Aesthetic Built on Ethic
Sam Burnham, Curator
A weathered old barn sits across a field. The structure is easily visible from the highway. Despite the impact from decades of soaking rain and blistering sun, “See Rock City Today” is still visible on the tin roof. The locals pass by with hardly a thought of it. To them it’s just part of the landscape that is home, no different than anything else along a barely changing roadside.
But this scene is becoming more rare. In places where shopping centers and subdivisions have replaced family farms this scene seems either idyllic or obsolete. It all depends on who you ask.
For those embracing the idea that progress means development the field and barn offer opportunity, potential, and an open door to the future. Land has a monetary value and the right plans can maximize the return on investment. The numbers shift with considerations for commercial, industrial, or residential development. Under the right circumstances a landowner could become a multimillionaire overnight. That’s a hard offer to pass up in exchange for an old farmhouse, a weathered barn, and some odd acres of dirt.
That’s how developments like Gwinnett Place and Town Center forever changed the culture of their respective communities. Skyrocketing real estate prices and encroaching development caused small homesteads and farms to fall like dominoes. The land became much more economically productive. Thousands of jobs were created in shopping centers and freestanding stores, restaurants, and bars. A single family home or a stand of trees would be foolish on such valuable land. There’s a lesson there on the power of markets but that’s for another day.
Back at the barn we have that hint of nostalgia. Oh to return to a time when barns were plentiful! But the barn wasn’t built for aesthetics. It had a purpose. Perhaps it still serves its purpose. Barns house livestock, feed, equipment...it all depends on the farmer, the farm, and the barn. Such a versatile structure added some more income when Garnet Carter paid for advertising space on it and Clark Byers covered them in messages.
The ad campaign combined with a love of the past and fond memories make these particular barns more than ordinary. Really, any old wooden barn will bring those emotions. The Rock City (or Ruby Falls, Sequoyah Caverns, etc) barns seem to carry an extra punch.
The imagery broadcasts to our emotions. We think of human scale, simpler times, dirty hands, clean money, rugged individualism, self-sufficiency. Those are the qualities that built the aesthetic. We see a surviving barn and we think of it as loyal, reliable, industrious, thrifty - all good characteristics. They are the traits we hope to see in ourselves. But are we really looking for those traits? Has the aesthetic become so strong that it’s enough to admire the barn without expecting to live up to the traits themselves?
I’m asking these questions as on a clipboard rather than a chalkboard. I ask as a learner rather than a teacher. Over the past few months I’ve asked myself many of these questions. 2020 has given perspective. I want to grow from that. It’s a chance to build an aesthetic like the barns have. If we really believe in the principles, embracing them fully should be a natural reaction.
What drives the aesthetic? How do we get there ourselves? Will this help us preserve the people, places, things, and ideas that we love?
A Tale of Two Estates
Sam Burnham, Curator
In our modern times there is a tendency to oversimplify the archetype of the Southern gentry. It goes without saying that two of the most pivotal founders fit in this category. Interestingly, these two men were very different. They offer a contrast that suggests a diversity of thought, of personality, of philosophy within that archetype.
The contrast between Washington and Jefferson can be seen in their estates. Mount Vernon and Monticello give us a physical edifice as a tribute to each man. There are obviously similarities: agriculture, slavery, Virginia, and both men being among the Founding Fathers. But the many differences is where we really see the men themselves.
George Washington’s manor sits high upon a bluff overlooking the Potomac River near the inland limits of the Virginia Tidewater. It might not seem enormous by today’s obscene standards for mansions, but with 21 rooms, this is an imposing home.
Construction started on Mount Vernon in 1734. Augustus Washington, George’s father, started the house as a structure of a story and a half in height. After Augustus Washington died the home passed to Lawrence Washington, George’s elder half brother. Lawrence Washington also served as a father figure for George. Washington came into possession of Mount Vernon after Lawrence’s death and eventually became the owner of the estate.
George Washington made his own changes and additions to the home until it became the structure we see today. A soldier and frontier surveyor, Washington is thought of as a powerful and successful man. Mount Vernon reflects that. The location is beautiful in its own right but the house is central as it stands as a monument on the landscape.
Mount Vernon reflects the power of its owner. It stands high and visible. A ship on the river cowers under the gaze of the cupola-topped mansion. To this day, visitors sit on the porch and gaze out on the river.
