Changing modes of transportation reshape society. Early colonial settlers mostly followed trade paths used by Native Americans. They favored high land alongside streams, preferring dry feet to wet ones except for fords at necessary places. Even today these byways are called “old river” roads.
When the railroad boom came to South Georgia in the late 1800s, it redrew the social, economic and political map of the region. Established primarily for economic purposes — extraction of timber, naval stores, etc. — railroads established new towns at coal and water stops. Many of these towns prospered and their economic power led to the creation of new counties carved out of parts of older ones. Thus, Excelsior, established by Jimmerson Kennedy, slipped into near oblivion while Metter, established by his brother, Daniel, and nephew, Wallace, became the county seat of a new county, Candler, carved from Bulloch, Tattnall and Emanuel counties.
In fact, the era of railroad dominance passed rather quickly as the federal government launched a program of highway construction, beginning in the 1920s. This was driven primarily by the popularity of the automobile although trucks — not bound by rails and schedules — quickly became convenient burden bearers for commerce and buses took people to places that were not well served by trains. Because highway travelers needed food, lodging and fuel not always available in the open country, these federal roads usually went through established towns. However, these towns were forever changed by their highways.
The most heavily traveled highways through southern Georgia were north-south routes widely used by sun-seekers from the north heading to and from Florida. Routes 1, 301 and 17 served those from the northeast and 441 was used by travelers from the Midwest. Southerners quickly learned that the Yankees were coming and in time most became happy to welcome them. They decided that more money was to be made plucking Yankees than picking boll-weevil-infested cotton.
Some tourist-oriented “attractions” were tawdry — monkey farms, alligator farms, rattlesnake pits, and some were illegal or worse. However, others offered lodging, food, gasoline and auto repairs, services needed by travelers. Some locals turned large houses into “tourist homes,” forerunners of “bed and breakfast” inns popular today. There were “tourist cabins,” which offered just the basics in lodging: a single room with bed and little else. Toilets and showers were often shared facilities located in a separate building. Food, if offered, was to be found in another building. That pattern was followed later when “house trailers” became popular.
When locally-owned motels with decent amenities became the new trend, the old “cabins” facilities faded, some becoming short-term rentals for locals as trysting places. However, the better lodging places prospered. Thus, the “hospitality industry” was born, although not by that name at the time.
Interesting new attractions developed, none more ubiquitous than the pecan and candy stores in South Georgia. Those who remember can still identify the buildings that once were home to Stuckey stores specializing in pecans, pralines and other treats. Transiting tourists supported local entrepreneurs, cooks, motel workers and agricultural products. Railroad towns that were located on busy highways flourished while those not so fortunate shrank.
Post World War II prosperity fueled greater tourist activity leading to the development of national motel and restaurant chains, such as Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson. They offered dependable amenities and service from site to site, making them preferable for many travelers. Local people could still find jobs — though mostly at modest pay — and profits left town to go to corporate owners. Tourists not accustomed to South Georgia cuisine might find menus more to their liking at chain eateries. Change is the only constant.
The impact of the interstate highway system has been dramatic. The super slabs have siphoned off much of the traffic from even the major highways. Before I-95, it was difficult in certain seasons to get across Highway 301 in Statesboro or Highway 1 in Lyons except where aided by traffic lights. Sometimes North and South Main in Statesboro still gets crowded at certain times but rarely as congested as pre-interstate.
Although some travelers still prefer the less hectic pace of the older highways over I-95 or I-16, bypass systems are being built to help them avoid downtown congestion. In some places, loss of economic vitality has been dramatic. The region has already seen manufacturing fly away to third world countries and the small family farm disappear. It is hard to see new economic alternatives for most towns in the region. Where are the Yankees when we need them?
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.