Harvey and Dorothy Lewis Thompson opened the Imperial Hotel in 1949, as the only reliable lodging option in Thomasville for African-Americans. At the height of the Jim Crow era, when the simple act of travel could be dangerous for black people, the Imperial Hotel was listed in the Negro Motorist Green-Book travel guides, made famous by the 2018 motion picture. Dorothy’s brothers, the Lewis Brothers, were skilled brick masons and built the structure from the foundation to the top. The hotel featured eight bedrooms, a restaurant and barber shop. It closed in 1969 and has been in a state of decline since being abandoned in 2001.
Local historian Jack Hadley (of the Jack Hadley Black History Museum), who purchased the hotel in 2018, has been leading an effort to restore the property for several years. It inclusion in this year’s Places in Peril by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation has brought the attention of CEO Mark McDonald, who has committed assistance to the project and expresses great enthusiasm for its future. To donate, visit Thomasville Landmarks.
In the end the property may reflect its original role as a hotel; plans to make it an Airbnb are presently in development with Florida A&M University architecture students and other consultants.
I’m unsure if it’s related to the hotel, but this shotgun house is located on the same property.
The Coleman House/Hotel is typical of late-19th and early-20th century properties found in small towns along railroad lines. Owners often lived in the hotel and rented rooms. At the height of the railroad era, such enterprises could be quite profitable. The Coleman Hotel has come full circle and once again is a bed and breakfast known as the Serenity Inn.
When I was a young teenager I first visited this house with my father, who worked on the railroad for many years with owner Harold Mathews (7 August 1923 – 16 May 2004). Harold knew how much we loved history and he eagerly gave us a tour of the house and his extensive holdings of local ephemera. He also showed us the attic, where he kept his neatly organized collection of stamps and postal history. It greatly influenced my own interest in postal history, which continues to this day.
We weren’t aware at the time that this was the oldest house inFitzgerald, but research suggests that it is. It was built by a Mr. Dow in 1895, before the old soldiers’ colony was even incorporated as Fitzgerald. [P. H. Fitzgerald initiated the colonization effort in mid-1895 but the town wasn’t incorporated until 1896]. The house itself is a rambling Queen Anne, with a Foursquare design and a rear wing. Its most notable architectural features are the unusual corner porch entrance and widow’s walk.
Thanks to Michael Baxter, the present owner of the house, for inviting me to photograph. He has done a nice job of preserving this important house and is proud to be a guardian of its history.
The following history is abridged from Sherri Butler’s fascinating article, “Four generations of colonist’s family lived at Mathews Glen on Washington Avenue” (Fitzgerald Herald-Leader, 19 October 2016). Sherri is an exemplary newspaper columnist, and has been an enthusiastic supporter of my work since I first started documenting Vanishing Georgia in 2008. Her ‘Feature Front’ column is the most anticipated and most widely-read piece in each week’s paper and I am always grateful for the threads of local history she uncovers and shares with me and with the community at large. She has served as Chairman of the Blue and Gray Memorial Association and is also the co-author of Fitzgerald (Images of America), Arcadia Publishing, 2010. I’m still hoping Sherri will compile her articles into a book; her take on history is refreshingly modern, mixing old facts with reminisces of those who knew the subjects well.
“When Ransom Mathews pulled up stakes in South Dakota and came to settle in the Union veterans’ colony in South Georgia, he had new calling cards printed. He wanted everyone to know of his service in the Civil War – the units in which he had served were listed below his name: 47th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, 16th Regiment of New York Volunteers, 60th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers and 193rd Regiment New York Volunteers (In the latter, he received the rank of first lieutenant).“
“Born in Potsdam, N.Y., in 1839, he was the 10th of 11 children of David and Lory Mathews…from age 17 until the beginning of the Civil War he lived in Massachusetts...[After the war] like so many others, he headed west...Mathews first went to St. Louis, and in 1867 he traveled Missouri, representing a fire insurance agency. He also married the former Lizzie Gowen…The next year found him in Fayette, Iowa. He stayed there until 1880, working for a brick company. Lizzie died in Iowa in 1878, but the couple had two children. Their son, Harry, was described as being in the “fruit business” in Louisiana…He joined his father in Fitzgerald in 1917. The Mathews’ daughter, Fannie May, was a graduate of the Broad Street Conservatory of Music in Philadelphia…In 1879, Ransom Mathews married Mrs. Mary J. Gillespie. From Iowa, he went to Kingsbury County, South Dakota, where he lived in a community called Nordland for three years. In 1883, he bought a hotel in the village of Arlington. He named the hotel, located a block from the Northwestern depot, Mathews House.“
“In 1899, he purchased the Washington Avenue home from a Mr. Dow, who had built it four years earlier. For Mathews, it would be both home and business, as he operated it as a boarding house…he ordered stationery imprinted with ‘Home of Ransom Mathews, Mathews Glen’. He quickly became part of the community, active in the GAR [Grand Army of the Republic] and also the short-lived Blue and Gray Association that united Confederate and Union veterans…When the Georgia Division of the United Confederate Veterans held its Re-Union in Fitzgerald in 1915, Ransom Mathews was there at the Ben Hill County Courthouse to welcome the old Confederates on behalf of the Grand Army of the Republic…[His] second wife died in 1914. Ransom died on 22 August 1918, at the age of 80.”
“[After growing up in Iowa and South Dakota, Ransom’s son, David Harry Mathews (4 November 1871-22 August 1952), who was a musician who formed the DeSmet Kid Orchestra in DeSmet, South Dakota…] lived in Hammond, Louisiana, for much of his life. He was 46 when he came to Georgia. A farmer, he had also been a pitcher for the New Orleans Indians and often wore his uniform when he went to watch baseball games at Blue and Gray Park...”
Harry’s son, Harold Ransom Mathews, inherited the house upon his father’s death and lived there until his death in 2004. He and his wife Montine, raised their children, Janice and Ramsey, here. Montine was the former Montine Mizell, daughter of Hamp Mizell. Hamp was one of the pioneer white settlers of the Okefenokee Swamp and owned one of the swamp’s most famous fishing holes, known as Suwanee Lake. He was a contributor to one of the first histories of the Okefenokee and was a favorite subject of folklorists, including Francis Harper and Delma Presley. There is at least one photograph of Montine as a young girl in Dr. Presley’s Okefinokee Album.
Irwin County entrepreneur Wright Tomberlin Paulk (1873-1922) built the Aldine Hotel [pronounced al-dean] circa 1904, to capitalize on the rapid growth of the recently settled”Old Soldier’s Colony” at Fitzgerald. He named it for his daughter, who died at the age of eighteen months in 1898. In its early days it was one of the leading hotels of the city and was later modified for use as a retail space for various businesses. I recall a Fred’s Store being located here when I was a child in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the above photograph shows, the front of the structure was sided with inappropriate concrete veneer at some point.
The original hotel was three stories; I believe this rear section was a later addition.
The structure had been abandoned and neglected for many years and in the past year or so bricks began to collapse into the adjacent alley, creating a serious liability and hazard. Sadly, this is the fate of far too many commercial structures in small towns all over Georgia.
As of October 2020, the property has been cleared.
Fitzgerald Commercial Historic District, National Register of Historic Places
Various postcards over the years advertised this charming Craftsman bungalow as “The House by the Road”, dubbing it a “Modern Tourist Home” and a “Beautiful Private Estate Open to Guests”. Other enticements included locked garages, porter service, steam heat with automatic stoker control, electric fans, hot water, shower baths, and Beautyrest box springs. Known as a boarding house, it was also the home of Mrs. Robert R. Shingler, who took great pride in maintaining a hospitable stop for travelers along US 41, a primary north-south route in the days before interstate highways. It is now a private residence.
In renovation, it has been slightly altered, though retains its overall original appearance.
Shingler Heights Historic District, National Register of Historic Places
This historic property faces Willis Park and at its core is the footprint of The Sharon House, a hotel built in the 1860s. Significant remodeling and expansion took place in 1901 and it became the Bon Air Hotel. Originally, a full-height porch ran the length of the facade, with balconies on the upper floors, but this feature was removed in the 1950s. As cities built strip malls and activity moved away from historic downtown areas, grand old hotels were seen as too expensive to maintain.The Bon Air wasn’t immune to this fate and closed in the 1960s, falling into serious disrepair. By the 1990s, communities like Bainbridge began to recognize the importance of landmarks to revitalizing their historic identities, and thankfully, the Bon Air was renovated between 1999-2001, with apartments and storefronts. It has retaken its place as the anchor of the commercial historic district.
Bainbridge Commercial Historic District, National Register of Historic Places
The Omaha Springs Hotel (built in the early 1900s) is among the last surviving resort hotels of the mineral springs era, a time when the purported healing properties of the state’s abundant natural springs attracted visitors from all over the country. Many locations featured hotels and cabins but most have long been demolished. In A Preliminary Report on the Mineral Springs of Georgia (Atlanta, 1913), state geologist S. W. McCallie noted: This group of springs…are situated in a dense grove at the base of a rather precipitous hill-slope…One of the largest of the springs from which a sample of water was secured for analysis flows something like 100 gallons per minute. The main improvement consists of a well-built hotel of 24 rooms. The water from these springs is said to have a considerable sale in Augusta…and is well suited as a table water.
The structure is a private residence and can only be seen from a gate. Without the longtime stewardship of the Fleming family, who owned and maintained the property for decades, this treasure would surely have not survived.
I’m not sure when this was built, perhaps the late 1930s or early 1940s, but I believe it was built solely for use as a boarding house/tourist home. It is presently being deconstructed. Jesup once had many such “tourist homes” but by the 1960s most were replaced by modern motels. The Broadhurst Studio postcard (pictured below) likely dates to circa 1945-1950. The card notes the availability of a locked garages and boasts that it is a block away from the noise of highway traffic.
This tavern is illustrated in John Linley’s The Architecture of Middle Georgia: The Oconee Area and though I’ve traveled through Wrightsville often in the past decade, I didn’t know it was still standing until recently. Linley didn’t have much information on the structure, but Donald Smith writes:
The Grice Inn, the home of the Johnson County Historical Society since its organization in 1977 is one of Wrightsville’s most historic structures. The two-story brick and wood frame structure located on east Elm street was built in the spring of 1906 by John Robert Grice. Mr. Grice, born in 1857 was a carpenter, brick mason, furniture maker, architect and man of God. He first married Lucinda Walker and owned a farm on Cedar Creek near Donovan. He had 3 sons Milo, Cleo and Norma Lee. Lucinda died abt 1895 and John then married Rebecca Hartley. In 1900 he bought property from the deacons of Brown Memorial Baptist Church. The timber used to build this house was cut from his farm on Cedar Creek and laid to cure for a year. Where John came up with the design for the house is unknown. There was nothing else like it around. This pattern of gabled ends rising above a larger 4 sided slope atop a rectangular main section along with wide galleries around recessed exterior walls and a first floor of brick top with a second story of wood is thought to be a Gulf Coast style of the 18th century. This style originated by the French and Spanish settlers in Louisiana, was designed to keep the house cool. Dirt was dug out of the hillside by hand at this place known to residents of Wrightsville as the “knob”. Grice and his sons built the house themselves. He also had an adjoining park as a resort for young folks. The house was built for a residence but the Grice’s, who already had a reputation for good food, turned it into a boarding house in 1907 for students of the Nannie Lou Warthen Institue, which was going strong at the time. Quickly John became known as Daddy Grice. In 1907 he tiled the sidewalk in front of the house, probably the first such sidewalk in the city. The house is on the National Register and shares this distinction only with the court house.