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Loran Smith Columnist

Published Saturday, January 28, 2012

Recalling the heyday of U.S. 301

SYLVANIA, Ga. – The county seat of Screven has a familiar feature that dominates so many small towns today. Survival is sometimes an unending challenge for many of its inhabitants.

Business seldom booms in Georgia's small towns. Few can remember when a new business hung out a shingle; nonetheless, the communities seem to survive. They worry about having enough rain when crops emerge in the spring, fuss about the taxes they have to pay, and wonder why we can't replace the incumbents in Washington -- shaking their heads and laughing at the "not-so-funny" negative redundancy of politicians in an election year.

When locals here reflect back to good times, they recall the heyday of U.S. 301, which was a main thoroughfare for Northern tourists who passed through on the way to Florida for vacation. There were plentiful motels from Allendale, S.C., just across the Savannah River, all the way to the Florida line with "No Vacancy" signs at season's peak. Restaurants were always crowded.

"As a boy," Don Sheppard said, "we used to ride out late in the day and look at all the car tags, counting how many different states were represented in our little town on that particular day."

He often thought how exciting it would be to go to Massachusetts. Or Connecticut. Or Pennsylvania.

Even today, people often walk through the local cemetery and see names they don't recognize on tombstones. After asking around, somebody will say, "Don't you remember that big wreck out on 301 in 1958?" Somebody passing through east Georgia would get killed in a car wreck and, for whatever reasons, wound up being buried in one of the towns along Highway 301.

With the coming of Interstate 95, all the 301 tourist activity changed. Northern tourists could travel by Interstate -- from Delaware, where 301 began, to Sarasota, where it ended -- and to other Florida destinations on a fast track. In addition, they didn't have to worry about getting a speeding ticket in Ludowici, whose deputies would not only nab you for going a couple of miles over the speed limit, they made it impossible for you to get through the town without running a red light.

Incidentally, what took place in Ludowici so incensed former Gov. Lester Maddox that he had billboards erected, at the state's expense, warning tourists not to drive through the town. The story goes that the police rigged up a connection to the traffic light and had an officer sit in the second floor window of a building. When he spotted a "Yankee" approaching, he would wait until the traveler was almost in the intersection and hit a switch which made the light turn from green to red, no caution, in an instant. You can imagine the image that gave our state.

Reminiscing with Don Sheppard; his dad, Donnie; and his friends Don Jamerson and Austin Blackburn after a recent quail hunt was as much fun as the hunt itself. Don's son, Donald, and his daughter, Lovey, were the best shots; but they hung back to allow their guests to have first crack when their Brittany, Baxley, flushed the quail.

Lovey, a slap-shot hitting artist in softball, always gets her limit during dove season. She has several deer mounts on the wall, and this scene played out several times on a cool, crisp January morning: A quail thunders up, the first volley of shots miss, and the quail flanks in flight away from the rest of the hunters. Lovey takes careful aim, just before the quail is out of range. The fleeting quail suddenly plummets to the ground.

A versatile senior at Screven County High, Lovey has qualified for early admission to the University of Georgia with plans to enroll in pharmacy school.

My guess is that she will be like her brother, Donald, who, after earning a law degree, returned to Sylvania to practice law. Coming from a very close family, Lovey would like nothing better than to return home after college, find work in her hometown, and hunt and fish at every opportunity. You have to appreciate that kind of hometown thinking.

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