Nation's oldest welcome center relic of bygone travel era

Mike Spangenberg, a truck driver, was wary of the offer, tired of driving and "wanted to put some blood back into my butt."

"I don't know," he answered. "What do you have here?"

The welcome center on U.S. 301 just below the South Carolina line includes bathrooms, picnic tables, maps of Georgia, brochures touting in-state destinations and respite from highway monotony.

But those are just the expected offerings. This welcome center offers much more -- a window into Georgia's history, and a bit of its soul, as well as a reflection of the outside world's perception of the Deep South.

When it opened, in 1962, the center introduced backwards Georgia to a skeptical North. It may have been a way station on the road to Florida, but its space-age design, reams of information and helpful "hostesses" convinced many a traveler that maybe Georgia wasn't all that different from the rest of the country.

The rhythms of America played on at the welcome center just below the Savannah River. The country was coming of age in the 1960s, economically speaking, and Georgia wanted in on the ride. Tourism was ascendant and welcome center workers steered vacationers to Savannah, Jekyll Island and the Okefenokee Swamp.

But I-95, which parallels 301, introduced speed, convenience and anomie to the time-challenged traveler. Fewer and fewer visitors stopped at the welcome center, particularly during the most recent recession. The ones that did were mostly older too.

But Sylvania's welcome center -- believed to be the nation's oldest continually operating roadside visitor center — soldiers on. It celebrated its 50th birthday in January. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places a month earlier.

It also stands sentinel against the slow death of rural Georgia, a local institution that nurtures the region's economic health. And it offers not-so-lost travelers an oasis of calm and companionship in a world of iPhones, GPS and diesel-choked "travel plazas."

"Would you like some Coke?" Robert Davis, a welcome center worker asked trucker Spangenberg. "It's free."

'A better day'

Gov. Ernest Vandiver championed Georgia's first welcome center and found an extra $12,000 in the state budget to complete the $46,348.24 building. At the time, U.S. 301, which connected Wilmington, Del. to Tampa, Fla., was one of Georgia's most traveled routes.

In 1962, gas cost 31 cents a gallon. Stone Mountain inaugurated its Scenic Railroad. An airplane crash in Paris killed 106 Atlantans. Macon's Ray Charles lodged two Top Ten hits. And the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was sentenced to 45 days in jail for trying to desegregate government buildings in Albany.

"This highway can be the avenue to a better day in Georgia," Vandiver vowed during the center's dedication.

Northerners entering the Deep South didn't know what to expect.

"They didn't think we wore shoes, so they'd look behind the counter and down at our feet," said Jackie Herrington, who began working at the welcome center in 1963. "They would try to mimic our talk and always say, 'Y'all' and that type thing. We were insulted quite a bit because of the way people treated us."

Patricia Perdue, nee Kemp, was the first Georgia Welcome Station Hostess hired. She was 19, from Swainsboro, and had just completed two years at UGA.

"We'd say 'Welcome to Georgia' with a big old smile and the visitors would just stand at the door thinking, 'What in the world? These girls got all their teeth,'" said Perdue who now lives in Southeast Atlanta. "We'd figure out where they were going, take them over to the brochures and, basically, try to sell them on stopping off different places in Georgia."

The hostesses received a crash course on all things Georgia: the history; the highways and byways; the tourist destinations and adjoining motels and restaurants; the clip joints and the notorious Ludowici speed trap 100 miles down U.S. 301.

"We had so many people come in and literally cuss us out because they had received a ticket there," said Herrington who worked 34 years at the welcome center. "So we copied every ticket the people received and sent them on to Atlanta. Gov. Maddox cleaned it up finally, thank God."

The hostess job wasn't without glamor. Herrington, Perdue and the other ladies were feted by hotels and restaurants in Savannah, St. Simons and Atlanta and manned Georgia tourism booths at trade fairs in New York, Chicago and Toronto.

Celebrities visited Sylvania too. Heavyweight champ Joe Frazier, with bodyguards in tow, asked for directions to a nearby plantation where cattle were for sale. An heir to the Sinclair Oil fortune drove up with chauffeur in full livery.

"He was thrilled pink to find out we gave away something free -- Coca-Cola and peanuts," Herrington said.

They also dispensed peaches, fruit cake and pecan pie slices and cotton bolls plucked from plants behind the welcome center. They warmed baby bottles, made hotel reservations, posed for pictures and fended off amorous advances.

Occasionally, the seamier side of life intruded. A stalker from Millen was scared off by police only to return the next day with a pistol. Herrington and co-workers locked the double doors; the man was arrested.

A car rolled over three or four times and the passenger died in a co-worker's arms. A woman threatened suicide and Herrington consoled her until a deputy arrived.

By the 1970s, U.S. 301 was fading as travelers preferred I-95. The welcome center welcomed fewer and fewer visitors. In 2003, an average of 263 people stopped daily at the center. Last year, only 202 did.

Sense of community

The 16-mile stretch between Sylvania and the center today offers a sad tableau of the decline of rural America: canopied "filling stations" engulfed in kudzu; park-at-your-door motels gone dark; a roadside stand empty of peaches and watermelons; billboards faded into illegibility.

Sylvania, though, survives. Credit goes partially to the welcome center workers who steer travelers to the antique stores downtown, Doe Doe's Restaurant, the historic Dell Goodall House and Donna's Bakery.

"We're sort of off the beaten path," said the bakery's Donna McDonough. "You'd miss a lot of the good in Sylvania if not for the information they give."

On at least five occasions, though, bean counters in Atlanta wanted to shutter the welcome center. Govs. Nathan Deal and Sonny Perdue have each tried to close it and another in Plains (birthplace of former President Jimmy Carter) to save dwindling state revenues. Each time they were defeated by local uproar and political puissance.

Still, the center's budget whittles away; this year's $87,862 is just enough to cover the salaries of the center's two full-time employees.

Sylvanians help fill the financial void. Screven County employees cut the grass and maintain the building and water-treatment plant out back. Community college kids sometimes help out at the information desk. Deputies drive by often.

"The welcome center is part of Sylvania, the culture and the people too," said McDonough. "Together we make a whole."

Sylvanians use the center as they would a library or a park. School kids take field trips there to learn about Georgia. Community groups, including the National Council of Garden Clubs, have gathered on the lawn and under the magnolias. The shaded picnic tables and proximity to the Savannah River lure local picnickers and fishermen.

Many of the U.S. 301 travelers taking the slow road to Florida, New York or nowhere in particular ache for that same sense of community, permanence and lore that the welcome center affords, if only for 15 minutes or so.

"Out on the interstate it's all Burger King, Starbucks and Roy Rogers -- it's all blah," said Maya Chilcott, a retired teacher taking four days with dog Lucky to drive from Long Island to Ocala. "I like something like this much better. It's a slower pace. Life is nicer."

Long-distance friends

Just about all of the 50 people who stopped in the welcome center one recent, rainy Friday afternoon were retirees with time to burn and a penchant for the way things were. Like the welcome center, they were anachronisms, a dwindling breed puttering along the nostalgia highway.

"If I'd gone I-95 I'd be 40 minutes closer to my destination but I wouldn't be as cheerful as I am," said Frank Brown, 70, pulling a camper and heading home to Lincolnton, N.C. "You pull into a rest stop on the interstate and you're all keyed up and tense and you can no more engage in a conversation there than you can fly."

Brown spent a half hour talking to Davis and Ann Perry, the welcome center's assistant manager. He couldn't leave without showing his new friends the dulcimer he made that doubles as a walking stick.

Davis has worked 23 years at the welcome center; Perry, 32 years. Repeat customers have turned into long-distance friends who exchange Christmas cards, show pictures of grandchildren and, in the case of one New York family, delivered an old snowmobile to remind Snowbirds of what they'd left behind.

"They're family. They're friends. They're not just a visitor," Perry said.

"We've seen the same couples come through here for years," Davis added. "So when we see just one of them come in, we know why."

Earlier that Friday, a man from Pennsylvania placed his computer onto the Formica counter top and showed Davis a video memorializing his late wife.

"He was really upset and just wanted me to see it," Davis said.

By 4 p.m the rain had let up and Spangenberg, the trucker, was ready to roll, slowly, to Florida. His mood had brightened.

"This place is really welcoming. I'm glad you're here," he told Davis. "Now I've got a reason to come down 301 again."

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