Documentary unveils history of displaced small-town residents when SRS was created

Filmaker George Wingard takes time to smile with former Hawthorne residents George Heath and Henry Brown with fellow filmmaker Patrick Hayes after their documentary Reconstructing Hawthorne was unveiled Saturday.

The headline atop the Augusta Chronicle’s front page on November 29, 1950 read, “$260,000,000 H-Bomb facilities will be constructed in S.C. near Augusta.” The Savannah River Plant was on its way in, and the area’s small town residents were on their way out.

 

Henry Brown and George Heath joined filmmakers George Wingard and Patrick Hayes at The Hills Baptist Church in Augusta on Saturday to reminisce about Hawthorne and childhood memories of a town dismantled for the fight against the Soviet Union in the Cold War’s early days.

The filmmakers’ documentary, Reconstructing Hawthorne, highlights the trip home for the two former residents of one of those small towns and the memories that accompanied them. The finished film was unveiled as friends and family gathered to see Brown and Heath’s birthplace on screen in what resembled a family reunion.

The filmmakers work at Savannah River Site, once called the Savannah River Plant. As members of the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, they are charged with recording and protecting the human history and culture of the site.

The decision to build SRS in parts of Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties was made in 1950, and according to the film, all the 7,000 residents spread across the 310 square mile site were gone by 1952. Their homes, stores, and even outhouses were demolished out of fear the Russians might hide in them to spy on the site’s activities.

The film highlights the plights of the racial divide. Most of the white families in the area were landowners and most of the black families were tenant farmers or daily wage workers. The government paid the landowners for the property, but the non-landowners were forced to leave with little more than the clothes on their backs, according to the film.

Brown and Heath were childhood friends and Brown lived in a house owned by Heath’s families. The documentary focuses on their journey together back to the area they were born in. The pair told stories about the post office and the masonic lodge, which were the same building.

One of the Archaeological Research Program’s members created a minute long 3D rendering of the area and its buildings using photographic maps and building photos from the government property surveys as SRS moved in.

Heath and Brown talked the guests through the presentation created by BJ Clifford, and a few shared childhood stories from the seemingly forgotten town. The documentarians noted difficulties they had in reconstructing the community whose population was estimated to be around 100 people when the news arrived in 1950.

After the film, Heath said, “It’s an honor to be a part of history and I’m glad I got to play a role in that.”

The film won the “Crowd Favorite” award at the Arkhaios Film Festival in Hilton Head Island last December. The filmmakers said public screenings will begin soon.

Reach Thomas Gardiner at (706) 823-3339 or thomas.gardiner@augustachronicle.com.

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