LEAH, Ga. - There is a tree called "Mr. Oak," a deer named Elvis and enough warm memories to fill a dozen books.
"We use the word 'rustic' a lot out here," said Karen Peake, the business manager of the Fort Gordon Recreation Area, where Augusta's military and their families have played for almost half a century.
The 906-acre park once bustled with daily crowds bused back and forth from the nearby military base. There was a non-commissioned officers' club, a lodge, swimming and boating, campgrounds - even a huge mess hall and a popular children's camp.
"Back in past years, the buses ran all day," Ms. Peake said. "They even had a fleet of 30 rental boats."
Over time, the buses ceased operating. The boats were retired one by one and not replaced. The barracks once needed to house enough employees to manage the weekend crowds were transformed into motel rooms rented to visitors.
"In its heyday there was a huge staff," Ms. Peake said. "Today it is quieter. We have a lot more retired people who use the area than the young soldiers."
The popular recreation area is snuggled along the jagged peninsulas of Thurmond Lake. The land - part of the Army Corps of Engineers' hydropower project - is leased to the Army.
"It was originally a training site - used for training exercises as well as recreation," said Jim Parker, a Corps spokesman.
The Corps' first permit was issued to Fort Gordon for use of the site Jan. 13, 1954, and the site opened in July 1955.
It has been a recreation area ever since, following other early vacation spots including Modoc Park and Mistletoe State Park, both listed as having been open as early as 1951.
Today, Fort Gordon Recreation Area remains one of the area's most popular and well-maintained parks. The rental cabins are paneled with pungent new pine, and the swimming beaches have newly renovated restrooms and showers.
Standing guard over the swimming beach is Mr. Oak, a century-old tree well-known to generations of young visitors.
"He's the guardian of the beach," Ms. Peake said.
There are also human lifeguards.
"The cabins are one of the most popular things out here," Ms. Peake said. The recent renovations bumped the nightly rental fee from $55 to $65. "But we added cable TV."
One of the traditions at the recreation area was Pine Camp, a children's camp where military families sent their children for a week at a time. Although it is now closed, many Augustans can remember stays at the camp.
Today, the area includes plenty of campsites, a modern marina and a lodge complete with calamine lotion, fishing tackle and all the staples of lake life.
There are also plenty of deer.
"There is one we call Elvis," Ms. Peake said. "He's a big buck with enough points that someone would go after him, but you really have to be on your toes to even see him."
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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