The Most Beautiful Villages and Towns of the Southby Bonnie Ramsey
Nowhere is the quintessence of Southern life so intensely expressed as in the villages and towns photographed and described in this book. Marked sometimes by the violent events of historyfirst settlement, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil Warand the explosive growth of the cotton economy, these towns and villages appear in the book as they developed
Nowhere is the quintessence of Southern life so intensely expressed as in the villages and towns photographed and described in this book. Marked sometimes by the violent events of historyfirst settlement, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil Warand the explosive growth of the cotton economy, these towns and villages appear in the book as they developed across the South.
The region divides naturally into four geographic areas, each one a stage along the path of settlement. The miles of shoreline on the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico provided natural harbors for the first arrivals. Piedmont, at the foot of the mountains stretching from Virginia to Georgia, possessed the rich soil that made it the center of Southern agriculture. The profusion of rivers and the rich land along their banks attracted settlers from the Carolinas and Georgia, while the final push was to the deep interior and the mountains, the upcountry from the Blue Ridge chain in Virginia to the Texas hill country. The villages of these regions are varied, but those included in this book all have their individual beauty, whether expressed in white clapboard or Victorian brick.
Their historical variety, too, is expressed in their names, demonstrating the diversity of their origins. The name of Wascahachie, Texas, is derived from the Native American word for "buffalo creek." Waterford, Virginia, is unmistakably Irish, while Camden and York in South Carolina have a distinctly English ring. Whatever their origins, the villages and towns included in this book have one thing in common: their beauty. And this exquisite picture of the South is completed by special illustrated features on its horse culture, its churches and cemeteries, and its fabulous gardens. A Traveler's Guide to sites, local festivals, hotels, and guest-houses provides essential information for the visitor. Produced in association with Veranda magazine.
Read an Excerpt
The recorded history of the South is short compared to that of the rest of the world, four centuries at best. Family trees for the most part are traced to other continents; those roots planted deep in Southern soil can only be Native American. But in spite of its youth, the South is a region of widely divergent landscapes and peoples, bound by rich traditions that make it unlike any other. Eccentric and haughty, yet gracious and hospitable to the core, Southerners are willing for the most part to come down off the veranda long enough to invite the world in to share their music, their food, their architecture and their cultures.
Those broad front porches are most easily accessible in the small towns and villages of the South, many of which appear in this book, where the first question asked of newcomers is often, "Where are you from and who are your people?" Most people who ask do so with a healthy, tongue-in-cheek drawl. This question is the Southerner's mantra, and, once asked, conversation can begin.
Place names, like family names, are important to Southerners, for they echo the broad diversity of origin ranging from European to African to Native American. Romantic names like LeBlanc in predominantly French South Louisiana, Meusebach in the German-populated Texas Hill Country, and the unmistakably English ring of Camden in South Carolina's Olde English District reveal either a town's or a person's lineage.
Indian names pepper the map of the South. The rhythmic Tuscaloosa, an early capital of Alabama, is derived from the Choctaw Indian ChiefTushkauloosa's name which means "black warrior." The Native American name for Buffalo Creek inspired the name of Waxahachie, Texas. Natchez, Mississippi, is named after a tribe of sun-worshipers. As European settlers forced indigenous populations west, these engaging names often remain the only traces of the Native American in a land he once called his own. Today, in downtown Camden, South Carolina, King Haigler, Native American friend to the town's first settlers, still watches over the community in the form of a five-foot weather-vane, a sentimental icon of a more peaceful time.
Despite the usual hardships encountered by early colonists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, deciding where to settle in the South was relatively easy. The South naturally divides into four geographic regions, each with its own personality. The miles of shoreline following the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico provided natural harbors for the first arrivals. The rich soil of the Piedmont, stretching from Virginia to Georgia, established the South's agrarian tradition that endured until the 1930s. The profusion of rivers in the South and the rich bottom land surrounding them made the Mississippi and the Black Warrior attractive to those leaving the Carolinas or Georgia for what historian W.J. Cash calls the "wave of frontier upon frontier" in search of more fertile land. The Upcountry, the deep interior and the mountains, ranges from the Blue Ridge chain in Virginia to what is fondly called the Texas Hill Country.
