Sam Burnham, Curator
It’s a familiar story. Henry Flagler, the co-founder of Standard Oil and railroad tycoon was running his line into Florida. The state was still largely a forested and swampy wilderness. While cracker settlers had tamed places, the Seminole people had disappeared into the vast inner places and evaded the Federal government’s attempts to relocate them. Alligators outnumbered people. In the official 1890 census, Florida reported 391, 422 people.
In 1894 and 1895, hard freezes hit and the ideas of the state becoming a tourist destination were questioned. Flagler was content to end his rail line at Palm Beach. Further down the coast an unincorporated Miami was in its infancy. A woman named Julia Tuttle saw an opportunity. She sent Flagler fresh produce, specifically citrus fruits and fragrant orange blossoms to show him that her home was unaffected by the freeze. With the pleasant climate and gifts of real estate, Flagler was convinced to not only run his railroad south to Miami but also to build his Royal Palm Hotel there.
The rest is history. The area around Biscayne Bay exploded with tourism, commercial, and residential development. South Florida had a massive economic engine that produced growth and progress.
But we know what they say about progress.
If we view the story of Julia Tuttle and Henry Flagler as a chapter of Patrick D. Smith’s A Land Remembered, we can see the whole picture of progress in The Sunshine State.
The progress didn’t stop in Miami. Walt Disney tried to isolate his parks in the Florida swamps, far from development. But I-4 ripped its way across the state, scattering souvenir shops and chain restaurants in its wake. Traffic choked the roads as fast as they could be built. I even found myself in a Walmart built over a former orange grove unable to find even one tangerine that wasn’t grown in California.
Orange blossoms, the state flower, are now rare in the county named for them. The alligator is on the rebound after approaching extinction, and the Seminoles are either assimilated or stored away in some corner of the state.
This is how the general thought came about that Florida isn’t a Southern state. Now, anyone who has been to Williston, Green Cove Springs, Yulee, Vernon, or Yeehaw Junction understands that Florida is still very much a Southern state, if you know where to look. But the coastlines and the I-4 corridor are about as Southern as New Jersey.
Across the region, the survival of Southern culture, and of the land we love, will require a balancing act. Economic development is necessary for our provision. But how do we find a living in this place without destroying it? How do we meet our needs without destroying our home?
Julia Tuttle unleashed a founder of Standard Oil on Biscayne Bay. People in Camden County are building a spaceport. A mining company is looking to dig along the Okefenokee. A capsized vessel still litters the Georgia coast. Metro Atlanta, like The Blob, continues to devour North Georgia. Are the jobs gained, the products made available, and what money really does come in justify the changes that are made?
If you think it can’t happen in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or South Carolina, just hide and watch.
The challenge we face is how we think about progress. Not all economic development is improvement. And the economy shouldn’t be our only motivation. We should consider historic preservation, natural conservation, cultural resiliency, and the ability of families to make a real life.
The sort of development we’ve seen in North Georgia as well as what happened in South Florida brought jobs but it also brought higher housing costs. If a new company brings in workers to take the jobs they create we suffer culturally while reaping little economic benefit. Long time residents struggle to stay afloat as the price of everything rises.
130 years later, Florida’s population is estimated at 25,538,127. The landscape, the economy, and the culture are all very different. Over 130 years, change is to be expected. Progress suggests improvement. Is Florida better off because of the development? Looking at the situation holistically, I can’t say that it is. I firmly believe, as Sol MacIvey did in A Land Remembered, that much of the state has been ruined.
The lesson must be learned. We have to face progress with wisdom. When government and developers stand shoulder to shoulder to tell us how many jobs a project will bring, we need to ask how many of those jobs will go to locals? How much will traffic increase? What is the ecological impact? What do we lose compared to what we gain?
Ask the unpopular questions. Demand the honest answers. Protect this land and culture with vigilance.
Sam Burnham, Curator
It is hard to imagine a more savage and barbaric scene than a track hoe run amok in a historic neighborhood. A dragon with mechanical locomotion and hydraulic jaws ripping timeless craftsmanship to shreds with ease evokes the axiom that great things are difficult to create but can be destroyed in moments. Like the Fourth Beast in the Book of Daniel, nothing beautiful, nothing peaceful, nothing idyllic can survive the onslaught of those iron jaws. Nothing but rubble can remain.
That is precisely what has happened in Athens in recent weeks. The historic Potterytown neighborhood fell under the elongated shadow of progress. Several single family homes were obliterated to make room for a parking deck for the rising tide of apartment buildings. Such development is common in college towns. The market for rental property is quite lucrative. The buildings that come down always seem to have more character and style than the buildings that go up.
It’s important that we keep a proper perspective. The crews doing this work aren’t evil. They’re just doing an honest day’s work. In this economy, who can blame them? The machines aren’t evil. They’re simply tools that can be used to build just as they can be used to mangle. Even the developers can’t be labeled as anathema as they are just following the market pressure they have been taught to follow.
Private property is essential. I dislike the idea of restricting the markets or curtailing the liberty of property owners. The problem is that we have dumbed down the market to its lowest denominator: money. The market is controlled by people who know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Every decision is strictly financial. Other important considerations such as history, culture, style, and local uniqueness don’t factor in. That’s an incomplete market.
In my youth I would cringe ever so slightly as Kevn Kinney sang the line “like tearing up your parking lot to build a house, so you’ll just have to park your Volvo somewhere else.” It seemed so unrealistic, even anti-market. Examination and experience have taught me how wrong I was. We shouldn’t pave the entire world just because it’s profitable. We have to live somewhere, eat something, and appreciate our surroundings sometimes. A parking deck accomplishes practically none of this.
When a plea is made for historic preservation there is a common reaction from those beguiled by “progress.” Preservation action is seen as do-gooders trying to prop up some dilapidated building. Time moves on and so should we. You must clear out the old to make room for the new. Unsubstantiated claims of obsolescence can have an appeal to the general public despite the examples of brilliant use of historic properties such as Atlanta's Ponce City Market and Canton's Cotton Mill Exchange. In Canton alone, several historic structures from the textile industry have been converted to commercial and residential use. It’s a wiser and more effective use of resources.
The truth is preserving historic buildings can be quite profitable as the above examples prove. Historic buildings can offer sturdier, more durable construction than many lightweight construction options. Older architecture offers features and details that don't fit modern budgets. We also maintain a diversity of styles and techniques by preserving existing buildings.
When it comes to a neighborhood like Potterytown in Athens, preservation could have maintained single-family residential units with actual yards, mature trees, small scale landscaping, privacy, and a multitude of other benefits that are sacrificed in the communal living of an apartment building. Good fences make good neighbors. The ceiling/floor of an apartment seems to have a different effect..
But neighborhoods also protect the identity of a town like Athens. The Classic City is famous for the university but also for its quirky and eccentric style that gave rise to the music and art that made the town a household name. A tree that owns itself. An abandoned train trestle. Weaver D's. A double-barreled cannon. And until last week, Potterytown. Some of that uniqueness is gone forever. In its place we get some concrete superstructure, some rebar, and of course, dormant Volvos.
What would be wrong in tearing down an old rundown strip mall or some other eyesore for this purpose?
Preserving historic property isn't propping up dilapidated buildings. It is preserving our story. It is preserving our heritage. It is preserving our very identities. Preservation is the work that will keep our entire existence from becoming just another off ramp off just another highway - generic, nameless, faceless, nondescript. We’ve seen this happening across Metro Atlanta for decades now. Formerly small distinct towns have redeveloped to the point they look just like all their neighbors. Apartment buildings. Gas stations. Bradford pears. Cookie cutter commercial buildings.
It comes down to the words of Sir Roger Scruton: "...good things are easily destroyed but not easily created." It took a century for Potterytown to become what it was. It took a few days to become what it now is. And now, it will never be what it could have been. It’s has been lost to time and “progress.”
What piece of our culture and identity will we lose next?
Burwell Stark, ABG Contributor
Many cultures have ceremonies or observances that mark significant milestones in the journey from youth to adulthood. For example, the Jewish faith has its Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, the Indigenous Australians mark the passage into adulthood with a Walkabout, and the Amish broadly observe the Rumspringa. When I was growing up, fourth graders in NC public schools had the Scrapbook.
This scrapbook was not your mother’s Creative Memories. The goal of this year-long project was for each student to learn some of the basic facts and history of their home state, such as the state bird, state flower, state motto, etc. Beginning in Autumn and ending in late Spring, each child, or more likely each child’s parent(s), was responsible for collecting and assembling as much information as possible about the state and then compilingthat information into a large three-ring binder. Each entry had to be on its own page with a brief description and image of the fact.The completed work was bulky, representing months of effortor, presumably, a week of panic the before the due date.
