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Georgia's Historic Plantation Country

Nighttime nature walks are worth staying up for: you can easily spot constellations in the clear Georgia sky and see nocturnal inhabitants such as flying squirrels, woodcocks, and screech owls. But coolest— and creepiest— of all is the spider trick: Hold your flashlight on top of your head, like a miner's light, and flash it into the surrounding brush. That glimmer on the ground isn't dew — it's thousands of tiny spider eyes.

Over the state line in northwest Florida, about an hour from Thomasville, Wakulla Springs State Park & Lodge (550 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs; 850/224-5950; admission $3.25 per car) has been a draw since the 1930's. Wakulla is a Creek Indian word for "dark and mysterious waters," and the spring and its surrounding wetlands certainly qualify. In the 1940's, playing Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller swung from the 800-year-old cypress trees and cut his impressive lats through the waters. A decade later, the Creature from the Black Lagoon surfaced nearby, using the moss-draped trees and deep-blue freshwater spring as spooky set dressing.

When it's ungodly hot, the year-round temperature of the spring (68 to 70 degrees) offers solace — even if the gator nets around the swimming hole seem like scant protection from the 12-foot-long behemoths that call the place home. But scarier still is the prospect of going off the high-dive platform, 15 feet up. (It took me almost 45 minutes of standing on the edge to work up the courage.)

When you tire of splashing around, dry off and jump onto one of the flat-bottomed tour boats, from which guides promise you're going to see "all kinds of critters." Ogle everything from yellow-crowned herons ("Ugliest dang birds you ever wanna look at!" bellows the guide) to white-tailed deer to Sewanee cooter turtles. And, of course, gators. "Most people fear the gator in the water, and they're right to," says our scraggly-chinned guide. "But you should be just as scared of them on land. They can run nearly 30 miles an hour, and can catch a human in a heartbeat." There is hope, however, if you're being pursued by a hungry alligator: according to the guide, gators have very weak jaws that can be held closed with one hand. The tour finishes up in the deepest part of the spring, where, 125 feet down through the clear water, you can just make out the shadowy bones of a mastodon that expired there thousands of years ago.

At the lunch counter of the main lodge, you'll find myriad soda-fountain staples: grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches, BLT's, chili-cheese dogs. If a cold, fattening drink is more your speed, dive into the Ginger Yip, a house recipe from 1940 that includes ginger ale, whipped cream, and vanilla ice cream. The Spanish Mission-style lodge (850/224-5950; doubles $90), built by railroad magnate Edward Ball in 1937, has high cypress-beamed ceilings, stone fireplaces, and handmade ceramic tiles. If, while sipping your Yip, you decide to stay over, the rooms are pleasantly, though sparingly, furnished with armoires and matching headboards. Just remember to lock your doors at night — you never know when the Creature from the Black Lagoon may need a nap.

Farther afield, northern Florida's St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (1255 Lighthouse Rd., St. Marks; 850/925-6121; admission $4) has been luring nature buffs since President Hoover designated it a bird refuge in 1931.

With six trails covering 75 miles, you can spend an entire day spotting rare wood storks, Southern bald eagles, Florida black bears, and West Indian manatees. But one of the rarest sights you'll see at St. Marks isn't an animal— it's the St. Marks Lighthouse.

One of only 15 operating lighthouses left on the U.S. Gulf Coast, St. Marks was built in 1829 with limestone blocks taken from the ruins of a nearby Spanish fort. Perched on a promontory at the confluence of the Wakulla and St. Marks rivers, the lighthouse was in a position to weather many travails, both natural and man-made. It was hit by stray shells during the Civil War and withstood a storm in the 1800's that washed away every other building in the area.

From 1830 to 1957, various families lived in the lighthouse and kept its French-made reflector lens in good working order. On a clear night, its beacon can be seen from 15 miles away. In 1960, the lighthouse was automated, and it's presently maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. Too bad. There are probably countless people who would be interested in the job: it comes with a waterfront residence with unobstructed views and very peaceable neighbors.

flying into history
A 1931 Waco RNF at Aircraft Power of the Past (912/226-3010) — a museum devoted to airplane engines from as far back as 1910. "We recently got one from a man who was stumbling over it for twenty years," says proprietor James Dekle. "He got so tired of stumbling over it he finally decided to donate it."

serious shopping
Over the past 15 years, residents have been cultivating Broad Street, Thomasville's main drag, the same way farmers tend soil. This year, the boosterism paid off when the National Trust for Historic Preservation dubbed it a Great American Main Street.

Start your safari with a cup of joe at the Mitchell House Coffee & Tea Shoppe (101 N. Broad St.; 912/226-5431). It's housed in the same building as Neel's, a ladies' specialty store that also sells gifts and fine home furnishings — sort of a country version of a big-city department store.

Pop into the Thomas Drug Store (108 S. Broad St.; 912/226-2535), established in 1869. It still lets customers charge things — to their accounts, not only to a credit card — and will deliver prescriptions to just about anyone in the city. It has a stunning blue-and-white fleur-de-lis-patterned mosaic tile floor offset by large black-and-white photos of old Thomasville.

Down the street is Hollybrook (110 S. Broad St.; 912/225-1771), a furniture and home-accessories store chockablock with hand-painted furniture and nursery items, Old Hickory Tannery leather chairs, and bird prints by popular local artist Patricia Taylor. Jerger Johnson Jewelers (130 S. Broad St.; 912/226-4034) has cases of dazzling estate and antique baubles. Firefly (125 S. Broad St.; 912/226-6363) would hold its own on the streets of SoHo. Russian rugs share space with raku pottery and an old toaster converted into a lamp. At King Record Shop (123 S. Broad St.; 912/226-1081), walls are lined with CD's and cassettes of both kinds of music (country and western), along with scads of sermons on tape. If hunting is your game, Kevin's (111 S. Broad St.; 912/226-7766) — a licensed Orvis dealer — is your store. You can also get a permit there. The antithesis of Kevin's, J. T. Streets Fine Clothing (109 S. Broad St.; 912/228-0510) smells all perfumy and girly. It sells Kenar suits, sterling jewelry, and loads of Lilly dresses.

You can make your house into a plantation house at two local stores. The Gift Shop (103 S. Broad St.; 912/226-5232) has a vast selection of antique and contemporary china by the likes of Spode, Lynn Chase, and Mason's, countless silver trays and candlesticks, and even Vera Bradley handbags. C. H. Whitney (106 N. Broad St.; 912/227-1005) sells some of the fine antiques that Thomasville is known for. Shelves are stocked with 100-year-old china platters; floors are covered with 18th- and 19th-century furniture.

Finish your day at Harden's Taxidermy Studio (128 E. Jackson St.; 912/226-3253). Owner Ed Harden prefers to arrange his animals in wild fight scenes, not static stances — though he will do the latter on request. If you're real nice, he'll take you in back to his workshop to show you the subtleties of the craft. (Weak stomachs, beware. Taxidermy is not a pretty art.) You choose: a rattlesnake-skin clip-on tie, mounted deer antlers, or a $3,000 stuffed buffalo.

the country life
The region still has many working farms, and if you're interested in taking home the fruits — and vegetables — of the farmers' labor, you've got to mosey over to Lewis Produce at the State Farmers' Market (502 Smith Ave.; 912/225-4072). The stuff is so fresh, some of it is still covered with a fine layer of dirt. Pick up sweet Vidalia onions, a bag of pecans, hand-packed peach preserves, Vidalia salad dressing, and peanut butter.

For true-grit country, make a beeline up Highway 319 North for the Thomasville Stockyards (13402 Hwy. 319 N.; 912/226-4230). At the Tuesday cattle auctions, everything from young calves to 1,000-pound bulls come out of the chute, prancing around and garnering admiring glances from the Stetsoned cattlemen. As the auctioneer, who sounds like Porky Pig stuck on a syllable, wraps up the bidding, a bleached blonde in a tight T-shirt keys in the final bid with her flaming red nails, and the animal trots through the exit chute. Scratch your nose at the wrong moment and you'll end up with a 500-pound heifer in your passenger seat.

the walls can talk
No telling what's happening on the plantations these days, but if the past is any indication, it's something kooky. "We started out weird 150 years ago," says historian Thomas Hill. "We decided we liked it, and we've never changed since."

Thomas County Museum of History 725 N. Dawson St.; 912/226-7664; admission $5. While local history is center stage, it's your guide, Thomas Hill, who steals the show. He catalogues the Northern millionaires who revived the county after the "recent unpleasantness between the states," he recounts the town's time as a Victorian Era getaway, and he doles out the gossip in generous portions (after getting married in 1863, the town's first "women's libber," Elisabet Ney, started wearing pants, took a lover, and then moved to Austin, where she went on to become a nationally known sculptor).

Pebble Hill Plantation 1251 U.S. Hwy. 319; 912/226-2344; admission $3, guided tour $7. Pebble Hill seems to go on forever — it's 25,000 square feet, with 18 bedrooms and 21 bathrooms. When it was still Pansy Poe's house, the plantation had 80 full-time staff members, up to 100 dogs used for hunting, three kitchens, a country store, two schools, a church, and three cemeteries (one for family, one for staff, one for dogs).

Lapham-Patterson House 626 N. Dawson St.; 912/225-4004; admission $3. With its asymmetrical floor plan, fish-scale shingles, and towers and turrets, the Lapham-Patterson House is sometimes compared to California's trippy Winchester Mansion. The original owner, C. W. Lapham, narrowly escaped the great Chicago fire and moved to Thomasville seeking pine-scented air for his smoke-damaged lungs. To calm his abiding fear of perishing in a fire, he built the house with at least three ways out of each of its 19 rooms. Lapham's anxiety was misplaced — it was Mrs. Lapham who died in a fire, 23 years after moving out.

you're in fine company
Though it barely qualifies as a dot on the map, little Thomasville has had some big devotees. . . .
B. F. Goodrich and Cornelius Vanderbilt used to spend winters at the Mitchell House, in the center of town. President McKinley came in the 1890's, during Thomasville's heyday as a vacation spot. President Eisenhower visited five times while in office. After her husband was killed, Jacqueline Kennedy went into seclusion at Greenwood Plantation, and attended a church service in town. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor raised a champagne flute or two at a Pebble Hill Plantation soiree. An unlikely member of the landed gentry, Jimmy Buffett used to lease a piece of land in the county. Act natural if you see Jane Fonda and Ted Turner walking down Broad Street. They, too, have a big spread around here.


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