Those of you who know me personally know that I’m a bird nerd of sorts, and have been since childhood. When my father called me on 8 April 2018 and reported an unusual blue bird hanging around his backyard, I made a trip over to Fitzgerald to investigate it myself. From his description, we both thought it might be a Lazuli Bunting but that was easy to dismiss since it’s a western species, never before recorded in Georgia. Sure enough, it was a beautiful Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena). The bird likely followed a storm system that moved across the middle of the country and wound up in South Georgia. It only hung around a couple of days, but it was a gift to see it.
Last week, I finally got confirmation from Jim Flynn of the Checklist and Records Committee of the Georgia Ornithological Society that the sighting was officially confirmed. He wrote: I wanted to let you know that we finally completed a round of bird records that included your Lazuli Bunting report. I am happy to say that it was unanimously accepted. This is the first fully documented record for Georgia. After all of these years of record keeping, going back to colonial times, it’s tough to get a new state record!
I believe this was one of Fitzgerald’s earliest African-American churches, but I haven’t been able to locate the name of the original congregation. The structure has been altered since I made this photograph in 2010, but it remains one of the city’s most architecturally significant vernacular churches. The steeple is unusual.
Fitzgerald’s first general hospital was built in the late 1920s or early 1930s to replace Dr. Dudley B. Ware’s much smaller convalescent hospital on Central Avenue.
My grandmother worked here in the 1950s and my mother and father were born here. It was used by the community until 1974 when a more modern facility, Dorminy Memorial Hospital [now Dorminy Medical Center] opened. When I was growing up, the hospital housed the Cooperative Extension office and other governmental offices.
I made these photographs in 2019, a few months before this structure was razed. For most of my life, it was known as C. M. Copeland’s workshop and studio. I believe it was originally a neighborhood grocery store but I can’t confirm that at this time.
C. M. Copeland (15 July 1916-4 February 2000) was a brilliant wood carver, best known for his sculptures of wildlife made with cypress knees. He was often referred to as “The Happy Wood Carver”. He was also a banjo picker and folk singer, who had a radio show on local radio station WBHB with Wimpy Fowler, The Wimpy and Jigs Show.
He was documented by folklorists for the South Georgia Folklife Project in 1977, both for his picking and his carving.
At the time of the South Georgia Folklife Project photographs, his shop was a few blocks down the road from this location. This structure was adjacent to his home and I believe he moved his operations here sometime after 1977 for the sake of convenience.
I photographed this house, which was located near the Fitzgerald Airport, in 2010. It had collapsed by 2017 [or earlier]. The hall-and-parlor form is often associated with tenant housing in South Georgia, though many tenants ended up owning the houses and using them as residences after the sharecropping era.
The Old Field Cemetery is a rural cemetery located a few miles from Fitzgerald which has fascinated me since I first photographed it in 2009. It contains a mixture of commercial and vernacular memorials, with several significant vernacular memorials, including the unusual Benton Family cross [pictured above]. Old Field Cemetery predates the establishment of Fitzgerald; the earliest identified burial  is that of Archabald McInnis (4 July 1816-7 July 1861) with several other burials dating to the 1880s. At least one pioneer family of the Old Soldiers Colony of Fitzgerald, the Hallett Rathburn family, is also associated with the cemetery. An historically white cemetery, it is also used today by a nearby African-American congregation, Fairview Missionary Baptist Church.
An interesting comment on the entry for Flora Ann Dixon McCall on Find a Grave fills in an important fact about potentially missing gravestones: Rumor has it (as recounted by Josie Mims McCall) that many McCall’s [sic] were buried in the Old Field Cemetery, however, a local man vandalized the cemetery and many of the grave stones were destroyed as he “cleaned” up the cemetery. He was upset that no one in the town of Fitzgerald helped him clean up the cemetery, after he placed an ad in the local paper to encourage all families to lend a hand, so he demolished most of it with a tractor during his “clean up.”
Vernacular Memorials of Old Field Cemetery
There are three cylindrical headstones in Old Field Cemetery. It’s an unusual form of grave marking that I’ve not encountered elsewhere .
All are made of poured concrete and two examples are ornamented by round stones placed on the ground beside them.
I don’t think these stones have any particular religious meaning but rather a practical one. I don’t believe they ever contained the names of the decedents and their identities may be lost to history.
Wooden markers were commonly used to mark graves in the past, especially in rural cemeteries. Wood is among the most vulnerable of all the materials used to mark graves and countless examples have been lost to the elements over time.
