10 Quirky Landmarks of the South
Keep an eye out for these sites, ranging from creepy to educational and just plain weird, during those summer road trips.
by Nick Pittman
There’s something about hitting the open road and seeing the country that awakens a curiosity in all of us. About this time of year, there arises an aching to leave our familiar setting and get lost on highways and back roads, small town and communities with barely a stop light to their name. Wandering aimlessly, turn by missed turn, odd name by historical landmark, getting lost is an art form. For me, these trips have to include things I have never seen before and things I will never forget: tiny Indian mounds in a perfect triangle, a gigantic mailbox big enough to park a VW bug in, ancient churches that cross ethnic and denominational lines to serve their communities. The South is speckled with these odd landmarks and curious destinations. The open road is calling … can’t you hear the pavement whine?
1. Yoruba Village, Sheldon, South Carolina
For those who live there, The Kingdom of Oyotunji is not really in the South. It’s not even in the U.S. The residents of the Yoruba African village count themselves and their 10-20 acres as sovereign. King Ofuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I (a Detroit native) founded Oyotunji in 1970, pulling followers from across the country. The village’s 50 or so residents practice a mix of African traditions adapted for the times (facial scarring is in, polygamy and animal sacrifice is out). For $10 you can see their vision of African culture as the residents dwell in simple huts, make and wear traditional garments, practice their religion and sell African-by-way-of-South-Carolina wares in the oldest genuine African village in the US. Or not in the US.
2. Graceland Too, Holly Springs, Mississippi
There are Elvis obsessed fans, then there are fans like Paul McLeod, who even named his son Elvis Aron Presley McLeod. Don’t take my word for it: stop by Graceland Too and pay him a visit. His house/museum/collection/Elvis horde pile is open 24 hours a day thanks to his admitted habit of drinking 24 cans of Coke a day. McLeod, who saw Elvis perform 100-plus times, will show you his floor-to-ceiling collections, including 35,000 records, 25,000 CDs, 185,000 square inches of carpet remnants from the real Graceland, binders of research (mostly old TV Guides) of every mention of Elvis on television. Just be warned: there are no short visits.
3. Devils Tramping Grounds, Bennett, North Carolina
The people of Bennett, near Siler City off State Road 1100, know Satan doesn’t dwell in hell, he spends his time dancing in the woods near a crossroads outside their town. There in the woods is a spot of ground – about 40 feet across – that will not foster life of any kind. No matter what is planted there, grass, flowers, etc., it withers and dies. According to legend, if anything is left in the circle at sundown, by dawn it is removed. Animals, they say, refuse to enter the circle. Legends about the Tramping Ground go back to the county’s founding in the 1700s. Some versions of the origin say it is a result of a great Indian battle (one tribe later became the Croatan in the Roanoke story). Science may say that it’s a naturally occurring salt lick, but the people of Bennett have other ideas. So much so, it has an entry on the secretary of state’s web site.
4. Georgia Guidestones, Elbert County, Georgia
Forget Joe the Plumber: who was R.C. Christian and who would he endorse for president? Little is known about the man who created the Georgia Guidestones. In 1979, Christian — a man who dressed as sharply as he spoke — commissioned the Elberton Granite Finishing Company to build the six granite slabs, standing nearly 20 feet high and weighing 240,000 pounds. Drilled right through the middle is a hole to view the North Star. The views expressed on the stones are just as controversial — 10 commandments limiting the worlds’ population to 500 million, eugenics to improve said population, one language, removal of petty laws and useless officials while maintaining a balance with nature. Called American Stonehenge, the Guidestones have drawn criticism (and praiseand vandalism) from all over the spectrum. Yoko Ono is a fan. Based on Thomas Paine, with nods to Greek, Babylonian, Sanskrit and Egyptian legacies, the meaning, purpose and motivation behind the stones are as enigmatic as R.C. Christian himself.
5. Skunk Ape Research Center, and Trail Lakes Campground, Ochopee, Florida
If a cyptozoologist discovers an unknown creature like Bigfoot, does it make them a zoologist? Jack and Dave Shealy have devoted their lives to answering that question through the search for Skunk Ape (a Bigfoot like creature known for his apelike appearance and skunklike smell). Dave operates the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters and Trail Lakes Campground, likely the only one of its kind in the world. There’s memorabilia and evidence Shealy collected, including photographs and a plaster cast of the elusive beast’s footprint. Plus, Dave may be on hand to tell you all about the creature and his hunt for it. For the non-believers, there are plenty of snakes and gators, camping and swamp buggy tours. In June, check out the Everglades Skunk Ape Festival, which includes a Miss Skunk Ape contest.
6. Abdullah The Butcher’s House of Ribs and Chinese Food, Atlanta, Georgia
There ain’t nothing more Southern than rasslin’ and barbecue. Not to mention combining unrelated things like barbecue and Chinese food. Abdullah is a hardcore wrestling legend before there was even hardcore wrestling. He’s performed in NWA, WCW, ECW, WWE and is likely the most brutal wrestler of all time. The man was “electrocuted” in a match and has gashes in his forehead deep enough to hold a casino chip. At his joint, wrestling fans and barbecue enthusiasts get served up what they want: autographed pictures and memorabilia from the greats of the business (check out the painting of star himself dressed up in the suit) and dynamite Southern barbecue (plus soul food and Chinese cuisine). Where else can you get pig’s feet, neck bone, low mein and gizzards in the same place? If you are lucky, you may run into Abdullah. Be nice and he might let you store your coin collection in his forehead.
7. Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, Mississippi
Call it kitschy, call it offensive, call it good eating in an interesting setting. Mammy’s might be all three. Started by Henry Gaude and his wife, a plantation tour guide, the restaurant is housed inside the hoop skirt of a stereotypical mammy character. Think a “Gone with the Wind” mate to Bob’s Big Boy. During the Civil Rights era, Mammy got a makeover and a coat of lighter paint, making her racially ambiguous but she still bears the trappings of a stereotypical African American caricature (something the family in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” may have shopped for). Looking past the issues, the concept is pretty cool: you dine under her dress; Mammy’s ear rings are horseshoes; the restaurant/she holds a tray of food. Maybe because of karma, or perhaps reluctant patrons, time has not been kind as Mammy spent time as a hay loft, insurance company and other endeavors before settling back as a restaurant for the last 16 years. The food makes up for any guilt: Southern style meals and incredible pie that will make the trip worthwhile, hoop skirt or not.
8. Alabama Lightning Face, Carrollton, Alabama
When they hung an innocent man in Georgia, the lights went out. Legend has it when they killed a (perhaps) innocent man in Alabama, lightning struck. In 1878, Henry Wells, a former slave, was accused of the 1976 torching of the Pickens County Courthouse. As this was the post-Civil War South, innocent or guilty, he did not have much of a shot at justice, especially as someone with a checkered past filled with violence and theft. After his arrest, a lynch mob — fueled by the frustration of the destruction of their courthouse, built during the economically strapped days of Reconstruction — formed and took to the courthouse lawn. The sheriff, fearing for Wells’ safety, kept him in the attic, locked in a room near the window. As the crowd grew angrier, legend has it Wells shouted a warning: kill me and I will forever haunt you. Just as he issued the threat, lightning struck near the courthouse. Instantly, the image of his shocked face fused into the glass where it is still visible today. Not long after, the mob took Wells and lynched him. Locals say the window fulfills his promise to forever haunt his accusers. So much a part of local lore, his immortal image was further immortalized in a play. Research into the case found that it may not be even be Wells, but not knowing the source of the ghostly face peering out of the window almost makes it more disturbing.
9. Six Flags/Jazzland, New Orleans, Louisiana
It’s debatable whether New Orleans — the most unique city in America — will ever be the same or completely recover from Hurricane Katrina. Its flooding of the city rearranged the population, exiling some residents and drawing in new ones, and could hopefully lead to new preparedness and structural precautions for the city. In other words, New Orleans pre-Katrina may never be accomplished. There’s certainly no movement under way to preserve the storm’s toll on the city. However, there is a macabre snapshot of Katrina available in New Orleans. Before Katrina, the Six Flags amusement park shut down in preparation for the storm after an embattled five-year run (originally opened as Jazzland in 2000, then bought by Six Flags in 2002). Nothing was done with the park after the storm. It just sat there, frozen in time from when the last paying customer rode the last roller coaster for the last time. Today, her devastation is still caught in the park. Grimy, creepy destruction (a toppled clown head for example), re-emerging flora (and perhaps fauna) from the former swampland and plenty of dire graffiti convey a feeling of end of the world abandonment. At once, it displays the power of Katrina, her lasting impact, nature’s power to overcome and the folly of our dance with the environment. Hurry though, there are committees considering new plans to the old park. Then again, this is Louisiana, and things move much slower here. Be warned: It is illegal to go and not safe to go alone.
10. Mississippi Petrified Forest, Flora, Mississippi
The story of Mississippi’s Petrified Forest is the story of the Delta: created by rivers and formed — or battered — over time into what it is now. A look into the past. Stones that refuse to change with the time. Created 36 million years ago, these logs are preserved via a lengthy natural process. What was left behind is worth seeing: petrified remains of trees once more than 100 feet tall and thousand-plus years old. The Caveman’s Bench, a split log resembling a bus bench, is a required photo op. More than just rock gazing, the park offers fluming for gems, an Earth science museum to learn about the petrifaction process, rocks that glow under black light and camping.
Moonlight, Moss and Macabre
In the South, they aren’t gone or forgotten, ‘cause we keep them with us. If you are looking for a more macabre taste of life below the Mason Dixon, here are a few stops you might want to make.
Hank Williams Death Car at the Hank Williams Museum, Montgomery, Alabama. Hank was a rock star before there were rock stars. See the actual Cadillac that carried the lonesome and driftin’ cowboy to his final reward.
Bonnie and Clyde Death Spot, Gibsland, Louisiana. You can visit the Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum (in a building where they bought their last meal) and see the death car from the movie, plus artifacts from the real couple. But, for an authentic look at their end, head down the road to Gibsland on Hwy. 154 to see the actual spot (complete with a new monument) where they were ambushed and blasted to pieces by lawmen.
Robert Johnson’s Graves and The Crossroads, Northwestern, Mississippi. Johnson was a blues legend who died young and mysteriously after selling his soul to the Devil in exchange for his talents. It’s pretty well accepted that his body lies in one of these Mississippi graves — Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Greenwood, Payne Chapel Memorial Baptist Chapel in Itta Bena or Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Morgan City (at this one Sony/Columbia Records erected a monument to Johnson). While you are in that neck of the woods, go see one of the two alleged Crossroads where the deal went down: at the touristy monument on the corner of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale or the less famous intersection at Highways 8 and 1 in Rosedale.
Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia. Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea gets all the ink in the history books, but one of his lesser known atrocities deserves disdain as well. In Savannah’s historic Colonial Park Cemetery, founded in 1750, Sherman’s boys had a bit of fun with the city’s late residents: pillaging graves, swapping headstones, desecrating monuments and changing info on markers. Have fun spotting the oddities. Some laid to rest here lived to be 1,000 years old, according to their headstones.
Lead Belly’s Grave, Mooringsport, Louisiana. Unlike Johnson, Huddie Ledbetter’s final resting place is known to be at the Shiloh Baptist Church. Better known as Lead Belly for his toughness, he had a profound effect on American music but is often overlooked because — other than not selling his soul — he didn’t die young in dramatic fashion and his songs are more remembered for the versions rendered by later (white) artists.
One man’s junk is another Southerners collection …
Pasaquan, Buena Vista, Georgia. During a bout with a high fever, Eddie Owens Martin, son of a Georgia sharecropper, said he saw visions of tall people from the future. Calling himself St. EOM and fueled by the visions, he created Pasaquan in 1955 — a 7-acre art complex of six buildings (one a converted 1885 farmhouse) housing more than 2,000 art pieces and linked by mural-covered walls.
Paradise Gardens, Pennville, Georgia. In 1961, Howard Finster, one of the most well-known folk artists in the world, created Paradise Gardens. Before his passing, he made 46,000 pieces of art (many recycled found objects) now housed in a maze of buildings, sculptures and displays.
Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas. Barney Smith, a retired plumber and son of a plumber took used seats and made them shine. Artwork, collages and paintings now grace the lids, displayed in the museum in his garage where he created the 1,000-plus pieces. There are toilet seat memorials for JFK, 9/11, Mount St. Helens (with ash from the volcano), a marijuana leaf seat signed by San Antonio’s police chief and many others.
Lunchbox Museum, Rivermarket Antique Mall, Columbus, Georgia. It’s like a library for lunchboxes or a pop culture explosion. Many rare and not-so-rare lunchboxes (you can buy the duplicates) line the walls and shelves. Even the benches are neat: made of TV lap trays adorned with the likes of Cabbage Patch Kids.
Photo Credits: Oyotunji from Oyotunji Facebook page, Georgia Guidestones from Flickr Creative Commons by Keith Horne, Mammy’s Cupboard from Wikipedia Commons, Six Flags from Flickr Creative Commons by of Erik Jorgensen, Bonnie and Clyde from Wikipedia Commons, Colonial Park Cemetery from Flickr Creative Commons by Chris Barker, Pasaquan courtesy of Rivers Langley of SaveRivers, Barney Smith Toilet Seat Museum courtesy of Julie Gomoll.
Nick Pittman is a writer and teacher living in South Louisiana. Read his story A Faulty Legend, about The Earthquake Game between LSU and Auburn, here.