Credit: Stephen Fowler | GPB News
Battleground: Ballot Box | After the Georgia Guidestones bombing, a community picks up the pieces
On this week's episode, we look at conspiracies surrounding Elberton's granite monument, the Georgia Guidestones, and how the community is reacting to their demolition.
The Georgia Guidestones have been a roadside oddity for more than four decades in Elberton, about two hours northeast of Atlanta. The monument stood close to 20 feet tall and has been a testament to the region’s granite industry — and a vector for conspiracies.
And now, they are no more. Someone planted an explosive device at the base of “America’s Stonehenge” earlier this month and hastened its demise.
So a community built on generations of granite is left to pick up the pieces — literally and metaphorically — after extremism and conspiracies rocked the small town.
This week, we look at the aftermath of the bombing of the Georgia Guidestones.
Most Wednesdays, you can find Elberton mayor Daniel Graves getting breakfast at McIntosh Coffee Shop, a popular restaurant just off the square. More often that not, someone asks him what he thinks about the Guidestones — usually after some new post on Facebook or a YouTube video emerges.
"And my typical response is ... it's definitely part of our identity, but it's also not something we think about every single day," Graves said in an interview. "It's 7 miles outside of the city limits and you just don't get that way very often. But I said what I usually say: 'I think they're great. I sure am proud to have them.'"
But on the morning of July 6, things were different. Graves, who’s also the President and CEO of Elberton Federal Savings and Loan Association, heard his phone ringing off the hook.
Something happened to the Guidestones.
In the early hours of the morning, surveillance video showed an individual run up, place something at the base of one of the slabs and speed off after an explosion.
Graves said at first he was angry, then heartbroken, then frustrated.
"It was the day our quirky little roadside oddity stopped being our innocent, joyful tourist attraction — that highlighted our industry and spoke so well of our community — and turned into something dark and sinister," he said. "And what was dark and sinister was not written on those stones. Those are just goofy ramblings of some crazy person. The dark and sinister thing is when you put actual explosives to a physical object without regard for the safety of those around without regard for the will of the community."
Constructed in 1979 on Elbert County’s highest point, the Georgia Guidestones have long represented both the best and worst of humanity, depending on the eye of the beholder.
On one hand, it’s been a conspiracy magnet, thanks in part to the words that a mystery man with the pseudonym “R.C. Christian” paid to have sandblasted on the 19-foot-tall slabs of Elberton granite. They were “guidestones to an age of reason” and included messages written in languages like Sanskrit and hieroglyphics coupled with English, Arabic, Hebrew and Hindi.
You could find generic, lofty maxims like “avoid petty laws and useless officials” and “Be not a cancer on earth — leave room for nature — leave room for nature.”
But others, like a call to “maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature” and to “guide reproduction wisely, improving fitness and diversity” attracted plenty of raised eyebrows and conspiracies. From the day they were dedicated, some people claimed the stones were Satanic in nature, or that they were evidence of a so-called “New World Order” and various other far-fetched claims.
And they’ve had their fair share of disruptions, too.
Mart Clamp, who owns Clamp Sandblasting, said his father was the one that etched all of the lettering into the Guidestones, and for the last 25 years he's been the one to clean up any damage or graffiti people have left behind.
That includes things like "New World Order," pentagrams and other spray painting. Most recently, it took about three weeks to remove someone's vandalism with two-part epoxy. Other people have tried something more permanent.
"We had a gentleman who pried a piece of stone out of it and actually took it with him," Clamp said. "He brought it back later and said he was done worshipping it and of course, he was arrested on the spot."
But petty painting pales in comparison to explosive devices. So what changed?
Clamp said a recent trend of removing monuments — both sanctioned and unsanctioned — plus comments from failed politicians set the stage for something like this to happen.
"We had a person running for governor in the state of Georgia who said in her top 20 list, I think, was to tear down the Georgia Guidestones," he said. "So when you have an already-charged atmosphere of people tearing down statues and then you have somebody who's a politician who runs for public office claiming that she's going to tear them down, it sets the mood for the crazies to come out and do their thing."
That politician is Kandiss Taylor, a fringe gubernatorial candidate who only received 3.4% of the vote after her campaign, based on falsehoods about the 2020 election — and demolishing the Guidestones — failed to convince many voters.
Taylor has denied involvement in the bombing of the Guidestones and there is nothing linking her to the crime, but the timing of her campaign message and the destruction of the stones did raise some eyebrows. For her part, the far-right educator has falsely claimed that God destroyed the Guidestones via lightning, despite video evidence to the contrary.
Daniel Graves, the Elberton mayor, said that doesn’t square with his town’s view of things.
"What irritates us is the conspiracy theorists that have pushed this so, so hard are trying to do it in the name of righteousness," he said. "Well, I want to make it categorically clear that in our community that's not our view of righteousness. Our view of righteousness is not an Almighty God that needs zealots to do his dirty work and destruction."
