Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why am I Driving a Tank?

Blue Ridge, Georgia is one of those rarified small town American gems. It's a girlfriend getaway retreat, an artsy haven including galleries, antique and specialty shops and restaurants where chefs take pride in serving local produce. Yet the mountain town has a casual feel where you're just as likely to run into fly fishermen and campers or a family coming off the scenic railroad trip.
Roadside view driving into Blue Ridge, GA

Six miles outside of Blue Ridge sits Tank Town USA. It isn’t a town, but a new attraction. It doesn’t look like one of those either. We missed it the first time we drove by.

Street View of Tank Town
Tank Town USA has no street appeal. There’s a sign but you’re likely to miss that, too. It’s downright basic. Tank Town USA is just a big field of Georgia red clay with mounds and dips, a little tent, and a bunch of heavy equipment. Like something under construction.

But the company website entices, "If you can drive a car then you can drive a tank! All of our tanks come originally equipped from the military with automatic transmissions, and the steering controls are simple and easy to operate. Aside from the fact that they are made of thick steel armored plating, have tracks instead of wheels and weigh over 33,000 pounds it's just like driving a car!"

Ready to roll.
Now this sounded exactly like an adventure the Good Girls would love. And why not?  We can deconstruct our travel writing personas and become dirty girls who dig demolition. Right? 

We met owner Todd Leibross, an engineer in the Merchant Marine, who just happens to love tanks and military equipment. He purchased the tanks, officially known as armored personnel carriers, in England and had them shipped to Georgia.  Todd is a true entrepreneur- he seems to have found a clever method to make extra money.  People pay him to drive a tank over an old car and then Todd sells the crushed vehicle to the scrap dealer.  In the process, folks have a ball - and create a great story they happily tell.

View from above.
After arriving and meeting Todd, Judy and I filled out the usual release forms, and then I lowered myself through the FV432 tank's hatch into the driver's compartment. Wow- sorta felt like I'd been dropped into a scene from the movie Stripes and was momentarily overcome by the oil and diesel fumes. I would drive from a standing position with my head looking over the hood of the tank. Todd positioned himself behind me in the vehicle commander's hatch, in order to feed me instructions.

Judy was stationed as the lookout on top, a perfect perch to shoot from if she'd had a gun.  No weapons on this model, however.

Serious Tank Driving

I slipped the rumbling engine in gear (Todd had previously turned it on), pressed down on the accelerator and we were started making tank tracks- albeit at a slow pace. A nine-foot wide and 17-foot length vehicle isn't made for drag racing, you know.

"Pull back on the left stick to turn left or the right stick to turn right," said Todd. That seemed intuitively easy and it was. The odd part was that the tank turned from the center, very different from turning the tires on a car.  In no time I had the hang of things, driving up and down banked earthen mounds around a free-form course, and getting a little bolder with speed.  I was having a blast.  Honestly, controlling a massive tank is a daggone power trip.  Let your inner GI Joe out.

"Are you ready to drive over a car," asked Todd? 

"Sure," I said.  In this case, Judy had to get off - to prevent any possible accidents from flying debris. 

Crushing the car video

So, it was just Todd and me and my 33,000 pounds of military might. I slowly maneuvered the tank's right side tread to line up with the middle of the car.  "Proceed very slowly," Todd coached, and my manly machine squeaked, rattled and jostled along.  I drove over, yes, over the top of the previously smashed car, crushing it even more. Yee-gads, that was frickin' awesome. 

Would you like to try that from a different direction," Todd asked? 

"Absolutely," I responded and this time I drove across the car.  I tell you tank cruising could become addictive.  I felt macho, like the Terminator or the opposite of Private Benjamin who begged to quit the military. I could drive this thing for hours.

Actually the cost to drive at Tank Town might prevent that-- it costs $50 for ten minutes.  Todd said most folks end up driving for 20 minutes because they really get into the thrill. To crush a fresh car costs $499.

Todd claims he has been surprised by the number of women wanting to drive, as well as entire multi-generation families. But take me, for example. I'm a grandmother of seven and would have loved to have my grandkids watch. And my sons would have begged for the chance.

From a different perspective, an 88-year-old WWII Veteran recently showed up.  The guy was overcome with emotion from the opportunity to once again drive a tank.  Who knew the possibilities? 

Driving at Tank Town USA is perhaps the ultimate thing to do for someone who has done it all. I see it as putting an end to gift giving woes. Imagine all those difficult people on your list who could receive gift certificates.

All I can say is, "I love my job and tanks for the memories." 

Judy gets a different view sitting on top of the tank.

Judy and her view from above

Really wanted to drive that hill-climbin’, car-crushin’ tank, but having carefully nursed a recently broken foot this far, I climbed the ladder up to the tank’s top, took one look at the driver’s “hole” and reconsidered. Getting in would be a snap; getting out not so much.

“I’ll take the chair,” I told Todd.

The chair didn’t look particularly sturdy but its legs were securely attached to the tank and there was a competition lap belt to keep me tethered to the seat. Camera in hand, I took my place, sticking out like a sore – and disappointed – thumb.

I could watch Debi manipulate the controls but the engine’s roar crushed any other sound. Then we lurched forward. It may not have felt that way inside but atop, “lurch” is what it did.

Like a honkin’ big, tread-traveling mechanical elephant. I’ve ridden elephants. First, a mile or so trek atop an unadorned Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey behemoth where I was positioned like a showgirl with my legs behind the beast’s ears. More recently in a howdah atop an elephant in Thailand.

Riding atop a tank is very much like sitting in that howdah, a neck-snapping, lurching, uncomfortable experience. A litigious sort would be crying “Whiplash.”

I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, but next time, let me at those sticks.

Todd Liebross, owner of Tank Town

Tank Town USA is open from April to Thanksgiving, on weekends and during the week by appointment.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Oak Hill, Martha Berry and her college

Martha Berry when presented at the Court of St. James. Photo © Debi Lander.
We were first attracted to Georgia's Rome because of its Southern version of Paul Revere (more about him later), but our attention was captured by Martha Berry, her home, museum and the schools she founded to educate the rural poor.

That her older sister became a globe-trotting, art-collecting Italian princess didn't hurt. You wouldn't expect less of the offspring of Thomas Berry who had been a lieutenant in the Mexican War, a Forty-niner in the California gold rush, married the daughter Alabama's richest man and was a captain in the Confederacy, after which he moved the family from Alabama to Rome to become a plantation owner and partner in a wholesale grocery and cotton brokerage.

Their home Oak Hill was filled with children, eight of their own plus the three orphaned by Mrs. Berry's younger sister's death.

Berry College and its wealthy supporters

Boys Industrial School
Martha adored her father and followed him on horseback as he rode his lands, checking on tenants and collecting rents. She saw first-hand the poverty of the area. What began as Sunday school stories told to area children in her log cabin playhouse turned into a school for boys and a separate one for girls, a two-year college and finally, in 1926, Berry College, a four-year institution where students worked for their tuition and graduated debt-free. In those days, only students from poor rural areas were admitted.

Berry College today. Photo © by Judy Wells.
She put them all on 83 acres across the road from Oak Hill, part of the inheritance from her father. Apparently as astute financially as he, she amassed more acreage as an investment for the college which now has the largest campus in the world, more than 27,000 acres where the deer outnumber the 2,000 or so students.

The Berry children had been reared as American aristocrats; their parents' wealthy northern friends would make annual visits to Rome and Oak Hill so they grew up with the country's elite.

Contacts Martha made good use of with a college to support. Henry Ford donated several buildings and President Theodore Roosevelt put the school on the national educational map when he visited in 1910. Presidents Harding and F.D. Roosevelt were also "collected" by Martha whose good friend Emily Vanderbilt Hammond visited at least annually through 1963 when she was 92.

Martha's desk. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Ever the diplomat, Martha had two pictures for her desk. If expecting a potential Northern donor, Grant's portrait came out; if a Southerner, Lee's. 

Martha at her desk. Photo © Debi Lander.

Berry College. Photo © by Judy Wells.
The college's stone buildings are expansive and impressive and the campus "grounds" - if you can call 27,000 acres by so mundane a term - are spectacular and open to the public. In addition to the college there's a dairy farm, stable (riding can be scheduled), two disc golf courses, two foster homes, elementary through middle schools, a couples' retreat center and camp for kids. 

It's well worth the drive through to catch glimpses of the 20 miles of walking trails and the vistas across the Appalachian foot hills between hardwoods and the long leaf pines Martha was instrumental in reintroducing. Wild turkeys are about as flighty as backyard chickens and the deer all but ask for treats. A fairly recent tornado took out 5,000 trees but you'd never know it.

The Old Mill. Photo © Debi Lander.
Do take the road to see the Old Mill, one of Rome's top attractions.  At 42 feet it's the world's second largest and tallest overshot wooden water mill if that means anything to you. Enjoy it for its idyllic setting and quaintness, but you'd do well to avoid the first Monday in October. That's the only day in the year when the mill actually works and it's also Mountain Day when Berry alums and supporters gather. Expect a traffic jam.

Oak Hill. Photo by Judy Wells.

Oak Hill

A winding road flanked by mature oak trees makes the arrival at Oak Hill a dramatic one. The striking white Greek revival mansion looms large but welcoming atop - what else? - a hill. Built in 1884 to replace the Victorian home that had burned, the interior of Oak Hill was totally remodeled in 1927, adding bathrooms, central heating, rearranging rooms and updating the kitchen.

The elevator. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Martha had developed a heart problem and an elevator was installed, a gift from from Berry alumna. It would get stuck so Martha asked for a chair, a light and a book to be added.

Dining room. Photo © by Judy Wells.
The house was truly a home and shows personal touches. Berry students, for example, made the dining room furniture; the coverlet on Martha's bed was made by her mother.
Martha's favorite room; coverlet made by her mother. Photo © by Judy Wells.

There is a portrait of Martha's African-American servant, Aunt Martha Freeman, supposedly the only person who could tell Martha what to do.

Princess Eugenia. Photo © Debi Lander.
Many of the furnishings are particularly fine. Martha's older sister, a wealthy widow, became Princess Eugenia Ruspoli when she married Italian Prince Enrico Ruspoli (17 years her junior) in 1901. With her money they purchased Castle Nemi near Rome from the Orsini family. Eugenia became a collector of good European furniture and art. She continued living in the castle after Ruspoli's death in 1909, but was able to get herself, her adopted daughter and the best of her collections to the U.S. before World War II erupted. The collections went to Martha for safe keeping and are now, like Oak Hill, part of Berry College.

Federalist mirror. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Chippendale, Federalist, Italian, Colonial, Berry student work all fits together and it takes a sharp eye to distinguish the extraordinary.

Outside the Colonial revival garden beckons. Walks, sunken gardens and ponds tempt visitors to explore and linger.

Bridal Walk, where Martha invited just married Berry students to make a wish at the wishing well in the gazebo. Photos © Debi Lander.

Garden photos © by Debi Lander.
It's a recovery in progress, says Oak Hill Director Tim Brown who hopes one day to have the lower garden cleared and pristine again.

Martha liked spires. Photo © by Judy Wells.
When I asked about the little white building with the cupola on top, Brown told me it was just a storage shed.

"Martha liked spires," he explained.

Martha's cars. Photo © Debi Lander.
There's also a garage with Martha's carriages and cars.














 Martha Berry Museum

Photo © Debi Lander.

Frieseke portrait. Photo © Debi Lander.
More of Princess Eugenia's art collection is on display at the Martha Berry Museum as are more of Martha's personal mementos and memorabilia as well as historical documents and accoutrements from the college.

Don't miss the art. There are some excellent Italian pieces and American portraits, plus Impressionist Frederick Carl Frieseke's painting of his daughter.
Some of Princess Eugenia's furniture. Photo by Judy Wells.

Deja vu

Oak Hill from the back. Photo © Debi Lander.
If, while you are wandering around the campus and Oak Hill, parts of it seem somehow familiar, it might be because scenes from the films Remember the Titans and Sweet Home Alabama were filmed here.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

When in Rome...Georgia that is

Shortly after we arrived in Rome- a place in Georgia one hour from Atlanta -  we learned that the city incorporates seven hills and three rivers, just like its namesake. How cool is that?
Peaceful Civil War Graves at Myrtle Hill Cemetery

We were hungry and drove downtown for lunch at the Partridge Restaurant. The dining establishment is one of Georgia's oldest in operation and has been serving customers in Rome since 1933. Our Sunday dinner was a bountiful spread of fried chicken, ham, turkey and all the trimmings, plus other southern specialties, all served family style. Yum.
Family Style Dining at the Partridge House
We then began our tour with Anne Culpepper, a lifelong Roman and knowledgeable guide. I must admit it took me a few minutes to begin to think of local residents as Romans.

Statue of the Capitoline Wolf
Photo @ Debi Lander
Our first stop was the steps of City Hall to see the statue of the Capitoline Wolf with Romulus and Remus, a copy of the statue in Rome, Italy. In fact, the statue was a gift to the city from Dictator, Benito Mussolini in 1929.  Anne told us many residents at the time found the bronze shocking and would often drape it with cloth.   

Myrtle Hill Cemetery

Myrtle Hill Angel
Photo @ Debi Lander

On to Myrtle Hill Cemetery, one of those cemeteries ranking as a tourist site with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Myrtle Hill, established in 1857, is really a combination art gallery, history museum and botanical garden in one.

Confederate Memorial
@ Debi Lander
The centerpiece is the Veterans Plaza with a tomb of America's Known Soldier, Charles Graves, who was chosen for burial along with the unknown soldiers at the tomb in Arlington National Cemetery. However, his mother wanted him brought home to Rome. She won.

There are also a number of other statues: a bronze replica of a WWI "Doughboy," a monument erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy and another believed to be the first to honor the role of women in war.

The cemetery is strewn over steep hills and six terraces including more than 350 Civil War soldiers, both Confederate and Union. In all, there are more than 20,000 graves.  I found Myrtle Hill a peaceful place with many beautiful angel monuments, interesting markers and a large mausoleum and fabulous view at the top of the hill.
Vista from top of Myrtle Hill Cemetery. Photo © by Judy Wells.

There is one headstone belonging to an "unknown" Confederate soldier where an oak tree has grown around it. Chris Cannon, Director of  Rome's Convention and Visitor's Bureau, told me it is the most photographed grave in all 32 acres.
Unknown Confederate Tombstone and Tree

There's another grave and intriguing sports story, but we are saving that for later.

Free Apps

Myrtle Hill Cemetery has its own mobile App tour available free at You can also find one for Georgia's Rome through the App Store.  Pretty neat!

We spent the rest of the afternoon at Berry College and Martha Berry's home, Oak Hill, which we will cover in an upcoming post. 

The Claremont House

The Claremont House B & B in Rome, GA
Photo @ Debi Lander

Back in town we had just enough time for a short break at a lovely (and Rome's only) Bed and Breakfast- the Claremont House.  This grand Victorian Gothic house was built in 1882 and includes 14-foot ceilings, 11 fireplaces, reproduction wallpaper and Victorian antiques. The immense home is surrounded by lovely gardens.  No wonder many brides choose to have their receptions here.

Guest Bedroom - Claremont House
My spacious bedroom felt feminine, with the most enormous bed; is there such a thing as an over-sized King?  Each of four guest suites in the B & B has a private bath, coffee service and sitting area. The hallway contains a snack table and assortment of drinks (alcoholic and non), just in case you get the midnight munchies. 

Outside Brewhouse in downtown, which with 95% occupancy, is the envy of other towns and cities. Photo © by Judy Wells.
For dinner we chose to dine at the Brewhouse Grill downtown on Broad Street (no chain restaurant there) and enjoyed their live music by sitting outside. That way we were able to easily converse. After many meals, it must have been time to order a burger, because I did and truly enjoyed it--along with a beer!


Rome's Clocktower

After dinner I was driven up to  Rome's famous 100-foot tall clocktower, unfortunately just a little too late for the perfect photo. The sun had gone down, but I still managed to get a decent shot of the panoramic vista.  The clocktower (formerly a water tower) is an easy 107-step climb and the base includes murals about Rome's history. 
View of Rome, Georgia from the Clocktower
Photo @ Debi Lander

We did not have time to visit the Chieftains Museum (also closed on Sundays), the former home of Cherokee leader Major Ridge.

Breakfast the next morning was a scrumptious seated meal served by the B & B owners, Holly and Chris McHagge. After sleeping in hotels, staying in a B & B was a delightful change, especially one as posh as the Claremont House.
Breakfast at the Claremont House

And then, we were off again. Arrivederci, Roma. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Visit to Hills and Dales Estate in LaGrange

Hills & Dales and a play in LaGrange

Hills and Dales Estate in LaGrange, Georgia
Photo @Debi Lander

While we found crowds in Callaway Gardens, we encountered peaceful, serene landscapes at the Hills & Dales Estate, former home of Fuller Callaway and his wife Ida.  Oh, what a hidden gem!  The Hills and Dales homestead is tucked away in LaGrange, Georgia, some sixty miles southwest of Atlanta.

As always, we started with the short movie in the lovely the visitor center (never seen such elegant bathrooms in a visitor center) and then took the shuttle instead of walking to the three-story family home and formal gardens. With Judy's foot issues and July heat, that was a no-brainer.  

Boxwood PlantingsPhoto courtesy of Hills & Dales Estate
Actually the gardens pre-date the Callaways.  First came Sarah Ferrell who developed the plot from 1841-1903.  Her formal boxwood garden covered six terraces- former cotton fields. She designed plantings to reflect her religious beliefs and boxwoods at the entrance still spell out the word GOD, as she had planned. Sarah opened her gardens to the public and they were so lovely that even during the Civil War, Union soldiers who came to LaGrange left them alone.

The smell of boxwood is pleasing to me. If I had a spare million, I'd have a formal garden with lots of boxwood-- and, of course, a gardener to tend to the plants! To meander through Hills and Dales acreage is a delightful way to spend time.  Unfortunately, the Good Girls always have a packed itinerary, so sitting and relaxing was out of the question.

The Sun Ray Garden
@Debi Lander

Inside the Greenhouse
@Debi Lander

We did step into the greenhouse and saw the colorful ray garden, a much newer addition on the side.

In 1916 Fuller Callaway, who had known Sarah Ferrell, purchased the land and decided to build on the hilltop, the site where the Ferrell had been. This entrepreneur turned textile magnate had grand plans: his 13,000 square foot Italian villa features a bold two-story entrance portico, sweeping double staircases, many carved stone and marble fireplaces, vaulted ceilings and fabulous views of the gardens. Take the tour and see this fascinating home.

Entrance Portico
Photo @Debi Lander

Side Gardens and Estate House
Photo @Debi Lander
Fuller's wife, Ida, took over caring for the gardens adding fountains and statuary. When she and Fuller died, Fuller, Jr. and his wife, Alice, moved into Hills and Dales. Alice worked for over 62 years on the gardens adding the pool, ray and herb gardens and ornamental plants. When Alice passed away in 1998, the estate was bequeathed to the Callaway Foundation.  Now the home as well as the garden is open to the public.

Sun room Dining - Hills & Dales
@Debi Lander

Plan to spend about half a day here including a gift shop that will surely please anyone into horticulture. 
Boxwood Gardens and Fountain - Hills & Dales
@ Debi Lander

Delicious LaGrange

Lafayette Square
Photo @Debi Lander

Our visit to LaGrange also included an early morning stop at Lafayette Square, one of the most beautiful town squares I have encountered. General Lafayette traveled in this area after the Revolutionary War in 1825. He said it reminded him of his home in France; hence the name LaGrange comes from the name of his country estate. 

Taste of Lemon Salad Platter
Photo @Debi Lander

Dining in the Taste of Lemon

Exterior of Restaurant, now a Taste of Lemon
We had lunch at the 1892 Victorian Gothic former church now called Taste of Lemon.  I chose a salad medley which included broccoli salad, carrot/raisin combo, pasta salad, tuna salad, chicken curry, deviled egg and a lime Jell-O mold that I grew up called Under the Sea Salad.  All was yummy.

We also drove around the thriving campus of LaGrange College, the oldest private college in Georgia, and shopped in a few antique and boutique clothing shops. Later, we finished our evening with a dinner theater performance of Big River, by the Lafayette Society of Performing Arts  cast, largely high school students.  The dinner theater is a bring-your-own-affair; really a picnic style meal with many purchasing carry out from downtown restaurants (ours from Venucci was scrumptious. Thank you Laura Jennings). Some had pizza or homemade goodies along with the option to bring your own bottle of wine.  What a terrific idea and way to spend a Saturday night.

The next morning we feasted on breakfast skillets at Gus's Grill, a local's favorite across the street from the government center and courthouse. Then, we were off to see Georgia's Rome.

Shopping in lovely LaGrange
I'm sure Lafayette would agree: La Grange c'est magnifique.