The first thing that stands out about Americus is its remoteness. Not remote in terms of hours driven to get there — it’s only a 2.5-hour drive south of Atlanta — but how it stands like an oasis of a city surrounded by so much farmland, rolling plains and pecan groves miles away from any interstate. The other thing that stands out one spring Friday is how lively this hisoric hamlet is after normal business hours, a rare thing for a rural Deep South city of fewer than 17,000 people.
Turns out it was First Friday, a monthly art walk. So I checked into the circa-1892 Windsor Hotel — a castle-like, red-brick, Victorian-era beauty — and joined the throngs.
My first stop was the recently opened Huss Foundation Artists’ Gallery, an exhibit space for local artists. There I met a veritable who’s who of the local arts and business community gathered in casual conversation. Offered a beer and a hot dog upon entering, I joined in.
There was Corey Flegel, founder of the indie record label This is American Music, and his wife, Angie, who worked for Habitat for Humanity, which is based in Americus; Bill Harris and Tripp Pomeroy, founders of Cafe Campesino, a coffee roastery that provides fair-trade beans to coffee shops across the nation; Philip Vinson, CEO of Mobile Glassblowing Studios (the city is home to a large artisan glassblowing community); and Huss Foundation founders Derek and Jenna Huss.
A quick survey revealed that most were transplants, people who came to Americus for various reasons, fell in love with the place and decided to make it their permanent home. But Harris of Cafe Campesino is an Americus native. He and Pomeroy founded the roastery after a trip to Guatemala in 1997 with Habitat for Humanity. While there, they learned about the awful trade practices employed with small farmers and were inspired to start a fair trade company. They invited me to the roastery the next morning for a coffee class to learn about different brewing methods.
Fittingly enough, the roastery is located across the street from Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village, a six-acre complex that provides a walking tour of housing conditions around the globe and shows what Habitat houses look like in each country. Inside the roastery, there’s a coffee lab. Hannah Mercer, coffee lab coordinator for Cafe Campesino, set up a brewing demonstration that looked like something out of a “Breaking Bad” episode or a high-school science lab.
There was a small blue-orange flame, a beaker of boiling water, glass tubes and tiny ropes, liquids rising and falling. Best of all, at the end of the brewing process, there was a perfectly brewed cup of coffee for each member of the class, albeit one that took a bit longer than your typical home drip coffee maker. I was too scared to ask for creamer. Luckily, someone else did and we were obliged in the nicest, most non-judgmental “bless your heart” way possible.
The coffee experience was a serendipitous aside. The main reason for my trip was to attend a beer festival taking place later that day. The Hot Glass Craft Beer Festival is what drew me to town. Craft beer festivals aren’t hard to find these days, but I was intrigued that there was one in a town I had never been to, a town without a craft brewery. The hot glass part also got my attention. Glassblowing demonstrations took place all day long courtesy of Mobile Glassblowing Studios and the Hot Glass Academy, another glassblowing enterprise in town. Tasting glasses were handmade in the days leading up to the festival, no two exactly alike. The furnaces where the glassblowers did their work drew crowds to compete with the lines at the beer tasting tents, each one representing a Georgia-based craft brewery.
Making the rounds between the furnaces and the beer tents, I kept bumping into the same people I had met at the gallery the night before, each greeting me with a Mayberry-like friendliness I wasn’t accustomed to when visiting a strange city. I even met some of Jimmy Carter’s relatives, which isn’t hard to do since the former president lives just down the road in Plains and has a large extended family in the area. I was beginning to feel like a local, or a wannabe local, even though I had only been in town for a night and a day. That’s how strong the community vibe felt here.
On Sunday morning, it was time for church. Tiny Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains is where Jimmy Carter, 93, still teaches Sunday School occasionally. I got there early, parked in a pecan grove filled with cars behind the building and waited in line for the Secret Service agents to clear me for entry along with about 300 others. Afterward, I had my picture taken with the former leader of the free world like so many others who stayed through the worship service after the Sunday School class. That’s a requirement for the photo opp, you can’t leave after Carter’s lesson, you have to sit through the regular church service, too.
John Denver once sang about coming home to a place he’d never been before. That’s the feeling certain places can give you when traveling. Denver may have been singing about his first time in the Rocky Mountains, but in Sumter County on this spring weekend, I could relate to that sense of belonging. As I text-blasted my family and friends a picture of me and the former president of the United States, I found myself singing that line on the drive back to my real home.
If You Go
Windsor Hotel. Originally opened in 1892, this classic Victorian-era hotel has been restored to its former glory and upgraded with modern amenities. It’s now a Best Western Plus property. Rates start at $106. 125 W. Lamar St. 229-924-1555, windsor-americus.com.
Rosemary & Thyme Restaurant. Modern American cuisine in an elegant, white tablecloth dining room inside the Windsor Hotel. Reservations recommended. Dinner entrees start at $13. 125 W. Lamar St. 229-924-1555, windsor-americus.com.
Sweet Georgia Baking Co. Bakery and sandwich shop inside the Cafe Campesino Coffeeshop downtown. Breakfast and lunch only. Under $10. 134 W. Lamar St. 229-380-0439, www.cafecampesino.com/visit.
Americus Welcome Center. 123 W. Lamar St. 229-928-6059, visitamericusga.com.
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