Sam Burnham, Curator
Over on our Instagram and Facebook pages, I posted a story with a James Oglethorpe Quote. Oglethorpe was, of course, the founder of the colony of Georgia having secured a charter from the king, sailing with a group of settler to present day Savannah, establishing friendly ties with the native Yamacraw, and fighting the Spanish for the security of the colony.
Since the stories on social media only consist of a picture, a quote, and a hashtag, I thought I should expand on the quote just a bit.
"If we allow slaves, we act against the very principles by which we associated together, which was to relieve the distressed." - James Oglethorpe
Oglethorpe had a plan for Georgia before he ever sought out the charter. He wanted a land based on hope and Christian charity. The idea that Georgia was a prison colony is erroneous. The original settlers were not criminals by our modern interpretation. The original settlers were indebted in Britain and came to Georgia for a chance at a new life. This meant the first Georgians were seeking an escape from bondage. Therefore it was essential to Oglethorpe that the new colony did not use an even more brutal form of bondage in order to free people from their debts.
The new colony was to be based in the idea of personal enterprise. No large plantations would be allowed. Businesses would be small family operations. Lawyers were also prohibited. Georgia stood in juxtaposition to its neighbor, South Carolina, which was a haven of big plantations and big money. That difference would eventually be the downfall of Georgia's original plan as greed and competition overrode the founding principles and led to slavery in the colony.
When we talk about the small things - small towns, small businesses, small family farms, we aren't just enjoying an abstract daydream. We are discussing the very principles that our state was founded on. While Columbia, Atlanta, Birmingham, Jackson, and New Orleans may run the Deep South, it is still dependent on places like Due West, Talking Rock, Smut Eye, Iuka, and Lafitte. Our celebration of the small things is an attempt to draw attention back to the basic, the intended, the original.
Sam Burnham, Curator
You've probably seen the Deportation Bus by now. While you may not have seen it in person you've likely seen a Michael Williams ad or a news story about the school bus turned campaign slogan that is making the round in the Peach State. The gray and white bus is labeled "Follow Me To Mexico" and "Warning: Murderers, Rapists, Kidnappers, Child Molestors (sic), and Other Criminals on Board." It is the metaphor that the gubernatorial candidate has hatched to represent his take on illegal immigration.
And I get it. It is proven that there is some criminal activity among the illegal population in the state. There is some gang activity. There have been murders and rapes. There have been DUIs that led to serious injuries and deaths. And people are not being unreasonable to believe that a total disregard for immigration law hints at lawlessness. We should enforce our laws strictly and consistently. We should have zero tolerance for serious crimes and property damage from illegal aliens. I'll not dispute that for one minute.
But the Deportation Bus is not the only bus in this conversation. There are other buses involved. In the next month or so, in the fields of Crisp County, people will line up and begin cutting watermelons. They'll pass them from person to person until they arrive and a specially customized bus. The top is cropped off save what provides shade to the driver. the seats are removed to form a makeshift truck bed as high as the bottoms of the windows. They pile it slap full to the brim with watermelons and then it pulls off to the market while a newly returned and empty bus pulls up to take its place. And they relay the buses all day. It is not unusual to be following one, have one behind you and have several of them pass you in a row heading the other direction. That's a typical Cordele Rush Hour, except it lasts all day.
The trick is, the workers in the fields are most likely illegal aliens. Many of them have likely come to the area after the peach or onion harvests, or maybe even both. These aren't jobs that machines can do. But they are vital jobs to our state. Agriculture is our top industry. We are the Peach State. Georgia is, by law, the only place where Vidalia Onions can be grown. Crisp County is known as the Watermelon Capital of the World. It is more than a business, this is who we are as a state.
Let's be honest for a minute. These aren't "American jobs" being "stolen." You're not about to work all day picking watermelons in the South Georgia sunshine. I know I'm not. It's a labor intensive, sweaty, hot, low-paying job. No one is getting rich off the watermelons. Despite being the number one producer of watermelons, Crisp County is the poorest in the state. And if you see the grocery store prices on a water melon and then you see the labor and transport involved, you see what the problem is. If you want to pay $15 for a watermelon, then the farmers can pay the harvesters more. But you don't want to pay $15 for a watermelon any more than you want to spend all day picking watermelons in the hot Georgia sunshine. I know I don't.
Consider this. You're not going to find a bunch of murderous gangsters in the fields. They don't want to be out there either. They can make more money selling drugs, pimping prostitutes, robbing people, kidnapping for ransom, whatever gangsters do. A person who spends all day picking watermelons is going to go home, eat dinner, spend some time with their family, and go to bed. They don't have a lot of time for foolishness. They have to spend all day tomorrow filling old school buses with watermelons. These are typically honest, hardworking people who took a chance at a better life. And the may not even want to stay here forever. They understand the Economy of Place, they love their homes and want to go back. But by working in our fields they can earn a better life back there.
I'm a third generation American on one branch of the family. My great-grandparents fled the onset of communism in Eastern Europe in the latter days of World War I. They went through Ellis Island, completely legal and by the books. So I understand the desire to flee. But I also understand the need to have it done legally. What we don't have in place is a true and functional guest worker program where farmers can go through legal channels to hire crews to pick crops. Such a program would allow for background checks, medical screenings, or other safety measures that would ensure that the workers are the sort of people we want to come in. The who;e process could be above the table. Clean and legal labor for the farmers who need it. And workers could follow the seasonal work as the year progresses. That's really a win-win for everyone.
So let's save the deportation hyperbole for those who really do fit the descriptions on that bus. Let's find a way to allow some honest dads to take care of their families and probably help their hometown economy in the process. Let's be strict about our laws but let's pass wise laws to be strict about. Let's keep those watermelon buses rolling. It's getting to be summertime. And it is tough to beat a cool slice of watermelon on a hot summer day.
By Sam Burnham
This story was born atop a wood table alongside gas station food. I'm not talking the gas station biscuits we've discussed on Twitter, I'm talking country fried steak, mashed potatoes with gravy, and Fordhook Lima beans. But this isn't a food critique. So I'll shelve that talk for now.
The establishment in question sits adjacent to a paper mill and coal-fired power plant. So just about everyone else in there eating was driving some sort of truck. Some guys haul pulpwood in and others hauling coal ash out. That is where the story got interesting. A conversation on outgoing coal ash, some headed to become a cement ingredient, the rest to specially designed landfills, grew into this article.
As we talk about jobs and the land we live in, the rivers we fish on, the air we breathe, and what we leave our kids, I think this is a discussion we need to have. We don't need a lot of Greenpeace slogans or chanting or left-wing politics, but we do need some realistic talk about this coal thing. In all the talk of President Trump ending the War on Coal it is easy to pick a side, Left of Right and stand there. It is another to see what this means in reality and make a decision independent of political parties altogether.
So I'm looking at one plant. Just a small portion of a major utility in The South. Plant Hammond in western Floyd County, Georgia came on line back in the 50's. It was pretty advanced for its time and helped to electrify rural areas of Georgia in the post-war era as well as providing some solid, good paying jobs in the northwest Georgia area. But technology has changed. The Southern Company has begun to diversify its generation facilities. Hammond has become a sort of peak usage reserve generation plant. Basically, they only operate when there is the heaviest use on the system. Often when they fire up Hammond's boilers it's to meet demand for The Southern Company's customers in Mississippi or Alabama. It may even be to sell power to another agency such as Oglethorpe Power or perhaps a local co-op.
The aging plant is just not vital to Georgia Power's operations any longer. As the road is being cleared for expansions to continue on nuclear fueled Plant Vogtle and natural gas becomes more affordable and easier to access than coal, modernizing a plant like Hammond starts to make less and less sense for a stockholder operation like the Southern Company. It's not a big secret that Hammond is close to joining sister facilities such as Plant Yates and Plant Kraft in being decommissioned and demolished. At normal operation, the coal pile at Hammond sat high and level from one end to the other - 30 days of coal for regular operations. This week a meager pile sits at the front end, just under the chute, while a small stack remains for the length of the rest of the pile. A rough guess at the size suggests it might last 4-5 days.
But here is one major reason that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Coal ash. This is a broad term being given to the solid byproduct of burning coal for power. The new air quality scrubbers take the particulates out of the exhaust from the plants. This material used to fly up the chimneys and out into the air high above the plants to be scattered by the wind. This material is now collected and hauled off on dump trucks to be dumped. This is an additional cost to the use of coal in generating electricity. This makes natural gas and renewables more attractive since the byproducts are easier and cheaper to deal with.
And let's face it, I don't really want to be breathing stuff you can haul in a dump truck. I also would prefer that it isn't necessitating landfills and eating up real estate that could have much better purposes. So the old way is not a great choice and the new way might be even worse. This is not helping me want to see a coal-fired revival. To be honest, I don't think it is making the southern Company want to see it either. They are following market pressures and real estate prices into a future in which coal just doesn't make much sense.
And I know that there is a concern for the miners and the life that they've led as well as their prospects for the future. That is a very real concern that those of us who care for the people of rural America will have to deal with. But I'm afraid the miners and their families have found themselves as pawns between rival factions for their own gain and never them pawns'. Same old story we've always heard. Finding an economy to help these folks make their own way seems to be a better option.
Honestly, I don't think it matters if the Clean Power Plan stays or goes. I think it is just a political football for the two factions to kick around to make us think they are doing something. In reality, they're just wasting our time and money. The point is, coal is on the way out of the electricity business. And that's just reality.
I leave with the words of John Prine singing of a place close to his heart and a land that will never be the same. I used to think it was environmentalist whining. I know better now.
When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there's a backwards old town that's often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.
And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
Well, sometimes we'd travel right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we'd shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.
Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I'll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin'
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire