Detour: Ulysses S. Grant Home

This blog may be called The Southerly, but from the moment we started it I knew we’d be posting about a few of the places we travel to outside the South. And from the start I knew I had to post about Galena, the tiny town in Illinois where my family comes from and where I first began to love history.

Today, Galena is a tourist town. A lovingly preserved (85% of the city is located within the regulated historic district), postcard-perfect town, with a bustling red brick main street, a winding river, and Italianate mansions and church steeples terraced up into the hills above. Most people go to Galena to escape from the city or to immerse themselves in 19th century history, but my family always went to visit my grandparents, who still live in the same house they’ve lived in since my mom was young.

Galena was–and is–a small town, and my sisters and I were always free to explore on our own. We’d walk down Franklin Street, turning up the alley by the Catholic church and peering into the windows of the abandoned brick building behind it.  It was hard to believe that our mom had once gone to school there.  It looked ancient and gothic, like something out of a Dickens novel.

From there, we’d continue up the steep hill, walking along streets that curved around ridges, with brick Victorian houses to our right and abrupt drop-offs and crumbling staircases to our left. We’d go to the school at the top of the hill where our grandpa had gone to kindergarten in the ’30s  We’d walk down the Green Street stairs to Main Street—mainly to hit Kandy Kitchen, of course, but also to window shop. Sometimes we’d sneak into the Desoto House to see if it looked at all like it did when Lincoln gave a speech there.  It didn’t, but I still liked it.  In those days I thought that history was just a dry, stuffy course we had to take in school,  but it was impossible not to be fascinated by the past while wandering around Galena.  I learned to love history without even realizing it. I loved Galena’s history museum, with its stories of the town’s Civil War connections. It seemed like just about every other one of those brick houses up in the hills had been lived in by a Union General at some point.  The museum celebrated them all, but only its most famous citizen, Ulysses S. Grant, got his own display.

I can’t remember if I ever visited the U.S. Grant Home as a kid. My mom said that I did, but I could never recall what it looked like inside, and when I finally did get the chance to visit recently nothing really seemed all that familiar to me. Which might be for the best. Even though when I was young I had a vague interest in the Civil War (thanks mainly to my parents for taking us on a family vacation to Gettysburg and for watching the Ken Burns series when it first aired on PBS), I wouldn’t have been nearly as interested in Grant’s home as I was when I went a few weeks ago. Standing in the same room where Grant once stood, complete with the family’s original furniture, wouldn’t have meant as much to me when I was a kid. This time, it was one of the highlights of my trip back home to the Midwest.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Responses

Atlanta Favorites

In September we made the move from Atlanta to Nashville. We’d lived in and explored Atlanta for years, so after Drew left his design company to go freelance we jumped at the chance to move to a new city. We just needed a change in scenery. Nashville has been great so far; we’re still settling in and discovering what the city has to offer and all the new day-trips we’ll be able to take now. We’re happy to be here, but there are a few things in Atlanta that we’ll miss:

History: Many historic buildings around Atlanta may have been overtaken by development, but the Eastside still has culturally and historically important neighborhoods as well as plenty of local flavor. During the Civil War, the Battle of Atlanta took place around what is now East Atlanta, and while you can’t see a preserved battlefield you can check out a (revolving!) painted depiction of the battle at the Atlanta Cyclorama. Oakland Cemetery in Cabbagetown is a beautifully well-kept garden cemetery from the Victorian era. Nearby, Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn district is filled with African-American history. Visitors can tour the home where Martin Luther King, Jr. was born and can see the church where he preached.

Roadside: The Big Chicken isn’t technically in Atlanta. It’s in nearby Marietta, but it’s been a roadside landmark ever since it went up in the ’60s to promote a restaurant called Johnny Reb’s. The building now is home to a KFC.

Food: While there are all sorts of fancy, Bon Appetit-approved restaurants going up around town, we love the simple ones best. Our favorite, hands down, is Atlanta’s Mexican chain restaurant La Fonda. Before we went vegan we were regulars at Antico Pizza. After we went vegan we discovered Revolution Doughnuts in Decatur and have been craving their vegan dark chocolate cake-style doughnuts ever since.

Sleep: Serenbe, down by Palmetto, Georgia, is the only place we’ve stayed at around town, and since we happened to get married there we’re probably a little biased. Customer service can be hit-or-miss (our last stay there was kind of a disaster, to be honest), but you still can’t beat the quiet country atmosphere and rustic cottages. It’s beautiful.

Shop: Westside Provisions is Midtown’s answer to Buckhead. Housed in a century-old former meatpacking factory, the complex is a little less flashy and a little more of-the-moment than Buckhead’s ’80s modernist sprawl, and the shopping is better too. We especially miss going to Steven Alan and getting late night desserts at Star Provisions.

Museums: The Atlanta History Center has so many good exhibits, both permanent and traveling, that I broke down and bought a membership pass. The Civil War exhibit is one of the best in the country and deserves at least a few visits. There are always new collections to see, and once you’re through inside you can head out to the museum grounds to tour the modest, 19th century-era Tullie Smith Farm as well as the not-so-modest 1920s Swan House.

