South Georgia’s hot, humid climate affected the architecture of houses before the modern era. Heavy rainfall turned clay-floored log cabins into muddy messes. Adding wooden floors provided food for termites if moisture did not rot the wood first.
The solution was to build houses on pillars so that the flow of air would keep the house dry and a bit cooler. Pyramid-shaped pillars carved from big, tar-rich pines or cypresses were virtually termite-proof. Dryness under the houses retarded decay and insect damage.
A typical house had four rooms, two on each side of a wide hall, and a large kitchen with pantry linked to the living area by a floored and roofed “dog-trot.” The idea behind a semi-detached kitchen was to save houses from total destruction from a kitchen fire. In fact, houses made of heart pine had little chance of surviving a fire unless it was detected and doused quickly.
Rooms had high ceilings — 10 to 12 feet — a feature driven by summer heat. Since heat rises, tall ceilings kept the living space cooler, at least less hot. Winter weather revealed the downside of tall ceilings as rising heat kept the floor cold. Many houses had multiple fireplaces — one in the master bedroom, one in the parlor and one in the kitchen/dining room. It took roaring fires to make rooms comfortable and a lot of work gathering wood to feed those fires.
Another typical architectural feature was the front porch, one so functionally important that a few houses had wrap-around porches extending down one or more sides. Porches provided a place to clean up or dry off before entering the living area.
The main function of porches was as resting places where breezes usually blew away some of the heat of summer afternoons. They came with chairs — often tall rocking chairs — for resting and maybe napping. Some had porch swings, sturdy wooden furniture with wide backs and seats and arms at each end. Suspended from the ceiling by distinctive chains, they moved more and sometimes faster than rocking chairs. They were large enough for two or three adults and as many children as adults permitted, favorite places for playful children or daughters with visiting beaus.
Some porches, like the front porch of my paternal grandparents’ home, had banisters between the wooden pillars that supported the roof. These sturdy rails kept many youngsters from dashing heedlessly off the porch. However, they were more often used by adult males sitting in their rockers with feet propped up on the banisters. They were too tall to be used that way by children and, since women in that time wore dresses, for them, such activity would have been impossible, at least unladylike.
Front porches with rocking chairs were good for more than just resting. They were perfect for conversations about weather, community happenings, religion, politics, hunting and fishing. Family history and kinship ties were passed from one generation to another. Without intent or plan, elders passed on their values and reflected their character. Songs were softly sung, some reaching back in time to lands across the wide Atlantic. Porches knit people to one another, defining in their minds and hearts the meaning of family and home.
Front porches linked their sitters to travelers on the road running just beyond the yard fence. With a wave of hands, friendships and kinships were reaffirmed. Often, there would be a brief stop for an exchange of spoken greetings and casual conversation. Sometimes a “get down and come in” invitation led travelers to park and join those on porches, which became transmission points for news and opinions.
While porches were social places, they were also havens of solitude, inviting introspective journeys great and small. Songs of birds, gatherings of clouds, passage of day into night, these and more could be seen and heard and graven into memory. “Who am I?” or “What should I be?” sorts of questions could be explored in a place where the world intruded only gently.
Life on porches should not be romanticized. They were hot at times. South Georgia’s gray gnats invaded, seeking something in eyes, noses, mouths and ears. Winter weather was not porch friendly. Traffic on the road might stir up dust that drifted onto porch sitters. But, when all was good, porch life was very good.
Electricity, especially air conditioning, drew people inside, offering greater comfort than undependable breezes. New houses were built near the ground over enclosed crawl spaces or on concrete slabs. Ceilings were much lower, reducing the amount of space to heat and cool. Some were built with front porches, which might have rocking chairs, mostly for decoration. Who wants to sit out in the heat and gnats?
The end of porch life changed things. The way porches helped knit people into the tapestry of family and community has not been replaced by the faux intimacy of internet connectivity. Free time for conversation with family is too readily swallowed up by intrusive entertainment. The ties that bind and support are easily unraveled.
I am sorry for those who never — as I did — experienced on a porch the wonders of nature as day slipped into night or felt the joy of family, or thought new thoughts, or knew communion with the Lord. It was a special, even holy, place.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.