Driving through small towns.
Last week, my 16-year-old daughter and I drove from Charlotte to the beach in the Florida Panhandle. It’s about a nine hour drive. I could have taken Interstate 85 and cut the time by about an hour, but I wanted the drive to be peaceful and scenic. Rarely is there anything peaceful or scenic about I-85 between Charlotte and Atlanta, so I checked Waze and Google Maps, but I ended up designing my own route, and it worked out really well.
Our drive took us through four states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. And we passed through lots of small towns along the way…some more memorable than others. We were on Interstate 77 from Charlotte to Columbia, SC, and then on I-20 from Columbia to Augusta, GA, but that’s when we dropped off the interstate and started driving through some small towns.
The first one that got my attention was Wrens, Georgia, about 40 minutes southwest of Augusta. At first, there was nothing remarkable about the town, but soon I saw a woman in traditional Mennonite dress walking with three little girls in the same traditional clothing. I slowed down as the speed limit decreased and noticed more Mennonites. Because we had time restrictions, I didn’t stop anywhere, but I made a mental note of the community, and later, when we stopped, I looked online to see if there are any Mennonite restaurants or bakeries in the area. Indeed, there are, and they get great reviews. I might just have to grab a friend for a day trip to Wrens.
We drove through Macon and Albany (pronounced al-binny in Georgia) before passing through the very charming Colquitt, Georgia. On the way down to the beach, we were driving in torrential rains, because a tropical storm was coming through. I had never heard of Colquitt, but even in the rain, it was a beautiful little town. I didn’t think to ask my daughter to take photos, but when we stopped, I looked up the town online, and wow! When we were returning home, I planned ahead. It was a Sunday, so the town was basically closed (small towns in the south do that), but I had my daughter ready to take photos as we passed through. There are 17 beautiful murals throughout the town; my favorite is on a peanut silo and depicts a man picking peanuts and a cotton field with a crop-duster flying overhead. And the town even offers mural tours! You can get the info here. Colquitt is a long way from Charlotte, but next time I am driving down that way to Tallahassee or to the Florida beaches, I will plan ahead to spend a night in Colquitt at the historic Tarrer Hotel. And if it’s in May or October and the COVID restrictions have been lifted, maybe we will visit the Colquitt State Theater and catch a production of Swamp Gravy, the folk life story of Georgia.
We spent the first night in Marianna, Florida, because I wanted to have dinner with my cousins who live there. We dined at a local restaurant in Sneads called Johnny Mac’s, where my cousins knew everyone who walked in and out of the restaurant. My 16-year-old daughter was amazed that they knew everyone, but she was also amazed at how friendly everyone was. If you ever find yourself in Jackson County, Florida, stop in at Johnny Mac’s. I had the bison burger, but everything looked delicious! See the website here
. The next day, we met my cousin for breakfast at the Waffle House in Marianna, and again…my daughter couldn’t get over how friendly the servers were.
The rain was coming down in buckets when we left breakfast, but I wanted to show my daughter a few things around Marianna. One place I wanted her to see was Blue Springs Recreational Area. Because it was raining so hard, it was difficult to see the swimming area, which is fed by a natural spring, but she got the idea. She still hasn’t visited Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, but one day we’ll do it. Mother used to take us when we were kids. We also drove through downtown Marianna so she could see some of the beautiful historic homes and the charming downtown. I told her that when I was a little girl there was a radio station with Nipper, the RCA dog, on top of the building, but it had been gone a long time. I also remember going to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the theater there and being terrified. What the heck? I think I was about four years old, but there’s no longer a theater in downtown Marianna. In fact, several of the historic downtown buildings were destroyed in Hurricane Michael two years ago. I looked around at the buildings and all the downed trees and thought how my daddy would have been heartbroken by the destruction.
After we left Marianna, we drove on I-10 toward the Defuniak Springs exit, but stopped in Chipley, Florida, to gas up. When I was a little girl, we often drove through Chipley on our way to Marianna, and I remember a sign on Highway 90 that said “Bunnies for Sale.” I wondered if the sign was still there, but before we drove farther in that direction, I checked online. Apparently, someone does
still sell bunnies in Chipley, but the operation is no longer on Highway 90. I’m guessing the sign is gone too, so we got back on I-10 and continued driving west.
After taking the Defuniak Springs exit, I suggested we drive a few miles north to Highway 90, so I could see if the old Horne’s restaurant building is still standing. Horne’s was a chain restaurant with a circus theme that closed in Defuniak Springs in the 1970s, probably about the time I-10 opened. A lot of businesses along Hwy 90 closed when the interstate came through. Hwy 90 had been the main thoroughfare between Jacksonville, Florida, and West Texas, so there were lots of little roadside motels and mom-and-pop businesses that closed when the interstate opened. The world looked a lot different then. You can still get a glimpse of it by driving down Highway 90 and seeing some of the remnants. Even in Mobile, Alabama, there are still some of the old roadside motels on Hwy 90.
While we were in Defuniak Springs, I called my friend, Linda, in Charlotte. Her husband grew up in Defuniak Springs, and she had mentioned to me that his grandmother had a lovely home on the lake in town. She gave me the address, and my daughter and I set out to find it. It did not disappoint. The home is a lovely Queen Anne-style home facing the lake in the middle of the historic district in town. Yes, a beautiful lake in the middle of town! We took lots of photos of the home, the lake, and some other historic sites in the area. Defuniak Springs is a charming town, indeed…worth a visit when I have more time to spend there. To see more about the history of the area, click here. As we drove out of town, we stopped at a Whataburger, because we love the chain and don’t have one in Charlotte. Again, my daughter was amazed at how friendly the employees were.
From Defuniak Springs, we drove straight to the beach, but those stops in small towns made quite an impression on my teenage daughter. Small towns just have a different flavor. I should know…I’ve lived in several of them in Alabama. God bless small towns.