Archive for the 'Moon Georgia' Category

Savannah Book Festival success!

February 28, 2013
In the author signing tent at the Savannah Book Festival (photo Geoff L. Johnson)

In the author signing tent at the Savannah Book Festival (photo Geoff L. Johnson)

This past Feb. 16 I had the utmost honor of being a presenting author at the Savannah Book Festival, highlighting my travel guides in the Moon handbook series. Over its brief five years of existence, the Book Festival has evolved — exploded might be a better word — from a modest event featuring lesser-known regional authors to a marquee calendar
event featuring some of the nation’s most popular writers and writer/celebrities.

Some of the authors who came to Savannah this year hawking new books included Al Gore (The Future), T.C. Boyle (San Miguel), Gregg Allman (My Cross To Bear), Paula McLain (The Paris Wife), Jake Tapper (The Outpost), Dave Barry (Insane City), and James Patterson (too many to count), among many, many others.

While to a certain extent one might bemoan the slightly decreased focus on  local/regional authors — though there are still quite a few of us  participating — there is little doubt that by showcasing more nationally known authors, the Savannah Book Festival has successfully achieved its goal of being a bona fide national event on par with any other such book festival in the country.

Don’t take my word for it. Take it from the C-SPAN’s Doug Hemming, whose network broadcast Al Gore’s presentation live:

“The caliber of nonfiction authors that Savannah is going to have this year is as strong as any festival we cover,” Hemming said in a recent article.

The attendance was also nothing short of gobsmacking. On a cold, blustery day, several venues in and around historic, moss-draped Telfair Square were packed with festival attendees — about 10,000, according to estimates.  (And they bought over 3,000 books!)

Many authors, such as Gore and Boyle, saw some people turned away simply because there was no more room. While I was not quite that popular, nonetheless I filled my presentation room to capacity, and the presentation went extremely well. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.


‘Hello, Mr. Vail’: Jekyll Island’s historic phone call

January 25, 2013

During its heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the membership of the fabled, ultra-exclusive Jekyll Island Club on Jekyll Island, Ga., comprised one-sixth of the entire world’s wealth. The roster of members included such titans of American industry and finance as John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Joseph Pulitzer.

These were not only the “one-percenters” of their day, they were more accurately called the one percent of the one percent.

The Jekyll Island Club

The Jekyll Island Club

The billionaires in the Jekyll Island Club chose the island for their getaways specifically because of its tranquility, and especially its remoteness from prying eyes and ears who might divulge some of the literally world-shaping decisions being made there, such as the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank in 1913 (which as its detractors like to point out, is neither federal nor a reserve, but a wholly privately-owned consortium — as indeed was the Jekyll Island Club itself).

Another event of enormous significance happened on Jekyll Island on this day in 1915, when the world’s first trans-continental phone call — actually a four-way conference call of sorts — partially emanated from the Club.

The story goes like this: The historic call had been intentionally planned to inaugurate the San Francisco World’s Fair. But Club member Theodore N. Vail, the first president of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) and proprietor of that historic phone line itself, was stuck at the Jekyll Island Club recuperating from a leg injury.

The stretch of the AT&T phone line between New York and San Francisco he was about to use passed through through 13 states. Though comprising only four copper wires, about 130,000 poles were needed to prop them up on their journey overland. On Jan. 25, 1915, about 1,500 AT&T employees were positioned across the length of the east/west line as well as between Jekyll and New York, prepared to address any issues with the call.

Alexander Graham Bell — yes, that Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone — started the event around four in the afternoon by speaking from New York to his assistant, Thomas Watson, who was positioned in San Francisco. Vail and J.P. Morgan, Jr. listened to the conversation in a parlor in the Jekyll Island clubhouse.

And so began the four-way call between Jekyll Island, New York City, San Francisco, and President Woodrow Wilson in Washington DC.

A huge media event for the time, the call included speeches by officials and a chat about the weather in Georgia between Vail and another person.

While waiting for President Wilson to be patched into the call, Bell and Watson were cajoled into recreating their famous first words over the first phone call, consisting of Bell saying, “Mr. Watson, come here please, I want you.”

Except in this reenactment, Watson responded to laughter that it would take at least a week for him to get to New York.

At that point Wilson’s voice chimed in to join the congratulations. He was eventually patched through to Jekyll Island, saying: “Hello, Mr. Vail.” To which Vail replied, “Who is this?”

“This is the President,” said Wilson. “I am glad to hear your voice. I have just been speaking across the continent this afternoon.”

The apparently quite laconic — or possibly just nervous — Vail said, “Oh, yes.”

“Before I give up the telephone,” continued Wilson, “I wanted to extend my congratulations to you on the consummation of this remarkable work.”

When Wilson closed by wishing Vail a speedy recovery from his injury, Vail gave what today would be a fairly politically incorrect reply from a major CEO:

“I am getting along very nicely. I am sort of a cripple, that is all.”

Even today, Jekyll Island is pretty sleepy. It’s no longer owned by those wealthy few, but by the people of the state of Georgia. Indeed, an act of the state legislature specifically reserves Jekyll as a recreation spot that must be accessible to “all the people” of Georgia.

Though every vehicle must pay a $5 parking fee to get onto the island, its amenities, including the formerly exclusive haunts of the ultra-rich, are accessible to the general public at reasonable cost. You can even stay in the Jekyll Island Club itself, now a four-star hotel (at three-star prices) and a National Historic Landmark.

As I write in Moon Charleston & Savannah, which includes a chapter on the Golden Isles of Georgia, the north end of Jekyll features most of its noteworthy sights. “Driftwood Beach” on the northeastern end, its namesake wooden ornaments the byproduct of the steady erosion constantly shaping all of Georgia’s barrier islands, is a great place for a peaceful and/or romantic stroll on the sand.

Driftwood Beach

Driftwood Beach

The Horton House ruins are an excellent example of tabby construction, that building material combining oyster shells, lime, sand, and water. (Contrary to old-school opinion, the Spanish didn’t build any tabby construction on the Georgia coast. The technique was used by later British settlers.)

The tabby ruins of the Horton House

The tabby ruins of the Horton House

And of course you can still visit the excellently preserved Jekyll Island Club itself, complete with croquet green.

The Jekyll Island Club Hotel

The Jekyll Island Club Hotel

The grounds of the Club are themselves a great place to meander; here’s a beautiful, ancient Live Oak.


Jekyll Island was known to the Spanish as Isla De Ballenas, island of the whales, a reference to the right whale breeding ground just off its coast. For whatever reason the Spanish never built a mission on Jekyll — possibly because adjacent St. Simons Island featured a sizeable mission already.

In any case, today Jekyll Island is still redolent with history, from the oyster shells in its tabby ruins, themselves taken from ancient Native American shell middens, to the old Club itself.

Meandering through Milledgeville

January 18, 2013

This week in 1861, Georgia’s Secession Convention began meeting in the then-state capital of Milledgeville, center of state government from 1804-68. While the delegates voted to secede within three days, on Jan. 19 — an event marked with huge bonfires and wild parties — they stayed in session through March to finish writing a new Georgia Constitution.

They met, as you’d expect, in the old state capitol, which still exists today. Dominating the quad of Georgia Military College, it’s currently — and appropriately — the Old Capitol Museum, open to the public and supposedly the oldest public Gothic Revival building in America.

The Old Capitol Museum, former statehouse

The Old Capitol Museum, former statehouse

Interestingly, while Union troops ransacked the Capitol building during Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” they didn’t actually try to burn it. Indeed, most of Milledgeville escaped the torch, Sherman’s destruction limited to mostly military targets such as ammunition and train depots. (However, honey was poured down the organ pipes at one chapel.)

Speaking of Sherman, during his brief stay in Milledgeville he commandeered the old Governor’s Mansion as his personal headquarters. Today you can tour the huge, ornate Mansion, commonly considered one of the best examples of High Greek Revival architecture remaining in the U.S.

The Old Governors Mansion, with scaffolding from renovation

The Old Governors Mansion, with scaffolding from renovation

The old Governor’s Mansion today is operated by Milledgeville’s main employer, Georgia College and State University, one of the state’s leading public higher education institutions. However, GCSU is best known to the world as the alma mater of one of America’s greatest writers – and certainly one of the South’s – the altogether unique and fascinating Flannery O’Connor.

Though born and raised in Savannah, O’Connor moved in with her mother in Milledgeville after finding out she was stricken with lupus. Throughout her writing career, O’Connor’s work was an intriguing blend of Savannah’s notable Irish Catholic culture and inland Georgia’s Protestant folkways.

GCSU hosts the “O’Connor Room” of its main campus museum, which contains some charming memorabilia from her time at the college, where she was of course editor of the yearbook. Here I am with the typewriter on which she did most of her writing:

Me and Flannery's typewriter

Me and Flannery’s typewriter

The O’Connor/Cline family was prominent in Milledgeville. Here’s the handsome “Milledgeville Federal” house which belonged to the family, a mere stone’s throw from the Governor’s Mansion itself.

The Cline House downtown

The Cline House downtown

Milledgeville got sleepy after the Civil War, when the state capital was moved to up-and-coming Atlanta in a self-conscious effort to leave behind the antebellum years and embrace the “New South.” Here’s a nice downtown building, actually the oldest Masonic Hall in Georgia:

Georgia's oldest Masonic building

Georgia’s oldest Masonic building

But the main stop by far for any O’Connor fan is a bit north of downtown Milledgeville, at the farm called Andalusia. Currently run by a nonprofit and located on 500 acres of ancestral O’Connor/Cline land, Andalusia features a main house and several outbuildings. In addition to touring the grounds, you can tour the main house where O’Connor wrote almost all her major work, downstairs in a converted parlor to keep her from climbing stairs in her weakened state. Of course there’s a charming gift shop with many locally-produced O’Connor-related items not available anywhere else.

The main house at Andalusia, the O'Connor farm

The main house at Andalusia, the O’Connor farm

While Flannery O’Connor is without doubt Milledgeville’s most famous resident – quite a statement considering how long it was the state capital – for many Georgians the word “Milledgeville” is synonymous with the notorious Central State Hospital, which for much of the 20th Century was the largest insane asylum in the world.

It’s also one of the oldest, begun in the 1830s in an attempt to formalize the treatment of the mentally ill, called “lunatics” in the terminology of the day. Well-intentioned though it may have been, Central State eventually became overpopulated and poorly managed, becoming a byword for cruelty and neglect. Over the decades tens of thousands of patients who died in the course of confinement and “treatment” were buried in unmarked graves on the sprawling campus.

Today, Central State Hospital has been dramatically downscaled by budget cuts and a more modernized approach to mental health. But the old buildings still remain – off limits to the public and closely watched by security – as spooky, grandiose reminders of a time thankfully gone by.

A building at Central State Hospital, the old "Lunatic Asylum"

A building at Central State Hospital, the old “Lunatic Asylum”

You can read more about Milledgeville and Middle Georgia in my next Moon guidebook, Moon Georgia, coming out in Fall 2013….