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Clayton County

Story by Bill Farley American Roads Travel Magazine

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Marker at Confederate cemetery in Jonesboro

 

Scenic and historic as it is, Georgia’s Clayton County has to be forgiven if it sometimes gives the impression that, like Rodney Dangerfield, it feels it “don’t get no respect.” Situated in the penumbra of the sprawling megalopolis of Atlanta, Clayton County is something of a country cousin that too often gets overlooked by travelers seeking a colorful and eclectic destination. But vacationers and especially history buffs who bypass Clayton do so at their own loss. There is much to recommend this county just twenty miles or so from the big city, both in terms of nostalgia and in terms of the best of today.

The county seat of Clayton is Jonesboro, site of a brutal clash that marked the final battle of the Atlanta campaign during the War Between the States. It’s a place where the ghosts of the Confederacy linger and one can visit a cemetery where the brave soldiers of the South were buried after they were overrun by a much larger Union force.

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Visit this museum for all things GWTW

Decades later, Jonesboro was the town where a young Margaret Mitchell would summer with her grandparents, soaking up from them and from other local residents who had lived through the war and its aftermath the stories that she eventually wove into her American classic novel,  and that figured prominently in the legendary Academy Award-winning film adapted from her book.

Not surprisingly, Mitchell’s shadow looms over much of which gives Clayton County its fierce sense of pride in its history. The Georgia legislature has recognized this as well, designating Jonesboro as the official home of “Gone With the Wind.”

But, important as GWTW is to Clayton County, if offers much more, often seeming to be a study in contrasts. For example, a former railroad warehouse in the heart of town houses the Road To Tara Museum, where all things  GWTW dominate.  The gold standard for fans of the book and film, this entertaining and informative showplace offers everything from Civil War memorabilia to film posters to reproductions of “Gone With the Wind” costumes.  Other displays range from rare books and manuscripts to a tribute to the reality of and the fictional concept of the “Mammy” to seats from the theater where GWTW premiered, a setting of Margaret Mitchell’s personal china, a huge, working cotton scale and a detailed, doll house-sized replica of Scarlett O’Hara’s ancestral home, Tara.

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Scarlett greets guest to Stately Oaks mansion

 

 

The Road to Tara museum has become something of a shrine for dedicated fans of “Gone With the Wind” from throughout the world, and no foreign country sends more visitors through its portals than Japan, where for decades the book and movie have inspired almost cult-like worship.

There’s more period flavor to be savored aboard the Southern Belles and Whistles tour, a tram that travels through Jonesboro presenting historic commentary as well as close-up views of ante bellum homes and the Confederate cemetery. And, perhaps the best feel of the era can be had by a visit to Stately Oaks Plantation, an 1839 structure that survived the Battle of Jonesboro and is the closest thing to a real-life Tara.

But, Clayton County is not all hoop skirts and the horrors of war. While retaining its quiet, country charm, the county has moved comfortably into the 21st century, and is home to some attractions that surprise and delight.

One such attraction would be Spivey Hall, situated on the lushly landscaped grounds of Clayton State University, which began its life as a predominantly black two year college and now offers both a full four year baccalaureate and a few master’s degree programs. The sophisticated Spivey Hall is regarded as the leading recital hall in the Southeast and renowned artists from around the world in musical genres from classical music and opera to jazz and world music perform there regularly. The crown jewel of this elegant and intimate auditorium is the mighty Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ built by Fratelli Ruffati of Padua, Italy. Resplendent to view, its soaring voice transports the listener, particularly if at the keyboards is the Hall’s Organist in Residence, Richard Morris.

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Murals of 1920s Jonesboro brighten the
exterior of the art gallery.

 

 

Another home to the arts, in Jonesboro, is the Arts Clayton Gallery. Located within what was once a Ford Model T dealership and later a gasoline service station, the gallery is pristine and inviting and presents monthly exhibitions spotlighting new and established Georgia artists in all mediums. Admission is free and the gallery also presents frequent wine tastings and cultural events.

Clayton County also boasts two major facilities for the preservation and storage of historical documents, the National Archives for the Southeast Region and the Georgia Archives.  Both are treasure troves of information and invaluable sources for researchers of many stripes.  At the same time, each offers displays and programs open to the general public at no charge that will fascinate anyone with an interest in our nation’s past.

