Ed Wong remembers the fun he had playing on Wrightsboro Road on warm summer nights when he was a youngster in the 1940s.
"I still remember we would play until midnight in the summertime," said Mr. Wong, who lived in the back of his parents' Chinese grocery store in the predominantly black neighborhood in Augusta's Bethlehem district.
Now a retired electrical systems engineer who lives in Sunnyvale, Calif., Mr. Wong also remembers the sounds of steam-engine trains day and night, the glow of kerosene lamps and the mud.
"Wrightsboro Road was unpaved, and after every rain the streets would be so gutted that when the clay dried, the cars couldn't go over it," he said. "So after every rain, this grader would come by and grade the streets."
|One of Webster's definitions for a road calls it a "way made for traveling between places."|
But one important element is left out of this sterile description: A road is also home to people, places and neighborhoods.
The Augusta Chronicle will look at some of these people, places and neighborhoods in a series on important thoroughfares in the Augusta area. This month, we take a look at Wrightsboro Road, a 38.5-mile stretch that winds through Richmond, Columbia and McDuffie counties. We will profile Whiskey Road in Aiken County in November and Washington Road in December.
If you wish to comment about the series or suggest other roads to profile, mail your response to: Roads, c/o The Augusta Chronicle Newsroom, P.O. Box 1928, Augusta, GA 30903-1928. Or e-mail us at newsroom@ augustachronicle.com. Please include your name, address and telephone number.
Wrightsboro Road - which stretches from one of Augusta's poorest neighborhoods to some of the most expensive real estate in Richmond and rural Columbia and McDuffie counties - is one of the oldest roads in the Augusta area. It is also one of the most important, having encouraged the settlement of the Piedmont area in the late 1700s.
The road got its name from the vanished Quaker settlement of Wrightsborough, 38.5 miles away in McDuffie County.
When the Quakers settled Wrightsborough in 1768, no direct roads led eastward to Augusta. Then, in 1769, colonial Gov. James Wright's council approved construction of the road from Augusta to Wrightsborough. It was built along an old Indian trail, said Augusta State University historian Edward J. Cashin Jr.
The original Wrightsboro Road cut across the Hill area along what is now Battle Row and McDowell Street, Dr. Cashin said.
TODAY'S WRIGHTSBORO Road begins at Ninth Street in Augusta near its intersection with Twiggs Street. Until around the early 20th century, this section was called Turknett Springs Road for the spring two miles west that once supplied Augusta's water, said Erik Montgomery, the executive director of Historic Augusta.
Along the mile stretch from Ninth Street to R.A. Dent Boulevard at the railroad tracks, abandoned and dilapidated houses alternate with a few neat, well-kept homes and gardens.
There are four churches on this part of Wrightsboro, five if you count Tremont Temple Baptist, which faces 11th Street. The United House of Prayer for All People, guarded by four imposing lion statues, dominates the 1200 block.
Mount Calvary Baptist Church, with its huge white cross, sits on the other side of the street, next to the old brick church where world-renowned opera star Jessye Norman sang as a young girl.
Hosea L. Johnson Sr. and his wife, Willie Mae Chandler, live in a rented house next door to the old church.
Mr. Johnson has lived on Wrightsboro Road for most of his 75 years, having moved there as a little boy in 1932.
"In those days, Wrightsboro Road was dirt or clay streets until they asphalted it," he said. "And the House of Prayer was an old wooden building with sawdust on the ground. It was right there where it is now. Bishop C.E. Grace was the bishop. I'd go up there and play in the band and shout."
In those days, the neighborhood was quiet and beautiful. Wagons loaded with cotton would pass on the way to the mill, he said.
"And everything in Mill Street and Forest Street, (on) all these streets here there was beautiful people," he said. "Quiet. There wasn't no breaking and entering. You could leave your doors open. Everybody was neighborly, and a lot of them was schoolteachers and principals and so forth of the time.
"It was a wonderful place to live until the later years came, and people moved in and out. A lot of the older heads passed away and let the houses go down to nothing.
"There's some pretty decent people yet here on Wrightsboro Road, but every now and then a lot of these old hoodlums and dope addicts are running around here. But they done slowed down a whole lots now. It's some 60 percent better than it was here five or 10 years ago."
IN SEGREGATED AUGUSTA, the Bethlehem area was home to the black middle class. It was a closed community until the bus lines were extended into the neighborhood in the 1940s, said Horace Dawson, the director of the Ralph Bunch National Center at Howard University.
Dr. Dawson delivered groceries for Mr. Wong's parents' store in the 1930s and taught Mr. Wong's brother Ted to speak and write English. Mr. Wong, who was known in the neighborhood as "Baby Jack," and the Dawson family were reunited after a coincidence at an art exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in 1994.
Mr. Wong's artist wife, Florence, had visited her husband's boyhood neighborhood in Augusta and was fascinated with the faces and places in the old photographs she collected, including one of Dr. Dawson as a youth, which she got from his old girlfriend Alma Cade. She used the images on a silk screen made from rice sacks, and her work was chosen for the Imagining Families: Images and Voices exhibition at the Smithsonian.
During one of Mrs. Wong's presentations, someone in the audience recognized Dr. Dawson's name and photograph and told Mrs. Wong he was living in Washington. Mr. Wong telephoned Dr. Dawson and reconnected with the Dawson family.
When Mr. Wong visited Augusta in 1992, the close-knit neighborhood of his boyhood was gone, replaced by vacant lots and abandoned houses.
"The last time I was there, the man who ran our store, Woodrow Moore, was still running the West End Cafe, which was two doors down from our store," he said. "I went to see him in there, and he had a pistol on his side. And I said, 'Do you need that?' And he said, 'Oh, yes, if I didn't have this, I wouldn't feel safe.' But when I was there, it was a very family-oriented neighborhood. We had great times."
FROM THE RAILROAD tracks at R.A. Dent Boulevard westward to Augusta Mall, factories such as the Sweetheart Cup Co., businesses, hospitals and professional offices alternate with small houses built in the early 20th century.
The Sweetheart Cup factory sits on land where an Italianate mansion once existed in the center of what was the community of Harrisonville in 1800s. The house was once owned by James Gardner, the publisher of the Augusta Constitutionalist newspaper, according to Mr. Montgomery.
Farther up the street sits the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, built in 1913 to be the Catholic girls' school Mount St. Joseph, said Dr. Helen Callahan, a retired Augusta State University history professor.
The school was renovated into the Lenwood Hotel, which went bankrupt and was sold to the federal government, becoming part of the Veterans Administration after 1930, according to Dr. Callahan's book Summerville, a Pictorial History.
During World War I, the Wrightsboro Road area around what is now Daniel Field airport was Camp Hancock. Many of the troops were from Pennsylvania and Ohio, and after the war, a large portion of the campsite became a residential area with streets named after the troops' home states, according to Dr. Callahan's and A. Ray Rowland's book Yesterday's Augusta.
Past Daniel Field airport near the Augusta State University Athletic Complex once existed large outcroppings of sedimentary rocks known locally as Arkosic sandstone, according to Michael C. White, the author of Down Rae's Creek.
The landmark has been known as "The Rocks" since late colonial times. Naturalist William Bartram spent a night beneath the sheltering cliffs when a severe thunderstorm delayed his journey into Augusta in 1773, Mr. White says in his book.
Most of the sandstone was mined out in the early 20th century. At Dr. Cashin's urging, a large boulder has been set near the trees beside a parking lot at the Augusta State complex so people interested in the rock formation can see it, Mr. White says.
PAST THE ATHLETIC complex, traffic picks up and peaks between the entrances to Augusta Mall, once the site of a dairy farm. The mall is built in an area known as Bay Springs, and water from the springs still flows on mall property, according to Mr. White.
The mall, which opened in 1978, helped change the face of downtown Augusta and Wrightsboro Road as businesses and customers flocked to the commercial strip that brings in millions of dollars a year in sales and property taxes to Richmond County.
The route of Wrightsboro Road in the mall area has changed from the original Indian trading path as it dips under Bobby Jones Expressway and into the fringes of Richmond County.
A mile and a half past the expressway, area residents come and go all day, parking along the road and filling containers with water from the historic Flowing Wells spring a few feet off the road.
In Columbia County, Wrightsboro Road cuts through Grovetown in a route that bypassed an older road in a 1950s construction project. Old Wrightsboro Road passed the railroad depot, torn down in 1972, and turned into the center of Grovetown on what is now Robinson Avenue near the town's museum and cemetery, according to historian Charles Lord.
The original Wrightsboro Road did not go through Grovetown, which was called Pepper Hill on an 1865 map, but passed north of the area.
West of Grovetown, the road passes the old Central community, which has experienced a rebirth in recent years with Euchee Creek Library, Euchee Creek Elementary School and Bessie Thomas Senior Center.
The historic McGruder House in Central is remarkable for its pre-Civil War cemetery and windmill at the northeast corner of Wrightsboro and Louisville roads. About 3.5 miles west is what was once the community of Cerlastae, in the area of Pumpkin Center, a crossroads store at U.S. Highway 221 and Wrightsboro Road, also known as Georgia Highway 223.
HOMER CARPENTER, 74, cooks and runs the Georgia Lottery computer from 3 to 11 p.m. at Pumpkin Center. His father, R.L. "Babe" Carpenter, opened a store at Pumpkin Center east of the present store in the 1930s.
"He moved that store up the road in the '30s with a team of mules and sleds and old logs," Mr. Carpenter said. "It was just an old country store. All your candy, you know, and things. Stuff like that for kids, you know.
"There was a blacksmith shop across the road. Mr. Streetman run it. He was a good one. He could shoe your mule and build that plow, any way you wanted it."
Here is Mr. Carpenter's version of how Pumpkin Center got its name:
"A woman from North Carolina stopped at my daddy's store one day. She got out and stretched and said, 'Where am I at?' Ollie Streetman said, 'See that pumpkin patch over there? You're in the middle of Pumpkin Center."'
