Friday, October 26, 2007

Georgia Agrirama- Tifton, Georgia

The Georgia Agrirama sits on 90 acres just off exit 63 of I-75 in Tifton, Georgia. This living history museum is designed to recreate rural Georgia farm life in the south-central portion of the state known as Wiregrass after the hardy grass growing under the long needle Georgia pines of the region. We pull into the nearly empty parking lot around 11:00 in the morning and wait at the cash register for someone to take out money. Then we head out onto the grounds. Our first impression is that there’s not too much enthusiasm among the staff for this museum, and we can’t get a handle on the grounds right away. We enter a late nineteenth century home called the Tift House. Captain Henry Harding Tift, originally from Mystic, CT built this home in the thriving town of Tifton where his development efforts created a thriving market town. The house has lovely wood and high quality moldings, but seems stark and unlived-in. It is a comfortable home, but probably not of the standard a person of the same standing would have had in his home town of Mystic had he stayed there.

After paying proper respect to Captain Tift and his home, our visit to the Agrirama took a decided step upwards. The museum is divided into several distinct social and economic regions including a bare subsistence farm, a more substantial farmstead, a progressive farm of the late 1890’s, a small town main street with several businesses, and a steam powered train to help visitors get an overview of the entire operation. Buildings have been brought from various towns in the region and lovingly restored. Interpreters in appropriate costume were well informed and refreshingly candid, when they didn’t know an answer, they declined to fake it. More delightfully, almost all the people we talked with were eager to discuss their jobs, the world they were portraying, and their sense that this world is an important element for educating young people to a world that is fast disappearing. Many of the employees are retired from other pursuits and are people who were brought up on farms in the region, understand rural life in South Georgia, and mourn the loss of rural values and pursuits. We were fortunate in that on this very pleasantly warm day in late October, almost no one was visiting the Agrirama and everyone had plenty of time to chat about their role and its relationship to their lives.

We heard the wail of the steam train whistle as it chugged into the station and hurried over to board in time for a ride around the 95 acre grounds. Few people today have ever seen a steam locomotive, yet alone had a chance to ride behind one. The friendly conductor boarded us and the two other people who were on this trip, and we lurched out of the station with the whistle blowing. The trip headed into the woods and then circumnavigated the large pond dominating the edge of the facility. It circled past several of the farms and returns to the station, having given us a useful overview for the rest of our stay.

We walked away through the woods to the gristmill where the miller was grinding white corn meal on a water powered stone grinder. He described the way the mill was brought to the location in pieces and the difficulty museum personnel had in reconstructing it until a miller more familiar with the process was brought in to erect it. We happily bought a bag of corn meal which will, no doubt, produce fresh and tasty muffins soon enough. From there we walked on through the woods to the industrial area where we came upon the steam-powered sawmill. Working with thick tree trunks, the sawyer was cutting 1x12 boards with a smooth and easy familiarity. The belt driven system drove the saw, moved the log through it, and transported the sawdust to a pile. A crosscut saw, which we didn’t see in operation, was also a part of the system. The huge blade ate easily through the tree. Other buildings in the industrial area included a print shop where the Museum Guide and a mock-up newspaper of local nineteenth century paper. The printer and his assistant, a lively woman we later learned is 90 years old, provided much information concerning the equipment and its importance to life of the times. Nearby was the Variety Works building where steam driven equipment including a lathe, band saw, planer, and other tools were used to manufacture necessary equipment. A complex of buildings containing a feed store and drug store were less satisfactory as the contents of the two buildings were sparse. It’s important to note that this museum is still a work in progress, having opened on the bicentennial day of July 4, 1976. It relies on donors to give artifacts to it. Many of the exhibits would benefit greatly from continued dressing up of their contents. Many of the employees have clear ideas about ways that their exhibits could be improved.

Perhaps the highlight of the museum for us was the cotton gin. This region is still a cotton producer and during the turn-of-the-century portrayed here, cotton was an even more important crop. Powered, again, by steam, the gin shows clearly how agriculture benefitted from the mechanization of a process that must have been nearly impossible before the gin’s invention. The two hosts of this exhibit were very enthusiastic about the equipment they run.

At Miller’s house farmstead, several local school girls on a field trip were dressed in costume and doing cross-stitch under the tutelage of the hostess. They were eager to tell us about the building and really quite delightful. There were some farm animals about, including a mule being trained to haul a wagon carrying visitors.

The main building contains a museum which clearly is being developed at this time. A new exhibit, not yet completed, portrays the difficult turpentine industry. Within a wooden shack, a film runs showing an elderly black man collecting pine pitch for later distillation into spirits of turpentine. Such animated exhibits will greatly improve the overall effectiveness of this museum. This is a large facility containing 35 buildings in four distinct areas using about a third of the 95 acre tract. It depicts rural and small town life in South Georgia during a time when the rising prosperity of much of the country had not yet fully penetrated the region. One element sadly underemphasized is the importance of black people to the economy and the difficulties encountered in recovering from both the economic and social disruptions of the post reconstruction period following the Civil War.

The Georgia Agrirama is owned by the State. It provides a valuable insight into rural farm and town life in late nineteenth century Georgia, and more generally rural America. Admission is only $7.00. It is open Tuesday through Saturday and is well worth several hours’ visit.