The top left horizontal section of the Benton Memorial cross is actually signed by the maker, Jessie Morris. Morris may be responsible for several of the vernacular memorials in Old Field Cemetery. Signed vernacular stones are very rare.
The top right horizontal section of the cross [see first photo in this article for an overall view] contains the words God Bless You All.
I cannot read the names of the Bentons buried here and have no idea if there’s a connection, but my father remembers two or three Benton brothers who lived in the general area in the 1950s. He recalls that they were bachelors and lived in a large old house on the Jacksonville Highway [U.S. 319] and were among the first people he knew of in Ben Hill County to grow and sell strawberries.
The original memorial marking the final resting place of Brinkley Bishop was surrounded by four cedar trees that have since been removed.
It was replaced by a modern vernacular stone by his grandchildren.
There are quite a few simple vernacular memorials throughout the cemetery, like the two Hasty stones pictured above.
The headstone for Baby Morris features a butterfly and vine design. It possibly dates to the late 1930s, when considering the design of the Baby Beck memorial which is located nearby.
I believe the two baby memorials may be the work of Jessie Morris, who made the cross for the Benton family.
The memorial for Frank Cook is a hybrid form commonly found in rural cemeteries. The headstone was poured into a mold and the lettering and shaking hands designs are created with stencils.
Commercial Memorials of Old Field Cemetery
The headstone for Frank Sullivan notes that he was a Marine. It is in the government-issued style known as “Civil War” or “Recessed, or Sunken, Shield” and was in widespread use from the 1880s until at least the 1910s.
The headstones for two of the six children of Daniel A. (15 December 1855-26 May 1906) and Elizabeth Tucker McInnis (14 February 1859-12 July 1934) are very common examples of one of the most popular commercial motifs of the Victorian era.
The lamb represents the Lord and also symbolizes innocence, hence its presence on numerous infant and toddler graves throughout the United States.
Infant and childhood deaths were common before the advent of modern medicine.
Fitzgerald was settled as an “Old Soldiers’ Colony” by a Union veteran and was known in its early days as a place of reconciliation, where veterans from both sides of the Civil War lived side by side in relative harmony. Fitzgerald’s Blue & Gray Museum, was established in the old Lee-Grant Hotel by Beth Davis in 1960 to document this fascinating history. It’s now located in the restored Atlanta, Birmingham & Atlantic Railway depot. The story is also told on the city seal, designed by David Jay. It depicts a Union and Confederate soldier shaking hands, flanked by the flags of their respective sides. The museum has evolved over the years to include other aspects of local history.
The early settlers of Fitzgerald were very involved in commemorating the Civil War. Union settlers were members of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and the Women’s Relief Corps (WRC) and Southern settlers were part of the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).
Henry Bruner, the last Union veteran in the colony died in 1940, and William Joshua Bush, the last surviving Confederate veteran in Georgia, died at the age of 107 in 1952. Personal items belonging to these men, and other veterans, are part of the museum collection.
Beth Davis was focused on the early history of the community, and initiated a “Roll Call of the States” to reflect the diverse background of the pioneers. It was her tradition to photograph people from other states when they visited. This was also a part of the pageant Davis wrote to celebrate the city’s history, “Our Friends, the Enemy”.
Alongside Civil War relics, ephemera related to the town’s commercial and educational history are a big part of the collection. Fitzgerald’s large railroad presence is also highlighted.
It took many years, and is still incomplete, but the story of Fitzgerald’s black community is now included in the museum. This is an area that I hope to see expanded through community input.
I’ve served on the board of the Blue & Gray board for nearly ten years and am proud of my hometown’s history and my connection to it. I spent many afternoons with Beth Davis, often taking her home because she never learned to drive. Beth’s daughter Betty graduated from high school with my father and her daughter Julia graduated with my mother. David Jay was part of a regular tennis doubles group with my father for many years and played as well as most men half his age. Janie Law, stepdaughter of William Joshua Bush, graduated from Fitzgerald High School with my grandmother and was a family friend, as well.
The museum is open from 10-4 on weekdays (excluding holidays) and admission is $5 for adults and $2 for children. Call for more information: 229-423-5069.
This Queen Anne landmark was built circa 1903. It was the home of Evelyn and Richard McLendon for many years. Richard was a coach and Evelyn was a longtime history teacher at Fitzgerald High School. Current owners Patricia and David Walker have lovingly restored the home.
*- This post was originally published in 2018. This update replaces it.
South Main-South Lee Streets Historic District, National Register of Historic Places