Milledgeville: A Real Page-Turner
Sunday, August 10, 2003
"I was there the day Marion Stembridge came up the stairs, wearing that big coat with a pistol in his pocket."
Bob Green, a 78-year-old lawyer, was telling me a story as I sat on a bench beneath a tulip tree in Milledgeville, Ga., waiting for the tourist trolley.
"I heard the shots from my office. The whole town was aflutter," Green said, recalling the 1953 killing spree that became the basis for Pete Dexter's prize-winning novel, "Paris Trout."
Milledgeville, about 100 miles southeast of Atlanta, is a small town full of big stories. The comic and the tragic, the real and the unreal, the famous and the forgotten, all blend together in the rich local lore.
A young Oliver Hardy ran the projector at Milledgeville's first movie house. "He sang and danced to entertain people between the picture shows," said guide Gwendelyn Clark as the red trolley rolled along. "Then he left town, said he was going to make movies."
We passed the cemetery where writer Flannery O'Connor is buried along with train robber Bill Miner -- "the last of the Dalton gang" -- and turned into a neighborhood of towering white oaks and white-columned mansions.
We stopped at the Gothic-style building that served as Georgia's capitol during the Civil War, before the seat of government shifted to Atlanta, and the church where Gen. William Sherman's troops stabled their horses when they marched through in 1864.
Milledgeville was founded in 1803, near the geographic heart of Georgia, and is the only planned capital in the country besides Washington. The compact town center contains more than 200 architectural landmarks, including many examples of a distinctive style known as Milledgeville Federal.
A bicentennial celebration has sparked efforts to attract more visitors. A new museum in the old state Capitol contains artifacts going back to the Creek Indians. The former Governor's Mansion, where a ballroom scene for "Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All" was filmed, is undergoing renovation. Limited tours recently became available to Andalusia, the dairy farm on the edge of town where O'Connor did most of her writing.
So why has this middle Georgia gem, now marketing itself as the "Antebellum Capital," remained off the tourism radar for so long?
For many native Georgians, Milledgeville is synonymous with five state prisons and Central State Hospital, once one of the world's biggest -- and most notorious -- mental institutions. Generations of children grew up hearing: "If you don't behave, I'm sending you to Milledgeville." I had to pay it a visit.
"Turn right when you come to a little old restaurant and then you'll see a pecan grove and the White House," a liquor store clerk told me when I stopped to ask directions. "That's the main building of the hospital, but everybody calls it the White House because that's what it looks like."