“There were two worlds. Inside the cabin Uncle Remus and the little boy lived in an imaginary world peopled by their friends, the animals of the old man’s stories. Outside of the cabin was the large cotton plantation, the world of reality.”
The Uncle Remus Museum takes you back to the South’s pre-Civil War era of the early 1860’s. The warn cabin floors, the smell of heart pine wood and aged books, and the rustic southern antiques hanging delicately on the walls immerses you into the times of Turnwold Plantation. The long hot days in the cotton fields were followed by cool cozy nights by the blazing fire in the cabins. At the end of a long day on the plantation, the southern blacks gathered closely on the dusty cabin floors enriching the air with African spirituals and heritage fables. In the middle of the cabin, you would find a red-haired, freckle-faced young man sitting and listening intently by the glow of the fire as he gets lost in an imaginary world of a mischievous rabbit and furry critters.
The young man, Joel Chandler Harris, spent his days writing for the Turnwold Plantation’s news publication, The Countryman, as a “printer’s devil” or apprentice. At night, he spent time in the cabins with the plantation slaves listening to their stories and fables of their heritage. Joseph A. Turner, the plantation owner, mentored Harris with his studies and writing and cared for him like the “daddy he never had.” Turner set Harris on a successful career path, and after his time at The Countryman he went on to write for the Macon Telegraph, the Monroe Advertiser, the Savannah Morning News and the Atlanta Constitution. The first article that Harris got published in The Countryman was a recipe for making black ink. It wasn’t until Harris’s career at the Atlanta Constitution many years later that he began to publish stories about Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and the rest of the critters.
Joel Chandler Harris established Eatonton-Putnam’s historical significance after he went on to publish the fables that he gathered from his old, lovable slave friends. Harris used the name “Uncle Remus” to identify the personification of a large number of slaves from whom he heard the folk stories. Eatonton-Putnam preserves its heritage of the old plantation stories with the Uncle Remus Museum. Inside the museum, you will find original copies of Joel Chandler Harris’s news publications, Br’er Rabbit stories, paintings of Turnwold plantation and shadow boxes filled with the hand-carved characters of the Br’er Rabbit fables. This year, The Uncle Remus Museum of Eatonton, GA Inc., is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the museum’s operation in order to honor its growth, international recognition and historical importance of Eatonton’s heritage.
Beginning on April 7, the Uncle Remus Museum will be offering “Return to Turnwold” tours every Sunday in April. The tours will be led by Jim Marshall, President of the Eatonton-Putnam County Historical Society. Marshall says that he is “delighted to have the honor of participating in this tribute to Harris, the Uncle Remus Museum and the culture which it makes come alive through its museum collections, the presentation of folk stories and Mr. Turner’s role in preserving them.” During this time, local businesses are encouraged to permanently incorporate the “Welcome to Briar Patch” theme into their marketing. “Branding” the community will not only help with tourism, but also preserve the community’s heritage and culture.
This celebration symbolizes Eatonton’s appreciation and preservation of its heritage. For some communities, heritage slowly becomes a thing of the past as time moves forward; a forgotten memory lost in the dust. People get caught up in adapting their communities to the current tourist trends – five star hotels, extravagant events, celebrity residences – and sometimes lose sight of what’s important; their own unique origins. Amidst the fast-paced changing economy, the people of Eatonton-Putnam have worked hard to maintain their heritage. They have focused on authenticity and embraced their historical foundation. As always, the true story is the one worth telling.
The community-wide adoption of “Welcome to the Briar Patch” will strengthen Eatonton-Putnam’s heritage tourism. According to the Historic Preservation Division of Georgia, heritage tourism protects historic, cultural and natural resources in towns and cities by involving people in their community. “One of the results of the current economy is the increased importance of heritage tourism. People are choosing to stay closer to home and spend less, yet they still crave something new and different. Heritage tourism allows them unique, meaningful experiences at bargain prices. It’s a perfect fit for the ‘new normal’ economy, as well as the eternal quest for transformative experiences.” (Judy L Randall, CEO, Randall Travel Marketing, Inc.)
The Eatonton-Putnam Chamber of Commerce is promoting the anniversary celebration. “The Uncle Remus Museum is the jewel that sets Eatonton apart from our neighboring communities and any small town; and we are lucky to have the Briar Patch,” says Tourism Manager Bonnie Simmons. As the designated marketing organization, one of the Chamber’s strategic goals is to “Support Tourism.” Cooperative advertising, brochure distribution, visitor directions and itinerary building for group tours all help to promote Eatonton as a top tourist destination and Uncle Remus is often the main attraction.
Mona Betzel, chairman on the Uncle Remus Museum Board of Directors, is enthusiastic about the upcoming tours as well. “Uncle Remus Museum is delighted the Chamber has chosen to feature our museum, Turnwold, and our upcoming 50th anniversary. The museum has been a large part of Eatonton and Putnam County for a very long time. In fact, it has been the policy of the Uncle Remus Museum to promote our community and its many features since it opened for business in April 1963; we have been an unofficial welcome center, tourist information center and chamber of commerce before these agencies were formalized into their own entities – and we look forward to many more years promoting our community.”
This celebration will highlight the growth that the museum has experienced. Tourists from all 50 states have come to Eatonton to see the historical foundations of Br’er Rabbit. Furthermore, tourists from over 14 different countries have visited as well. Ms. Georgia Smith, one of the museum docents and local residents, has come across tourists from Europe, Japan, Korea, the Middle East, Russia and Australia. Many of them have kept in contact by sending her Br’er Rabbit books and stories from their country and in their language, and Ms. Georgia proudly displays these items in a glass showcase in the museum.
The level of tourism in a community is largely defined by its heritage: what story they have to tell and how well they embrace it. Joel Chandler Harris crafted Eatonton’s heritage with his legends of the old plantation. His Uncle Remus stories ignite the imagination to create an essence of what makes Putnam County distinct. This celebration is not only for recognizing the growth of the museum, but also for coming together as a community to take pride in what makes Eatonton-Putnam County unique.
This was reprinted with permission from the Eatonton tourism department and author Chelsea Gruber.