Given the short attention span of the 10-year-old researchers, especially the males, the collected information was not exhaustive. However, for everyone, except perhaps the teachers, the scrapbooks were informative. Some of the interesting facts I can still recall about the Old North State (the official nicknameand official state song) are that it is: the home of the first powered air flight (Kitty Hawk); the oldest public university in the United States (UNC Chapel Hill), and; the location of America’s first mystery (the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke) that didn’t descend into cannibalism – I’m looking at you, Jamestown, VA.
Other information was new to me, such as: the state capital of Raleigh was founded in a bar (Isaac Hunter’s Tavern); NC witnessed “Babe” Ruth’s first professional homerun (March 7, 1914 in Fayetteville); both the Vanderbilts (Biltmore) and the Rockefellers (Overhills) had very large estates in NC, and; the state is the native home to the Venus Fly Trap (Hampstead). The list goes on and on; however, one historical fact I didn’t learnuntil much later was that NC was home to one of only a handful of planned African America resettlements in the United States – the Tillery Resettlement Community of Halifax County.
In 1935, as America was just starting to claw its way out of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt oversaw the creation of the Resettlement Administration (RA) as part of the New Deal. The goal of the RA was to resettle “struggling urban and rural families to planned communities” designed by the federal government. While not all the planned communities across the country were designated for African Americas,several of them were. The Tillery Resettlement Farm was unique in that it was open to both white and African American farmers. According to the Concerned Citizens of Tillery (CCT) website, “The Tillery Resettlement Farm was one of the largest Resettlement Projects in North Carolina and one of only 15 African American Projects in the United States.”
Dispersed over nearly 18,000 acres along the Roanoke River, the Tillery Resettlement Farm was eventually home to more than 294 forty- to sixty-acre farms, each costing about $7,454 ($140,561 in today’s money). In 1936 the name was changed to Roanoke Farms. Eventually, after a large flood, the white farmers were moved away from the African American farmers to better land that was less-prone to flooding; the black farmers remained on the land that bordered the river. The tobacco allotments went with the white farmers and the black farmers were “instructed to grow cotton, soybeans, corn, and peanuts.”The white section became known as Roanoke Farms and the black section was designated Tillery Farms.
This, however, is only the start of the story. Tillery Farms attracted settlers from across North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Florida and even as far away as Arkansas. The would-be farmers moved to the area, were given sub-standard housing (when compared to their white neighbors at Roanoke Farms), and faced many obstacles, both from nature and society. Yet many of those families held on and, in doing so, succeeded. The children of the settlers, besides working in the fields with their parents, filled the local school. Interestingly, that school was the Tillery Chapel Rosenwald Elementary School, “one of 46 Rosenwald Schools in Halifax County, and more than 800 in the state, built through a partnership established by Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, to improve rural education in black communities.” Many of those children went on to graduate from high school and over half graduated from college.
However, Tillery was not a success due to the government intervention or simply because of the opportunities it gave black families. It was a success because of the people who settled there – many of whose descendants still live on the land today.
Driving to Tillery, as it is now known, is an opportunity to see remnants of the vast swaths of pine forests that led to NC being known as the “Land of the Long Leaf Pine” (official state toast). While the official Tillery US Post Office (Zip Code 27887) is located near the juncture of two rural state highways, the Tillery Community History House Museum is around the corner on Community Center Road. Housed within a restored Resettlement House, the museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 am to 5:30 pm, other times by appointment, except when under state-wide stay-at-home orders due to a global pandemic, such as comprised the majority of 2020. Inside the museum one can trace the history of the New Deal resettlement project and the Tillery Community through an exhibit designed by a partnership of the CCT’s History Committee and the 2004-2005 Duke University Document Study Students.
The importance of the museum overshadows its size: it documents the triumph of black farmers and families in the face of racial prejudice during the Jim Crow era, the economic struggles of the Great Depression and beyond, and through the hard-fought victories of the Civil Rights movement. It is truly a hidden treasure.
North Carolina has a complicated but rich history that extends back before the formation of the United States. The 12th colony to become a state (Nov. 21, 1789), it was also the 10th state to secede from the Union (May 20, 1861). These were facts I discovered when compiling my Scrapbook back in fourth grade. While I learned that one of the earliest protests during the Civil Rights Movement occurred at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro (Feb. 1, 1960), I had never heard of the Tillery Resettlement or its generational success until I drove past the museum one day on my way to a meeting. If it were not for my love of country roads and driving through small towns, I might never have been introduced to the historical jewel that is only 30 miles from my front porch. Thankfully I found it, and look forward to sharing the story of Tillery with my children and many others.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire