John Wesley

A visit to Frederica

So, I finally accomplished one of my goals recently: I visited Fort Frederica National Monument. Now that my boyfriend has a job with a regular schedule, that frees up the car for me to use on the weekends. I made plans to visit my grandma September 7th-9th, since I hadn't seen her in months. The drive is a straight 300 miles south on I-95 and takes me right past Brunswick. I realized that since I had to get up at the butt-crack of dawn to drop Don, my boyfriend, off at work, I would be out of the house early enough to turn the drive into an adventure and check Fort Frederica off my to-do list. In spite of my early reveille, I still did not manage to hit the road until about 11:30. Maybe some people can just pack a bag and walk out, but I am a victim of my own compulsions. I spent a couple of hours taking care of chores and putting the apartment in good order before I left. I know it doesn't really make any sense- I'm not going to be there and Don, being a guy, is insensible to dirt, dust, and disorder. But there are certain old-fashioned impulses I cannot shake. One of them is the 'ole whirlwind clean-up when I have guests coming over, even if they're good friends I know I don't have to impress. You just don't invite people to your place, then make them sit on a cat-hair-covered couch. Even sillier is my inability to leave a dirty house behind me when I go out of town. I can trace that to a little streak of morbid paranoia: if I should die before I return, I don't want whoever empties out my home to think I was a slob. Even dumber, I would like them to be impressed by how organized and tidy I was, maybe even to the point of feeling like inadequate housekeepers themselves. Yep, that's me, manipulating other people's insecurities from beyond the grave! We all need something to aspire to, I guess.

I made it to Brunswick in very good time, probably because  I didn't pass any construction at all on the road between here and there. I don't think that's ever happened before. Can it be a day is coming when I-95 isn't constantly being resurfaced or widened? Quick, someone light up a barbecue and grab the pigs before they fly away! I had some lunch in town since I had skipped breakfast at home, then headed toward St. Simons Island. I got lost a little bit on the way there and discovered that multi-lane roundabouts are dangerous things. But, I made it to the historic site eventually with no damage and only minimal chaos in my wake. Admission to Frederica is only $3, but I still have the receipt and get to write that off as a business expense. Big money, right? By the way, national monuments and historic sites are often the best deal in town. I know all the ones around here are super-cheap to visit. So, next time the kids whine about being bored, throw them in the car, whip out $5, and treat (torture?) them to an afternoon of HISTORY. If they learn nothing else, they may at least learn to keep their little mouths shut.

Fort Frederica National Monument is the town and fort of Frederica, which James Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia, established in 1736 as a defense against the Spanish in Florida. Oglethorpe himself had a little house there, and spent much more time in Frederica than in the city of Savannah. The fort had its guns pointed at the Frederica River to keep the Spanish out and was connected to Fort St. Simons on the other end of St. Simons Island via a military road. It was really only a rough, sometimes swampy path cut out of the wilderness and probably didn't look much better then than it does now. The town itself was very orderly and compact and fortified with a moat, palisades, earthen walls around its edges and two bastions on the outer corners. Frederica grew into a bustling hamlet, full of families and soldiers and houses and shops, numbering about 500 people at its height.

However much Oglethorpe liked Frederica, he doomed the place when he won the Battle of Bloody Marsh in 1742, which eliminated the Spanish threat from that point onward. I'm sure all the English colonists were jubilant at the time. Six miles down the military road, Oglethorpe had managed to turn away a force of 2,000 Spaniards with only about 600 English  and Scottish soldiers. He pulled a ballsy trick and confused his enemies into thinking his army was much larger. The Spanish left and just kind of gave up on Georgia from that point on. Then, they signed a treaty with the English in 1748 that set the boundary of Florida at the St. Mary's River and ended the War of Jenkin's Ear. Which, once again, I'm sure the English colonists were very happy about, but it rendered Frederica completely useless, a vestigial outpost. Oglethorpe left Georgia, his little colonial village declined, the population dwindled, and then there was a fire in 1758 that chased out the last few die-hard residents. Frederica sat alone and neglected until archaeological interest revived it as a historic monument in the 20th century.

There were no other visitors when I got there, though a few people turned up before I left. The place isn't all that distant from civilization, but remote enough to give you an idea what Georgia felt like generations ago. I could not hear or see any traffic or people. There was no whirring of air conditioning units and no electrical wires emitting their constant hum. It was the middle of the afternoon and the light was just a little too bright, the air just a little to warm, and the flies, as usual, far too abundant. I could hear the slosh of the river and the rustle of the trees and a few birds, but that was about it. Frederica, overall, feels very still. It's as if the town itself is so stunned and frozen by its own ruined state that it doesn't dare make a move and risk drawing attention.

