It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was...it was not that story.
But it was Athens, and as all Georgians know, when compared to any other city it's size in the state, Athens is the other place. Athens is unique. The University of Georgia facilitates the gathering of some of the South's most eccentric folks into one town, and not just on fall
Saturdays. This town is the launch pad for so many Georgia legends. R.E.M., The B-52s, Widespread Panic, Erk Russell, Vince Dooley, Herschel Walker, Larry Munson, even the infamous Cobb Brothers called Athens home.
You can't cram those sorts of folks into the same small town for over 200 years and not expect to hear some interesting tales, so let's look at a couple.
The Tree That Owns Itself
Thats right ladies a gentlemen, a tree that owns itself. The legend tells us that in the early 19th century, UGA professor Col. William H. Jackson willed the tree and everything within 8 feet of its base to itself. It pays no taxes and fears no man. The community cares for the tree and George Foster Peabody even had a concrete barrier built around the tree's property. Adding to the legend, the original tree became diseased and then fell over in a storm in 1942. The current tree grew from one of the acorns of the original tree. So the current tree inherited itself and 8 feet around its base from its father and is sometimes referred to as Son of the Tree that Owns Itself.
Call it inheritance, call it sleight of hand, call it squatter's rights, but by all accounts, this tree appears to be the rightful heir with no known objections. So there it sits, the proud owner of a small corner lot at the intersection of Finley and Dearing streets. Just look for the tree that looks like it owns the place.
The Robert Toombs Oak
If you have read ABG much, you've probably heard of Robert Toombs. If you continue reading, you'll probably hear about him again. He's a regular around here. He spent his college years, well, some of them, in Athens at UGA. As he did most places he spent more than a few hours, he left many stories. This is one of my favorites. There are a few variations of this one. I'm telling the most truthful version, which is to say my favorite version of a story that's probably only half true.
Young Robert was playing poker and smoking cigars, because Robert played poker and smoked cigars. He might have been enjoying a taste of bourbon as he was known to do that as well. But such activities were frowned upon for gentlemen who were preparing to read law at Franklin College in the early 1800s. So when a professor caught him engaged in such activities, he was threatened with expulsion once the dean woke up. Robert had enough experience with trouble to know that the best way to stay out of trouble was to outsmart it and the best way to outsmart it was to stay out in front of it.
There was only one thing to do. He went to the dean's house and knocked on the door, woke the dean up and shared his hardship with the dean. He had to withdraw immediately. His sister had run off with the circus and he had to go find her. Or maybe the family farm had been overrun with rabid goats and he had to fight them off with nothing but a spoon. You know, something believable.
So the dean granted him a withdrawal. With this paper, he would go on the Union College in New York state and then to law school at the University of Virginia before becoming one of the finest lawyers in Georgia.
But the professor was furious after Toombs outflanked him. And once he told the dean what happened, he flipped out too. But Toombs was free.
The legend goes own to say that some 50 years later, Toombs returned to UGA and stood beneath a majestic oak in front of the chapel. He gave such an eloquent speech that the crowd inside the chapel all came outside to hear the legendary orator give what must have been his greatest speech ever, even surpassing his "Enemy at the gate" before the Senate in 1860 and his secession debate with best friend A.H. Stephens the following year. Toombs and the tree developed a bond that everyone remembered.
As the legend recounts, the tree was struck by lightning the day Toombs died and never recovered. and then in 1908 it finally fell. The tree was turned into mementos and given to people. (If you know where to find one, ABG would love to have one). But the legend of Toombs and the mighty oak survives to this day.
Two trees, two legends, and told ABG style, the most truthful versions. These stories are alive today because people shared them. You know what to do.
This past week, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed made a statement that immigrants, legal and otherwise, should leave rural Georgia and move to Atlanta to have better lives. In support of the mayor, his knowledge, & wisdom, we have compiled a comprehensive & exhaustive list of everything that the mayor knows about the Georgia that lies north of the Big Chicken, east of Stone Mountain, south of the airport & west of Six Flags.
What Kasim Reed knows about rural Georgia
That's about it.,
Questions. Points. Counterpoints. Honest conversation. Nothing contentious or hostile, just good old fashioned discussion. That is representative of the responses I received from last week's article. I was thankful to receive it as it is a constructive thing in establishing a true marketplace of ideas.
First, allow me to expound on the idea or the behavior, language, etc. of The South. The idea of the genteel, even aristocratic South raised questions because many Southerners grew up with a more coarse and rough experience. And that is not necessarily less Southern. My point was not that everything has to be starched and spit-polished. My point was propriety and appropriateness. I'm talking about Southern manners and chivalry.
As for some of the other concerns, I focused on the Southern point of view in the previous entry because this is a Southern blog. And, leaning on the teaching of historians of the War Between the States, from almost every side of the discussion, the ending of the war signaled the triumph and adoption of the Northern industrial model over the Southern agrarian model. This has never been a point of contention, even from those who wish to believe that the war was all about slavery.
But questions arose from friends and readers with opinions that I respect. So I sat outside and watched a storm roll in while I pondered this. And I put a lot of thought to it. Where do I draw the line between Southern values and the values of New England or the Midwest.
This question makes me remember my recent Maine trip and the Southern-ish experience I had. It reminds me of spending several days as the guest of the pharmacist in Gilman, Illinois. He ran the locally owned pharmacy in the small prairie town. It reminded me of the little towns and farm houses along my rainy trek from Peoria, to Macomb, to Gaylesburg, Illinois. It reminded me of standing atop Prophet Rock and listening for the shouts and shots of the Battle of Tippecanoe Creek.
But then there's Chicago, Indianapolis, and St. Louis. The cities themselves aren't very Southern but perhaps the suburbs are a different story. Boston and Philadelphia are not Southern.
But then again, I've already argued that neither is Atlanta.
So here is where I stand. I think Southern values are lacking these days, so I attempted to address that. I've had some exposure to the values I was asked about. I'd like to see more. I'd like to see a defense of those values. I'd like to see these values shaping society from that direction. I'd like to see our rural areas and our good suburban areas stand up and demand a country that respects Southern, Midwestern, and New England values. I'd like to see cities and industries and other major corporations getting out of our business and not trying to govern us with the same standards that apply to a metropolis. Most of all I'd like to see values, period.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire