Road trip to nowhere Georgia

I’ve mentioned before that I love watching urban explorer videos on YouTube and how, if I weren’t deathly allergic to black mold, I would love to explore abandoned buildings.

Recently, I was watching a video from Sidestep Adventures where they explored what was left of an old railroad town aptly named Junction City.

I was captivated by a beautiful house that was slowly being consumed by time and nature. Looking it up on Google, I found out that it was only 3 1/2 hours from Savannah.

My friend Jazzy who had gone with me to check out Strathy Hall Cemetery said she was interested in going with me, so we quickly made plans.

We also decided to bring our skates because how cool does skating around a ghost town sound?

Since roller derby has been canceled this year due to COVID, I’ve really missed road trips with friends. An entire day catching up on life with one of my dearest friends was exactly what I needed.

Jazzy and I are just the right amount of cautious and chaotic. That’s why I knew a photographic exploration of central Georgia would be fun.

Right before the cat scared me.

Along the way to Junction City, we spotted other places to check out. As we were driving past a cotton field, we saw what appeared to be an abandoned train depot. Both of us got excited and decided to find the road that led there.

As we pulled up, it appeared to have been used exclusively for crops. Jazzy and I walked around the outside taking pictures and video. I decided to walk around the side facing the railroad tracks.

It was obvious that the depot and the train tracks hadn’t been used in ages. I hopped from ballast to ballast along the track, carefully avoiding rotten wood in order to take more pictures.

As I was taking pictures, I thought to myself that I hoped there weren’t any snakes hiding in the tall grass. That’s when a large cat jumped from a hiding spot in the overgrown grass and darted under the depot scaring the absolute shit out of me.

The depot was shut up rather well, but there was one spot where we were able to stick our cameras inside to see what was there. It looks like it’s farm storage now.

As we were driving through another small town, I noticed a church that looked like a castle. At the same time, Jazzy noticed a tank. Both of us were squealing with excitement, so we stopped to take more pictures.

Picture by Jazmine Mckellar

Reynolds was an adorable little town. Near the church there were several homes that appeared to have been built in the 1920s. We also noticed an antique shop across the road and decided to stop there on our way back.

As Google maps led us into Junction City, we saw a railroad trestle. Stopping to take pictures, we spotted an abandoned car and house. Curiosity got the best of u,s and we decided to check it out.

Picture by Jazmine Mckellar

The home was locked up except for one door that was cracked open slightly. I was dying to get a better look at what was inside and thought I would just stick my head inside, but when I tried to open the screen door in front of it, it was locked.

I was able to smell the mustiness inside the home and was briefly taken back to my great grandparents house. Like this home, their house hadn’t seen many updates since the 70s. I imagined old telephones sitting by empty beds, a box of Corn Flakes forgotten in the pantry, and porcelain flowers resting under dusty glass domes.

We wandered around the house for a few minutes more coming away with legs covered in sand burrs. (We really should’ve worn pants.)

Driving into what was once downtown Junction City, we spotted an old general store, a city hall, and the large house I had seen in the video.

The trees in front of the house block most of the view.

We wandered around the house trying to catch a glimpse of what was left inside. There was only one window we could see through. Y’all, this house has pocket doors! I would’ve loved to go inside this place and see what other architectural features it had.

The roof of the front porch was sagging dangerously, and I was surprised it hadn’t fallen yet. It made me sad to think that this gorgeous house would probably continue to fall apart in this nearly forgotten community.

On the way back to the car, we noticed an RC Cola machine outside the tiny city hall. On closer investigation, it was plugged in! I ran back to the car for change to see if it was still stocked. I dropped two quarters inside and pressed the Peach Nehi button. It worked!

Since we brought our skates and derby gear with us, Jazzy and I decided to skate around a few roads. Despite the fact that I hadn’t skated down steep hills in god knows how long, it was a lot of fun. I’m definitely taking my skates on every road trip now.

On the way home, we stopped at the antique shop in Reynold’s and noticed a working phone booth outside.

