By Brian Jewell
Monks, vampires, fighter pilots, farmers and rock stars — what do they have in common?
They all make their homes in central Georgia, where numerous cities and towns weave a diverse tapestry of cultures and experiences.
Stretching from Athens in the north down to Macon and beyond, Georgia’s Historic Heartland region has its share of antebellum homes, grand public buildings and museums. But this region’s appeal extends far beyond history. A wide variety of attractions and experiences make a great group tour sampler with options to satisfy a range of interests.
The largest city in the Historic Heartland region, Macon enjoys a progressive energy and a variety of attractions that range from ancient Indians to modern rock musicians.
On the outskirts of town, Ocmulgee National Monument marks the site where a number of prehistoric Indian cultures built burial and ceremonial mounds. Groups can visit a museum at the visitors center and walk into a reconstructed ceremonial mound to learn about the rituals that took place there many centuries ago.
Closer to downtown, the Hay House is a wonderful example of antebellum architecture. Built between 1845 and 1849, this seven-story home was inspired by palatial architecture in Europe and features vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows and doors, detailed wall murals and a hidden room.
Group tours visit three floors; the tour includes the large basement and the wine cellar underneath the front porch.
Rock ’n’ roll fans will enjoy a visit to the Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House. The museum tells the story of the pioneering band that lived, wrote and rehearsed in the home in the early 1970s.
“They moved in here in 1970 as an unknown band,” said curator E.J. Devokaitis. “By the time they left in 1973, they were one of the most popular bands in the country, but they had lost their two leaders in motorcycle accidents.”
The museum features lots of original instruments played by band members, as well as some of the clothes they wore, travel cases they used on tour and handwritten lyric notebooks.
A short drive east from Atlanta, the town of Conyers is home to about 12,000 people. Locals there have banded together to create an impressive war memorial that rivals the monuments of Washington, D.C.
“The Walk of Heroes Veterans War Memorial is being built in recognition of those who have served in the 20th- and 21st-century wars,” said Harriet Gattis, tourism manager for the city of Conyers. “When it is finished, it will be one of the largest veterans memorials in the country.”
The outdoor memorial is being built in phases. Today, visitors will find an impressive entryway that features a statue of five service men and women from different periods of 20th-century history supporting a large globe above their heads. From there, visitors proceed along a walkway with stones that detail the highlights of U.S. military engagements of the 20th century.
Upcoming phases of the memorial will include an on-site military museum and outdoor enclaves explaining the six major military engagements of the last century.
Another Conyers attraction, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, gives groups a look inside the fascinating lives of an order of Trappist monks, whose members have lived and worked in the area for decades. The Monastic Heritage Center at the site has museum exhibits that illustrate a day in the life of a monk from 4 a.m. prayers to evening meals.
Groups can also explore the monastery’s bonsai garden, have a meal in the cafe or join the monks for Mass in their abbey.
Continuing east from Conyers, groups will find Madison, a charming small town with a well-preserved historic square and a walkable downtown. Madison enjoys a history of wealth, and its beautiful buildings were spared from fire during Sherman’s March to the Sea.
“In the early 1800s, we were one of the most aristocratic towns in the South,” said Ellen Ianelli, director of the Madison-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There are stories about Sherman refusing to burn the town because it was too pretty. But he never passed through here, and the troops that did had a gentlemen’s agreement not to burn the town.”
As a result of this good fortune, Madison presents a largely intact picture of an antebellum Georgia town complete with several historic homes that groups can tour.
The grand dame, Heritage Hall, is a Greek Revival-style mansion built in 1811. Groups that visit the home can see an impressive collection of period furniture, hear stories about the families that lived there and see where young ladies etched their names into windowpanes to test the quality of their engagement diamonds.
Nearby, the Rogers House is an 1809 clapboard structure that gives visitors a look at the more modest lifestyle of a middle-class family that lived in Georgia in the early 19th century. Also on the property is the Rose Cottage, a small home built in 1891 by an African-American woman who was born into slavery.