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Milledgeville: A Real Page-Turner

By Carol Clark
Special to The Washington Post
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."

The mammoth Greek Revival administration building sat on a rise overlooking several acres of pecan trees, bordered by decaying red-brick structures that resembled abandoned schoolhouses, except for the rusted bars over the broken window panes.

Bud Merritt, a former psychiatric social worker who now serves as the hospital's informal historian, met me inside the Victorian train depot that housed the museum.

A straitjacket was laid out on a gurney. A rolling medicine cart stood next to a metal bed with leather straps and sheets stenciled "state property." Lobotomy tools were arranged in neat rows on a shelf. Below them was a vintage electric shock machine -- a metal case with a Bakelite knob labeled "Intensity."

When the hospital opened in 1842 as the Georgia Lunatic Asylum, it offered some of the best care available at that time for the mentally ill, Merritt said. Then it started growing, swelling to a small city of 13,000 patients by the 1960s. One or two staff members were assigned to as many as 100 patients.

"What you had here were a lot of decent, caring people working under extraordinarily difficult circumstances," he said. "You'd just carve out a little area and do the best you could."

Georgia has long since reformed and decentralized its mental health care system, like the rest of the nation. Central State now averages about 900 patients in its daily census.

We toured the grounds in Merritt's van, entering an area where most of the former patient buildings have been turned into prison facilities. Loops of razor wire stacked five rows high lined both sides of the road until we entered a forest of cedar trees.

Between 1843 and the early 1900s, more than 20,000 patients who died in the hospital were brought to the forest and buried anonymously, according to a plaque.

The twitter of songbirds mingled with the distant shouts of prisoners in their exercise yards. I could see the faint outline of the unmarked graves -- row after row of rectangular depressions in the forest floor.

"We've been getting a lot of inquiries now that there is less stigma attached to mental illness," Merritt said. "Some people are finally learning that great-granddad didn't die in the war, he died in Milledgeville."

During lunch at Elaine's restaurant, on the outskirts of downtown, police officers and farmers, elderly couples and young office workers filled the tables as a sturdy blonde weaved among them, carrying pitchers of iced tea that rattled like castanets. Every few minutes, the cooking staff burst through the kitchen's swinging doors with trays radiating the aroma of hot biscuits.

The waitress addressed the diners by name as she poured their tea. When she got to me she asked, "You travelin'?"

I told her about my visit to Central State.

"I used to play at the hospital when I was a little girl," she said. "My grandfather was the coroner and my grandmother was a caretaker. They'd take me along to work sometimes."

"Weren't you afraid?" I asked.

"Oh, no, I made a lot of friends," she said. "I remember a woman who never talked to anyone. I went up to her and asked why she was sittin' all alone and why she was so sad. And then she got to talkin', and she talked from then on. I always tell people that I changed her life."

Everybody I met in Milledgeville was a good storyteller.

Dianne Johnson, manager of the Antebellum Inn B&B, brought goose bumps to my arms when she told me about a ghost that was harassing a tenant in a nearby rental property.

"She was making the bed in the upstairs room when her 4-year-old daughter said, 'Mama, make that man stop staring at me.' She said, 'What man, honey?' And the little girl pointed to an empty corner of the room."

Johnson assured me that the inn was ghost-free, then dashed off to a dinner engagement, leaving me alone in the elegant, but somewhat creaky, mansion.

I took a volume of O'Connor short stories from a bookshelf and sat on a rocker on the veranda. I hadn't read "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" since college. I had forgotten how funny were O'Connor's descriptions of a banal family from Atlanta, driving to Florida for vacation.

"Let's go through Georgia fast so we don't have to look at it much," the bratty little boy says.

But the family turns off onto a side road. The narrative shifts from funny to terrifying when they find themselves at the mercy of an escaped felon known as the Misfit.

I snapped the book shut and called it a night.

Andalusia, the 544-acre farm where O'Connor drew her inspiration, is one of the last rural remnants amid the strip development lining the highway into Milledgeville.

Craig Amason, director of the Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation, met me in front of the two-story white farmhouse built around 1850. The house has been vacant since the author died in 1964 of the debilitating effects of lupus. She was 39.

We squished through mud notched by deer tracks as Amason told me about the foundation's plans to renovate Andalusia and expand the regular visiting times. The farmhouse opened to the public for the first time in June. None of O'Connor's famous peacocks remains on the property. The sole inhabitant of the farm, a mule named Flossie, eyed me suspiciously from a distance.

"This has the potential to become one of the most important literary landmarks in the country because it's more than an author's home. It's also the source of her imagination," Amason said. He gazed toward a rickety, weathered barn with a rusting tin roof. "Anyone who's read 'Good Country People' can't look at that hay barn and not think of Joy and the Bible salesman," he said.

O'Connor was born in Savannah but moved to Milledgeville with her family when she was 13. Her two novels, "Wise Blood" and "The Violent Bear It Away," and most of her short stories are set in the red-clay landscape of middle Georgia. Her characters spoke in the pitch-perfect cadences of the region's farmers, housewives, laborers and aristocrats, making them seem real even when they veered off into extremes -- which they often did. O'Connor used violence like flashes of lightning to expose her deeply spiritual themes.

An annual O'Connor symposium attracts hundreds of fans and scholars to Milledgeville, including many from Europe and Japan, Amason said. "She has a fanatical following. People either love her work or they hate it."

He led me through the screened-in porch of the house and into the small room where O'Connor slept and worked. Dark blue curtains filtered the light. The air was suffused with the smell of old wood and textiles. The simple furnishings included empty bookcases and a twin bed covered in a thin cotton bedspread. An armoire stood in the center of the room, next to the bed.

"Flannery was on crutches, so it was an advantage to have everything pushed together," Amason said. "She wrote every morning religiously, from 8 to 12, and she sat facing the back of this armoire so she wouldn't be distracted."

O'Connor, the most famous storyteller in a place weighted with stories, had her work cut out for her.

Carol Clark last wrote for Travel about Mobile, Ala.

Details: Milledgeville, Ga.

GETTING THERE: Milledgeville is about a 1 1/2-hour drive from Atlanta. Go east on I-20 about 60 miles to Exit 114 (Madison). Turn right onto Highway 441 south and continue about 45 miles to Milledgeville. Nonstop flights from D.C, to Atlanta start at about $235 round trip.

WHERE TO STAY: The Antebellum Inn (200 N. Columbia St., 478-453-3993, www.antebelluminn.com), a five-room B&B, is a great place to soak up the ambience of Milledgeville. The 1890 mansion is in the heart of the historic district. Rates from $65 include a superb breakfast.

Milledgeville also has a number of chain hotels, including the Budget Inn (225 E. Hancock St., 478-452-3533), which has a convenient downtown location. Rooms go for about $35.

WHERE TO EAT: You won't leave Elaine's (1057 S. Wayne St.) hungry. This homey, no-frills restaurant has all-you-can-eat lunch and dinner buffets of fried chicken, quail, catfish and other local specialties for $6.50. Cafe South (132 Hardwick St.), housed in a historic building that was once a post office and general store, is another good place for southern comfort food. Meat-and-two- vegetable lunches served cafeteria-style are $6.15. Try the bread pudding.

WHAT TO DO:

• Trolley tours of the town are offered Monday through Friday at 10 a.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. by the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Convention and Visitors Bureau (see below). Cost of the two-hour tour, which includes a drive through the historic district as well as stops at historic homes, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and the Old State Capitol, is $10.

• The museum at Central State Hospital (620 Broad St, 478-445-0755, www.centralstatehospital.org) is free but open by appointment only.

• Flannery O'Connor's farm, Andalusia, is open for self-guided, "walk-in" tours on Tuesdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., for $5 per person. Guided trolley tours depart from the visitors center the third Saturday of every month at 11 a.m. for $10. Other tours are offered by appointment. For directions and information: Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation, 478-454-4029, www.andalusiafarm.org.

• The fifth Flannery O'Connor Symposium (478-445-5277, www.gcsu.edu/revelations), Oct. 8-11 at Georgia College and State University, features readings by poets and fiction writers, performances of original musical compositions, and area folk art exhibits. Ticket prices vary.

INFORMATION: Milledgeville-Baldwin County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-653-1804, www.milledgevillecvb.com.

-- Carol Clark

© 2003 The Washington Post Company