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?
Sam Burnham, Curator
A trusted Carolinian put me on film. I had never heard on the film or the filmmaker before. My friend spoke with ease and familiarity about both which left me thinking I had missed something major. So I searched it down and had a late night screening of the 2003 Ross McElwee film Bright Leaves.
In the opening scene McElwee tells of a dream of leaves. These aren’t your typical leaves that you rake from your lawn. His description is of some monstrous plants from the age of dinosaurs or something. He and his wife come to an agreement that is his Southern homeland calling for him. She tells him the South is in his blood and that he has been looking a bit anemic lately. McElwee is a Southern expat in New England and Carolina requested his presence. The South does that to her wayward children.
The film put me in a similar mindset as the Errol Morris documentary Vernon, Florida. McElwee went out and found ordinary North Carolinians to create the documentary. The cast of characters is not nearly as quirky or odd as the residents of Vernon but it still makes for an authentic homegrown experience. It tells a story or people progressing though history. There are villains and victims, traditions, memories, legends - dubious and factual.
At the center of it all is the old rivalry between the McElwee family and the Duke family - North Carolina's tobacco barons. The Dukes are well known for their tobacco empire, Duke University, Duke Health, Duke Energy, you know, Duke. The McElwees are known very little these days. Through this film we see evidence that John Harvey McElwee, Ross McElwee's great-grandfather, developed the Durham Bull brand of smoking tobacco and that his foreman stole and then sold the formula to the Dukes. The Dukes then allegedly released the product reflagged as the Bull Durham brand which made them wildly successful. The Duke family remains wealthy in treasure and legacy. McElwee died bankrupt and obscure.
What impacted me most about the film is the contrast, the contradictions, that Southern duality that runs throughout the film. It is best represented in Ross McElwee's explanation that he has all the guilt of the effects tobacco has had on the lives of people while enjoying none of the financial benefits of being an heir to the inventor of one of the most successful brands. He sees himself as both a perpetrator and a victim. You just don't get any more Southern than that.
Going through Southern History is noticing centuries of this duality. Southerners committed the crime of slavery and were the victims of the crime of Sherman's March. They committed the Indian Removal and then suffered the invasion of the Carpetbaggers. They have grown tobacco and distilled whiskey and suffered the side effects.
Now faced with the choice of halting tobacco production or preserving a way of life, people are indecisive. Tobacco isn’t just economics to them. It’s history, it’s aesthetics, it’s their identity. How do you just eliminate such a part of your very self?
That duality is a part of our existence. Slavery and Jim Crow will never be not wrong. Sherman's March will never be justified. The evils of our past, both given and received, are magnified by a culture that so reveres and bathes in the past. Everything we see today came through all those evils and we know it. It is personified in both this film and the filmmaker.
But the film goes further, just as our culture has. McElwee questions his subjects about their tobacco habits. He highlights smokers and his inquiries on their intentions to quit or continue. He highlights the efforts of the Duke empire to ameliorate the illnesses attributed to tobacco use. He covers the 50th Annual Tobacco Festival of Clarkton. It was the last year of it by that name. The "Farmer's Day" moniker was to be adopted the next year. That blatant attempt to cleanse and add something more "acceptable" to the culture has become an everyday occurrence. The South finds itself in a struggle between those who would remove "problematic" elements of our culture and those who would preserve the culture. This struggle is based in that victim/perpetrator duality that no amount of scrubbing will ever eliminate. Regardless of the efforts, The South endures.
And so I can confidently finish with recommendation for this gritty and wonderful film. It highlights this corner of The South with stark reality delivered with McElwee's soft-spoken narration. Let it take you for a ride. Let it make you think. Go where it leads you and find yourself in a familiar place.
Sam Burnham, Curator
If you aren’t familiar with Cartersville, Georgia or if your familiarity is a recent development, you probably wouldn’t imagine a sleepy little town of mostly miners and farmers. In the 1980s Cartersville was still a quiet little town, so if we go back to the 1940s, mentally, it will help set the stage for this story. This one is a legend passed to us as fact. The source is reputable so we’ll take it as fact until convinced otherwise.
This story begins in 1931. Herbert Hoover was President. A man named Fred Garrison set up shop, slinging burgers at the corner of Main Street and Gilmer Street in Downtown Cartersville. It seems an unlikely time to be opening a small business in a sleepy small town of miners and farmers. But 89 years later, 4-Way Lunch is still slinging burgers. In all that time they’ve never had a telephone.
Sometime in the 1930s, 4-Way hired a young man named Butter Ross. I don’t think his mama named him “Butter” but I don’t ask Superman what his real name is so I’m not asking for Butter’s birth certificate either.
Shortly thereafter the entire world went to war and Butter Ross went went with it. He did his duty and served his country. He fought honorably against the Axis powers. He returned to Cartersville as a hero with a dream. He wanted to open his own diner, sling his own burgers, be his own man. He wanted to hang his own name over his own door. So he announced his intentions to open his own place just around the corner.
In 2020, Cartersville is becoming a happening place. They have two world class museums and a Kroger with a bar in it but it’s still a relatively small town. In 1946 Cartersville was barely on the map. The idea of two diners operating less than the length of Weinman Stadium apart was unthinkable. The competition would be brutal. This town just wasn’t big enough for the both of them.
The management at the 4-Way begged Butter not to do it. They even warned him, “you’re gonna start a war!” But Butter was determined. “It won’t be my first war. And I ain’t never lost.” True to his words, Butter didn’t lose. In fact, his diner is still open as well. For both places to survive 74 years in such proximity in a small town is astonishing. The biggest takeaway is that they both had to be on top of their game every day. A bad day for one could mean its demise.
Today you can find a dozen or so places to eat within walking distance of this metaphorical battlefield. Regionally recognized chains and excellent local choices have added serious competition for the lunch crowd. There are more comfortable options with much larger menus. Despite the added pressure, the original two belligerents are still going strong.
The 4-Way boasts 10 diner stools at the bar in the main room. The back room, a remnant of segregation days, can hold two or three customers. No one cares what color you are now, all seats are first come, first serve. The only color that matters is green, as in cash. Your card is worthless here. They don’t even have a phone, much less a card reader. With so few seats the menu is small. All meals are made to order, meaning they make it, you order it, they immediately place it in front of you. No waiting. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Enjoy it but get to eating because someone is probably waiting on your seat. A gravy burger with chili cheese fries and a sweet tea is a fine meal.
Over at Ross Diner the setting is a bit more relaxed. With at least twice the seating things aren’t quite as rushed. Everyone sits around a u-shaped bar while the waitresses work through the middle. There’s a full kitchen in the back as opposed to just cooking everything right behind the bar like they do at 4-Way. It takes longer to get your food but it is made fresh. A fried pie with ice cream is an excellent choice and give you a chance to eat at both diners on the same visit to town.
So ABG has now given you a tip on how to get lunch and desert at two places but only using one parking space. You can add in some great shopping as well as enjoying the fantastic architecture of historic downtown. You’ll also be doing your part, serving honorably in the Great Cartersville Diner War, 74 years and still going strong.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire