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Macon's got that home advantage

When I was young," said Marty Willett, "I wanted to preach or teach when I grew up. Somehow this happened. I became a dead poet."

He's referring to Sidney Lanier, born here in 1843. Willett, dressed in 19th-century garb and sporting a full beard, impersonates Lanier during Sidney's Old South Historic Tours of Macon. Willett lectures, tells bad puns, recites poetry and entertains a van full of visitors with historic anecdotes and surprising facts about Macon.

Typical of the humor, Willett was asked if he wrote his own narrative and he replied, "I'm a dead poet. I only decompose."

Macon was incorporated in 1823 on the banks of the Ocmulgee River (pronounced oak-MULL-gy). But at the Ocmulgee National Monument on the outskirts of town, Indian mounds, a reconstructed ceremonial earth lodge and exhibits tell about the area's first tourist, European explorer Hernando de Soto, who was here about 1540.

Macon became the South's largest inland cotton port once steamboats made their way upriver, in 1829. Railroads followed in the 1840s and Macon earned fame as the Queen Inland City.

Built on rolling hills, Macon often has been described as the San Francisco of the South. It also had the wealth to build impressive homes. By Willett's count, there are more than 400 white columns throughout the town. "The humor gets worse," Willett admitted, "as the homes get better." And while driving, he pointed out the most distinctive structures:

The Woodruff House, where Jefferson Davis' daughter was honored with a ball on her 16th birthday; the Carriage Stop Inn, with its matching white-columned playhouse on the lawn; and the 1842 Inn, where the Sidney Lanier room is inhabited by a playful presence.

The grand homes of Macon were spared during Sherman's fiery March to the Sea because the Union general thought the Confederate forces had united to attack him there. During a brief shelling in July 1864, a cannonball struck Judge Asa Holt's house, now known as the Old Cannonball House.

"A little boy was an eyewitness," Willett explains during the two-hour tour. "He saw the 12-pounder ball go through the wooden column into the front hall where it came to rest in front of the mirror.

"Back then the home didn't have a ballroom." Willett paused and hefted the cannonball from the entry, adding, "But they have one today."

The Old Cannonball House is headquarters of the Sidney Lanier Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Normally chapters are named after generals, but Lanier was a private, having turned down promotions three times in order to stay near his brother Clifford. A Confederate Museum in the servants' house contains antique clothing and uniforms, photographs and a scrapbook from the 1912 Confederate Soldiers Reunion.

The first stop on the tour is Lanier's birthplace on High Street _ his grandfather's house, originally a four-room cottage. He died in 1881 at the age of 39 and became the only poet honored in the Hall of Fame of Great Americans. A marker and live oak in the park across the street from the Lanier Cottage recall his poem, The Marshes of Glynn.

Perhaps the most intriguing house on the tour is the Hay House, last stop on the trip. The 24-room, 18,000-square-foot home was begun in 1855 for William Butler Johnston and his bride.

They had taken a three-year honeymoon in Europe collecting ideas for this Italian Renaissance Revival home. At its completion in 1860, the home had innovations that made it perhaps the most advanced antebellum residence in America. There were indoor bathrooms with hot and cold running water, an elevator, an in-house ventilating system, room-to-room intercom and a secret room where, legend says, Confederate gold was stored. (Willett has a surprising idea about its more likely use.)

The home is furnished with heirlooms from the P.

L. Hay family, who owned the home from 1926 to 1977 and were responsible for its preservation. As restoration continues, the home's interior becomes more surprising than ever. It was discovered that the elaborate plaster ceiling moldings were even more remarkable _ they had been accented with gold leaf. The dining room has recently been regilded.

Willett's tour whets your appetite to explore more of Macon on your own. The Harriet Tubman Historical and Cultural Museum preserves the city's black history. The Museum of Arts and Sciences and Mark Smith Planetarium has a whale of a fossil that is 40-million years old.

The 1884 Grand Opera House was the site of performances by Will Rogers, the Gish sisters and Sarah Bernhardt. It was one of the few stages in the country large enough to accommodate the elaborate sets and machinery required for the production of Ben Hur.

Aside from Sidney Lanier, who had a natural talent to play any musical instrument, other famous musicians from Macon include Little Richard, James Brown, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers. Music is the centerpiece of the Southern Jubilee each fall and the Cherry Blossom Festival in the spring.

As dusk falls, visitors might want to take a carriage tour with Col. Joseph Bond (aka Keith Stringfellow) for a different perspective of the plantation era of Macon. The colonel, as he will tell you, made the largest cotton crop of any planter in the state in 1858, about $100,000 worth.

But that's another story. Whether you're riding with the colonel at the reins or Lanier at the wheel, it's like being driven back in time in Macon.

Carolyn Thornton is a writer living in Hattiesburg, Miss.

IF YOU GO

Macon is located off Interstate 75 about 1{ hours southeast of Atlanta.

In addition to the major motel chains, bed and breakfast accommodations include:

1842 Inn, 353 College St., Macon 31201, (912) 741-1842. Twenty-two graciously decorated rooms are housed in the main Greek Revival mansion and a Victorian cottage moved to the site and connected by a courtyard. $70-$90.

Victorian Village Inn, 1841 Hardeman Ave., Macon 31201, (912) 743-3333. Has 26 rooms located in three Victorian houses, the oldest of which was built in 1847. Doubles $65-$125.

Sidney's Old South Tours book quickly, so arrive early. Tours begin from Terminal Station downtown, daily except Sunday, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. No tours Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, July 4th or Labor Day. Adults $8, children $4.

Colonel Bond's Carriage Tours start at the Green Jacket Restaurant at 7 p.m., daily except Sunday; also by appointment. $10 per person.

For additional information and tour reservations, contact Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Terminal Station, Macon 31201, (912) 743-3401.

_ CAROLYN THORNTON

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