Sam Burnham, Curator
The coast of Georgia winds and curves. The barrier islands, rivers, marshes, sounds, and hammocks form a texture. It’s a nooks and crannies kind of place and if you look in these spaces you’re bound to find something unique.
One such place can be found clinging to the marshy bank of the Altamaha River, down on US 17 between Darien and Brunswick. The Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation State Historic Site tells several stories, including this one. Plantations like this one were different than plantations in the interior. Here is where we find the foundation of a culture that itself now clings to the Georgia Coast, the remnant of what once was.
When we think of Georgia agriculture during the antebellum era, we think about cotton and maybe tobacco. But along the coast the crop was rice. Rice is a specialized crop and the slaves brought to the low country to produce it had skills that were brought from rice growing regions in West Africa. These slaves also brought another important trait for rice cultivation - a genetically encoded immunity to the most severe effects of malaria.
This immunity opened the door for the birth of the Geechee culture in Georgia. While the low country slaves did suffer from some symptoms of malaria, the disease made surviving the summer on a rice plantation practically impossible for white landowners. For six months out of the year, rice plantations were completely isolated enclaves of West African slaves. From overseers down to the basic laborers lived, ate, worked, and entertained themselves with minimal influence from outsiders.
The result was the development of a creole culture. Language, music, art, clothing, and folklore were all passed from one generation to the next. These traditions didn’t stray far from their African roots. In fact, a ranger tells the story of a group of Geechee people who travelled to Sierra Leone. A young girl from Georgia began singing a Geechee song for her hosts and before she finished, a child of her hosts was singing with her. They both knew the song well. An ocean of distance and two centuries of time had not destroyed that link.
Today the culture of the Gullah/Geechee people is threatened. What used to stretch from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to Northern Florida is now confined to a few barrier islands in Georgia and South Carolina. The end of isolation, the encroachment of modernism, economic pressures, and time are all slowly robbing us of this culture. People move away to find a living, people grow old, they die. Factors such as development and “progress” have all but wiped out the Gullah/Geechee people.
Survival of the culture now depends on people who work to keep songs, stories, dialect, and clothing traditions alive. Soon a culture that we know today, that still exists on our coast, will need to be portrayed by living historians as it will die while we watch.
Gullah/Geechee culture is being preserved in places like Hofwyl-Broadfield. The Gullah/Geechee Ring Shouters of Darien perform the traditional songs and dances. Researchers like Dr. Griffin Watson document and demonstrate the creole dialect.
It seems like these scenarios are the best we can hope for. As the stories survive and people continue to care for the traditions, something of the Gullah/Geechee will survive. That will never be the same as having the culture living and breathing but unless something changes really soon, that’s all we can expect.
Sam Burnham, Curator
When you’re visiting a new area it’s easy to retreat into your comfort zone. All along I-95 you are sure to find recognizable signs - Chili’s, Applebee’s, McDonald’s, Wendy’s.
Don’t do it. Seriously. Just don’t. You gotta get away from that trap. Get yourself some local flavor. Get some of that place on you. Really experience the place.
We got this tip from the proprietor at Once Upon a Bookseller in St. Marys. She said we had to try it, that the locals eat there. That this was a must-try spot in the area. She hit the nail on the head.
Right on the side of US 17, just south of Kingsland sits an old fashioned diner. Steffens has been in business since 1948. They bill themselves as being a place for Southern comfort food. That is exactly what we found. This is a breakfast all day kind of place with the other great diner options - burgers, dogs, soups, and sandwiches. They have fresh salads and plenty of dessert.
An appetizer of fried green tomatoes got us started with a bang. They were done just right. Crisp tangy goodness that doesn’t fall all to pieces when you cut into it. It’s one thing to say you serve fried green tomatoes. It’s another to do it right. And Steffens does it right.
We can now vouch for the chicken and waffles, the all beef hot dogs, and the country fried steak. The latter with green beans, creamed potatoes, and a basket of cornbread.
The hot hot dogs are served on toasted buns with or without fresh diced onions and a side of home fries. Chili and slaw are both available as toppings.
The chicken and waffles are pretty standard. Once you get into it, the big waffle is a bed for delicious fried chicken strips that are crisp but not all dried out. An excellently prepared dish.
One of the best parts about Steffens is learning that they use local seafood, eggs, and other components to make delicious food that you won’t find and that fast casual chain joint out on the interstate. Throw in a great price and it’s hard to beat.
But it I’d be lying if I didn’t say the atmosphere was my favorite part. This beacon of yesteryear was a delightful stop. A piece of 1948 is standing on the side of The Coastal Highway, US 17. In this age of disposable everything, it’s good to see something of this quality endure. These places used to to dot the entire landscape but have now become rare as through traffic has left these old routes for the convenience of the interstate.
You have to get off I-95 to find this one. If you want an experience that leaves a smile on your face, you’ll try this one. Looking around the dining room, a lot of other people agree. I can’t imagine anything on that menu in that place would disappoint. In fact, until we can get back ourselves, let us know if you get by there and what you thought.
Sam Burnham, Curator
Down in the low country the marsh, the river, and the ocean all meet up. It’s a thing of beauty. It makes for good pictures but a camera can’t really capture it. Along the Georgia Coast, various circumstances have protected such environments. Government designations as well as private owners declining the opportunity to overdevelop have ensured such natural beauty lives on.
Crooked River State Park in Camden County is one such location. Visitors have the option of cottages or camping and the permanent residents provide an excellent location to escape that hustle of modernity. The flora, fauna, and landscape provide a taste of what is found on Cumberland Island. Trails give hikers access to the maritime forest as well as breathtaking views along the riverbank. The boat ramp gives boaters access to fishing as well as another perspective on the landscape.
The river is wide here. The water is slow as it reaches the end of its journey to the sea. Some of it is more fatigued by such an odyssey and tarries along the bank forming a coastal marsh. This is where one might encounter one of Georgia’s leftover dinosaurs. The American alligator thrives in this environment. Even if you don’t see a gator, you’ll notice their slides or tracks. They’re never far away. Without obstruction, the view over the marsh seems endless and one wonders if there is really an ocean out there or if the marsh stretches to Morocco. This has to be seen in person to be appreciated. The vastness is lost in photos.
Back on solid ground expect an encounter with yet another dinosaur. This is the natural habitat of the gopher tortoise. These reptiles wander at will. Drive carefully as this is their home and you are their guest. They’ll oblige you with excellent photo opportunities if you give them their space. These creatures are quicker and more graceful than the fables suggest. Just don’t run them down trying to make them prove that.
These tortoises are threatened due to loss of habitat. This is problematic because these animals provide shelter for others. Gopher tortoise burrows can be up to 70 feet long and 20 feet deep. With such a burrow, other animals in the long leaf pine habitat take up residence in them as well. Various snakes, including the Eastern Indigo, as well as mammals, lizards, and insects take shelter from weather and fire in tortoise burrows. Scientists have even discovered insect species that have never been seen outside of a gopher tortoise burrow. Nicknamed “nature's landlord,” the gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species meaning that it provides more for its overall habitat than its population would warrant. This is a pivotal animal in the survival of the long leaf pine habitat.
These animals live about 90 years in the wild but don’t reach sexual maturity until around age 20 so they aren’t a sustainable food source. This isn’t good for them as they are reportedly quite tasty and were called “Hoover chickens” during the Great Depression, being used for meat where few other options existed.
All that to say, these animals were a highlight of the trip.
There is a lot to see in this park. Hiking, biking, boating, fishing, camping, they even have a miniature golf course. A stop here would be a great addition to any visit to the Georgia Coast.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire