Category Archives: –BEN HILL COUNTY GA–

Wilcox House, Fitzgerald

This was the home of sisters Dorothy Wilcox and Irene Jones. Dorothy was the Church Secretary at Central United Methodist and Irene worked at Sears for many years. Thanks to Jan Stokes for assistance with the identification.

South Main Street-South Lee Street Historic District, National Register of Historic Places

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Christmas in Fitzgerald, 2020

One of my favorite childhood Christmas memories is riding around and looking at all the lights with my grandmothers. It’s still a tradition with my mother and me. Here are some highlights from my hometown.

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The Wild Chickens of Fitzgerald

My hometown has long promoted itself as the Colony City, for its settlement by Union veterans in 1895 [Confederates came soon after]. In recent years, this focus has shifted to the wild Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) which roam the city. Everyone in Fitzgerald just calls them wild chickens and I’ve seen and heard them all my life. For years they weren’t really on anyone’s radar, unless they were doing battle with the fowl for control of their flower beds.

The Red Junglefowl, native to the Indian subcontinent and found throughout South Asia, has been determined through genetic studies to be the progenitor of all domesticated chickens and thus is the most economically and culturally important bird in the world.

When I was a teenager, my good friend Milton “Buddy” Hopkins told me how they came to be here. Buddy was a farmer and a sportsman, but as an ornithologist he wasn’t in favor of the chickens’ local presence, understanding the havoc wrought by introduced species on native populations. He followed their progress in the wild quite closely nonetheless.

The story really begins with the efforts of Gardiner Bump, a New York State Game Commissioner, who traveled to Asia in 1948 to research potential “replacements” for much of the wild fowl which had been depleted from American forests in the first half of the 20th century. Bump convinced the U. S. government that they could repopulate the forests with foreign species and the species he settled on was the Red Junglefowl. By the early 1960s, Bump’s efforts seemed to be paying off and over 10,000 Red Junglefowl were released into Southern forests, including over 2000 at the Bowens Mill Fish Hatchery north of Fitzgerald.

Nearly all of those birds vanished, likely victims of predators or disease. And by the end of the decade, the prevailing view among American biologists and game managers had shifted to a more integrated management program that focused on restoring old habitats and encouraging the re-introduction of native species. In 1970, the remaining birds in the program were ordered to be terminated, but somehow, a small population from Bowens Mill made their way to Fitzgerald, about ten miles distant. Against the odds, they not only survived but thrived.

As I stated earlier, the chickens weren’t generally given much thought by the people of Fitzgerald unless they were scratching up their flower beds or waking them up with their ritual crowing. They certainly weren’t seen as a symbol of the town. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, growing disdain by many led to occasional editorials in the local paper, the Herald-Leader.  My good friend Foster Goolsby saw himself as a defender of lawns and order and was the author of the most memorable of those editorials. The chickens had a particular affinity for his wife Frances’s flower beds, so you can imagine his urgency. Foster was a pilot in World War II and a longtime principal and headmaster.

By the early 2000s, anti-chicken fervor had reached its zenith and there was talk of attempting to exterminate the birds. At this point, Jan Gelders took on the role of defender of the chickens. Jan had earlier established the local Humane Society and as an advocate for animal rights felt the chickens should be left alone. Cool heads prevailed and after much debate the chickens were allowed to live. It doesn’t mean they’re universally adored, but for the most part, people have just learned to tolerate them.

Estimates vary wildly as to how many of the Red Junglefowl populate the streets and alleys of Fitzgerald today, but the low estimates I’ve seen have been around 5000 birds. The Jaycess host an annual Wild Chicken Festival and a recent government project is taking the the unofficial avian mascot to new heights.

At 62 feet, Fitzgerald’s Chicken Topiary [pictured above], created by Joe Kyte of Tellico Plains, Tennessee, will be the world’s tallest upon completion and is so large it will include a rentable room for overnight stays. I won’t wade into controversy here, except to say the town is about as divided about the use of funds for building a 62-foot chicken as it is about the chickens themselves.

 

 

 

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Beall-Dowlen House, 1900s, Fitzgerald

This Eclectic Victorian house was built by the Beall family of Bowen’s Mill circa 1907, then served as the parsonage of the Methodist church from 1912 until 1944. Sam P. and Hazel Evans Dowlen purchased it that year and their daughter, Nan Lee, lovingly maintains it to this day.

Nan is very passionate about the history of the house and notes that it’s essentially in original condition.

South Main Street-South Lee Street Historic District, National Register of Historic Places

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Saunderson House, 1900s, Fitzgerald

This was the home of Warren Edgar (Sr.) and Ruby Walker Saunderson. Mr. Saunderson was one of the pioneer settlers of the Old Soldiers’ Colony of Fitzgerald. The form, a Victorian T-Plan gable front house, was popular with immigrants to the colony from Indiana and is one of several remaining examples in Fitzgerald.

It features a patriotic Union shield in the front vent. A few homes of Confederate veterans once featured the same emblem, but turned upside down. I’m not sure if any of those survive outside the Blue & Gray Museum today. I believe the house dates to circa 1905.

Thanks to Jan Stokes for the identification. She grew up down the street and recalls: Mr. Saunderson was tall and thin and very quiet. Mrs. Saunderson was short, round, and jolly.

South Main Street-South Lee Street Historic District, National Register of Historic Places

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Ruins of Aldine Hotel, Fitzgerald

Irwin County entrepreneur Wright Tomberlin Paulk (1873-1922) built the Aldine Hotel [pronounced al-dean] circa 1904, to capitalize on the rapid growth of the recently settled”Old Soldier’s Colony” at Fitzgerald. He named it for his daughter, who died at the age of eighteen months in 1898. In its early days it was one of the leading hotels of the city and was later modified for use as a retail space for various businesses. I recall a Fred’s Store being located here when I was a child in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the above photograph shows, the front of the structure was sided with inappropriate concrete veneer at some point.

The original hotel was three stories; I believe this rear section was a later addition.

The structure had been abandoned and neglected for many years and in the past year or so bricks began to collapse into the adjacent alley, creating a serious liability and hazard. Sadly, this is the fate of far too many commercial structures in small towns all over Georgia.

As of October 2020, the property has been cleared.

Fitzgerald Commercial Historic District, National Register of Historic Places

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Vernacular House, Westwood

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West Side Church of God, Westwood

This is one of two abandoned churches in Westwood.

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West Point Missionary Baptist Church, Westwood

West Point Baptist Church is an historic African-American congregation in the Westwood community of Fitzgerald. Westwood was populated by skilled African-American machinists, most of whom worked in the nearby Atlantic Coast Line Railroad shops. It’s interesting that the establishment of the church predates the settlement of Fitzgerald and the location of the railroad by nearly 20 years. The present structure was built in 1972.

The church, which is the center of the Westwood community today, recently lost its well-loved and long serving pastor, Reverend Willie B. Pride (1938-2020).

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Sheppard Barn, Ben Hill County

This barn was recently exposed after some trees were cut. Susan Sheppard Brown notes that it was built by her grandfather, Bill Sheppard, circa 1960, from pine saplings he cut on the property.

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