Thomasville and its environs dust off the old southern hospitality

Guy Kloppenburg

Thomasville, Georgia, could make even Mayberry look un-American. Turn-of-the-century storefronts light up its main street with shades of blue, pink, and green. The largest oak tree east of the Mississippi is rooted in a hallowed spot in the center of town. And everybody seems to talk a little bit slower than you ever thought possible. But don't let the small-town façade fool you: over the past 100 years, monied magnates have built 71 plantations on 300,000 acres. At the height of the Victorian era, industrial titans from the North descended upon the town and made it the premier American winter retreat. A continuing injection of Yankee greenbacks has kept the place in good stead. Fine restaurants, posh B&B's, and superior shopping make this a sleepy Southern burg with an upscale attitude.

your own tara
Though each B&B in Thomasville is buffed to a uniform country Victorian gleam, the proprietors let their individuality shine in the details.
Melhana, The Grand Plantation 301 Showboat Lane; 888/920-3030 or 912/226-2290, fax 912/226-4585; doubles $250-$450. The great house of a cotton plantation built in 1825, Melhana couples modern conveniences and old indulgences: a stereo system broadcasts music into the Art Deco indoor poolhouse; period armoires conceal remote-controlled 27-inch TV's; vegetables grow hydroponically not far from a traditional sunken English garden.
Susina Plantation Inn 1420 Meridian Rd.; 912/377-9644; doubles $150. Anne-Marie Walker has perfected shabby chic in the eight rooms of her 150-year-old Greek Revival inn; the faded print of Scarlett O'Hara says it all. Lace tablecloths may slowly unravel around mismatched china, but Walker's expertly crafted dinners and syrupy breakfasts (both included) distract from the decay.
1884 Paxton House Inn 445 Remington Ave.; 912/226-5197; doubles $90-$185. Don't let Susie Sherrod's twang throw you. In her former life, she globe-trotted as a colonel in the Army Nurse Corps, and it shows in her spit-and-polish blue-and-white Victorian inn. Meissen and Deruta objets d'art give the place a worldly air, while custom mattresses, down pillows, and fresh quick breads make you feel as if you're at your favorite auntie's.
Serendipity Cottage 339 E. Jefferson St.; 800/383-7377 or 912/226-8111, fax 912/226-2656; doubles $80. From the soufflé-light ham puff at breakfast to a so-rich-it's-black slice of chocolate cake at afternoon tea, Ed and Kathy Middleton, owners of this cottage with three guest rooms, serve up some of the best baked goods to cross your palate.
Evans House 725 S. Hansell St.; 800/344-4717 or 912/226-1343, fax 912/226-0653; doubles $85-$125. The four guest rooms have fresh flowers and coordinated decorations. Thumb through a book in the library, take a stroll through nearby Paradise Park, or sip liqueur in the kitchen.

they shoot skeet, don't they?
I am not a gun person. But when you're around Thomasville, it's difficult to escape the lure of a Smith & Wesson. Since I had no desire to actually kill, I arranged a skeet shoot with Ken Lee, who runs a hunting outfit called Britts & Quail on Myrtlewood Plantation.

Normally, Lee and his Brittany spaniels can be found taking groups of hunters around the plantation's 1,000 acres of pines and wire grass, looking for bobwhite quail. For my skeet session, though, he shucked his hunting gear for khakis and a short-sleeved plaid shirt, 60 rounds of ammo, and his wife Linda's lightweight Beretta 20-gauge automatic shotgun.

When we got to the range, a clearing with a tower and seven wooden boxes, Lee gave me the rundown. "Each box is loaded with clays that come out in a different pattern. I operate the clays from the tower. When you're ready, you yell 'Pull!' and I'll let loose with one. I'm going to work you on numbers six and seven. They're the easiest." He handed me a pair of earplugs and the shotgun. "Put the butt end in the holler of your shoulder," he coached. "Put your cheek on the stock, and use one eye to look through the sight."

He let me take a couple of practice shots. The recoil didn't knock me over, but my shoulder started complaining early on. "Your arm's gonna be cursing me tomorrow!" he howled. He climbed to the tower, and I imagined myself as Annie Oakley.

"Pull!" I yelled.

The clay came in a high, slow arc from the left, and I squeezed the trigger. Pine needles rained down in the distance. After 15 pulls and no luck at all, Lee came down from the tower to give me a pep talk. "Don't aim and don't try to follow the clay with your gun. The second you see the clay, just shoot. Imagine the bullet hitting it dead-on." Suddenly Lee was sounding less like a country hunter and more like a Zen master.

The next 10 didn't do much for my self-esteem. My arms ached, and my patience was thin. I could see the beginnings of a nasty bruise on my shoulder. "Let's do five more," I said bravely. Lee was up in the tower, puffing on a Vantage Ultra Light, and I knew he was probably getting tired of the little slicker who was wasting all of his ammo and clays. By the time I yelled — halfheartedly — for the 30th pull, I was resigned to failure. I don't remember which direction the clay came from. I just pointed and squeezed, and watched in shock as it disintegrated into a million shards. I looked up at Lee, expecting to see him holstering a handgun after mercifully shooting my last clay to make me think I'd hit it.

"Did you do that?" I asked.

"No, ma'am," he replied, smiling. "You did it all by yourself."

"Thank God!" I said. "Let's go grab a beer."

Britts & Quail 912/346-3664. Skeet shooting $10 for 25 shots; half- and full-day hunts are also available ($275-$385).

hunting in style
It's no wonder the smart set loved hunting so much. Their huge buckets of cash allowed them to indulge in a version of the pastime far removed from the slog-through-the-brush-on-foot that regular blood sportsmen had to endure. And, for a price, you too can engage in a true Old South plantation hunt. Here's what you get: two mules to draw a luxe carriage that's outfitted with leather seats and old-fashioned coolers to keep your iced tea chilled; six dogs that take turns in pairs alongside the carriage to flush out game; and a hunt master who guides the carriage and the dogs. Once the dogs spot the game, they stop and point. This is your cue to descend from the rig, take up your arms, give the hunt master the go-ahead to give the command to flush out the game, and shoot. You then get back in the carriage, and if you've actually hit something, the dogs will bring it to the hunt master. Just as in the old days, if you so choose, the bagged quarry will be passed off to a kitchen maid, who will give it to the cook, who will skin or pluck it, butcher it, cook it, and bring it to your table nestled in a rich beurre blanc. Plantation hunts can be arranged for guests at Melhana Plantation (888/920-3030 or 912/226-2290; rates range from $1,200 to $4,000, depending on how long you want to hunt and what extras you pile on).

did somebody say buffet?
Sure, you can do fine dining. Pan-roasted bison tenderloin and Pacific blue prawns are only two of the entrées on the dinner menu at Melhana, the Grand Plantation (301 Showboat Lane; 912/226-2290; dinner for two $100). Richard's Grill (415 Smith Ave.; 912/226-3376; dinner for two $50) serves up steak and seafood in a riotous atmosphere of brightly colored chairs and cacophonous surf music. Ex-NYPD homicide detective Jim Mileo cooks creative American at Harrison's Restaurant (119 N. Broad St.; 912/226-0074; dinner for two $35).

But face it, down-home Southern is what you're hankering for. Wear pants with an elastic waistband when you visit Della's Café (1102 E. Jackson St., building 1; 912/228-9010; lunch for two $15), a 10-seat yellow box that's always jammed. Every day Della dishes up a different special — ribs, spaghetti and meat sauce, country-fried turkey steak — and every special shares a plate crowded with mashed potatoes, rice and gravy, collards, mustards, tossed salad, or potato salad. Eat up, but remember to save room for a slice of her six-layer Red Velvet Cake.

A giant red roadhouse, JB's Bar-B-Que & Grill (2247 U.S. Hwy. 319 S.; 912/377-9344; lunch for two $15) has a legendary reputation. State officials copter in from Atlanta for the deep-fried mullet plate or a mountainous platter of ribs. And $6 for half of a barbecued chicken means that even bureaucrats stay within their budgets. Hot tip: At 10 cents, the dollop of whipped cream on the sweet-potato pie is a steal.

The sign on the wall of Dunbar's Bar-B-Que (1984 E. Smith Ave.; 912/225-1085; dinner for two $15) says bone-suc-n-good, and you can't really argue. The stainless-steel trough of a buffet seduces with greasy ribs, chipped pork, fried chicken, collards, and baked beans, despite your arteries' vehement protestations. Next thing you know, you'll be craving grits.

In a log cabin that doesn't even merit a street number, the Homecoming (Albany Rd.; 912/226-1143; dinner for two $18) and its simple fare stir the passions of the locals. "They have the best fried catfish," declares one native. "It makes your mouth water just thinkin' about it." Rock off supper in a chair on the front porch.

Locals brag that the Billiard Academy (121 S. Broad St.; 912/226-9981; lunch for two $5) serves the finest chili dogs in the world. But it's the ambiance that grabs tourists: the ball-cap-wearing, cigarette-smoking men; the four always-occupied pool tables. Tradition dictates that "ladies" never set foot inside. They order from a window, and take their pups to go.

road trippin'
If Thomasville's perfectly ordered rows of fruit trees and vegetable bushes make you long for nature untamed, you don't have to go far to find it. Nearby preserves and state parks flaunt indigenous flora and fauna. This quiet region does have a wild side.

Betty the Birder
Mavericks in the world of nature preservation, Betty Komarek and her husband, Ed, bought the 565-acre Birdsong plantation in 1938. Using controlled burning, the couple cleared the land. Today, in the midst of all the new growth, Birdsong Nature Center (2106 Meridian Rd.; 912/377-4408; admission $5) is brimming with chirping purple martins, Carolina wrens, red-bellied woodpeckers, and hundreds of species of reptiles, insects, and mammals. At Birdsong — it's just 15 minutes from town — you can walk the nature trails, picnic in the pastures, and get a dose of 84-year-old Betty's never-waning vitality. She'll show you countless habitats, including a 60-acre swamp and a fantastic butterfly garden where silky wings brush your cheeks, leaving behind black butterfly dust.

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.