Parks: Piedmont Park sometimes gets compared to New York’s Central Park, and for good reason. It’s not nearly as big, of course, but it still is sprawling, complete with lakes and stone pathways and a can’t-be-beat view of the city. Much of the park was designed by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind Central Park. On warm, sunny days, the park is usually packed. For something a little less crowded and completely different, take a drive out east to Arabia Mountain. It’s really a monadnock—one of the few rock mountains that sit randomly around the suburbs. Almost lunar and slightly eerie, Arabia has to be one of the strangest–and most beautiful—sites in Atlanta.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Responses

The Ghost Town of Auraria, GA

Out West, gold rush ghost towns become tourist attractions. The old settlement of Bodie, California has become a state park, its buildings preserved “in a state of arrested decay.” Visitors to the tiny town of Gold Point can “help preserve Nevada history” by spending the night in one of its many historic buildings. And in Virginia City, Montana, a ghost town until the tourism industry overtook it in the 1950s, stagecoaches still bump along the roads and visitors still fill the theaters as if nothing ever happened in the 150 years since the miners left town.

Unlike its flashier neighbors to the west, the gold rush ghost town of Auraria, GA has actually stayed a ghost town. It may have a historical marker, but the people who come up the mountain to see it are relatively few. Mostly ghost town hunters and relic hunters, maybe the odd visitor or two from nearby Dahlonega. These days, Dahlonega attracts the tourists with its charming town square and its Gold Museum, while Auraria, one of the country’s very first gold rush towns, sits all but forgotten.

In the 1830s, it was a rowdy place, complete with taverns and hotels and primitive cabins. After gold was discovered there in 1828, miners flocked to the area, trespassing on land that at the time belonged to the Cherokees. The Indian Removal Act  of 1830 gave Georgians permission to take the land from the Cherokees, and the gold only gave them more motivation. By 1838, the Trail of Tears was well underway in Georgia, and Auraria was a gold rush boomtown.

It wasn’t to last for long, though. Auraria’s population started dwindling when the Lumpkin County seat and a US mint set up operations in nearby Dahlonega. And when gold was discovered out West, miners abandoned Georgia altogether for the allure of California and Nevada. Auraria grew smaller by the year. Buildings were torn down; some burned down or fell down on their own. Within the last few years, the Graham Hotel, a barebones building that had been there since Auraria’s start, finally collapsed into a pile of wood scraps and kudzu.

The building next door is still standing. Originally a tavern, Woody’s served as a general store up into the 1980s, which honestly is hard to imagine. When we looked into the windows all we saw were rustic shelves and rows of old bottles. It looked more “arrested decay” and less like anything that could have operated in my lifetime.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Responses

Fort Pulaski

In 2012 a straight-to-video zombie movie was filmed at Georgia’s Fort Pulaski, and for a few days the grounds were full of local extras in costume, wandering around with dead eyes and outstretched arms.

I felt kind of like them when I was at Fort Pulaski a few months ago. It was the last day of our family vacation at Tybee Island, and even though it was still morning we could already tell it would be the hottest day of our trip. The humidity was heavy in the air, and I wished I was still in bed.

Though our tour guide was very good, I didn’t listen. I leaned against the bricks, eyes closed (my brother-in-law got an embarrassing picture to prove it), I sat down with my little niece and nephew, who were busy pouring over the tourist map and wouldn’t be distracted. I left the group, walked through passageways and half-heartedly listened at audio tour stops. I don’t remember what they said; I only remember the sound effects of howling wind and winter storms and how unconvincing they seemed on a hot morning in late June.

The truth is that old forts don’t move me in the same way that preserved battlefields do. In a place like Chickamauga, with its long empty fields and white monuments, it’s easy to feel a connection to the past. I can imagine soldiers marching and fighting in forests and pastures, skirmishing by old log homesteads and split-rail fences. It’s even easier to conjure up the Battle of Lookout Mountain while I’m standing on the rocky overlooks at Point Park. Nicknamed the “Battle Above The Clouds”, the engagement was romanticized from the start—a little too much, according to General Grant, who called it “one of the romances of the war. There was no such battle and no action even worthy to be called a battle,” he said. “It is all poetry.”

The poetry I found at Chickamauga and at Lookout eluded me at Fort Pulaski. I’m not sure why; the walls of the fort are beautifully kept up and intact, except for a cannonball hole here and there. Cockspur Island, where Pulaski is located, is covered in sand and green marshland. It’s pretty. There’s even a lighthouse at the tip, and if I weren’t so tired and lazy that day I would have walked out to see it.

When I was at Fort Pulaski I couldn’t get my head around the stories of what had happened there. I only heard bits of the tour guide’s talk: something about a young and handsome Robert E. Lee; a brand new kind of cannon that could penetrate walls that were supposed to have been impenetrable; a quick surrender.

Pulaski wasn’t interesting to me until later on, when I got home and read about the Immortal Six-Hundred.  If I couldn’t quite imagine the young Robert E. Lee helping build the fort in the 1820s or the Confederates’ surrender of the fort during the Civil War, I could picture the remaining Confederate soldiers from the original Six-Hundred, starved and imprisoned there during a particularly cold winter. Thanks to the audio commentary I heard last June, I imagine howling winter winds too, and this time they seem all too convincing.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Responses