Where once was a place full of people and potential and seeming permanence, now almost nothing remains. The only vertical structures left standing are the left half of the fort's powder magazine and the tower at the back of the barracks. Paths mown through the grass denote where the main streets used to be. There is an orange tree planted alongside Broad Street (the central street), I suppose in remembrance of the orange trees the settlers planted there 276 years ago. They thought to provide themselves with nice shade and delicious fruit. As for the colonists' houses, many of them were built of wood and have left no trace. Several were built of sturdier stuff, though, and their tabby walls jut here and there from under the dirt like broken teeth in the gums of a neglected mouth.

There are signs to tell visitors about the people who lived there, their trades, and sometimes their scandals. John Wesley spent a little time in Frederica and fell afoul of a woman named Beatre. She was the regimental surgeon's wife and had a reputation for being, well, kind of nuts. The sign in front of her home (just its foundations, really) told the story of how she tried to kill Wesley with a pistol in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. I had read that story before and it was good to make a physical connection with where it happened. In the version I read, Beatre was in love with Wesley and demanded that she would have his heart, I guess with a bullet hole in it, or his hair. There are some rumors that both of the Wesley brothers were feckless playboys, but considering they weren't very popular ministers, we'll just treat that as gossip.

I had to get moving, as I had spent more time in Brunswick than I meant to and didn't want to lose too much time with Grandma. I got lost again trying to leave, but all roads lead to I-95, so I found my way eventually. I gassed up, then hit the road and didn't stop until I was in Satellite Beach. The ride was smooth until somewhere a little bit north of Cocoa Beach. Road construction reappeared and I was nearly smothered to death by the most hellacious thunderstorm the world has known since Noah crammed his menagerie into the ark. It was dark, those construction barrel thingies were all over the road, the asphalt was uneven, and the rain came down so torrentially I could hardly see anything except when the lightning flashed. Thankfully, there was plenty of that. It made me extremely glad I had washed my car a few days beforehand and put Rain-X on the windshield. It got so bad, people were doing 35 miles per hour on I-95! An aside for my fellow motorists: I know the scary storms are scary and you want to make sure other drivers can see you. But it does not help for you to turn on your emergency flashers and leave them on while driving. That is just confusing and makes it hard to tell when your actual brake lights are on. You have taillights that communicate your position just as well. Stop being silly. Anyway, I finally made it safe and sound to Grandma's house, where the rain was barely pitter-pattering, and found the storm had blasted all the love bug carcasses off my car and left it sparkling clean! See? What doesn't kill you cleans your car.

I mean to go back to Frederica maybe a little later in the year when the light is softer (for better pictures) and the air is cooler and the bugs are deader. Overall, it felt good to be in a place that has a lot of connections with Savannah's history and to stand where Oglethorpe stood and think about what it was like to live there and travel back and forth between Frederica, Savannah, and London. Considering the number of deer flies that will descend upon you if you stand still too long, I'm not surprised the man kept moving around.

The perilous life of a local monument

Interesting headline in the Savannah Morning News yesterday: Terror plot targets Forsyth. Forsyth Park, that is and, more specifically, the antique cast iron fountain in the middle of it. A group of 3rd Infantry Division soldiers formed their own anarchist militia, stockpiled thousands of dollars worth of guns and ammo, and decided to overtake Fort Stewart and eventually topple the US government and assassinate the President. I'm sure taking over the world would have been the next logical step after that. And somewhere on that busy itinerary someone wrote this line: Step 3) blow up Forsyth Park fountain. The only response I can muster is "Why?" Why was blowing up this fountain-

Forsyth Park fountain, Savannah, GA

-that vital to the plan? Did one of these guys get arrested for playing in it when he was a teenager? Did one of them fall and conk his head on the fence? What did that fountain ever do to anyone? Was making everyone in Savannah real sad and angry for a while an indispensably important part of the overall scenario? Given the grandiosity of these soldiers' scheme, why would they waste time and resources on such a petty digression?

The Forsyth Park fountain is a local icon and losing it would hurt. Of all the beautiful buildings and churches and squares, this one mid-19th century cast-iron fountain has become the most identifiable landmark in town and the most enduring symbol of Savannah. It is to this city what the Hollywood sign is to Los Angeles. You know where you are as soon as you see it. And losing it would hurt a lot. But it would only hurt the people here. Destroying that fountain doesn't even approach the same caliber of terrorism as crashing planes into the Twin Towers because neither Savannah itself nor anything in it has a national symbolic status. What made the September 11th attacks so painful for the entire country was that Manhattan and every feature of its skyline are American icons. It's a legacy that belongs to all of us. Then, of course, there was the loss of human life. An explosion in the middle of Forsyth Park would not lead to an especially impressive body count. I'm sure fast-moving cast-iron shrapnel would do serious damage to any unfortunate bystanders, but we're only talking about maybe a dozen people here. How could a group of men ambitious enough to jump start an anarchist revolution be distractible enough to set their aim so low? What sort of idiot aspires to be a small-town terrorist?

