local historical society but its star attraction, explains: “To understand it at all you must understand the kind of money coming in from 1870 to 1900. All Northern money. One out of every three men in Thomas County died in the war—a few years later we smiled at Yankees. The man who smiled had just laid down his gun. You can’t hate up close.”

The elegant homes on Thomasville’s shady residential streets and the old brick buildings housing an intriguing mix of shops along the perfectly groomed commercial blocks reflect the post-Civil War boom, a period known locally as the Hotel Era. One normally thinks of a health resort as commanding a mountaintop or the shore of a lake, but that wasn’t Thomasville’s lure. People seeking a cure for tuberculosis and other ailments came to the mildly scenic southwest corner of Georgia for the gentle climate and pine-scented breezes. At 350 feet above sea level, ran an 1891 ad, “this city … is entirely free from malaria or any disease generally particular to a low climate … come find relief and safety in this high, dry resinous atmosphere in which yellow fever has never been known.”

The railroad had made its way to Thomasville in 1861, briefly opening up visions of commerce until war intervened. Later, when the Hotel Era blossomed, 20,000 visitors would arrive by rail during the social season. The antebellum plantations were by then showplaces owned by Northerners, “some of the richest people who ever lived,” says Tom Hill. He cites Whitneys, Hannas, and many others with names less known but with fortunes equally secure.

The grand hotels that housed the thousands who swelled the town’s population no longer exist. The earliest, the Mitchell House, opened in 1876 and burned down ten years later. A surviving portion of its successor, which bore the same name, still stands on Broad Street, but so disguised that one would never know it. Neel’s, a department store that opened in 1899, reworked the structure several times and inhabited it until going out of business last year. (A new occupant has set up a fabric and decorating business on the ground floor.)

Thomasville in the 1880s “enjoyed the glittering spectacle of thousands of wealthy individuals parading through the community,” one historian writes. “There were European noblemen and American business moguls rubbing shoulders with local black and white residents on Broad Street, and an easy tolerance developed.” This urbane legacy has been instrumental in shaping the town’s success down to the present time.

In 2000 the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Thomasville among the year’s “Dozen Distinctive Destinations,” citing its cultural diversity, interesting architecture, and, most important for a community’s health, “dynamic downtown.” Two years earlier Thomasville had won the National Trust’s Great American Main Street Award, reflecting a commitment to preservation that goes back to the mid-1960s. It is a pleasure to stroll the commercial streets, whose appealing shops and eating places draw visitors from elsewhere in Georgia and neighboring Florida. Markers on many of the old brick buildings explain their nineteenth-century uses. An officesupply store occupies an 1886 bowling alley, and the former “Millinery and Dry Goods Store” is now Firefly Gifts. Several businesses have remained in the same spots for the best part of a century, their interiors scarcely changed. Izzo’s Pharmacy has its original 1920s soda fountain; Jerger Jewelers, established in 1857, houses its treasures in the same mahogany cabinets and deeply beveled glass display cases that greeted its 1880s clientele.

By 1905, Thomasville’s time as a resort was over. Two developments opened up tourism to northern Florida: the conquest of malaria and the railroad’s extension to St. Augustine. But the northern millionaires had set deep roots in the area, and they never left. Today, their fifth-generation descendants still own the huge estates in the nearby countryside that by the late 1800s had been adapted for the gentleman’s sport of quail hunting. They became known as hunting plantations, and seventy-one of them survive, covering a total of 300,000 acres. Two are open to the public: Melhana, which began accepting overnight guests in 1998, and Pebble Hill, which is run as a museum.

The Historical Society, occupying a 1923 Colonial Revival house in the heart of town, tells Thomasville’s whole extravagant history, from the earliest days of log-cabin habitation to the amazing excesses of life on the hunting plantations (for example, Millpond, built in 1903, had a ground floor covering 38,000 square feet), with a nod to more recent celebrity visitors like Jacqueline Kennedy and the ubiquitous Duke of Windsor. And several exhibits feature Thomasville’s black population.

Southwest Georgia held an unusual concentration of large slaveholders. Of the county’s 4,500 whites, just 400 owned 6,200 slaves. At the Civil War’s end most of the freed slaves continued to work on the plantations, finding themselves somewhat better off than many of those who had quit the area. They benefited not only from the flow of money but also from a sophisticated new outlook brought by the wealthy outsiders.

A fascinating tour of Thomasville’s African-American community, with all its ironies and internal contradictions, was started several years ago by Jack Hadley, who grew up in Thomasville and whose forebears have a long history there. After a career with the Air Force, he came back home, as so many native sons and daughters do, and he worked as a letter carrier for twelve years. Then he retired again, but not really, since he spends long hours documenting and collecting black history, with a focus on the Thomasville area. “It’s my calling,” he says.

Several years ago he waged a campaign to name the town’s new post office for a local hero, Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper, who in 1877 became West Point’s first black graduate. It is the first post office in Georgia named for an AfricanAmerican, and Hadley is still working to get his hero on a postage stamp. Flipper’s reputation fell under a cloud in 1881 when he was falsely accused of embezzling government funds, and until his death in 1940 he fought unsuccessfully to clear his name. More recently, Ray McColl, a young historian, and other local supporters took up the cause, leading the Army to give Lt. Flipper an honorable discharge in 1976. Soon afterward, his body was brought from an unmarked grave in Atlanta to Thomasville and reburied with military honors in Old Magnolia Cemetery. In a final vindication, President Clinton issued Lt. Flipper a full pardon in 1999. “This is a day of affirmation,” Clinton said. “It teaches us that time can heal old wounds and redemption comes to those who persist in a righteous cause.”

Henry Flipper’s gravesite, along with a room dedicated to him in the local library and his brother’s house, are on Hadley’s tour. So is the site of his alma mater, Douglass High School, built in 1902. In 1973, several years after schools in Thomasville became fully integrated, the building was torn down to make room for a middle school. Hadley and Willie Johnson, his fellow guide on the tour, are passionate about Douglass. “When I first got there, I thought I’d come to a city,” Hadley remembers. “I wanted to put something up on the campus so that generations and generations will say there was a school here for blacks.” He points to an impressive granite monument; he and other alumni raised $8,000 for it to replace the previous memorial he dismisses as “a little brick thing.”

THOMASVILLE’S URBANE LEGACY HAS BEEN INSTRUMENTAL IN SHAPING THE TOWN'S SUCCESS DOWN TO THE PRESENT TIME.

Hadley was born and raised at Pebble Hill, where his father was a chauffeur for 53 years. Johnson calls Pebble Hill “the Cadillac of plantations,” and he and Hadley speak fondly of the place’s mistress, Elizabeth Ireland Poe, known to all as Miss Pansy. “She was a different person—she had an interest in the people—she was benevolent,” Hadley says. Taking on yet another project, he has taped interviews with the black servants of Pebble Hill and other plantations and published his and their memories in a book titled African-American Life on the Southern Hunting Plantation . It’s an intriguing volume, colored with mellow reminiscence. “It was a good life,” one woman says. Another remembers, “Miss Pansy didn’t like to see your kids go barefeet … we had sandals provided for us and sun hats, and she just really cared for us.”

It may be hard for an outsider to read this without a lifted eyebrow, but there’s nothing meek or soft about Jack Hadley. He has spent years uncovering black history with energy and pride, starting in 1979 at a base in Germany when he was angry at the lack of attention paid to what was then Black History Week. Titus Brown, the book’s coauthor and a professor at Florida A&M, tried to explain some of the complexities to me: “African-Americans in Thomasville mostly enjoyed a social equality in terms of economic advancement and land and home ownership,” he says. “On the plantation, they were protected from the worst of Jim Crow.”

Not entirely, of course. In 1955 the activist preacher Andrew Young’s first parish consisted of two Congregational churches, one in Thomasville and one in the countryside. “Thomasville engaged in a gentler form of segregation,” he writes in his autobiography, ”… but it was no less real.” Young recalls that although a few blacks had always voted there, when he started a registration drive the Klan showed up in town. “The black elders … went to the white business community leaders and, in effect, told them, ‘If you let these Klansmen come into our community and harass us you can forget about us shopping at your businesses.…’” It worked.

You can take a two-hour tour of the antiques-filled Pebble Hill and dine and sleep elegantly at Melhana. Both are furnished in the best House & Garden style and have extensive, beautifully maintained grounds. Wandering them, I thought of something Tom Hill had said of the Northern invaders: “They bought their own islands. Only we call them plantations.”

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