Byron Herbert Reece, known as “the Farmer Poet,” was born at the site of what is now Vogel State Park in Blairsville, Georgia.
by Kathleen Walls
The Byron Herbert Reece Farm and Heritage Center is a newer attraction in the once-rural community of Union County. In Reece’s time, it depended on farming as its main source of revenue. Today, tourism is prevalent, as visitors have discovered the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains that Reece loved.
His farm home portrays early 20th-century life in the North Georgia Mountains. It was not an easy life, and Reece was always ambivalent about the farming that paid the bills, but also took time from his writing. Both his parents contracted tuberculosis and died from it, which put the running of the farm on Reece’s shoulder from a young age. Much of his poetry deals with planting and growing crops and the seasons.
The visitor’s center is the home Reece helped build for his parents. Inside, there are artifacts from the home and a large picture of Reece sitting with his frail-looking mother while his father stands facing them in front of the fireplace.
Going outside, you see Reece’s writing studio, Mulberry Hall, a humble, red-frame building he built with his own hands. Inside, there is a lifelike mannequin of Reece writing. As you walk the path, there are stone circles with his poems engraved on a center stone. You visit a corncrib, chicken house, smokehouse, springhouse and petting farm with typical farm animals. In the restored barn, you can watch a video about Reece’s life. The farm also hosts concerts frequently.
Reece was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1951, earned two Guggenheim awards and served as writer-in-residence at the University of California at Los Angeles, Emory University in Atlanta and Young Harris College in Towns County, Georgia, where he taught. It was there, in 1958, after grading and carefully placing student papers, that Reece, dying from the same disease that took his parents, ended his own life with a bullet to his diseased lung.
“The Reach of Song,” a play about his life, is the State Historic Drama. It was taken from the words of one of his poems: “From chips and shards, in idle times, I made these stories, shaped these rhymes; May they engage some friendly tongue, When I am past the reach of song.”
Many of his poems bear a resemblance to mountain ballads so prevalent in Appalachian music. In his novel, The Hawk and the Sun, published in 1955, he dealt with a problem our society is still coming to grips with today—the lynching of a Black man for a crime he did not commit. Reece was a man far ahead of his time.
One of the placards at Reece’s Farm mentions places he visited. One is Rollins Store and Station, in operation since the 1920s. The name changed to Sunrise Grocery, but it’s still open and located just a short distance past the Reece Farm. It’s worth a stop for the peanuts, and you’ll find lots of local craft items like handmade soaps and candles.
Reece’s birthplace is at what is now Vogel State Park, Georgia’s second state park, transferred to the state in 1931. A dam on Wolf Creek was built, creating the 22-acre Lake Trahlyta. It’s popular for fishing, swimming, canoeing and kayaking. There’s a small amphitheater facing the lake where concerts are held. Vogel has a small museum dedicated to the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) who built the park. The CCC built picnic areas and cabins, many of which still stand accompanied by newer ones, and campgrounds at Vogel, providing a great place to stay when visiting the area.
Jack “Mimm” McClure and Reese probably knew one another since they were only three years apart in age, and both worked in neighboring Towns County. Reese taught at Young Harris College and McClure made moonshine and was a power to be reckoned with in the county. It’s said he started former Georgia Governor Zell Miller on his political career.
Another new attraction in Blairsville is Grandaddy Mimm’s Distilling Company, where Jack “Mimm” McClure’s grandson, Tommy Townsend, is now making his grandfather’s product legally. The distillery is located just off the square and offers tours. It showcases copper stills much like Jack McClure used. There’s a small museum-like section with artifacts like a moonshine jug and a one-armed-bandit slot machine from McClure’s bar near the Georgia/South Carolina border where drinking, gambling and dancing prevailed. Not only are the drinks top-notch at the distillery bar, but it also showcases concerts. Tommy Townsend is not only a top moonshiner, he is a great musician. He played with Waylon Jennings and after Jennings’s death, stepped in as the lead singer for Waymore’s Outlaws.
The Old Courthouse on the Square, where Reese would have handled legal affairs for his family farm, is now a museum where you can see artifacts reliving Blairsville’s past. From early handmade farm equipment through the country’s wars, it’s all remembered there. Reece is honored with his portrait and a placard about him on the wall. On Friday nights, the old courtroom upstairs rings with the soulful ballads the mountain settlers brought from Scotland and Ireland.
Just down the street, off the square, The Grapelle Butt Mock House is home to the Museum of Mountain Life. The home was built around 1906 and contains many interesting artifacts for that era. My personal favorite is an old permanent wave machine where the unfortunate person getting the perm sat with her head inside a commercial hairdryer type machine and had each curler hooked up to an electric current. Pure torture! Grapelle was a schoolteacher, so there are many relics of her schoolroom days. Outside, there’s the relocated Civil War-era Payne Cabin, barn, corn-crib and smithy.
I’m not sure Reece visited Brasstown Bald, but it was his loss if he didn’t. It’s one of Georgia’s top scenic wonders and the highest mountain in the state. You have a choice of paying a few dollars extra and riding a trolley to the top or hiking. Pay the extra; it’s a steep climb.
Once on top, you can view at least four states from the observation tower. Inside the visitor’s center, there is a fascinating museum about Georgia’s mountains and the National Park Service. One lifelike exhibit is an animated forest range where Alan Woody, the first forest ranger, tells of his life and how he began restocking the area with deer. Others tell the story of the area from the Cherokee myth about the balds to the bears that still roam the mountains. There is a full-sized steam locomotive you can view and lots of native wildlife.
Ironically, Reese opposed tourism for his native state. He loved the natural beauty around him. In his poem “Roads,” where he decried big cities and traffic, he described Blairsville and Union County perfectly.
“My heart is native to the sky where hills are its only wall stand up to judge its boundaries by … “
All photos by Kathleen Walls.
Kathleen Walls, former reporter for Union Sentinel in Blairsville, Georgia, is publisher/writer for American Roads and Global Highways. She is the author of travel books Georgia’s Ghostly Getaways, Finding Florida’s Phantoms, Hosts With Ghosts and Wild About Florida series. Her articles have appeared in Food Wine Travel Magazine, Family Motor Coaching Association, Weekender Extended, Travel World International, Georgia Magazine and others. She is a photographer with many of her original photographs appearing in her travel ezine and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @katywalls.