Washington was a stickler for order and etiquette. His Rules for Civility remains a guide for proper conduct in social and professional situations. He kept a tight schedule, particularly for dining and his many and frequent guests were expected to adhere to the schedule. There’s a certain formality to Mount Vernon that reflects Washington’s sense of the appropriate.
Monticello, on the other hand, it situated in Virginia’s piedmont region. Jefferson designed and constructed his home atop his “little mountain.” While the estate was a working plantation, Jefferson’s main pursuits were philosophy, science, and the arts.
The design of the home is deceptive. You can stand in front of the house and wonder if that is really all there is. The structure sits low on the landscape rather than towering as other homes of its day. Once inside the house seems to expand and it is hard to believe how large that same house actually is. With wings built below grade off of each end of the home’s rear, a substantial portion of Monticello is hidden from view upon arrival. Monticello’s location concealed it from much of the world. The view from the home is majestic. The view of the home is purely local. Monticello balances with the landscape rather than dominating it.
Monticello is obviously an impressive and comfortable home but it is custom built for Jefferson’s personality. The house has no grand staircases as Jefferson saw them as a waste of space. Much of the main floor is dedicated to Jefferson’s personal space: his library, his office, and his bedchamber. Writing, reading, experimenting, and learning all took precedence in the design. This extended to the garden, the lawns, literally every aspect of the estate.
While Washington and Jefferson had overlapping interests and traits, their unique identities weee reflected in their homes. It’s not a matter of right or wrong as it is matching specific individuals.
Thankfully we have both estates fully intact. Researchers, curators, and historians continue to learn more about these men, their families, and the enslaved people who worked there. Each estate is supported by foundations that see to repairs and maintenance, conduct programs, and raise funds. No tax dollars are spent on either estate. I can’t imagine that either man would have it any other way.
In Defense of the 14th
Sam Burnham, Curator
The northwest corner of Georgia, from Haralson County, north to Dade County and from the Alabama line east to near Talking Rock, is designated as the 14th Congressional District. The district includes apple country, the spillover of Chattanooga’s southern suburbs, down through the Ridge and Valley region to where Atlanta’s Blob-like sprawl is consuming Paulding County at an alarming pace. It's eastern border, described as a "jagged line," follows the long-established borders of Murray, Gordon, Floyd, Polk, and Paulding Counties. Only Pickens County is divided by the district's limits.
I know this district well. I’ve spent most of my life here. I’ve hiked these mountains, floated these rivers, roamed these towns. I’ve toured parks and museums and played in and cheered at sporting events. I’ve dined in restaurants and bars. Perhaps you’ve read about some of these places on this site.
So it should come as no surprise that I was troubled to read Charles Bethea’s recent New Yorker article on Georgia’s 14th. The article is billed as an exposé on the rise of the current Republican congressional candidate, Marjorie Taylor Greene. I’ll be offering no defense of Greene here as i find nothing about her defensible. I’m neither a supporter nor a fan. However I can’t seem to get past how much this article, particularly the first half, comes across as a hit piece on the people of GA-14, a group to which Greene has no real claim to membership. This is not the first such story I’ve read from Bethea. As I don’t know him personally I don’t want to pass judgment but it seems he makes a good living writing unfavorable stories about his fellow Georgians for his New Yorker audience.
He kicks this article off by describing the support that Greene has found in the district. He gives a long description of the people, immediately invoking race before pointing out educational and economic statistics. The way he presents the educational, economic, and electoral statistics is important to the election of Greene and the late Larry McDonald. Allow me to go a little deeper into these to demonstrate why the people of the 14th really vote the way they do.
It is true that the 14th voted for Donald Trump. But they also voted for Mitt Romney, John McCain, George Bush 41 & 43, and Reagan in 84. That looks like a pattern and it is but then consider that a Republican couldn’t have gotten elected as dog catcher in this area until the late 1990s. In my youth Buddy Darden, a Democrat, was our representative in Congress. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, for differing reasons, ensured Democratic control of this area for over a century.
He mentions a statue of “the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.” This is a misleading statement that would make the district look particularly racist in the eyes of his New Yorker readership. I can see the images in their mind, that opening flourish of Forrest Gump of Forrest leading the Klan on horseback.In fact, the statue in question depicts General Forrest, the soldier, in the city he saved from destruction. Forrest pursued Col. Abel Streight across Alabama to stop the destruction of communication, transportation, and materiel infrastructure which was already sparse in the South. Forrest forcing the surrender of a force three times the size of his own prevented Streight from reaching Rome. The monument includes praise for Forrest by one William T. Sherman. As far as local Klan activities, the last demonstration held in Rome was held by Klan and neo-Nazi groups from Michigan while a larger group of locals held a counter protest across the street. Northwest Georgia doesn’t have enough local Klansmen to hold a rally. They have to come from elsewhere.
Sidebar on statues: since one of his sources mentioned it, I haven’t seen diapers on the Capitoline twins in in Rome in about 40 years.I suspect the true motivation for this is similar to the motivation for inundating the neighboring fountain with dish detergent. We probably shouldn’t read too much into it.
Bethea continues with information gleaned from sources describing the region as “a greenhouse for heretical religious beliefs.” It is very true that you can have a startling experience in a small country church around here but this quote is excessive, doubtlessly inspiring visions of widespread snake handling throughout the district.
Do you see the picture that is being painted? Low incomes, few college graduates, widespread racism and religious fanaticism all swirling together to give the outside world a view of these people suggesting they are stuck in the past and entranced by a crazy woman.
Marjorie Greene found success in the 14th due to that depiction and a thousand more like it. And the more the people are presented as imbeciles and Neanderthals, the more they will support Greene and candidates like her.
To be honest, I am sickened by Greene myself. I didn’t and won’t vote for her. I see her as Hasbro’s newest action figure: QAnon Barbie with Kung Fu Battle Grip™️ - totally plastic, comes with rifle and Hummer. But we have to understand what is really going on to see why she was so successful. It helps to have a least sampled some of The South’s political history. A reading of V.O. Key’s Southern Politics makes Greene’s ascent quite understandable. Eugene Talmadge and Huey Long immediately come to mind.
What just happened in northwest Georgia can be explained by a population disenchanted with “weak” candidates, like Romney, finding a woman who knew how to present herself as “God, Guns, and Guts.” They saw someone who they thought would fight for them. After years of candidates willing to compromise and maintain their manners, she offered a powerful, if shallow, message for people so often maligned in the media. “I’m one of you. I believe in you. We’re the same. Vote for me and I’ll punish the people who look down their noses at you." They don't care about QAnon. Most of them have no idea what it is. They care about their lost jobs after the textile industry rode NAFTA out of town. They care about big city politicians and pundits threatening the things they hold dear. They aren't "scared." They're angry.
Bethea’s article is a perfect example. A graduate of The Paideia School and Brown University, he’s easily got more invested in a year of education than many people in the 14th will make this year. He’s what the “poor, uneducated Trump voters” he has singled out would call “elite.” From where they stand he’s a rich man who portrays them as subhuman to his bourgeois audience. It’s no wonder they don’t have some Damascus Road experience and convert to his side of the aisle.
I was contacted by a local Democratic political leader wanting me to be interviewed for this story. She knew of my distaste for Greene and thought I could add my thoughts to the story. I declined. Perhaps that was a mistake. I feared that this story would go like several others: a hit piece on conservative leaning Georgians. I didn't want to be a part of that sort of story. The stark raving crazy Marjorie Taylor Greene deserves the hits. The good people of the 14th do not.
I’d like to think that Charles Bethea means well. I’d like to think he is acting on good faith and is writing these articles because he has bad sources. A law professor in Athens is a poor source on the 14th so perhaps that’s the problem. But as the article progresses he continues to pile on the products of his personal political beliefs. Even after interviewing locals he seeks no true understanding. He started with a conclusion and then built a story to support it.
I wish we could get national journalists to visit areas like the 14th, to mingle in, to understand, to write stories that are honest and fair. I wish these places wouldn’t just be “flyover country.” The stories being written about rural America in the large newspapers, magazines, and journals are not only abusive, they serve to perpetuate and intensify the culture war and the political divisiveness that is destroying these United States.
Should Mr. Bethea, of any other big press writer, want to get a good look at Georgia's 14th, I'd love to help them. All my inboxes are open.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire