Southern Seen — Hollows and hide-aways beyond the highways

Southern Seen — Hollows and hide-aways beyond the highways

Posted: Tuesday, July 8, 2008 11:04 pm
By: Larry McGehee

Up until this year we could tell summer vacations were here by watching the gasoline pump meter. It moved up about twenty cents ahead of the temperature. That didn’t stop traffic. Decades ago, once the blue-clad soldiers and carpetbaggers left after the Reconstruction, southerners just wanted to be left alone. They had carried their “southern hospitality” far beyond reasonable expectations. Unfortunately, farm and cotton prices never did recover as expected, and it wasn’t too long until the South needed Northern dollars. Industry was slow in moving South, so tourism seemed a logical choice for ways to get some capital. In fact, it was preferable. Most southerners believed the old saying that guests are like fish. If they stay too long, they begin to smell bad. Tourists always left. Until the 1950’s, tourism in the South was a disorganized industry of many mom-and-pop entrepreneurs scattered along two-lane roads that led to camping grounds and some undeveloped natural and historic sites. Battlefields, monuments, mountains, beaches, and rock formations were there, pretty much unsupervised. Evenings on the road resembled picnics or being at home. Rambling Victorian homes offered guest rooms. Small towns offered cafes, groceries, churches, service stations, and movies. Camp grounds offered parking spaces and water. Travelers were pretty much on their own. But that all changed after World War II. Interstates made getting from sight-site to sight-site faster and easier. Automobile production made transportation democratically available. Cafeterias and drive-ins made food quicker and cheaper. Motels replaced guestrooms and also replaced the need to be in small towns that highways now by-passed. Air-conditioning and television became home necessities that could be found anywhere. State parks offered golf courses, marinas, hotels, and restaurants more luxurious than staying at home. Even ski lifts and snow were available, and summer traveling carnivals were replaced by permanent billion-dollar theme parks. Only the bravest needed to venture out into the humidity and mosquitoes to see an outdoor play at night or to take the risks of climbing narrow mountain trails. “Come on down” replaced “Leave us alone” as the regional motto. Politics changed in tune with the times. Henry Grady and the New South movement of the late nineteenth century never really got off the ground until super?highways and automobiles made tourism possible 75 years later. Even the southern acceptance of the civil rights movement was due as much to concern over tourism as it was obedience to law. New college degrees were designed and offered in hotel and restaurant management, natural resources management, park and recreation management, and business economics. For the most part, the South profited from tourism. Small towns furtherest from interstates, some natural attraction, or a national or state park were hurt the worst economically but probably would have suffered even more without it. Tourist income stopped the southern employment exodus to Detroit and slowed the moves to California and Florida. Tourism does have the disadvantage of being frenetic, but that doesn’t bother people accustomed to congregating in Wal-Marts and malls. Some days one can’t see the scenery for the people. But then, by being so close, natives can pick and choose when they want to go out into the public places, if they want to go at all. There are Nashvillians who have never been to the Grand 0l’ Opry, Smoky Mountain dwellers who have never been to Gatlinburg or Dollywood, Central Kentuckians who have never been in Mammoth Cave, Carolinians who have never seen the Atlantic, and Georgians who probably think Atlanta is pretty much as Sherman left it. There are also still places in the South virtually untouched by tourism, known only to natives. Small towns. with their squares and many old homes, are still there. Farmlands are still there, too, still accessible for those who want nature in the real raw. Isolated frame churches and cemeteries are sometimes as interesting to visit as Washington, D.C. Some home-owned antique shops, craft shows, and flea markets can be as exciting to the curious as metropolitan museums, and some home-cooking cafes as fine as city gourmet restaurants. If we wanted to find the South of yesteryear alive today, we studied where long-time southerners live and spend their own vacations. Problem this year is, with gas prices soaring, it is harder to follow when fewer of us are out prowling . Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at mcgeheelt@wofford.edu Published in The Messenger 7.8.08

Leave a Comment