The National Archives building houses more than 110,000 cubic feet of documents dating from 1716 to the 1990s (with more to come!). These include records of slave sales, of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Depression and New Deal, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the civil rights movement and all of the nation’s military draft registrations from WWI.

 Focusing on the Peach State, the Georgia Archives preserve a wide range of important documents from the Colonial Charter to the records of the Governor’s Office and the General Assembly, 1750 to the present, county and state papers, papers of private individuals and an unequalled collection of histories Georgia photographs and postcards.

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The former court and jailhouse is now a history center.

Fans of the outdoors will find plenty to do in Clayton County, one of the most interesting being the Reynolds Nature Preserve, a 146 acre woodland encompassing five ponds, birding and picnic areas, 4.5 miles of trails and a nature center.  Visitors are free to roam the trails by themselves or learn more about the region’s flora and fauna from an experienced guide. Also, the Newman Wetlands Center offers a gentle wetlands trail where indigenous animals such as beaver, river otter, fox, raccoon, muskrat and mink are often spotted.

Of course, after a day in the wild, hunger is bound to strike and there is no dearth of interesting dining in Clayton County. Just a few examples include the Pinehurst Tea Room, an impressive fin de siecle structure, once a private home, which is now also a catering and special events facility. Open for lunch Tuesdays through Fridays and presenting Sunday Brunch and Wednesday High Tea, Pinehurst’s simple yet refined menu includes such variations on “comfort food” as a chicken pot pie served with the chicken, peas and sauce surrounding a square of light-as-air pastry.

Another poultry paradise began life in neighboring Fulton County and is now one of America’s premier casual dining chains – Chick-fil-A. It all began when local boy S. Truett Cathy started a mom-and-pop restaurant, perfected a special chicken sandwich, and ultimately spread his concept to more than 1600 restaurants in 39 states.  The legendary and much-respected Cathy is still around and can often be seen dropping by one of his three “special” area restaurants, Truett’s Grills.  Decorated in fun, free-form 50’s diner style – in one, a model railroad runs around the walls and a vintage Indian motorcycle is suspended from the ceiling – these offer more diverse fare than the franchised locations. You can enter or leave these grills via a kid-sized “dwarf door,” an artifact that recalls when Cathy’s first restaurants were called “Dwarf House” or “Dwarf Grill.”

At the opposite end of the dining spectrum is The Feed Store. If dining at a bistro with such a pedestrian name conjures up images of deep fried oats or hayburgers, think again! This College Park eatery is as nouvelle as anything in Beverly Hills. Executive chef Peter Golaszewski has created a menu featuring such items as Buffalo Crawfish Tails with Apple, Bleu Cheese and Chive Slaw, Butternut Squash Bisque with Pecan Fried Mushrooms and Crème Fraiche, Seared Mountain Trout with Glazed Leeks, Sweet Potato Puree and Georgia Pecan Sauce and Pear Sorbet with Candied Lemon Peel and Local Honey. The ambience at this restaurant is ultra-chic, as appealing as its menu, and pricing is not unreasonable. And, it really was formerly a feed store!

If you might be wondering where all that terrific food comes from, look no further than the Atlanta Farmers Market. Billed as “The USA’s Largest Roadside Fruit and Vegetable Stand,” this huge, 150 acre hub of commerce proffers endless displays of the best of Georgia-grown produce as well as a universe of items from around the nation and the world. It’s open to the public and while you might not want to purchase a few tons of melons, you can always pick up a few ears of corn, a pumpkin, or a straw hat or woven basket…at a very good price.

Accommodations are never a problem in Clayton County and one of the most inviting is the Comfort Suites in Stockbridge. Its attributes include spacious, well-appointed rooms, an attentive staff, a complimentary breakfast bar, and, several nights each week, a manager’s “happy hour” with complimentary wine and light hors d’oeuvres.

When all’s said and done, a visitor to Georgia’s Clayton County would likely never even think of the Rodney Dangerfield demeanor of a historic county located so close to an internationally known city.  Instead, he or she would more likely recall the signature song of another great entertainer, Bob Hope “Thanks for the Memory.”

For additional information, contact www.visitscarlett.com

Provided by American Roads Travel Magazine - Visit American Roads Travel Magazine website.



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