The first wave of Europeans established small colonies near the Atlantic Ocean on the east coast and the Gulf of Mexico on the southern coast. British influence is unmistakable in coastal towns such as Edenton, North Carolina, one of the first towns in North Carolina. The English dominated the Atlantic coast to Florida where Spanish influence began, continuing on into the westward waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Most of the new towns were established with the labor of African-American slaves. Slavery in America lasted for over 250 years, ending with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865. The descendants of these slaves have become interwoven in the fabric and culture of the South so that today the mayor or sheriff of many of these towns is as likely to be the grandson of a slave as of a slave owner.
Tiny Amelia Island, named for the daughter of England's King George II, off the east coast of Florida, illustrates the South's cross-cultural beginnings, for it is the only U.S. territory to have been ruled under eight flags. The French, English, Spanish, Patriots of Amelia Island, Green Cross of Florida, Mexican Rebel, Confederate, and the United States flags all flew over Amelia, and still fly today over the Eight Flags Inn in downtown Fernandina. Locals are fond of saying that "the French visited, the Spanish developed, the English named and the Americans tamed it."
Gradually, the Southern planters' restless search for fertile land worked its way inland to the Piedmont region. Residents from areas such as Pennsylvania or Delaware moved south to the Piedmont from other American colonies. Some of these settlers anticipated greater freedom of religion, as in the Quaker settlement in Waterford, Virginia, founded in 1733. Similarly, on a plateau near the Kentucky River, Shaker missionaries began the settlement of Pleasant Hill. Today, in this largest of all restored Shaker villages, visitors can sample food made from Shaker recipes and study original Shaker furniture and architecture.
From these small towns in the Piedmont and coastal areas, the colonists fought the Revolutionary War to obtain independence from Britain. Residents of York and Camden in South Carolina's Olde English District declare that the area is "where the South won the Revolutionary War" because of the numerous battles fought in the area.
After the Revolution, new territories along the Mississippi River or near Alabama's Black Warrior or Chattahoochee Rivers opened up new and fertile land. A generation later the sons and daughters of the Piedmont moved even farther west to clear more cotton land in Texas and Arkansas. Former President Lyndon B. Johnson's family was part of this migration when his family moved by wagon train from tiny Maxeys, Georgia, to Texas in the 1840s.
Cotton, first introduced in the South as early as 1790, brought unimaginable wealth throughout the region as people either grew cotton, sold it, shipped it, or manufactured it into material. The serviceable and simple lines of the South's popular Plantation Plain style homes of the early nineteenth century were abandoned for the more impressive Greek Revival homes in the building heyday leading up to the late 1850s. It was this wealth that gave rise to the grand mansions that grace the landscape in towns like Madison and Eutaw. Residents of cotton-rich Piedmont towns like Madison, Georgia, saw houses like Bonar Hall being built in 1832, and gossiped endlessly about imported plants for the house's exotic orangery or the copper roof arriving from England. Boats returning up the Black Warrior River to Eutaw, Alabama, in 1857 carried imported treasures such as Italian marble mantels for Kirkwood, Eutaw's last pillared mansion to be built before the Civil War.
And inside these houses lavish parties flourished. One affair equal to the surroundings was held at D'Evereux, the mansion in Natchez where presidential candidate Henry Clay was fêted, as party legend has it, in the glow of a thousand candles. Natchez, which had been flourishing in the cotton boom of the early 1800s, was by mid-century one of the wealthiest cities per capita in America, prompting Natchezians to call themselves "people of the world first."
The Civil War brought the South's opulent era to a halt with an economic despair as conspicuous as the golden days had been before the war. Mary Boykin Chesnut's journal, kept while she stayed at Mulberry, her in-laws' home in Camden during the war, was later published in the twentieth century as Diaries from Dixie. It is considered one of the most famous of all Civil War chronicles. Camden was spared from the Union forces' torch by pure luck. The town escaped destruction when a fortuitous rain shower left the the town's buildings too wet to burn.
Scattered throughout the South are reminders of the Civil War, the period most Americans agree is the worst moment in the nation's history, when the nation itself came apart. The world's only double-barrel cannon stands in front of the city hall in Athens, Georgia, shot once, and with a misfire, but heralded today by Athenians for its uniqueness, despite its inability to discharge. Determinedly pointed north in a bed of yellow flowers, the cannon is, as the environment it occupies, eccentric. Each December in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the Civil War battle of Prairie Grove is fought over and over in a historic reenactment. The battle's results, however, never change.
Southerners are quick to point out that after the war there was little money either "to tear down or build up." Benign neglect ensured architectural integrity for almost a century. If early on it was the economy that saved the towns of the South, later it was largely National Historic Register designation and local preservation commissions.
While the Victorian building craze swept the South after the Civil War, towns like the mountain village of Beersheba Springs, Tennessee, experienced rebirth as summer resorts in one of the South's newer cash crops, tourism. Beersheba Springs particularly gained a foothold when the Methodists built an "assembly" there to enjoy the cool Appalachian summers of the Cumberland Plateau. Located in resort areas near mountains or lakes throughout the South, these camp-like religious assemblies offered the righteous a summer sanctuary.
Hundreds of miles away, two other Southern towns were developing a vigorous post-bellum economy with the arrival of Yankee tourists by railroad and steamship. In 1875 New York's Mallory Steamship Line introduced tourists to Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island. Only twenty years later, this seaside village was hailed the "Queen of Summer Resorts" or the "Newport of the South," and a sizable Victorian district sprang up around the downtown area.
The 1890s saw the beginning of a wave of wealthy visitors from the North discovering Aiken, South Carolina. The "winter colony," as they were called, discovered a terrain whose natural landscape lent itself to polo matches, steeplechases, and leisurely rides, not to mention squash, tennis, and golf. Horses arrived by railroad car to winter in Aiken while their wealthy owners enjoyed rounds of parties on into the twentieth century.
Sports have always been the lifeblood of the South, whether an aristocratic game of polo or an afternoon of bass fishing. If a crowd in the South is not assembled in the name of the Lord, it will probably be gathered for football. College football is still worshipped in towns like Oxford, Athens, or Tuscaloosa on a fall Saturday afternoon, and discussed for hours on end until Tuesday when they start talking about next week's game. In between sport seasons, weekends are filled with events such as the Catfish Strut Festival in South Carolina or Mardi Gras parties in Natchez and St. Francisville.
It is difficult to deny the presence of the South's sprawling cities like Atlanta or Charlotte. These urban giants host international Olympic games, develop e-commerce, cheer professional sports, and live for the next ring of a cellphone. But the towns and villages of the South in this book are the ones that are often miles away from the interstate and probably do not even have an airport, places where Southerners and their guests are still enjoying themselves today. They are eager to take visitors through their gardens, open up their houses for Pilgrimage tours, and talk for hours on end to complete strangers. These communities appear in this book as they developed across the South, from the coasts, through the Piedmont, along the rivers, and to the Upcountry. And along this Southern path, the visitor can savor the stillness of cemeteries, the echo of hoof beats from the South's equestrian arenas, and the hush of Southern gardens and perhaps be inclined to agree that, though the South is not so old, its hospitality is ageless.
Meet the Author
Bonnie Ramsey is a contributing editor to Veranda magazine and Director of Communications at the Georgia Museum of Art.
Dennis O'Kain is an architectural photographer whose work has appeared in Veranda and Aperture, among many other publications.
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