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Friday, August 20, 2010 - 10:22am

'Lazy Little' US301 Towns Boomed Before I-95

Updated: 2 years ago.

We're looking at Interstate-95.

The highway has been a blessing for coastal cities like Brunswick.

Elsewhere, it's been a curse.

I recently traveled parts of Georigia's rural US Highway 301, talking to folks and visiting a pre-interstate relic that's still hanging on.

For the unfamiliar, US Highway 301 parallels Interstate 95 about an hour west of the coast.

John Mills III, 77, remembers when the highway first came through his small town, as a boy growing up in Sylvania.

Mills was there in 1938 when Georgia Governor Ed Rivers dedicated the Burton's Ferry Bridge, which connected Georgia to South Carolina, about halfway between Augusta and Savannah, what soon became US 301.

"We had to park a mile back because of the huge crowd of people," Mills says.

It was the beginning of three decades of boom times for Georgia cities up and down US 301.

Passing through Jesup, Claxton, and Statesboro, among other cities, the highway was one of three pre-Interstate east coast routes in Georgia.

The others were US Highway 1 and US Highway 17, both of which share similar tales as US Highway 301.

Mary-Lovette Sharpe-Robinson, 92, of Sylvania says, she remembers townfolk sitting on Main Street, making a day of counting cars.

"The tourists came, almost bumber-to-bumper," Sharpe-Robinson says.

Sharpe-Robinson's parents owned a bustling motel on US 301 near Sylvania, as did Connie Bohr's grandparents.

Bohr says, the motels frequently booked up and townsfolk just put out signs on their lawns saying, "Guests welcome."

"People would have to stop and call as far as Folkston to get a room," Bohr says.

The highway attracted industry, like textile mills.

But the boom times ended with the interstate.

Today, the hulking remains of gas stations litter the highway.

And one day this week, five to ten minutes would pass before any car drove by on US 301 near the Burton's Ferry bridge.

Still to this day, despite the unhurried traffic, you can visit a state-run Georgia welcome center on US Highway 301 right as you drive into Georgia.

There, the center's Robert Davis serves visitors icy Cokes.

"They want somebody to smile," Davis says. "We welcome them to Georgia. We let them know that Southern hospitality is real. But we also give them information and directions."

Georgia claims the US 301 welcome center is the oldest still-operating welcome center in the nation.

About 100 visitors a day stop in, according to Davis.

But that's compared to 1,200 visitors a day in the pre-Interstate heyday.

South Carolina closed its US 301 welcome center years ago.

Georgia's budget crisis is a big looming threat to this one.

Davis says, keeping the old center open makes connections between retirement-friendly rural Georgia and US 301's mostly older and slower-paced travelers.

"That's one of things they say," Davis says, referring to US 301 travelers. "We get to meet people. It's not just billboards and service stations. We get to see people, talk to people and stop at little antique stores, and little what nots."

Local public officials in Sylvania say, more than a few retirees have told them that such connections were critical to their decision to retire in Georgia.

That's why those officials and Ogeechee Technical College recently pitched in resources, namely upkeep and maintenance, to keep the welcome center open for now.

That's even if it's not bumper-to-bumper like the old-timers remember it.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO ON US HIGHWAY 301 IN GEORGIA

Sylvania: Downtown's Main Street was recently renovated. Look for an old "ice cream shop" that's actually an art gallery. Or check into outdoor adventures at Georgia Wilderness Outfitters.

Statesboro: US 301's largest city in Georgia has a lot to offer. Admire birds of prey at the Raptor Center or see a 40 million year-old fossil at a Museum, both at Georgia Southern University. Just don't take the bypass.

Claxton: It's food! It's a doorstop! It's world famous. Visit the one and only Claxton Fruitcake Co. for a look at that loved and loathed holiday wonder.

Glennville: Honor America's veterans at a peaceful 26 acre cemetery north of town. Just off US 301, but still in Evans County, you can visit a working Vidalia onion farm or play golf at the state park in Reidsville.

Ludowici: Locals recommend seeing the old Jones Creek Baptist Church and an old pavilion dating to 1905 that provided shelter over an artesian well, both just a little off US 301.

Jesup: There's a little museum in town, but the biggest thing around here is the Altamaha River. The mighty waterway is best explored on day trips. Altamaha Riverkeeper has more information.

Folkston: People come from all over to watch trains in the middle of town, since so many trains pass through what's known as the Folkston Tunnel. Folkston's also the gateway to the Okefenokee Swamp.

VANISHING GEORGIA WEBSITE

Brian Brown has spent years documenting the amazing scenes on Georgia's slower-paced highways. For a look at what awaits on your US 301 adventure, check out his photographs on the website Vanishing South Georgia. Just click on the towns and counties you want on the right.

Click below to hear this story as it aired on GPB Radio.

Contributors

Contributors: 
Special thanks to Russell Wells of WSVH for providing photos and story ideas, photographer Brian Brown of Vanishing South Georgia for interview suggestions, Sylvania Mayor Margaret Evans for interview suggestions, the Georgia Department of Economic Development for interview suggestions and everyone who was interviewed for this story.