Driving Through Dixie, Part 8

Sweet Savannah and Dash Back to Memphis

 

Part 1. Across Miss., Ala., & Ga. to Atlanta

Part 5. Memorials for WW II, Korea and Viet Nam

Part 2. To Lynchburg & Appomattox Court House

Part 6. FDR Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and Corcoran

Part 3. General Lee’s Surrender Remembered

Part 7. Charleston and Fort Sumter

Part 4. Through Virginia to Arlington and D.C.

Part 8. Sweet Savannah & Dash Back to Memphis

 

Index to 62 Photos / Return to Nolan Travels Home Page / Page Updated 9-10-05

By Lewis Nolan

 

July 12, 2005, Tuesday – To Savannah

 

It was an easy, 2 ½-hour drive through the low country from Charleston to Savannah. We enjoyed the lazy pace once we got off the Interstate and onto U.S. 71. There were many views of marshy expanses of water and live oak trees hung with curtains of Spanish moss.

 

We had long wanted to visit Savannah, one of the crown
Bird Girl Statue
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jewels of the Deep South, even before we saw the movie, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, sparked a landslide in tourism and a boom in business to support it. The movie is a dramatized version of a true story based on the best-selling book by the same name. The book by John Berendt was published in 1994. I read the book but think the movie is more entertaining.

 

Much of the action and drama in both the book and movie occurs in a grand home called Mercer House. The home was built in 1860 by the great-grandfather of songwriter Johnny Mercer. The movie about a wealthy art dealer’s mysterious killing of his homosexual companion made Mercer House one of the most visited places in the city’s Historic District.

 

Fodor’s guidebook says Savannah is four hours southeast of Atlanta, but a world away that is “wrapped in a mantle of Old World grace. Established in 1733, the city preserves its heritage in a 2 ½-square-mile Historic District, the nation’s largest urban landmark. Here 1,000 structures have been restored, and families still live in the 19th Century mansions and town houses.”

 

The historic district is laid out on a grid pattern. Victorian-era homes surround most of Savannah’s 24 “squares,” each a park-like area 75 yards or more in both length and width. Massive oak trees shade the squares. The squares also contain hundreds of azaleas and other shrubs, walkways and inviting park benches. In the center of each is either a fountain or a historic monument. We were reminded of our walks through residential sections of Paris.

 

The squares make wonderful venues for relaxing, people watching and chatting with neighbors. However, they make it all but impossible to drive in a straight line through the Historic District. Many of the streets are one way so traffic has to wind around the squares in British roundabout fashion.

 

The squares make Savannah’s Historic District a visual delight and offer a civilized lifestyle reminiscent of European cities even if the traffic flow is quite slow and inefficient. It is obvious that residents are happy with the tradeoff. Demand for housing in the district has sent real estate prices and rents into the stratosphere.

We stayed for two nights at the 1895 Inn, an establishment rated by Trip Advisor as Savannah’s most popular B&B. We agree with the Internet service’s accolade. Betty and I thought it the nicest B&B that we had ever visited.

 

The proprietors are Ed Bryant and Bob Ray, who like to entertain and who wanted a place to display their collections of antiques and art. They live on the ground floor of the Queen Ann style, Victorian home they
1895 Inn exterior
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purchased several years ago. The first floor contains an elegant dining room, a comfortable living room and a modern kitchen. The two floors above have a total of four spacious and lavishly furnished guest rooms (each with a huge bathroom that includes a shower/tub big enough for an NBA player). Also upstairs is a guest lounge/study equipped with leather couches, a library of books and DVDs, large screen TV and a refrigerator stocked with complimentary soft drinks.

 

The 1895 Inn is at 126 East Oglethorpe Avenue, one of the main streets through the Historic District. A wide median strip holds towering Live Oaks and azalea beds and separates the traffic lanes. The inn is a short walk from downtown shopping, dining, tour locations and entertainment. Among our fellow guests were two women who had flown in from Texas and did not think it necessary to rent a car for their weeklong stay.

 

We arrived about 4 p.m. and were immediately checked into the “Sovereign Room” by our charming host, Ed. His partner, Bob, was out of town. Our third-floor room has a queen-size, four-poster bed with an oh-so-comfortable mattress 12 inches thick. The room is equipped with a TV and DVD player, which we took advantage of to re-watch one of the library’s two copies of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”  

 

Complimentary wine and cheese is served to guests from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the living room. We took advantage of the hospitality hour on both nights of our stay. Getting to know Ed and our fellow guests and hearing about one another’s adventures of the day was most enjoyable.

 

We followed Ed’s suggestion and walked two or three blocks to the Six Pence Pub near Chippewa Square (which commemorates the bravery of American troops in a War of 1812 battle). We had a light supper of sandwiches and salad at the English-themed restaurant, which served one of my favorite beverages - Harp beer on tap from Ireland. 

 

Later, Betty enjoyed some of the complimentary tray of freshly baked deserts that Bob sets out nightly in the lounge/study.

 

July 13, 2005, Wednesday – In Savannah

 

Ed took over partner Bob’s customary cooking responsibilities and prepared and served a gourmet breakfast at 9 a.m. It was served on English bone china, fine crystal and one of several sets of sterling silverware they own. The meal included an apple/blueberry dish; blueberry French toast (looks like bread pudding and was so good that Betty got the recipe); fruit cups; juices and a big plate of bacon.

 

Forewarned that the 1895 Inn does not serve bread with the meal, I had purchased a bagel the previous night at the nearby Parker’s Gourmet Quick Stop and 24-hour BP station. That name is for real. It’s a locally celebrated hotspot that sells a full range of delicacies from the deli staffed around the clock. It also offers fancy packaged foods at fancy prices plus The New York Times and other things targeted to the Historic District’s upscale residents and tourists.

 

Betty loved the fruits and sweet dishes that Ed served for breakfast. Trying not to stray too far from my low-carb eating regime since
Dining table set for gourmet breakfast
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going on the Atkins diet two years ago, I stuck to the bacon and my carry-in Bagel. Afterwards, Betty poked around the beautiful neighborhood that includes the nearby Colonial Park Cemetery, which dates to 1750 and is the final resting place of one of Georgia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence. I stayed back to contact the property and rental managers for our condo in Gulf Shores, Ala. Happily, I learned that our place had received only a glancing blow from Hurricane Dennis, which slammed the beach town of Santa Rosa, Fla., near Pensacola. I was told our condo development had a small storm surge that left about 11 inches of sand in the parking areas under the buildings plus the front swimming pool. Compared to the near total ruin of our condo’s interior that we sustained Sept. 16, 2004, that’s just a nick.

 

We are relieved that our plans to spend the first week of August in Gulf Shores have not been interrupted – yet. We were there for a week in June, working like beavers to get the place refurbished and back in top condition following the devastation of Hurricane Ivan last year. We want the upcoming visit to be one of relaxation, not work. But never far from our thoughts is the expensively learned awareness that Hurricane season on the Gulf of Mexico is just getting started.

 

We drove Mustang Sally a few blocks to Forsythe Park, the 20-acre, southern anchor of the Historic District. It is noted for a century-old, magnificent fountain carved of white marble. Its powerful water jets shoot sprays and columns in every direction. Another feature of the park is a fragrant garden. Unfortunately, the city had to enclose the special planting area with decorative, wrought iron bars to keep vagrants from turning it into a campsite. Similar treatment was given to the park’s restroom facilities. Evidently the homeless are attracted to Savannah because of its favorable climate and the hordes of tourists that sometimes are easy touches for a handout.

 

Nonetheless, it is obvious that Forsythe Park is a popular location for wedding photography, for painters and for people of all descriptions who enjoy sitting on a park bench to read and contemplate the lush beauty of Savannah. The park is also the site of a soaring monument to the Confederacy and two of its heroes, Generals Lafayette McLaws and Francis Bartow.

 

Savannah was spared torching by Union General Sherman because the Southern city gracefully and wisely surrendered in the face of overwhelming force.


Betty by Forsythe Park fountain
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The Green-Meldrim House - about five blocks from Forsythe Park - served as Sherman’s headquarters during his “March To The Sea.” Sherman’s troops burned, plundered, robbed and raped their way through Georgia in probably the most barbaric assault ever conducted on American soil. It is bitterly remembered in Georgia and other southern states. Today, the Green-Meldrim house serves as rectory to the adjacent St. John’s Episcopal Church. It faces Madison Square, named for President James Madison.

