This year’s Georgia Travel Media Marketplace started off with a roar. Unfortunately that roar was the sound of rain pounding on the roof or Statesboro Comfort Inn, our home base for the Marketplace. All turned out well however. The downpour ceased before we reached the kickoff reception at Georgia Southern botanical Gardens. It’s a lovely 11 acre garden combined with a historical and cultural heritage site that was once an early 20th century farmstead where we enjoyed a farm to table dinner under a rustic pavilion decorated with the most interesting centerpieces combining plant life with candles. We were encased in a flowering world filled with the scents of night blooming flowers.
Director Carolyn Altman took us on a tour of the grounds which includes walking woodland trails, Bland Cottage, Heritage Garden, Rose Arbor, Children’s Learning Garden, Camellia Garden, Native Plant Landscape Garden, Native Azalea Collection and Bog Garden. and relayed the history of the gardens and its original caretakers, Dan and Catherine Bland
We were entertained during our meal by Ashlee and Chris Mitchell. owners of Plaid Dot Music Store. Their music was balm to a tired soul, especially their moving rendition of Me and Bobby McGee. What a way to unwind and set the mood for a totally natural experience in mostly-rural Statesboro and Vidalia.
Next morning we journeyed back in time 75 million years at the University’s Natural History Museum. Imagine coming face to face with a Mosasaur before your morning caffeine infusion. Actually he wasn’t a living breathing animal but a totally reconstructed skeleton of a beast that roamed the sea that covered Mesozoic era Georgia.
We were fed and enlightened at the same time by Director, Brent Tharp. When he had brought us into more modern times, we were allowed to roan the museum at will. Naturally I gravitated to the new Camp Lawton exhibit. For those of you who are not avid Civil War buffs, Camp Lawton was a short lived—six weeks—prison for captured Union Soldiers in 1864 until Sherman’s impending visit necessitated moving the prisoners to other camps.
Kevin Chapman, the man in charge of the excavation of Camp Lawton explained how he had been “suckered” into the project in 2009 Dr. Sue Moore suggested he do it as a theses project when he stated he needed a “very short simple subject” She assured him “There’s probably nothing there.” Over two years later he is totally adsorbed in an extensive excavation which had produced a unique window into the lives of CW POWs. A simple pipe made by one of the inmates out of a broken length of a longer pipe with a bowl constructed of melted lead, probably old musket shells, tells of a man who needed his tobacco so badly he was forced to create what we know today was very dangerous utensil to smoke. Aside from inhaling the tobacco, the lead from the bowl was hazardous, the stem made of a hard ceramic substance shows imprints where he would have bitten down on that stem hard enough to eventually erode those teeth he used to hold the pipe in his mouth. Why was it abandoned? Perhaps when he was evacuated to another prison he was not given time to return to his makeshift hovel to reclaim it. Or maybe he was one of the sad unknown dead who never left Camp Lawton.
Before I could learn more, we were yanked back to the 21st century by the need to depart for a tour of the college and a special surprise. One of the traditions of the Georgia Southern Eagles is the flyover by its famous mascot Freedom. Freedom is an American Bald Eagle who was found in Maitland Florida and a fledgling with a misshapen beak which would not have allowed him to survive in the wild. Steve Hein had to wait 12 years until 2004 to acquire Freedom but it was worth the wait. Today Freedom does a flyover before each home football game and at commencement.
To provide a fitting home for Freedom, Georgia Southern developed the Wildlife Education Center and the Lamar Q Ball, Jr. Raptor Center, over five acres featuring diverse habitats and species, an amphitheater and an indoor classroom. We visited and were treated by even more flyovers by other native and exotic bird species and then Steve asked for two volunteers to hold another wildlife species. On finding out that the creature she would handle was a Madagascar Cockroach. The female volunteer relinquished the field to fearless Doc. Lawrence, the male volunteer. Can’t say I blame her.
I was one of the next set of four volunteers, all female this time. Our project was to hold a huge Burmese python named Monty. I want to report that all of us served bravely. He is a magnificent specimen and feeling his muscles ripple as he moved in our hands was a thrill.
On a press trip, you are never far from food. It’s either breakfast, lunch, dinner or an in-between snack time. So on to lunch which was served in the pavilion. The food was almost all Georgia grown and delicious, especially the shrimp and stone ground grits. Naturally we had peach cobbler for dessert.
Our next stop was the Vidalia Onion Museum where we were greeted enthusiastically by Yumion, the Vidalia Onion Mascot. The museum explained the importance on this sweet little onion. In fact the state of Georgia considers Vidalia Onions such an important product there is even an Onion Sheriff, Bob Stafford, to be sure no one misrepresents this local product. Did you know you are subject to $10,000 fine if you try and pass off another onion as a Vidalia Onion?
To learn more of the secrets of this valuable onion, we went to M and T Farm to watch them pack it for shipment all over. I was amazed at the ones discards and too imperfect to be shipped as Vidalia Onions. I have bought other onions in many groceries that were in worse shape.
Some of these rejects are usable in processing. One of the places that does this is Vidalia Valley in Lyons. This is where salsas, jellies and hundreds of other products containing Vidalia Onions are produced. Many of them are branded for other well-known companies. This stop had us all crying our eyes out. I would like to say there was some sweet sentimental reason for the tears but in reality it was the smell of thousands of onions being peeled and cut in their kitchen. Vidalia Valley proprietors offered comfort in the way of some tasty salsas and dips. (As you might notice, press trips are very heavily food orientated)
Our next stop was for supper at Elements Bistro in Lyons. Elements Bistro is one of the best restaurants in Southeast Georgia and focuses on local products. Chef John Mark Lane provided us a seven course meal with superbly crafted dishes most of which is locally grown. We waddled back to the hotel so stuffed we could hardly move and were met with some great Hard Iced Tea.
Of course we were ready for breakfast next morning bright and early. We enjoyed our meal served in the historic Averitt Center for the Arts while many of the local providers offered us a taste of their food product and how they acquired an interest in producing it. Hunter Beef is one good example. They began just as a small grass fed beef farm and found a need to provide accommodations for the many visitors who are becoming interested in agritourism. To do this, they converted an old tobacco barn into two units and also have developed a campground for those who want to “rough it” in their own RVs. By now many of the family members have become involved in the operation.
Statesboro Main Street Farmers Market was set up just across the street so we had time to browse before we headed to the Media Marketplace to learn about a different product, the entire state of Georgia and all it has to offer a travel writer and to its many visitors as well.
Of course, when we took a lunch break it was another unique culinary experience. We dined on some of the best Flat Iron Steak I have ever tasted cooked over open fires by Troy and Cindy Reddick who offer catered chuck wagon meals.
Keep coming back here as I will be posting all about my post trips to some very interesting parts of Georgia in a few days.