Monday, January 5, 2015

St Marys Georgia museum, railroad, theater, waterfront park

     Welcome to 2015 and welcome to St. Marys, GA, the southernmost coastal town in Georgia.  On New Years Day at 9 am it was 57 degrees here - I am sure some of you in the northern climes appreciate this reminder.  As of the 2010 census 17,121 people call St. Mary's their home.

     Steeped in history, St. Marys lies along the St. Mary's River, across which is Floridian territory.  The first recorded mention of this spot was by a Spaniard in 1564, but the Timucua Indians called this home for a couple of millennium before the arrival of the Spaniards.

     The town itself was chartered in 1787 when 20 families put up 38 pounds each and in return received 4 acres of land.

     In recent decades the town has experienced  revival of sorts.  Many folks have contributed to this re-birth, but one of the key contributors is former mayor and local businessman Jerry Brandon, pictured below with his wife Gaila.

     Jerry owns the local establishment Seagles, which has been passed owned by his family since 1931.  Overlooking the waterfront, this is an 18 room hotel with a restaurant and pub that are a beehive of local activity.

     In golf, it is a big deal for a guy to "shoot his age" - to be able to score a 70 on his 70th birthday.  Well, to celebrate his 70th birthday, Jerry swam 7 miles out the river to Fernandina Beach, then turned and swam back.

     During his tenure as mayor, Jerry was able to put together several projects that have redefined this town.  A major one is the waterfront park that stretches most of the length of the downtown area, including fountains, gazebos, numerous overlooks and swings, an outdoor theater, several community docks and fishing piers, public bathrooms, street lights and extensive walkways.


     Initially a grant from the state government for $900,000 was secured to beautify the waterfront.  But when the owners of the land on the waterfront were approached, that is just about what they wanted for the property.  Over a period of time Jerry was able to talk them down to $600,000, but this didn't leave much for improvements.


     Jerry got bids to put together a nice park which added up to $600,000.  Still short, he was able to find another $600,000 in a Georgia State discretionary fund.  Meanwhile, he was pursuing the local paper-mill to kick in money.


One of the community piers on the waterfront
 When he approached the city council with his plan, for whatever reason they turned it down.  Undeterred, Jerry started a rumor (he owns the local tavern) that the mayor of the neighboring town was going to buy the property and put in a private marina.

St. Marys Outdoor Theater

    Well, several city council members despised the neighboring mayor, so they approached Jerry about whether he thought he could still put together the water park.  And of course he could.

     So, back to the trustees of the paper-mill goes Jerry.  He tells them he will name the park after the owner of the mill if they kick in $600,000, and they agree !!  So now Jerry has a total of $2,100,000 to work with, and his expenses for the park are only $1,500,000.

     So, what does Jerry do?  He takes the extra money up the street a mile and builds a water-park.  The area includes a lazy river, a large community pool and this water playground.

     The water-park has since become fully self-sustaining - generating more than enough funds to pay for its own maintenance.  Well played Jerry !!

      Jerry is far from the only creative business mind in town.  Right when you enter town there is an old railroad depot, a remnant of the St. Marys Railroad from days long gone by.  The place was in ruins, flooded with a couple of feet of water and falling fast to vandals and decay.

     Meet Doug Vaught.  I was having trouble with my lens when I photographed him, so sorry for the blurry photo.  But Doug moves fast enough that even a good lens might have trouble staying in focus.

     Doug purchased the train station and renovated it into a local theater and small museum.  While I was here the local community was holding auditions for the play that will run in February.  The plays have become so wildly popular that they are sold out well in advance.  In many cases locals have waited until the last minute to purchase tickets, and find the show is so full that they cannot even wheedle themselves a spot in to watch the production.

     The community is deeply involved in the theater.  Various locals have written scripts including original music, casted and produced plays.  In fact, the play that will run in February was written by Gaila Brandon, who's husband Jerry did so much a mayor for the waterfront.  

     Pictured above, she is sitting at the left of the table below the stage watching various folks who are performing in an audition for her play.  

     There are some various old movie artifacts about the theater that Doug has collected, like this old projector.

     But his biggest collection sits outside the building.  Numerous railroad cars dot the tracks on the property.

      A while back, Doug acquired a few of these small self propelled railroad cars.