 

A short distance from Forsythe Park is Monterey Square (named for the capture of the city by General Zachary Taylor during the war with Mexico) and the famous/infamous Mercer House that faces it. Much of the “Midnight. . .” movie was shot in and around this location. We demurred on paying $12 to enter the house just to see the parlor, movie or not. We did enter the gift shop located in the Mercer House’s carriage house immediately to the rear. We were surprised at the paucity of merchandise, given the numbers of people attracted to Savannah by the movie. A clerk professed not to know what the offered price of the house was before it was recently withdrawn from the market.

 

A half-size, fiberglass replica of the bronze “Bird Girl Statue” is priced at $399. Similar replicas of differing sizes – presumably sold under license from the statue’s creator – are available at several tourist shops around town. Betty and I have not one, but two fairly crude, concrete “knockoffs” of Bird Girl at home. One is in the back yard and is used to feed breadcrumbs to the birds and squirrels. The other is in a flowerbed in our front driveway where a white oak once stood until Hurricane Elvis brought it crashing down in August 2003.

 

We drove Sally to the northern anchor of the Historic District, the touristy River Walk along the Savannah River. We parked in a high-rise garage and walked to busy Commercial Street, which seems to be the main drag of downtown. It is lined on both sides by offices, banks and retail stores. One of the neat, old buildings on the street once housed the Cotton Exchange, which set worldwide prices in the 19th Century until the Memphis Cotton Exchange ascended with more trading and pricing for the spot market.   Also on Commercial is a set of cannons of incalculable value that were used by General Washington during the Revolutionary War.

 

Just a few steps off Commercial Street is an elevator that takes visitors from the busy sidewalk on the river bluff down a steep grade to the brick walkway below. However, the elevator was out of service on this day so we
Betty on Savannah's River Walk
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had to gingerly descend perhaps three stories of uneven, stone stairs. The walkway is broad and nicely landscaped. Shops, restaurants and bars are on the town side. Several hundred yards of wharf are on the river side. Tied up are various tour boats, yachts and working boats. It is quite picturesque.

 

Our host at the 1895 Inn had recommended that we have seafood at River House. He also suggested we be on the lookout for a sidewalk shill and take advantage of the offered two-for-one coupons for lunch specials. We did and the very large portions were excellent. I had crab cakes and Betty had a shrimp and oyster combo. Being in the air-conditioned restaurant for a leisurely meal was a welcome escape from the oppressive heat and humidity of Savannah in July.

 

Despite the beauty and charm of the Historic District, walking around during the sweltering daytime was no fun. We decided we’d had enough heat. We reclaimed Sally, cranked up the AC and drove a few blocks to the Telfair Museum of Art, an unheralded gem.

 

Savannah’s famous hospitality was on display by the Telfair entrance. A polite security guard was watching over a half-dozen or so free, reserved parking spaces in a shady area just a few steps from the door. Admission was $12 each. The tightness of our schedule precluded purchase - for an additional $4 – of admission tickets to the Owens-Thomas House Museum, which came highly recommended by our host at the 1895 Inn.

 

The Telfair claims it is the oldest art museum open to the public in the U.S. The mansion that houses it was built in 1818-19 for Alexander Telfair, son of Georgia Gov. Edward Telfair. It was a family home until 1875, when the last Telfair bequeathed it to the Georgia Historical Society. It has been an art museum since 1886.

 

Even before the hotness of the day made a visit to the coolness of an art museum so attractive, we had wanted to visit the Telfair. It has been entrusted with the display of the “Bird Girl” statue, a cemetery artwork made famous by the “Midnight . . .” movie. Officials at Bonaventure Cemetery feared the sculpture would be stolen. The original, bronze depiction of a slender young woman holding two shallow dishes is about four feet tall. It had decorated a tomb for more than 60 years, largely unnoticed until the movie made it famous. Now, the coveted statue is under the watchful eye of a museum guard, who enforces the “no photography” rule.

 

“Bird Girl” now appears on copies of paintings, official photos, book covers, movie memorabilia, refrigerator magnets and other
Lewis near Savannah River bridge
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merchandise sold at Savannah’s tourist shops. I was reminded of the Elvis souvenirs sold in Memphis.