Until the 1950s, there was nothing but dairy farms on Wrightsboro Road from White Oak Road to Grovetown, Mr. Carpenter said.
Then the dairies went away.
"All of that went out," he said. "It's no more. It's all these fandangle things, you know. Like the bomb plant and Plant Vogtle. Now that's where all the people went then."
Now there are only woods, fields, homes, and an occasional church or store.
Living was better in those days, Mr. Carpenter said.
"There wasn't all this meanness going on. People was more friendly and everything. You could get some help. You can lay there now and die. They ain't studying about you. No way."
Wrightsboro Road remained a dirt road up until sometime in the 1940s - "I forget what year," he said.
"Dirty, dusty," he added. "I had a Model T Ford. You hit a sand bed out there, that thing'll throw you, boy."
Mr. Carpenter's sister Louise and her husband, D.B. Moore Sr., built the next Pumpkin Center store at the corner where the present store sits and moved in Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he said.
The Moores ran the store until the 1970s, when they were robbed and tied up under a shed out back. After that, they sold it.
THE PASTORAL SCENERY along Wrightsboro Road continues into McDuffie County interspersed with old farmhouses, new homes and trailers. This is horse country, with rolling pastures and deep woods.
To follow the original Wrightsboro Road, one must turn right onto White Oak Road 5.3 miles from Pumpkin Center, go about a mile past White Oak Campground and turn left on Stagecoach Road, which was originally Wrightsboro Road but was mistakenly renamed because it was a stagecoach route, according to McDuffie County resident Dorothy Jones, the projects manager for the Wrightsboro Foundation Inc.
Mrs. Jones laments the latter-day changes to names of McDuffie County creeks and roads.
"That's a shame because as Wrightsborough becomes more nationally known as a historic site, and people come here to research their ancestors, it's hard for them to find places because the names have been changed in areas," she said.
Stagecoach Road continues on to cross U.S. Highway 78 just north of Thomson and regains its original name a mile from what is left of the old Quaker town of Wrightsborough. The road now known as Wrightsboro Road in Thomson is not the original road, even though a sign at its beginning near the Bi-Lo supermarket labels it as such.
The Quakers had been assessed an extra surtax during the Revolutionary War because their religion forbade them to bear arms. After the war, when slavery became a vital part of the cotton economy, they left Wrightsborough. The town continued to prosper until civic leaders refused to allow the railroad to come there in the 1830s. Postal service was discontinued in 1868, and the town's cotton gin burned in 1920.
None of the original Quaker buildings still stands in Wrightsboro, but the paths of the old streets are still discernible through the woods. Except for a little passing traffic, singing birds and crickets, it is quiet.
|Television station WJBF senior reporter George Eskola reports on the lighter side of life on Wrightsboro Road in his "Out There Somewhere" segment during the 6 p.m. Friday newscast.|
"VERY QUIET," said Regena Hawes Hall, who moved back to her ancestral home in Wrightsborough after a divorce three years ago.
Mrs. Hall grew up in the 200-year-old house and lived there until she was 34, then moved to Wrens Road in McDuffie County.
Four generations of her family have lived in what is known as the Holliman-Hawes house. Her father was born there in 1891.
The house had no electricity until she was 5 years old and no telephone until she was about 12.
"I don't know what year the road was paved, but it was awful before," she said. "I remember how dusty it was in the summer. When people went by, your furniture would be covered."
The weathered store her father and grandfather ran remains next to her house.
While rummaging through some old papers recently, Mrs. Hall's son, John McBrayer, found a 1950 newspaper article outlining plans by the McDuffie Board of Trade to revitalize Wrightsborough by giving away lots. Apparently, nothing ever came of it.
But the last traces of the town have been preserved and mapped through the efforts of people such as Mrs. Jones and the late Pearl Baker, who began the documentation of the Quaker settlement. They and a few members of the historic Methodist Church at Wrightsboro formed the Wrightsboro Foundation Inc., a historic preservation organization.
The church, on the site of a Quaker meeting house thought to have burned, was built around 1810 and became the property of the Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1877. It is now owned by McDuffie County.
In the churchyard lie the remains of Quakers in unmarked graves, Revolutionary War and Civil War veterans and ancestors of some of the oldest and most prominent Georgia families.
WRIGHTSBORO ROAD continues through the town and crosses Ridge Road where an old inn once stood. The pavement ends, and it becomes a dirt road very much as it was when it was laid out 232 years ago.
"Over the years, the only thing I knew about Wrightsborough was that my grandfather drove the stagecoach along the Wrightsboro Road," Mrs. Jones said. "I had no idea where Wrightsborough was even though I grew up in McDuffie County."
Near the road's end around Georgia Highway 80, Mrs. Jones marvels at the beauty of the surrounding woods and summer wildflowers growing at the edge of the road.
"I'm always amazed when I come down through here, the overhanging boughs and high banks," she said. "This is how it must have been when the Quakers were here."
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.