It’s gone. The swimming hole at the James F. Coleman Bridge on the Ohoopee River at the crossing of the Cobbtown-Lyons Road is gone. The river changed and the swimming hole disappeared.
Given my education and experience accumulated over decades, I should have expected it, even predicted it. However, this place was such a fixture on the social and geographical landscape that it seemed immutable. For generations, people from both sides of the river went there to swim, fish, baptize, court, picnic and just visit. Some crossed the river to find mates, including my father, his three brothers, my brother and me, along with about a dozen other kin and neighbors from my Toombs County community. This place linked families and communities.
It seemed too established and socially important to change. That was especially true for me. There I learned to swim, was baptized and later baptized others. Most important, it was an Annette place. That’s where I met her. Three months later, just around the next bend, we had our first date at a weiner-roast and fell in love. After we were married, we returned many times to swim together upstream against the current just because we could or bask on the snow-white sandbar. Sacred places should remain forever, but this one did not.
The swimming hole was created where the course of the stream — which normally tends southeast toward its rendezvous with the Altamaha thousands of serpentine bends away — was forced directly to the west against high banks of hard soil. At the upper end, current scoured out a deep hole, then abated to form a long, shallower portion and cast up a sand bar of beach-like dimensions on the east side. Over the years, some of the features that guided the course of the river gradually eroded. Then came an epic flood when a dam on a tributary upstream broke and released the waters of a large lake. One highway was covered. Some riverside cabins were washed away and even those built on tall pillars were damaged. Coleman’s Bridge was in the process of being replaced and a pile-driver at the site was inundated. Stream side features that guided the flow were washed away and the high bluff was blasted westward several yards. Soon the swimming hole was gone except in memories.
Of course, change is normal and constant, not only in creeks and rivers but in everything. Moreover, the pace of change is accelerating. The issue is how humans respond to change.
Cities and towns of every sort and size have changed dramatically since World War II and continue to do so. Bypass highway systems are often more congested than were the downtown streets they were supposed to relieve. They became economic magnets that dragged away business and professional activities from urban centers. Malls, strip malls and Walmart-style superstores restructured and redefined towns and cities. In some places, the impact of interstate highways has been even more dramatic. In spite of efforts to preserve downtown districts, many towns are almost empty shells of the past. Cities were the first to “bypass,” but those that are not state capitals struggle to maintain their cores. Others need something special: anything high-tech, tourism, military bases, Amazon distribution points, transportation.
South Georgia has been hit hard. Its towns — mostly medium to small in size — lost their industries when corporations took their manufacturing to poorer countries. There are still farmers, but a few of them cultivate thousands of acres with massive equipment and employ fewer workers. Forests are planted in rows like farm crops and harvested with large machines operated by a limited force of skilled personnel. Cotton and tobacco, once labor intensive, are harvested with specialized combines. Some crops still require hand labor — onions, blueberries, pecans — but workers are migrants whose economic impact is temporary.
These changes are permanent. Economic patterns of 50 years ago are gone like my swimming hole. Some towns might cease to exist as rural communities already have. The once thriving town of Excelsior is now little more than a church at a named location. Gone as towns are nearby Jimps and Ohoopee in Toombs County. If ever the Highway 1 bypass is built around my hometown of Lyons, they can roll up the sidewalks because it keeps shrinking in spite of valiant efforts to keep it viable. There, as in Statesboro and most other towns around, more change is needed.
I am not a futurist, tend to live in the past. I cannot identify the economic transformations necessary to undergird South Georgia in the future. Trying to push forward things that are only halfway working now will not get us there. Somewhere there must be visionaries like those who saw Statesboro as the home for First District A&M School and made it happen. Like those who are developing olive orchards in the region, there must be some who can turn South Georgia into Silicon Valley South or something even better.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.