 

The Telfair offers visitors much, much more than “Bird Girl.” It has an impressive collection of second tier paintings by first tier, American artists of the 19th Century including George Bellows and a smattering of celebrated European painters of the 18th and 19th Centuries. The art is handsomely displayed in ornate rooms with highly polished wooden floors. The Telfair is well worth a visit of an hour or two, a welcome alternative to the huge museums that can turn a visit into an endurance contest. 

 

Oddly, the Telfair has no snack facilities, cold drink machines or even drinking fountains. But a gracious lady at the reception desk made us feel most welcome. She pointed out a floor AC vent that blew out a delightfully cool stream of air and gave directions to a shop across the street that sells bottled water. She proved to be a great source of local history and urged us to come back to Savannah in April to see the city blazing with azalea blooms.

 

During our visit, there was a glorious, temporary exhibition of Depression era art by American painters. I found it to be one of the most powerful traveling shows I have ever seen – evocative of the societal divide between the “have-a-lots” and the “have-nothings.”  I fear our country has rapidly moved back toward that grand division in recent years, as taxes have been cut for the ultra rich even as government services have been cut for the most needy. Aggravating that dysfunction of fair play have been stratospheric increases in executive pay at major corporations even as workers have fallen farther and farther behind in inflation-adjusted income.

 

Several dozen paintings from the Schoen Collection in Miami were loaned to the Telfair for this exhibition. They superbly capture the pain, the hopelessness and the bottomless agony of poverty, deprivation and abuse suffered by millions of Americans in the 1930s. I don’t recall seeing any signage naming any Fortune 500 companies as sponsors of the traveling show.

 

It was near closing time so we repaired to the 1895 Inn to enjoy some Chardonnay and cheese with Ed and several guests. After the huge lunch we had at the River Place Restaurant, we were content to wait out a horrific thunderstorm in our room during dinnertime. The street below our window was covered by four-to-six inches of flowing rainwater.

 

About 7:30 p.m., the rain let up so we walked back to the Six Pence Pub. I had a bowl of good clam chowder with half a tuna sandwich.
Spanish moss drapes crepe myrtle
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Betty went for onion soup with half a corned beef sandwich. We stopped at Parker’s Gourmet Quick Stop and BP Station on the way back to the I895 Inn, where I bought some sliced ham and a small loaf of delicious, seven-grain bread for the next day’s lunch on the road.

 

We had no sooner gotten back than another deluge accompanied by thunder and lighting re-flooded the streets. Two of our fellow guests had gotten drenched while taking a “ghosts of Savannah” tour in a hearse with an open roof. At least they got their money back.

 

July 14, 2005, Thursday – To Memphis

 

With his partner Bob still out of town, Ed cooked another gourmet breakfast. Using a Dutch oven, he fried red potatoes that had been cubed, using olive oil. He seasoned the potatoes with salt and pepper only. They were delish. Also served were several sweet dishes that Betty enjoyed, lots of fruit and a big plate of bacon

 

We filled our drink coolers with ice from the inn’s big refrigerator and hit the road at 10 a.m. We at first thought we would stop for the night somewhere in Middle Tennessee. But driving conditions were excellent and we pushed it all the way to Memphis in 10 ½ hours. By ignoring the most direct route on secondary roads, we added a great many miles to our trip but were able to travel at speeds over 70 mph almost all the way. We stuck completely to the Interstate highway route through Atlanta, Chattanooga, Nashville and finally Memphis.

 

(Postscript: We were relieved that our condo at Gulf Shores Ala., was spared from the damaging winds and storm surges of Hurricane Dennis plus a tropical storm that had us nervous the whole trip. Two weeks after our return home, we loaded up one of our station wagons and our pet greyhound, Dickens, and drove to Gulf Shores. We spent a week there in early August 2005 putting the final touches on the near complete renovation and refurnishing of the unit. The restoration was required following the near ruin of the interior on Sept. 16, 2004 when Hurricane Ivan peeled off the roof and the place was flooded by rainwater.

 

(Well, déjà vu came around again on Aug.  29, 2005 when Ivan’s murderous cousin, Hurricane Katrina peeled our roof again and opened the interior to widespread water damage. We are thankful that our losses can be re-repaired, unlike the tens of thousands of residents of New Orleans and coastal areas in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana who lost everything and in some cases their lives.)

 

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