History Is Alive At Georgia's Agrirama

Costumed interpreters provide the personal touch when it comes to demonstrating how our forefathers and mothers lived off the land.
Carolyn Abell
May/June 2007
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Chickens scratching in the coop add to an idyllic scene at Georgia's Agrirama. The vegetables are nearly ready to harvest from the garden next to the miller's house.
Photo by Carolyn Abell
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Tifton, Georgia – A walk through Georgia’s Agrirama is truly stepping back in time – into a period when the phrase “living off the land” was a profoundly accurate description of life in the South. Born from an idea conceived by former state Senator Ford Spinks, the glimmer evolved into a vision and finally a reality, with Agrirama’s grand opening appropriately timed to coincide with our nation’s 200th birthday on July 4, 1976. Billed as “Georgia’s living history museum,” this delightfully unique microcosm of agrarian history has become one of the South’s proudest tourist attractions.

Nestled in the heart of South Georgia’s “Wiregrass country,” Agrirama comprises 95 acres in Tifton. Visitors are invited to stroll along the dirt paths or just sit on the front porch of a 19th-century farmhouse, looking out over fields of cotton or watching cows and sheep grazing. This outdoor museum is a scaled-down version of a farming community with its supporting infrastructure as it would have been just over 100 years ago.

More than 30 buildings originally constructed in the late 1800s have been donated by Georgia residents. Furnishings, tools and other artifacts from the period add to an atmosphere of virtual history. In addition to the farmhouses, a church, one-room school, doctor’s office, commissary, sawmill, grist mill, pharmacy, variety works and other sites make up a typical village. Partially disassembled at their original locations, then moved and carefully restored, these homes and businesses are authentically maintained by museum employees, who dress in period clothing and serve as “interpreters” of history for tourists, school groups, Scout troops and attendees of special events. Many of the interpreters are in the 70- to 90-year-old age range, and many can recall similar living conditions in their youths.

A typical “heritage workshop” for a school will begin with an orientation in which the girls are all issued long skirts and the boys are issued suspenders to enhance their immersion into history. In the one-room wooden schoolhouse, they participate in a lesson with a slate tablet and a McGuffey Reader. Here, and throughout Agrirama, good manners and posture are stressed, with students listening politely to interpreters and referring to all adults as “Ma’am” and “Sir.” If it is summer, the doors and windows of the school are left open to catch the stirring breezes; in winter, the pot-bellied wood stove in the middle of the room radiates heat.

Following the two-hour lesson at school, the boys visit the farmyard, where they learn to feed livestock, use various farm tools and draw water from a well.

The girls go to the farmhouse, where they participate in meal preparation, learn how to set the table in the manner of the period, observe the techniques of making up a feather bed and receive an embroidery lesson, among other things.

Often the school groups eat lunch in one of the farmhouses, where two interpreters represent parents at the table, continuing instruction in manners and history while the students enjoy a freshly cooked meal such as a savory stew or potpie made with locally grown vegetables and corn bread from fresh meal ground at the grist mill. In the traditional farmhouse, the meal is cooked over an open fire; at the “progressive” farm, a wood-burning cast-iron stove is used.

If it’s soap-making time, one can watch the farm wife mix hog lard, lye and water, and cook up a batch of lye soap outside in a black iron wash pot over an open fire. When the mixture reaches the right consistency, it is poured into a cloth-lined wooden tray and left under a bed to “set” for several days. Once hardened, it is cut into bars and used for cleaning; some is also available for sale to visitors.

The afternoon brings opportunities to visit the grist mill and watch corn being ground. Originally constructed in 1879, the water-powered grist mill uses round flint mill stones brought from Germany to grind grits and meal. The massive stones are grooved specially for corn, and each weighs about 1,700 pounds.

The print shop is considered a favorite of many visitors. Here they receive a lesson in old-fashioned printing techniques and watch copies of The Georgia Recorder roll off the 1888 Whitlock Flatbed Press. A four-page newspaper, The Recorder contains a sampling of news items from the late 1800s, and a copy is presented to each visitor. For small jobs, such as old-fashioned greeting cards, a Washington hand press is used. Also housed inside the print shop is an early 20th-century telephone switchboard.

Visitors always enjoy the doctor’s office, where an interpreter shows them an assortment of medical instruments of the era, including saws for amputation. Adjacent to the doctor’s office is an herb garden, the source of many old-fashioned medicinal remedies.

The Commissary, also known as the “Company Store,” was originally constructed in 1889 and used to support workers and their families in a large turpentine camp. The commissary is stocked with most of the ordinary provisions a pioneer family would need, such as school supplies, sewing notions, nonperishable food items, dishes and cooking utensils, and building supplies.

In the same area are the turpentine still, sawmill, cooper’s shed and variety works, all of which were essential to the lumber and turpentine industry that thrived on the Georgia yellow pines so abundant in the area. The sawmill is powered by an Atlas 25-horsepower steam engine built in 1892, and when fully staffed with 10 men, the sawmill can cut 10,000 board feet per day.

A cooper demonstrates the technique of building wooden barrels for holding rosin. In the Variety Works, wooden chairs, quilt racks, bird houses and other creations are crafted by a woodworker.

Watching the blacksmith at work pounding hot metal on his anvil gives viewers a full appreciation for the expression, “striking while the iron is hot.”

Visitors who tire of walking can take a ride on Agrirama’s train, which traverses a 1.3-mile track around the property. The train is pulled by a steam-puffing 1917 Vulcan locomotive, which was formerly used for logging. The original coal-powered steam engine was recently converted to run on diesel fuel.

Throughout the year, Agrirama hosts special events, which are popular with both local and regional visitors. In October, after the cotton is harvested, the 1896 Lummus gin is put into action ginning (removing the seeds) the cotton.

As November approaches, sugar cane is harvested and fed into a cane press operated using horse or mule power. The fresh juice is then cooked on-site by volunteers, using a large vat in which 60 gallons of juice will eventually yield six gallons of pure cane syrup to be bottled and sold. Visitors curious about the taste of cane juice are offered a cup to sample the potent sweetness.

During the Spring Folk Life Festival in April a group of fiddlers and other musicians gather on the front porch of the progressive farm house for an old-fashioned hoedown celebration with music and dancing.   /G


If You Go

To visit this replica of yesteryear, where Georgia’s history lives in perpetuity, take exit 63B from Interstate 75. The site is open Tuesday – Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and an RV park is available. Visit the Web site at www.Agrirama.com .


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