Did we fall through some kind of time rift? First the RC Cola machine and now a working phone booth? Of course, we had to take pictures.

We had left my house around 8 a.m. and arrived back in Savannah after 8 p.m. It was a fantastic day spent exploring tiny towns and communities in Georgia that we probably wouldn’t have thought of if it hadn’t been for that video.

Zombies & Tourists at Ft. Pulaski

Somewhere out there someone is telling a friend about their trip to Savannah in early 2012 where they got to meet zombies at a Civil War fort. One of those zombies was probably me.

In January of that year, I was sitting in Forsyth Park with a few friends. One of them said, “Hey, Eenie! You like zombies, right?”

If I’m being honest, I don’t like zombies. I’m terrified of zombies, but I also really like zombie movies. I’ve never claimed to make sense.

My friend told me that she had heard about a zombie film that would need extras and mentioned that one of our mutual friends was working on the film, so I should reach out to him.

Why not? I’ve got nothing better to do.

I showed up at Fort Pulaski National Monument one February morning right after I got off of work at the news station. I was exhausted after working overnight but excited to be on a film set.

At least I got to use that tired look to my advantage. I found out I would be one of the featured zombies.

That meant that on top of the skirt, flowy top, and bonnet to hide my short hair, I would also get to sport some sexy white contact lenses that took two people to put in because my eyes hate contacts.

Once the contacts were finally in (I swear the makeup people on this film were saints), I walked out on set and was pointed towards one of the featured actors.

“See that guy?” Only a little. I quickly realized that the contacts turned people into weird moving shapes. “You’re going to fight him.”

What?!?

Well, I guessed it was a good time to see what all stuck from my stage combat class in college.

The guy I was “fighting” was Chip Lane who was playing a Secret Service agent for Abraham Lincoln . (Before you say anything, no, that’s not historically accurate.)

The film we were making was “Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies,” a mockbuster by The Asylum to cash in on “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” The Asylum is the company behind the Sharknado films and Z Nation, so you know we had a very tiny budget.

Chip and I had our fight scene, he cuts off my head, I lie in the grass for the rest of the scene, and then I’m done…. or so I thought.

The budget on the film was so small that many people pulled double duty. Some actors were also crew members, the director played a small role in one scene, and lots of the zombies played more than one zombie.

I make seashell pillowcases look good.

You can see me at 18 minutes into the film as Bonnet Girl (a nickname from the director), and at 37 minutes with a seashell pillowcase on my head. (They had to hide my short hair somehow, and the director said I was too identifiable in another bonnet.)

My friend Perry is the first zombie you see at the fort. He’s also the zombie in a dress and bonnet at 30 minutes into the film. He makes a really terrifying lady zombie.

The small budget also mean that they couldn’t afford to close the fort to visitors while filming. Between shots, a lot of zombies would pose for pictures with tourists wandering around Fort Pulaski.

There’s a joke that working as an extra is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. That is 100% true. While I was waiting for whatever shot I was needed in, I wasn’t able to do much. The contacts meant I couldn’t read anything, and I couldn’t listen to music because my phone didn’t get any service inside the fort. Instead, I listened to stories from the other zombies about other films they had worked on. Part of Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” had also been shot at Fort Pulaski, and there were plenty of stories about what that was like.

The things that really stuck out to me about this film was how kind and considerate everyone was. I mean everyone.

We knew we weren’t making any kind of Oscar- worthy film, but we were all having totally-historically-inaccurate fun. Some of the featured actors (actors with lines other than “grrrr”) would check on the zombies between scenes. A few even offered to bring me water since all I could do was stare straight forward like a fake-blood-covered mannequin.

I made so many new friends on the set, and we’ve kept in touch through social media. You should definitely look up the actors on IMDB and check out their recent projects. Sadly, Don McGraw, who played Stonewall Jackson, passed away in 2019.