     When they started offering rides up the old tracks through the coastal hardwood forest a few miles and back, people were lined up around the building.  So Doug got hold of an engine and a few cars and started offering rides on full size cars.  This too went so well that they started using the local actors from the theater to act out various historical events at stages they have set up along the train's path.

Photo provided by Barbara Ryan and GM3 photography

      In another month, Doug has a genuine old steam locomotive on the way which will power a whole new year of this unique local attraction.

Photo provided by Barbara Ryan

     As if this weren't enough for Doug to have going, he has also founded another Coastal Georgia Film Alliance, designed to attract the film industry to the area. Georgia has recently passed some legislation that gives tax breaks to film makers.  Doug has capitalized on this and created this alliance that provides a unified voice for local economic development through budding relationships with the film industry.

     There is such a wide variety of beautiful spots along the Georgia coast that make great settings for films that Doug has been able to act as location manager for numerous recent films  

     One of the recent additions to Doug's vehicle collection is a specialty locations film vehicle he acquired from NASA.  I didn't have a chance to closely inspect the vehicle, but it looks neat.

     One of the locations that has been used for a couple of films sits right behind the train station.  It used to be the paper-mill - yes, the same one that helped fund the downtown waterfront project.

     A while back a Mexican company bought out the mill, and it wasn't long before it was run into the ground.  Literally.  For some reason, when the mill went bankrupt they knocked down all the buildings, leaving dozens of acres of rubble.

     This of course was a horrible blow to the town.  For a couple of generations the paper-mill had been the chief source of employment for the locals.  For a good while the huge mess attracted nothing but rodents and snakes.  But Doug has been able to utilize the area as a location for the filming of apocalyptic type scenes.  Think Zombie.

     Not far from where I grew up, the rubber and steel industries had abandoned huge plants.  They moved the industry to foreign countries, and left huge scars on the landscape.  Horrid pollution killed trees and wildlife for generations - in some areas nothing lives to this day.

     This site isn't quite as bad, but it is still a big mess.  The property is an ideal on, with deep water access right along the river.  There have been some fellows from a New York company wooing the local council, making promises about buying the property to use as a local barge port.  Maybe the locals can get Jerry Brandon to agree to put the gloves on for a few more rounds.  In spite of the mess, the place has huge potential and having someone who knows how to negotiate might spur a whole new layer of improvement to this town.

     This church dates back a good while - in fact it was established in 1808.  Back during the civil war, the Union Army stacked up a pile of wood against it, set it ablaze and left town.  

     As flames threatened to consume the church, local parishioners prayed for divine intervention.  The skies opened - a fierce thunderstorm rolled through and put out the fire.  

     The next house holds another bit of history.  After a duel in which he killed political rival Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr fled to this house seeking refuge from his friend Archibald Clark.  (Burr was the third vice-president of the United States, serving under Thomas Jefferson's administration.)   It has been said that if George Washington was the father of this country, then Aaron Burr was the crazy uncle. 

      Burr applied to local Cumberland Island for residency, but was denied.  Eventually the charges against him were dropped, but this ended his political career, and obviously, it ended Alexander Hamilton's as well.

     Another house of note is the Orange-Hall house museum.  This is considered a great example of Greek Revival architecture built in 1829.

     One of the exhibits that caught my eye was this sewing machine.  

     Built in 1851 by a company named Wheeler and Wilson, it is the oldest "automated" sewing machine I have seen.  Also, I love these old pianos.

     So many things seem to have been more artfully done in generations gone by - especially furniture and architecture.  Future generations may remember our times as the age of the box.

     Across the street is a museum showcasing items of a more recent genre'.  Georgia's Radio Broadcasting Hall of Fame is right here in St. Marys.

     You can peruse the history of radio broadcasting in the state, and there are numerous exhibits including old broadcasting equipment, radios and antique electronics components.

     Today's parting shot comes from the men's room in the remodeled train depot.

     So many of these funny signs I use as parting shots come from men's room walls.  Maybe I should start perusing the women's rooms - if anyone asks what I am doing I can just tell them I am trying to find out what I am missing . . . 

EMAIL me if you like, DONATE if you can, Read Today's Meditation if you have time, but whatever you do be sure to Have a great 2015 !!


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