Despite traveling extensively, I’m still impressed when I discover big things in small places. Cartersville, Georgia, a city of 20,000 residents about 40 minutes north of Atlanta, offers major draws. It’s the smallest town in the U.S. with two Smithsonian Affiliate Museums: one an art museum and the other a Science facility.
The Booth Western Art Museum houses the largest permanent exhibition space for Western art in the entire country- yes, the entire United States. And, what a fabulous place it is. Approach the modern 120,000-square-foot limestone and glass building and discover an outdoor sculpture garden. Larger than life statues of what kids call ‘cowboys and Indians’ populate the lawn. Inside displays of contemporary Western artwork, Civil War art, more than 200 Native American artifacts and presidential portraits and letters abound.
The American West Gallery spans 175 years, with poignant creations by famed artists such as Charles M. Russell, Frederic Remington, and George Caitlin as highlights. Artifacts include beaded clothing, saddle and leather art and a cowboy collection.
The Civil War Gallery displays evocative artwork that chronologically depicts battles and events from the tragic divide.
The Modern West Gallery focuses on Western art from the past 50 years. Contemporary pieces by Western trendsetters incorporate bronze, fiberglass, and even paper, and show the progression of stylistic changes. A pop art styled portrait of Sitting Bull by Andy Warhol may be far removed from the artist’s Pittsburgh roots, but captivates.
The Millar Presidential Gallery took me by surprise – itself reason enough to visit. The gallery showcases a signed, page-long letter by each of the forty-four previous American Presidents. Meandering through the personal documents in the dimly lit space gives a sense of intimacy with the past leaders. Some visitors simply enjoy comparing the handwriting and signatures and viewing the photos.
Adults love Sagebrush Ranch as much as the children for whom it was built. My inner child couldn’t resist the hands-on, interactive exhibits and I giggled sitting in a stagecoach bouncing along as if being pulled by horses. Children are encouraged to recreate Native American beadwork, make a Western landscape, invent designs branding, dress as settlers and mount a replica horse for photo ops.
While in Cartersville, take another day to tour the equally immense and fascinating Tellus Science Museum. Who can resist a dinosaur fossil with an oversized personality? This guy jumps out from a lobby and pulls you into an area brimming with the bones from giant mammals, reptiles, and dinosaurs, like the Tyrannosaurus Rex, saber-tooth cat, and the Megalodon shark.
One of the most appealing areas for children is the sand pit where kids, aka young paleontologists, can free fossils in various shapes and sizes. Next, they grab a pan at the Gem Panning exhibit and begin searching for hidden stones and crystals. Children may keep their discoveries as souvenirs.
Mineral mining contributes to the economy in this region and the Mineral Gallery in the Tellus is a real gem. The gleaming displays of gigantic geodes and polished gemstones even astonish hobbyists.
Don’t leave before taking a visual journey through our solar system in the state-of-the-art Planetarium.
If Native American history appeals, drive to the Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Site. The flat-topped mounds date back to 900-1550 A.D. Climb to the top and tour the small museum to learn about this historic settlement.
The Cartersville area also includes Old Car City USA, the world’s largest known classic car junkyard covering 40 acres with miles of walking trails. Many car buffs and photographers find the forest of 4,000 forgotten cars irresistible. I honestly did not; a half hour visit was enough for me.
If you’re looking for big-city attractions in a small town atmosphere, you’ll find them in Cartersville. For more information: VisitCartersvilleGA.org.
A similar article to the above ran in the Florida Newsline publications: Consider Cartersville.
Imagine my surprise when I was informed that I’d won a St. Simons Getaway Contest: a package including four nights in a two-bedroom cottage on St. Simons Island compliments of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and Island Cottage Company, plus gift certificates from restaurants and activities. WOW!
Since I travel for my work, I don’t usually take a vacation. So, what would I do with this wonderful windfall?
I have four grown children and eight grandchildren, but needless to say, a group that size wouldn’t fit. In talking with them, my son Steve and his extended family decided to rent a house on St. Simons, concurrent with my cottage reservation. My youngest and single daughter, Laura, would share the cottage with me. So, plans were made for a multi-generational family vacation.
St. Simons Island
We all arrived in early June, some driving and some flying. St. Simons is the largest barrier island in the Golden Isles group, situated off the southern Georgia coast. The name comes from the warm reflection of the sun on lowland Spartina or marsh grass.
To get there, I drove about two hours before crossing the 480-foot tall Sidney Lanier Bridge and through the Lowcountry. Once on St. Simons, you pick up a peaceful, family-friendly vibe.
Much of the island is residential, the streets lined with stately old oaks dripping Spanish moss. One of the most beautiful spots, called the Avenue of Oaks, features a double row of huge trees planted in 1826. The island includes a few villages, a small airport, and lovely beaches.
Laura and I checked into the Piper Cottage, a small house full of big delights. We each had a bedroom, plus a living room, dining area, another den or lounge, two bathrooms, a full kitchen and outdoor patio. In addition, a small screened-in front porch and a fenced in yard. What more could we want?
Michele Beveridge, the owner, came over and welcomed us. The Piper Cottage decor blends hues of blue and white in a casual, beachy style that’s totally laid-back and charming. Another bonus was high-speed WiFi. Yes — even when you’re on vacation.
The chosen week turned out to be one of the hottest weeks of the summer. Whew! The family over in Steve’s house awaken with the sun, so various adults would get out early and set up a tent for shade and the beach chairs. Sunscreen, sand toys, Boogie boards, snacks and cold water were trekked down along with the kids. Everyone splashed in the ocean, jumped the waves and built sand castles.
When the beach got too hot, we headed to the pool, an extra that came along with Steve’s big house rental. Soon, lunchtime called and the youngest needed naps.
Laura and I decided to use one of the gift certificates and headed off to Southern Soul BBQ for pulled pork sandwiches. This super casual restaurant, in an old gas station, has lip-smacking, tender and juicy BBQ. The meat is slow-cooked, and you choose a choice of sauces. Yummy!
Another afternoon, my son and I took the two oldest girls to the Lighthouse (four tickets were included in my package.) It stands near the village and the pier and is one of only five light towers in Georgia. The 104-foot brick structure dates back to 1872 but was overhauled in 1876. In 1953, it became fully automated.
We began by watching a terrific orientation video. Then, despite the heat, we climbed the cast iron spiral stairway with 129 steps to the top. The view of St. Simons Sound from up high is sublime.
The 1872 keeper’s dwelling is of Victorian design and restored to the period. Compared to others lighthouses I have visited, this house seemed quite grand and spacious. The girls and I enjoyed peeking into the children’s bedroom and guessing at the antique kitchen tools. The gift shop is one of the best with truly lovely items!!
Another afternoon, we visited the Maritime Center housed in the old Coast Guard Station (Tickets to the lighthouse also admit you to the Maritime Center). The station was used up until 1995 and later turned into a museum that includes some hands-on history activities and nature exhibits for children.
Jekyll Island, another of the Golden Isles, is a sleepy, secluded place of unspoiled beauty. You pay a $6 entry fee to cross the causeway. It supports the island’s natural and cultural resources.
Jekyll became the winter escape grounds for America’s richest during the Gilded Age. Legendary families like the Rockefellers, Morgans, and Pulitzers reveled in their luxurious “cottages.” Their homes around the Jekyll Island Club became known as the Millionaires’ Row.
One morning my family group skipped the beach and carpooled to nearby Jekyll to visit the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. This extraordinary facility functions like a top-of-the-line hospital except the patients aren’t humans; they are turtles.
The night before a giant sea turtle had been rescued and we saw him lying on the surgical table being debrided- removing barnacles that had grown on his shell. Blood was drawn and the turtle was taken to the Radiology lab for x-rays.
Results revealed a boat propeller wound sometime in the past. The resulting crack in his shell became infected. The turtle would receive antibiotics, and his shell would be mended with a laser.
Every rescued turtle at the center receives a name, so much nicer than calling one XJ257. Detailed medical records and all treatments are recorded. When a turtle is ready to be released back into the sea, a tracking device is attached so their movements can be monitored.
We watched a feeding demonstration with a young turtle in a glass tank placed at children’s eye level.
Earlier, the kids roamed about the museum playing with interactive displays, please touch exhibits and lots of videos. Afterward, we went out back to the Rehabilitation Pavilion, a room filled with tanks that look like small swimming pools. Adults and kids agree, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center ranks as a fun and worthwhile place to visit.
The family returned to Jekyll another day to beat the heat at Summer Waves Water Park. Although a water park seems out of character for this upscale maritime preserve, I give a thumbs up to the attraction. We had a blast slipping down a variety of water slides, hanging out on inner tubes in the lazy river and getting dunked with water in the splash zone. The little ones kept busy in the kiddie area. Summer Waves is clean and well attended by life guards.
Summer Waves Water Park
Lastly, I took Laura over to Jekyll early one morning to let her experience Driftwood Beach, one of my favorite spots for photography. An array of petrified trees lying on their sides framed the beach, something like a tree graveyard. The place feels magical, a picturesque spot for wedding photos or family portraits. Every time I go I encounter different conditions: low tide, high tide, sunrise, wind and rain. Laura fell under its spell, too.
With so many children and adults, it is easier and more relaxing to cook and dine at home. One night, I had the group to the cottage for a meal. However, dining out is always a treat, and we enjoyed a casual meal of burgers and fried fish at Brogen’s at the Pier. Fast service and reasonable prices.
We also couldn’t resist the Moo Cow ice cream shop. The employees were amazingly friendly and efficient. Hot days + cold ice cream = a perfect pair.
What We Missed
I am so sorry I missed a Tree Spirit scavenger hunt on St. Simons. In 1982, local sculptor Keith Jennings started carving faces on trees. He says the wood speaks to him, and he just has to let the tree’s soul out. There are 20 Tree Spirits on the island. Somehow I hadn’t heard about them, but guess I’ll just have to return another time.
Because the grandchildren are young, we didn’t include fishing, kayaking, dolphin tours, golf, guided nature walks and tennis, but they are certainly adventurous options. The Golden Isles provide a wealth of experiences for family vacations, getaway weekends or romantic escapes. Thank you Golden Isles for providing me with priceless family memories.
In the Clark’s Hill region of Georgia, not too far from Augusta, I found the largest man-man lake east of the Mississippi, built by the Army Corps of Engineers. Nearly 72,000 acres of freshwater and 1,200 miles of shoreline grace this area, making it a favored destination for water sports, hunting, and camping.
Here’s the interesting thing about this lake. On the Georgia side, folks call it Clarks Hill Lake- likely because it borders Elijah Clark State Park. But, the opposite shores are in South Carolina, and there the name is J. Strom Thurmond Lake. Oh, how political power prevails. Nonetheless, bass fishing is good on either side.
In the Clark’s Hill area, you’ll find the counties of Columbia, Lincoln, McDuffie, Warren and Wilkes, each with its unpredictable attractions.
In Columbia, I stopped at the International Disc Golf Center, walked around the Augusta Canal headwater gates, visited the Laurel and Hardy Museum. In McDuffie, I saw the hounds on Belle Meade Fox Hunt grounds.
In Warren County, I ogled antique cars at the Ogeechee Car Museum and sipped tea in the tiny town of Jewell, population 35.
In Washington- Wilkes, I toured the historic buildings of Callaway Plantation, the City historical museum and stayed at the 1898 Fitzpatrick Hotel.
While I visited each of these sites, the main purpose of my trip was to attend Lincoln County’s Pioneer Days, held in the Lincoln County Historical Park. During my adventure, I stayed in a woodsy cabin on the grounds of Elijah Clark State Park. The two-bedroom, lakeside lodging came with all the creature comforts one could want. I highly recommend it and the park. Don’t miss the Elijah Clark Cabin, an enchanting replica based on descriptions of the Revolutionary War hero’s home.
The little town of Lincolnton, population around 1,500, hosts an annual event on the third Saturday in November. Pioneer Days attracts over 3,000 attendees who come to taste authentic southern and festival foods, watch period- dressed participants demonstrate old time equipment, and enjoy catching up with neighbors.
You can see corn ground in a 1920’s grist mill, lumber cut at the sawmill, smoked meat in the smokehouse, an animal-run cotton gin, watch demonstrations in the blacksmith shop, and warm up by the fireplace in the 1790 Andrew Jackson Reid Log Cabin. There are antique tractors and engines on display. You can shop for sundries in the 1890’s Country Store, sit at a desk at the 1900’s Salem Schoolhouse and tour the early town’s doctor’s office. There’s also big-old Turpentine still, but they aren’t allowed to run it, and a small Quilt show.
So how did this 3.2 square mile town come to maintain such a grand historical park? The answer is Gary Edwards, President of the Historical Society. He didn’t move mountains, but he did move buildings to their current location, often saving them from destruction. Gary just doesn’t let go of the past.
Festival entertainment? Why, of course. Musical groups perform in the Lewis Family Pavilion and around the park grounds. One of the most popular was this banjo group playing some down home foot stompin music.
One of the favorite parts of my day was getting in line and filling my plate with slow cooked turnip greens, chicken and dumplings, red beans and rice, fried cornbread, fried okra, sausage biscuits and hoe cakes. There are also hot dogs and hamburgers for the little ones. This meal is honest southern cooking prepared by the Lincolnton ladies, and it is beyond satisfying and yummy.
Dessert comes out of another tent, and you better get in line early because demand is high Fresh apple fritters are the draw and ingredients run out about 2:00 in the afternoon. Lip-smacking delicious in my book.
If you would like to immerse yourself in a little town with tremendous spirit, make plans to attend Pioneer Days. And, even better— the event is free.