"Just watch out the window Ginger. When you see red clay and pine trees we will be getting close to home," were the words my grandmother would say to my mom as they traveled by steam locomotive back to Augusta to visit the family doctor in the 1940s. Traveling from Ohio and watching the scenery blur past the passenger car window until they were back in the south where the earth was red, pine tree needles glistened in the bright blue sky and the familiarity of home.
Above: My grandmother, Elizabeth or Betty as she was known at the family home in 1917.
My grandmother was born here, in Augusta, in 1899. Born on the 400 block of Greene Street during a time when trolleys traveled around the town and when it was commonplace to see a wagon being pulled by horses on the main street - Broad Street.
Above: Green Street in the early 1900s.
Above: Broad Street looking east in the early 1900s.
It must have been hard for her to move away when she married my grandfather in 1917, and it must have been even harder to live up north and the frigid winters when you knew that in the south it was so much warmer. She was so young and traveling so far away. Never to live here again and only to come for trips to visit family and see the only doctor she trusted, the family doctor that she had known her entire life. She really must have loved my grandfather. Today, most of the population is leaving the cold and coming south...the percentage going the other direction is much, much less.
Above: My grandmother with dogwood flowers and the familiar pines of the south behind her.
Above: Ed and Betty at Macon, Georgia, early in World War I
Above: Two lovers in 1917 - Ed and Betty
In 1960 grandmother passed away from cancer. I never met her because she was gone two years before I was even born. And there was always this gap of who I am missing in my life. Growing up with brats, beer and sour kraut, Friday night fish fries, tobogganing, skiing and snowball fights. Milwaukee was industrial. It smelled of industry, of yeast and breweries, printing ink and paper, metal and oil. There were days on end of gray and cold. Fewer days yet that were warm and sunny. And when I'd walk down the hallway in our house, I would always stop and stare at grandmother's portrait. She was such a mystery and the world of the south was even more distant.
In 1986, I moved south and relocated in Savannah, eventually, in 1995 landing a job in Augusta, the place where it all started so many years ago.
But, I still had no idea of my southern roots, of my ancestors and most importantly, of my grandmother.
Family stories were nice, but they really didn't tell me about who she was. These were filtered stories, told over and over again. I wanted new material and I wanted to learn about the town of my ancestors.
If my grandmother had not died of cancer, she would have been ninety-six when I moved to Augusta in 1995. Her contemporaries, if they were still alive would be very old and chances are, they would not remember her. But, for my own research of my ancestral home, I began work on a film called Augusta Remembers in 1999. In the process, I hoped to learn about life in Augusta during my grandmother's time from her contemporaries and from those who may have known her. I wanted to learn about why my ancestors settled here, of all the places to live, why did they come to Augusta?
Over the next year, I interviewed people from all over the city. I learned about the great fire of 1916 and how the March winds carried the flames from one building to the next. I imagined my grandmother and my ancestors trying to gather things from their home before the tempest reached their dwelling - placing valuables in the green between the streets. Like so many others, their home was destroyed.
There was so much history and so many stories I learned about Augusta. I interviewed a cross-section of the population and in doing so, captured a wonderful piece of the city from different perspectives.
Today, as I listen to the bell chime at St. Paul's Church, I wonder how many others heard that chime from that same bell over the years. I wonder about how many feet walked over the ground I step on in the parking lot off of Reynolds Street daily. The lot once was home to Tubman School for Girls, a two-story brick building that looked like a castle with turrets and towers. My grandmother went to high school there and graduated from Tubman in 1916. Very likely, I am walking over the same ground she covered over one-hundred years ago.
Cotton was king during the early period of the 1900s and wagons, loaded down with this cash crop traveled Reynolds; their wooden chassis creaking and groaning with the weight on their backs. Either side of the street was lined with large, white bales of cotton. Ready for grading, weighing and shipment to cities across the country.
On June 7th of this year, a revised version of the original film will be released at the Imperial Theatre in downtown Augusta. This "revised" version will be called "Finding Home - An Augusta Narrative," and will not only include some of these wonderful interviews from many years ago, but also new interviews carrying the video from the early 1900s all the way into the 1980s. In a way, it will be a time-capsule of 20th Century Augusta. And, all those interviews with lifelong residents helped me to find more about my family, myself and my home.
Watch for details in the coming months and if you are in the Augusta area, please come!