Southern Holiday, Part 2


Notes from a Biographer

A bricked-in tree at Mepkin Gardens.

A bricked-in tree at Mepkin Gardens.

A week before I began my holiday road trip in December, I learned that in 1936 Time Life’s founder and publisher, Henry Luce, and his wife, the flamboyant Clare Booth Luce, purchased a three-thousand-acre former slave plantation in Berkeley County, South Carolina, only twenty miles from the poverty-stricken region where Smith made his classic “Nurse Midwife” for Life in 1951. The Luces made Mepkin Plantation their vacation estate.

Did Smith know this? Is that why he fought so hard to celebrate the African American Maude Callen amid pages of Life’s whitewashed Madison Avenue ads, to shove the contradictions in Luce’s face? It’s hard to know, but I think probably not. Smith left behind voluminous bitter letters to replaceable bureaucrats, but I haven’t seen any to moguls. He tended to make dragons out of windmills.

What is known is that, in 1949, the Luces donated part of Mepkin Plantation to the Trappist Order of Gethsemani of Kentucky, creating Mepkin Abbey. When Henry died, in 1967, his body was laid to rest in the property’s gardens. After Clare’s death in 1987, her body was buried next to his. As a serial graveyard explorer, I knew I had to see these graves, which, together with Callen’s abandoned and crumbling clinic, form an unlikely set of Berkeley County monuments to Life magazine’s midcentury power.

I parked my car at the abbey and walked to the garden gravesites under a cold December mist. The understated, serene gardens were terraced in a series of semicircles down the bank of the Cooper River. Spanish moss dripped from mammoth live oaks, several with trunks wide enough to accommodate a tunnel for a compact car.

I stood looking at the pair of Luce gravestones on the highest terrace, an eight-foot marble cross poised between them, while a young monastic sat meditating cross-legged on an oval stone wall that rings the graves. When I pulled out my camera and removed the lens cap, he politely asked if I needed him to move. I said no, thank you.

* * *

The Apalachicola waterfront.

The Apalachicola waterfront.

I left South Carolina and hugged the Georgia coast for a few days, trying to clear my head of Gene Smith’s groggy fevers before I’d reengage with them later in my journey.

Coastal towns are more appealing in winter. The light is clear, the air crisp, and the off-season demographic atrophy reveals a town’s cultural skeleton and a more discernible pulse. In a small bar at the Village Inn on St. Simon’s Island, I listened to three older couples—New York transplants, I learned—enjoy a familiar chat with the African American bartender, who had grown up across the sound, in Brunswick. Clearly this scene has been repeated, maybe for years. Another New Yorker, a customer at a crafts and antiques store across the street, made a splendid recommendation on the best seafood dive in town. I noticed that many of the middle-aged and elderly women had naturally gray hair, a characteristic no doubt less prevalent during tourist season or at Christmas parties on the mainland.

I left the island and made a daylong meander across south Georgia to Apalachicola, Florida, stopping to visit little stores here and there, to get hot water for tea, or just to soak up the sepia winter light. The route included towns such as Nahunta, Hoboken, Waycross, Manor, Argyle, Homerville, Du Pont, Stockton, Naylor, Valdosta, and Quitman. It felt like I was seeing sites I’d never see again, either because I’d never come back or because next time everything would be gone. What’s left behind after decades of farm attrition are churches and desperation. In Waynesville, a topless bar called Hootersville sat next door to the corrugated aluminum Family Life Church, both looking repurposed and fleeting.

If the losers in the downsizing of Southern American agriculture are the small towns, the winner is the landscape, wilder now perhaps than since the jungle was first cleared for farming several centuries ago. With the low winter sun shining sideways against upright surfaces—trees, weeds, barns and farmhouses and stores—the light colored scenes of decay. Even the small mounds of Georgia’s red dirt cast little shadows, changing color and texture depending on whether they were front- or side- or backlit by the sun. In overcast conditions, a beautiful gray-brown filter was laid down over everything. If well-to-do Europeans once sent their infirm to the South of France to be healed by the sun and fresh air, the rural American South would be a good place to do that today.

* * *

It seemed that every time I navigated my rented Impala into a new small town, there’d be a modest convenience store with a Hunt Brothers Pizza logo on the window. As the miles passed, the ubiquitousness of Hunt Brothers in the most far-flung places became almost comical. Curious, I googled the company on my iPhone and learned that it is based in Nashville and its pizza is sold in 6,500 convenience stores around the country. My anecdotal sample indicated that most of these stores aren’t the brightly lit ones at heavily trafficked interstate exits and in affluent suburbs. Rather, Hunt Brothers is most often found in dim and hidden zones.

I called a college friend who is a management consultant in Nashville, and he described Hunt Brothers’s business model this way: “They supply to many stores that are family owned, often by immigrant families that only own one store. Many are from the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia. Typically they don’t have the resources to make and serve hot food efficiently and they are located in places where there is no McDonalds or Pizza Hut nearby. Hunt Brothers saw this niche and filled it beautifully. I can’t imagine how much work it took them to find these remote outlets for their pizza.”

* * *

The Apalachicola waterfront.

The Apalachicola waterfront.

I descended down back roads from Georgia to what’s called Florida’s Forgotten Coast, a hundred-mile stretch of undeveloped shoreline between St. Mark’s and Mexico Beach connected by Highway 98, which offers one of the most preserved and alluring rural coastal drives I’ve experienced. There are no chain stores to be found, by and large. It’s a region that also features the strongest Southern accents I heard in three weeks driving around the South.

The port town of Apalachicola, population 2,500, was founded where the Apalachicola River feeds into the Gulf. It was once the third-largest port in the Gulf, after New Orleans and Mobile. Today it might be called the capital of the Forgotten Coast. The port is quiet and the town appears to be partly abandoned, but it still produces 90 percent of Florida’s oysters in a large bay protected by a barrier island and has supported generations of oystering families that date back to the nineteenth century.

I unpacked the Impala and checked into the Gibson Inn, built in 1907. There was a twelve-foot Christmas tree lit up in the foyer, with wreaths and ropes of greenery and red ribbons all around. I was given a metal key with an elongated diamond plastic ring with my room number on it. I walked up two flights, the first a grand staircase open on one side into the foyer, with hardwood rails and spindles, the second a narrow stairwell down the hall, seemingly to a place you weren’t supposed to go. I put my bags in the room and went for a drink at the dark, wood bar downstairs.

The bartender was a woman named Betsy. She had gray hair, an old salt face, and the mischievous half-smile and knowing chuckle of a teenager. She told me the hotel was haunted and produced a Polaroid of a tourist couple taken on the hotel’s porch in which a small boy appears in a window reflection behind the couple but not with them in the foreground. “That’s not trick photography,” Betsy said. “It’s a ghost.”

Betsy lives across the river in East Point, home to many oystermen. I asked her about the oyster culture. She laughed. “They don’t know how to do anything except drink and dig oysters,” she said. “They all have great balance and six-pack abs because of how they stand on the boats and use those heavy shovel claws to pick up oysters.” She outstretched her arms and swung them out and up to demonstrate the conductor-like motion the oystermen use to open and close the six-foot scissor-like shovel and rake. “They drink when they aren’t working,” she continued. “Back in 2010 after the BP oil spill you couldn’t get any oysters. Even though our oyster beds weren’t harmed, the guys qualified for disaster money, and they used it to take six months off. You couldn’t get oysters anywhere, not here or anywhere else. The guys all got plastered every day. Because their balance is so good from standing on those boats like they do, they can get hammered and still walk just fine.”

After dark, I spent a couple of hours walking around downtown Apalachicola. The temperature was in the forties and fog filled the empty streets, blurring the Christmas lights. Owls called to one another. I followed the sounds of one pair until I was standing underneath a cell-phone tower on the edge of downtown. Two owls were up there, hidden in the night fog. The perfectly repeating intervals in their call-and-response patterns were mesmerizing.

The next morning I pulled the Impala onto Highway 98 and headed west along the Gulf shores. The Forgotten Coast extended another thirty miles before stereotypical Florida emerged near Tyndall Air Force Base: bland high-rise condos and T.G.I Friday’s and CVS pharmacies and slow, grinding traffic.  Frustrated, I jumped over to Interstate 10, where I quickly became bored. From the car I called the National Estuarine Research Reserve back in Apalachicola to ask about the owls. The receptionist forwarded me to the voice mail of the reserve’s director of education, Erik Lovestrand, and when he returned my call later he left terrific mimics of the great horned owl and the barred owl on my voice mail, an unexpected audio souvenir for me to keep.

Read part 1 here.

Sam Stephenson is Lehman Brady Joint Visiting Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. He is currently finishing a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Photographs by Courtney Fitzpatrick.