Waycross, Georgia is a small city of fewer than 20,000 people that sits near the northeastern corner of the Okefenokee Swamp. Like many small Southern towns and cities, Waycross has undertaken a downtown facelift of its Main Street area. Main Streets throughout the South fell into disrepair through decentralization of shopping areas and the advent of the big-box retailer. Waycross is presently making a big effort to reclaim its Main Street as a historic district, repurposing old hotels into office and residential buildings and revamping City Hall and an old train depot into useful and visually engaging structures.
Waycross has only been known as Waycross for the last 75 years. Prior to this the city was known as Number Nine, Pendleton, and Tebeauville. In 1935, Tebeauville was renamed “Way Cross,” a far more descriptive and elliptical moniker than it had previously enjoyed. It is the birthplace of Burt Reynolds, Gram Parsons, the first woman horse diver, and the guy who founded Red Lobster. It is the closest city to the Okefenokee Swamp, which is the area’s main tourist attraction.
Downtown Waycross was empty on a Monday afternoon as we started a walking tour of downtown. An old movie palace turned community theatre advertised “Barefoot in the Park,” and around the corner another old cinema called the Lyric advertised nothing; it was boarded up. Down the street from the theatre, a curious window display caught my eye. It featured a wheel-less red convertible Chevy from whose rear-view mirror hung a yellowed pair of fuzzy dice. Placed in the car–standing up–was a genderless, porcelain-colored mannequin on whose head someone had sloppily placed a black, bowl-cut female wig. The wig was askew and was longer on one side than on the other. The mannequin wore a black leather jacket that had been buttoned up to the neck and this, along with the longish hair and the fuzzy dice, seemed to be a celebration of dare-deviltry of a mid-century sort.
In the western corner of the window display, a black-draped table held something that looked to be a stuffed cloth fish puppet. Upon closer inspection, the fish turned out to be an alligator. The item appeared to have little to do with the car/mannequin combination, and the care taken in arranging the display was puzzling. On the way into town, though, we’d driven by a small ball park that was “Home of the Gators,” so that explained the puppet, although it was unclear how the sports and theatrical items were connected.
The next window down was a dance studio that advertised baton-twirling lessons. Baton-twirling is a cultural tradition in the South, and Waycross produces some champion teams as evidenced by colorful posters with peachy-looking young women and their batons. Waycross is also very involved with local sports, to the point that their entire Visitor Center is a monument to past athletic achievement on the local playing fields. Inside the Center is a sports hall of fame that relives the great high-school battles between one Bulldog team and another, and where you will find memorabilia in the form of photos, uniforms, balls, jackets, letters…and a sideline display of old suitcases and a few glass bottles of Coke to remind you that you are in what once was Waycross’s railroad station. We startled the receptionist when we entered, and later we were to learn that she had been derelict in her duty and had not informed us of one of Waycross’s major tourist activities: trainspotting. Just outside the rear of the Center is the old boarding platform, which is accessible and open to the public and which is advertised as a great place to indulge this hobby.
We later realized that there was much we missed. Although we spent the day exploring the city and the swamp, we returned home to learn that we had bypassed the best Waycross has to offer:
—The Okefenokee Heritage Center, which had Native American dioramas and an old steam locomotive.
—Obediah’s Okefenok, home of swamp pioneer Henry “Obediah” Barber.
—Southern Forest World Museum, “..home to “Stucky,” the hunting dog made famous after it was found mummified in a hollow tree.” (Note: display apparently includes both mummy dog and tree.)
–A tile mural wall on the SunTrust bank building, featuring crops and livestock.
—Rice Yard, the largest of nine classifications yard on the CSX Transportation network.
We feel very strongly that we missed the best parts, so Mr. B. and I have decided to offer group tours that will include all of the above plus an introductory baton-twirling lesson and a swamp potato dinner. The tours are roundtrip from Gainesville, Florida and are limited to five to six guests. Our guides have over thirty years of experience in event coordination and have spotless driving records in half of the continental United States. We offer two-, three-day and week-long tours beginning at $750.00 per person. This attractive fee covers all meals, lodging, tips, and taxes. Alcoholic beverages are not included. Please contact me for details.
Suggested reading: www.swampgeorgia.com, a beautifully designed Web site from the Waycross Tourism Bureau and Visitor Center, the same folks who mounted the high school sports display in the train station. I defy you not to want to visit Waycross after seeing this attractive and engaging site.
www.waycrossga.com, the official City Web site. Here, you will learn that the new traffic signal at Memorial Station is finally functioning and that a recent minor sewer spill has been cleaned up.
Waycross, Ga: Death of a City, a pessimistic blog written by three locals that delves deep into decay, crime, and governmental corruption.
Confederate Memorial, across from the Visitor Center.
A Yankee captures a Confederate cannon. It wasn’t much of a battle.
City Hall on the left.
Mr. B. in front of the theatre marquee. It is Mr. B’s goal to have a theatre of his own, at which he can mount original productions, including one which we have in development called “Playing the Plaza,” a modern tale about urban redevelopment.
The puzzling window display on Pendleton Street. Does it celebrate pep rallies of days gone by or reckless drag-racing and other hoodlum behavior (as well as local sports)? No, some research reveals that it is connected to the Waycross Area Community Theatre (WACT), the same artistic enterprise that produced “Barefoot in the Park.” Was this storefront display left over from a production of “Grease”? Go greased lightning! (“Grease” was performed at the WACT in the winter of 2009.)
Glass brick facade at KD’s Cafe. Wednesday lunch special of spicy spaghetti with salad and bread.
The large building on the right is the derelict Hotel Ware, built in 1929 and now destined to be an apartment complex. Below, a hotel postcard and a closer view of its upper reaches.
A sad sign of the downtown abandonment. I bet The Fashion Shoppe was a style hotspot in its day. I imagine it full of vivid prom gowns and ladylike suits to be worn to the local tearoom for lunch.
Main Street Cities are part of a program of urban revitalization. See more at the Main Street National Trust for Historic Preservation. I like downtown banners, but I want a different slogan. Keeping in mind Waycross’s ample pride in its local athletics, I suggest the deceptively simple “Way to go, Waycross!,” a slogan that also takes into account the slowness of the planned redevelopment. The logo could be a juxtaposition of the old Hotel Ware as it is envisioned in the future and the alligator mascot seen above.
The busiest street downtown. This will look great when completely revitalized. Farmers, bankers, and railroad men alike will sit down for a cafe lunch to share news and gossip, ladies will get their permanents at the retro salon, kids will ride bikes without helmets, and we can all forget about the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. I’m all for it!
The vacant Lyric Theatre. Someone has used his or her creative streak to match the pink of the marquee to the boards on windows. It provided a cheerful touch of color. The masks of drama cartouche is visible between the roof and the marquee. At one point in time, tiny Waycross had three movie theatres: the Lyric, the Carver, and the Ritz.
The former Phoenix Hotel, now facelifted into an office building. Mr. B. insisted it was still a hotel. “There was a girl at the desk inside who looked as if she thought we were going to come in and spend the night,” he said. “She was beckoning you,” I answered.
How’s this for fun? I took this photo of a photo inside the Visitor Center, from a board that showcased local functions.
Rah, rah, sis-boom-bah! Sports memorabilia wasn’t confined to the Visitor Center. Some appeared in the windows of vacant stores.
The Waycross High Bulldogs won four state and seven regional titles. The high school merged with the Ware County school system in 1994 and the team is now known as the Ware County Gators. The Bulldog legacy lives on, however, in its artifacts.