You'd think the existence of a monument in a mid-sized Southern town would be simple and straightforward: stand still, look pretty. But it's amazing how frequently, just in my lifetime, Savannah's statues and fountains have been the victims either of targeted vandalism or of destructive carelessness. Sometimes it's just people being cute, like when Friday night drunkards scale the John Wesley monument for the hilarious joy of leaving a beer cup in his open right hand. Yep, that's real funny, guys. It'll be even funnier when one of you falls one night and busts your head open. Then there are your I'm-gonna-write-my-name-on-it-with-a-marker-because-I'm-that-cool type of taggers. These are not real graffiti artists who unsheathe their spray cans to colorize the black and white nocturnal world. These are just morons who stagger through Ellis Square and think it's the height of comedy to scribble all over the bronze Johnny Mercer statue. Lucky for us the statue's sculptor, Susie Chisholm, anticipated that and made it easy to clean off. Make no mistake, I don't have much respect for the higher class of graffiti artists either. It's pretty presumptuous to think you have any right to leave your mark all over something that's meant to be shared with everyone or on the wall of a building that someone else has bought and paid for.

For the most part, though, basic stupidity and alcohol have wrought the greatest havoc on the Downtown scene. I've read of drivers fecklessly zooming into Franklin Square and Greene Square. I remember one, and maybe two, instances when inebriated motorists rammed into the armillary sphere that adorns the center of Troup Square. It's taken some serious damage and had to be rebuilt at least once. The mother of all local monument murders, though, has to be the total and complete annihilation of the winged lion fountain in front of the Savannah Cotton Exchange in August of 2008.

I remember getting that phone call: I was in Florida, visiting my grandma, when a friend of mine back home called to tell me about it. I was completely amazed and scoured the newspapers for all the details when I returned to Savannah. I had to go Downtown and take a look myself, of course. Sure enough, that lion was gone. It was a winged lion (not a griffin) that had been installed as a decorative fountain in front of the Cotton Exchange in 1889. Although it was originally nothing more than an expensive lawn ornament ordered from a catalog, by 2008 it had become a local treasure and there wasn't another like it to be found anywhere else in the country. All that was left when I got there were it's terracotta paws, as if the statue was still gripping its base in petrified terror upon seeing the headlights barreling toward it down Drayton Street at 70 miles per hour.

Oh yes, I forgot that detail. Was it terrorists or pyromaniacs or malevolent teenagers who blew up the lion and the antique fence around it? No. It was a drunk woman at 7 in the morning. She charged down Drayton Street, jumped the curb, crashed through the iron railing, demolished the lion, bounced off a lamp post, and slammed to a halt against the outer doors of the Cotton Exchange. She suffered only minimal injuries, though considering how incensed Savannahians were over the damage, she may have wished for death. So, to tally it all up, a beloved statue had been obliterated, a section of 19th century fencing was mangled, and a historic building had absorbed a full-frontal vehicular assault.

Thus we began the long road to recovery. The Cotton Exchange was able to replace the windows that had been broken by flying debris. They also had to replace their doors. The original outer pocket doors were red oak and weighed about 450 lbs. To the credit of their maker, those doors did their job and admirably withstood the impact of that woman's car- the inner doors were completely unharmed. The new doors are Spanish cedar and weigh 300 lbs. The damaged fencing was replaced thanks to a sharp-eyed local who realized the very same cast-iron pattern was at the back of the Philbrick-Eastman House and they could use that to make a replica. The lion, however, appeared to be a lost cause. It had been shattered to pieces, there was no other one like it from which they could cast a new mold, the original mold was long gone..... Then, Providence smiled upon our despondent city and bequeathed us Randy Nelson, restoration artist. This daring (or crazy) man pieced together what he could, used old photographs to recreate what he couldn't, magicked up a new mold, and cast us a fresh lion out of concrete. And so, when you come to Savannah and walk by the Cotton Exchange along Bay Street, remember this story and admire for a moment the pig-headed dedication of the people who would not let their beloved fountain go quietly into that good night.

Had the 3rd ID Idiot Brigade succeeded in their nefarious plot to obliterate our even more cherished fountain in Forsyth Park, I'm sure we would have reacted in much the same way: outrage followed by mulish determination to put everything right back where it belonged. And replacing that fountain would not be nearly as difficult as replacing the lion since there are ones just like it in Cuzco, Peru and in Poughkeepsie, NY. So, you know what? Explode whatever you like, morons! We are rednecks, we have duct tape, and we will fix it!