Bill Oberst, Jr. did a stellar job as Abraham Lincoln. He was actually a last-minute replacement. Even though he only had a small amount of time to prepare, Bill gave the role a fantastic sense of importance.

The funny thing to watch for is his height. Bill is 5’8″, but Lincoln was 6’4″. There are ways to work around that in a movie, but with such a small budget and limited time to shoot, it’s not perfect. Bill’s height will magically change between shots. It’s just one of a number of things that made it into the ALvZ Drinking Game.

Drinking game? Yes, the director Richard Schenkman said we should start a drinking game of all the weird things in the movie.

Take a shot when

  1. Lincoln changes height in the same scene.
  2. An actor’s voice sounds dubbed.
  3. A gun looks historically inaccurate.
  4. Someone says “zombies.”
  5. A zombie dies and miraculously reappears later.

Finish your drink

  1. For Stonewall Jackson’s beard.
  2. “We knocked before we broke down your door!”
  3. When Agent Chamberlin screams, “Alright! Who’s next?”

Feel free to add to the game. It’s all in good fun.

My mom said this movie was better than “The Descendants”.

If you ever visit Fort Pulaski, I recommend watching this film before you go. Figuring out what scenes were shot where is entertaining.

Fort Pulaski National Monument
US 80 East
Savannah, GA

Returning dignity to Strathy Hall Cemetery

Recently, I was watching one of my favorite YouTube channels, Ask a Mortician. The host, Caitlin Doughty, was interviewing Dr. Kami Fletcher about the important role Black funeral homes and cemeteries have played in U.S. history.

Dr. Fletcher said something that hit hard with me. She said that those funeral homes and cemeteries offered something in death that some Black people weren’t always given in life: dignity.

A hand-etched headstone in Strathy Hall Cemetery.
Photo by Jazmine Mckellar

I’ve explored many cemeteries spread out across the South. The ones I most often see forgotten and unkept are for BIPOC.

When I was producing a Black History Month special for my last news station, I came across a story from Tampa about a Black cemetery that had been cleared and sold off for development. Almost a century later, people started asking questions which led to an investigation. More than 120 bodies were found on the site of an apartment building. You can read more about it here.

This isn’t an unusual story. It’s happened over and over again all over the U.S. (Just look up the meaning behind the African Burial Ground National Monument in NYC.)

So I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that a historic Black cemetery, with graves dating back to the 1700s, had an entire neighborhood built around it and slightly on top of it.

Tucked away next to the Ogeechee River is the Strathy Hall Plantation. And while the home is certainly gorgeous, it was a plantation worked by African slaves.

Photo by Jazmine Mckellar

When those people died, they weren’t allowed to be buried in proper cemeteries. Their loved ones had to make their own. These slave cemeteries were usually in swampy or undesirable locations.

I first visited Strathy Hall Cemetery in July. What started as a cemetery for slaves had grown to include descendants and other notable Black families from Richmond Hill. Over the years, a neighborhood had been built around it and nature began to reclaim the cemetery.

This grave is for a member of the Blige family and is most likely related to singer and actress Mary J. Blige. Photo by Jazmine Mckellar

There had been efforts in the last 20 years to clear out the plant growth, so families could pay respects to loved ones without having to hack through kudzu vines and dodge thorn bushes. Unfortunately, without someone to maintain the cemetery, it was only a matter of time before the headstones were lost to vegetation again.

The Bryan County chapter of the NAACP started looking into what it would take to maintain and restore it. They were able to join forces with Richard Appleton, who owns the Strathy Hall Plantation, to track down the owner of the property and help establish a nonprofit to run the cemetery.

Now the biggest challenge is clearing it out.

When I tell you that nature had swallowed that cemetery, I’m not exaggerating. Richard is slowly going through with weed killer to make it easier to clear by hand. He told me he has to do that because many of the headstones are so delicate that getting hit by a lawnmower or weed eater might break them or erase part of the inscription.

From what he had already cleared, i could see what he meant. The inscription on some headstones had been hand-etched, others had been knocked over, and some were so worn by weather and time that I couldn’t read them at all.

When I went back recently with my friend Jazzy, I could tell that some progress had been made, but there’s still a lot left to do.

Aside from fixing up the known graves, they also have to track down all the unmarked graves. Some of those can be found through ground penetrating radar, but others may actually be under two homes.

Those homes were built within the boundary of the cemetery. At last check, family members of the original homeowners’ are trying to figure out who actually owns them.

It’s a neat cemetery, and I’m glad people are finally making an effort to preserve it. I don’t recommend visiting it on your own just yet because the graves aren’t all marked.

If you’re interested in being part of of the restoration efforts though, definitely contact the Strathy Hall Cemetery Facebook page.

Through all our combined efforts, we can make sure these people have dignity in death.

We are the walking dead princesses

It’s not often that you go on a day trip for zombies and find out that your sister is a Disney Princess, but that’s exactly what happened on my visit to Senoia, GA this week.

My baby sister, Abby, tagged along for my latest trip to the picturesque town southwest of Atlanta. I had been there once a few years ago, but I arrived late and didn’t get to see much. This time we left early enough to get there around 10:30 a.m. I picked a Tuesday to make it easier for us to socially distance while exploring too.

Our first stop when we arrived was, of course, The Woodbury Shoppe. If you watch The Walking Dead, you’ll recognize the name for the store as the name of the town from the second season. It makes sense because Senoia’s Main Street is easily recognized as the set for the town. The official shop for The Walking Dead has every single bit of merchandise you could imagine as well as costumes and set pieces from the show. I asked if we could wander upstairs, but the salespeople told me they’re working to turn that part of the store into a Walking Dead museum. It had previously been in the basement. I can’t wait to come back and see that once it’s finished. Meanwhile, Abby and I entertained ourselves by posing with the hospital doors from the first episode.

When we we’re driving into town, we spotted a place called Beez Freeze. The snowball place seemed like the perfect way to cool off, so we swung by after putting our Walking Dead goodies in the car. Since it was a Tuesday, there was only a small group of people at Beez Freeze. It made it very easy to keep six feet of distance between our groups while ordering and eating.

Normally, my go-to snowball flavor is Tiger Blood, but this time I decided to try the Georgia Peach. Abby asked the guy working the counter what flavor he recommended. He said one of his favorites was Polar Punch, so that’s what she went with. Both flavors were absolutely delicious! Mine tasted just like a peach, and Abby’s tasted like punch but not overwhelming. There was one thing on the menu we were curious about but didn’t try. It’s called a Zombee, banana with cream and chocolate syrup. Intriguing. Maybe I’ll try that next time.

Using a map we picked up at The Woodbury Shoppe, we decided to walk around town and look at spots featured in various film and TV productions. Most were from The Walking Dead, but we did see locations used for Fried Green Tomatoes, Sweet Home Alabama, Drop Dead Diva, and The Fighting Temptations (I hadn’t thought of that film in ages.).

Alexandria, one of the main locations since season five of The Walking Dead, is really easy to spot. The entire neighborhood is walled off with the windmill peaking out over the tree line. Abby and I weren’t able to go in, but we did get a few pictures outside.

One thing I learned from my time working in Seaside, Florida when I was younger is if you want to check out fun spots or delicious restaurants in the places you visit, ask salespeople for their tips. The Woodbury Shoppe employees told us to check out Starr’s Mill and Barbie Beach. Starr’s Mill was used in Fried Green Tomatoes and Sweet Home Alabama. Aside from the film ties, it looked like a cute spot to take pictures, so we hopped back in the car and headed over.

I was only able to get to quick clips in the rain before my phone shut down. This is a still frame from one of the videos.

It was gorgeous! As we parked and got out of the car, it was easy to see why this location was picked for a rom-com. The sound of the waterfall flowing and the trees gently swaying around the bright red mill just scream romance. Of course, that was when it started raining. Abby and I risked getting completely soaked to take pictures and video before running back to the car. If this had been a rom-com, this is the part where Abby would’ve met her true love, but I guess our life isn’t a rom-com because that didn’t happen. Oh, well. Wet and shivering but happy with our pictures, we headed back to Senoia for lunch at Nic & Norman’s.

Earlier in the day, Abby had spotted a butterfly on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. She relocated it to a windowsill to keep it from being stepped on, but it flew away and landed back on the sidewalk. After a few more attempts to move it somewhere safer, we decided to leave it perched on a curb. I managed to get a few pictures of her looking very Disney princess-esque with the butterfly. Why am I telling you about my sister and a butterfly? Well, when we walked into Nic & Norman’s, the server and hostess squealed. They had seen Abby playing with the butterfly earlier and had hoped she would come in so they could meet a real Disney Princess. I started laughing and told them she also made friends with two cats while we were walking around. The hostess insisted that Abby needed to start randomly breaking into song for full effect.

Nic & Norman’s is owned by Greg Nicotero and Norman Reedus from The Walking Dead. The menu offers some fantastic burgers, curious entrees like brisket mac and cheese, and smooth cocktails. Abby and I tried the new vegetarian sliders (two thumbs up from me), and I had a cocktail called a Blind Squirrel. Abby was disappointed it didn’t contain any actual squirrel parts and suggested it should have eyeballs floating in it. Eyeballs in drinks really aren’t my thing, so I thought it was just fine the way it was.

Before we left town, we stopped by Barbie Beach. Years ago, my other sister and I actually ended up there when we got lost on the way to a wedding. We honestly were worried that we had hallucinated it, so we had to turn around and took a picture just to prove it was real. So what does Barbie Beach look like? It’s a fever dream with Barbie dolls, action figures, and a Britney Spears play stage.

The owners of the property said they decided to create it after their rose bushes were destroyed leaving a sandy patch that wouldn’t grow anything else. It’s just so odd that I had to take Abby there to experience the wonder (and confusion) herself.

Our day trip was so much fun! I think I’ve convinced some of my roller skating friends to come back with me when the weather is cooler. Our plan is to skate around to different filming locations. Maybe we’ll be able to go inside Alexandria this time. I mean, that’s what the zombie really apocalypse needs: roller skaters and Disney Princesses.

Exploring a Georgia ghost town

I love abandoned places! I will sit for hours watching urban explorer videos of forgotten mansions, creepy hospitals, and decaying theaters. Would I like to do all that myself? Yes, but I’m also one of those people who thinks of every little thing that can go wrong, and I’m also super allergic to mold. That said, I did find out about a ghost town located not too far from where I live, and I had to see it for myself.

Ebenezer was a settlement established by the Salzburgers a year after Savannah was colonized. The Salzburgers were Protestants living in what we now call Austria. They left because Europe was doing that thing where certain countries alternated between if it was cooler to be a Catholic or a Protestant. Suddenly, it wasn’t trendy to be a Protestant in Austria, so some of them packed up and headed to Georgia after an invite from King George II of Britain. (Not the King George from Hamilton. That’s King George the Third.) Those poor Salzburgers were not prepared.

There are actually two Ebenezers. The first was along Ebenezer Creek. Noble Jones (remember him from my Wormsloe post?) did his best to help the Salzburgers make it livable, but the creek was almost impassable and prone to flooding and the land wasn’t good for farming either. After two years and a bunch of deaths, the remaining Salzburgers moved to New Ebenezer on the Savannah River near modern-day Rincon. This was where I was headed. With my trusty Google Maps app, bug spray, and my fearless companions, Vash and Hemingway, we set off!

The drive out there was pleasant. Hemingway hung his head out the window for most of it. The scenery was mostly farmland and churches. The early days of religious settlers are still evident in the yards of the homes we passed. Many of them had crosses. I grew up in the Bible Belt, and I’ve never seen so many crosses in yards before. One yard even had a giant banner that read “Christ is the Answer”, which is funny because I thought the answer was 42. (If you get that joke, you get it.)

At the very end of Ebenezer Road, we found what remains of New Ebenezer. The Jerusalem Lutheran Church is the first building I spotted. The church was built in the mid 1700s and is actually still in use today.

The other buildings include a museum, which wasn’t open that day; the Salzburger House and Kitchen, that had a bunch of cool antiques inside; and the old parsonage. I wasn’t able to go inside any of the buildings, but I did take a few pictures through the windows.

Hemingway tried to go inside every building, and then as we headed over to the outdoor amphitheater, he made a dash for the river. Hemingway is my foster dog, and I don’t know a whole lot about his life before Renegade Paws Rescue, but I guess he has fond memories of a river because he really wanted to go for a swim. Fortunately, I was still holding his leash and was able to keep him from jumping into the fast current.

The amphitheater was simplistic but peaceful. The sounds of the running river and singing birds were soothing. I could easily imagine coming out here by myself to write.

After poking around for a while, Vash and Hemingway decided they wanted to be back in the car with the AC, and I certainly didn’t blame them. It was hot! If you decide to visit, I recommend going earlier in the day or during a cooler time of year. Also, wear closed-toed shoes. I ended up with burs stuck to one of my shoes.

I still wanted to find the site of Old Ebenezer. It’s on private property, but it is supposed to be marked, so I thought I could possibly see something from the road. On our way to track it down, I passed by Jerusalem Church Cemetery. You know I had to stop and check it out.

I saw an open gate from where I parked, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there. The road I assumed would take me to that gate was marked as private property, but I was able to take a few photos through the fence. They all ended up with weird glitches. Ghosts or just a foggy lens? That’s up to you to decide. I already plan to go back and explore the cemetery properly at a later date.

My attempt to find Old Ebenezer was also unsuccessful. My cell phone reception was spotty, which prevented me from searching for better directions. Next time I head out there, I’m going to attempt to contact the property owner to see if they’ll allow me to actually explore the original settlement. Until then, I leave you with this final picture of Vash checking out the statue of Ebenezer’s first pastor.

Strange Times

The middle of a pandemic and BLM protests may seem like a strange time to start a travel blog. I’ll fully admit that. But both of those things are inspiring people to explore new places where they already live.

The pandemic has more people looking for outdoor locations, like state parks, and local restaurants that they may have overlooked. The BLM movement is renewing support of Black-owned businesses and creating interest in history they were never taught in school.

Recently, I left my broadcast news station where I had worked for almost a decade. When I started going through the files and photos on my cell phone, I realized I had a lot of pictures of places I wished more people knew about. I quickly downloaded and sorted them into different files in my Google drive and started putting this blog together. Finally, I had an opportunity to bring attention to these places!

At one point in my journalism career, I was the assistant editor and contributing writer for a now defunct magazine called Waterfront Living. It focused on the sights, sounds, and tastes of Florida’s Forgotten Coast. I loved this job. I would spend hours in the library looking up the history of the area and how it evolved over the years. For instance, did you know the Florida Panhandle used to include portions of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana?

I learned way more about the history of ice in the U.S. than I ever imagined I would. This journey included a trip to the Dr. John Gorrie Museum in Apalachicola and taste test of whiskey lemonade with ice from a glacier and ice from an ice machine. If you’re a fan of cold drinks and air conditioning in your house, thank Dr. John Gorrie. (I’ll explain more about all that in a future post.)

Now I live in Savannah, GA. I fell in love with this city as soon as I drove down Victory Drive with palm trees standing proudly along the median and Spanish moss-draped oak trees arching overhead. The Hostess City has an incredible history. Some of it’s nice, and some of it is heartbreaking, but it’s all fascinating.

I can’t wait to tell you all about the restaurants, museums, hotels, shops, and parks I’ve come to love across the southeast. If you’d like to share some hidden or underrepresented spots you love, I’d love to hear those too.

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