Graves called it hatred and added that "all the dynamite in the world can't change a man's heart. Only logic, reason, compassion and demonstrated love can do that."
The conspiracy side of the Guidestones have always been there, but now, he said, the empty field stands as a reminder of what happens when a conspiracy theory "leaps from the YouTube video and into physical violence."
Earlier in the podcast, I mentioned how the Guidestones represent the best and worst of humanity. Bombings and conspiracy theories being the worst, we turn now to the best.
To say granite is important to the city of Elberton is to be guilty of one of the biggest understatements you could imagine. Two-thirds of the monuments in the country are produced in Elbert County, which is about two hours east of Atlanta. Chances are any cemetery you’ve visited is littered with Elberton granite.
Graves said the city has benefited from decades of granite workers who have carved out a place in the world for the tiny town in East Georgia.
"The granite is actually just a perfectly symbolic industry for what we've done with this community," he said. "The visionary men and women saw the stone and said 'This is not wasteland; this is actually something of value.' And they took that and they turned it into an entire industry.”
When I interviewed the mayor about a week after the Guidestones fell, his office was insulated from the summer Georgia heat, but not from the rumbling of trucks hauling granite to and from local quarries. He’s worried about the loss of a notable tourist attraction that brought diners to their restaurants, shoppers to their stores and put Elberton on the map.
It's a sentiment echoed by Rose Scoggins, an Elbert County native and editor of the Elberton Star, the local newspaper that created a special section memorializing the Guidestones' impact in the community.
"I really don't think that we know or realize just how many people come every year," she said. "You know, every time you drove by there, there was always cars out there. But I do think that we will slowly start to see just how big of an impact they had because it will affect our tourism. It'll affect our hotel/motel tax that the governing bodies used to help fund different things. So I think we think we will unfortunately see that decline."
Despite growing up in the county, the first time the 23-year-old visited the Guidestones was to take photos of the crumbled structure and the law enforcement investigation after getting a text about an explosion out at the site.
"It was just like, wow, somebody had actually come out here and done this," she said. "And of course, it made you sad as someone from Elbert County, it made you angry that somebody had come in here and done something like this. And it was just a shocker, really."
What isn’t a shocker is that people in the community held different opinions of the stones.
"I think that really the Guidestones are such a testament to what the granite industry did and what the granite industry can do," Scoggins said. "People say we're the Granite Capital of the World, but also, nobody really thinks about what that means."
They weren’t some spooky Satanic message or a preview of a new world order, residents said, but rather a very visible monument to generations of granite work that literally put Elberton on the map.
"This was a part of their family," she said. "It was honestly a part of their family legacy, because it just showed how much work and craftsmanship that the granite industry and those in the granite industry and their descendants put into it, and just how much it means to those people in our community."
That includes people like Mart Clamp.
"I mean, it was more of the skill that it took to build something like that than what it actually said," Clamp said. "I don't think anybody looked at it — from here, anyway — and had a 100% belief in what it said."
Clamp said the only reason the Georgia Guidestones could have been built was because a town like Elberton existed.
"We had the skilled labor to do it and we had the resources to make these huge monolithic stones," he said. "As far as what it said on it, that was just that the man who paid for it, that was his opinion. This town makes monuments every day with people's opinion on it, and it's shipped out every day. Does it mean that we believe in it?"
Granite made Elberton what it is today. And the Guidestones couldn’t be made anywhere else. But the town and the people are more than just one monument, and the close-knit community is ready to rebuild them.
So what comes next for Elberton?
"Well, you know, you pick up the pieces and you clean up the mess and you just keep breathing and just keep moving," Graves said. "Just keep building."
Clamp says Elberton is a large family where everybody helps each other out, even competitors, and it's a unique place because of it.
"We're not going to let something like this get us down; we're not going to let it stop the flow of things around here," he said. "We're just getting geared up and excited about rebuilding them. It's going to happen. It may take us six months to a year to do it, but we are going to do it. It just brings us together."
He'd like to see the Guidestones rebuilt — cryptic messages and all — to honor the granite industry.
"I couldn't sit here right now and quote everything that was on the Georgia Guidestones, but I think it needs to be put back the way it was," he said. "And if somebody wants what they believe in put on granite, then they can come to one of the 150-200 manufacturers here in Elberton, Ga., and they can pay one of those manufacturers to build them something bigger and better, and they can put whatever they want to on it."
For now, law enforcement, including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is still searching for those who planted the explosive device. Prosecutors have suggested it comes with a steep sentence of at least 20 years in prison, since the stones were owned and maintained by the county and considered a public building.
Battleground: Ballot Box from Georgia Public Broadcasting is produced by Stephen Fowler. Our editor is Josephine Bennett. Our engineer is Jake Cook and Jesse Nighswonger wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.