10 events that shaped our region

Telegraph correspondentSeptember 30, 2012 

From a trading post on former Creek Indian land to one of Georgia’s largest cities, Macon has been shaped by a number of key events. Here are 10 events that shaped Middle Georgia into the region we know today.

1. Robins Air Force Base

Georgia’s largest industrial complex got its start in the tiny town of Wellston, just south of Macon.

The country was preparing for war and saw the need for an Army Air Corps Depot in the Southeast. Middle Georgia was competing with Atlanta for the depot and won out with promises to complete the project six months earlier and at a cost savings of $1.5 million.

Construction of the depot that would eventually become Robins Air Force Base began in 1941. It would initially cover 1,500 acres, employ thousands of civilians and house about 350 officers and enlisted personnel.

The depot was called Wellston Army Air Depot, following Army regulations that dictated an installation be named after the host town. The city eventually changed its name to Warner Robins, so the facility could be named after Brig. Gen. Augustine Warner Robins.

Robins was completed in 1942 and the base’s employees spent World War II repairing thousands of aircraft and training 50,000 in aviation support.

Today, the base is one of three Air Force logistics centers in the country and plays host to a number of specialized units. More than 23,000 civilians, active duty and reservists are employed at Robins, and the base’s economic impact is in the billions.

2. Flood of 1994

The 1994 hurricane season cranked up with meteorologists tracking a poorly organized tropical depression as it made its way toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Within days, the storm would turn into Tropical Storm Alberto and wreak havoc across Georgia and parts of Alabama. The system made landfall near Destin, Fla., on July 3 and then slowly moved into Georgia, dumping nearly 24 inches of rain in the Middle Georgia area.

Rivers and lakes across the state swelled, breaking dams and levees, including the 30-foot-tall, mile-long levee running from the Otis Redding Bridge to the Industrial Park past Central City Park.

The city’s main source of water -- the former treatment plant out at Frank Amerson Water Works Park -- also was flooded, leaving nearly 160,000 people without a water supply.

Portions of Interstate 16 and Interstate 75 were underwater, as were neighborhoods surrounding downtown and the Water Works. Some residents had to be evacuated by boat.

The Ocmulgee River crested at an estimated 35 feet -- more than 17 feet above flood stage. The exact figure was never known because the water gauge was swept downstream in the deluge.

When the rain stopped four days later, 31 people in Georgia had lost their lives and more than 60,000 were forced from their homes. President Bill Clinton declared 55 Georgia counties a disaster area.

Damage to farms, businesses and infrastructure topped $800 million and it was estimated more than a million Georgians lost property, jobs or family from the disaster.

Portable toilets and water stations lined downtown for weeks as some Macon residents were without running water for as long as 19 days.

The bright spot for Macon was funding for a new water treatment plant. The Macon Water Authority received more than $95 million in federal and state disaster aid, and in 2000 the Town Creek Water Treatment Plant opened to replace the 100-year-old Riverside Drive Water Treatment Plant that failed during the 1994 flood.

3. Music industry

Macon has a long history of cranking out famous musical acts.

It’s not a stretch to say rock ’n’ roll was born here with Little Richard Penniman’s style of performing. The Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame credits Little Richard with being the architect of rock ’n’ roll with his piano playing and loud singing.

Little Richard grew up singing with his 11 siblings in local churches and went on to gain worldwide fame with hits like “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “Tutti Frutti.”

It was Little Richard’s influence that inspired later performers such as Otis Redding and James Brown. Both Redding, who grew up in Macon, and Brown, who came to Macon early in his career, gave some credit to Little Richard for their success.

Brown spent part of the 1950s hanging out in Macon with Little Richard and it was at Macon’s WIBB in 1955 that Brown recorded the early demo of “Please, Please, Please.”

Redding was on his way to becoming a star when he crossed paths with Phil Walden, who began managing his career. The two had plans to open a recording studio together when Redding was killed in a 1967 plane crash.

With help from Atlantic Records vice president Jerry Wexler, Walden, his brother Alan Walden and Frank Fenter opened Capricorn Records and set out to recruit up-and-coming Southern rock bands.

The 1970s saw a huge boost to Macon’s music legacy as Capricorn drew artists from all over the country.

The Allman Brothers Band arguably left the largest and most lasting legacy in Macon, but Capricorn also managed the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie and Elvin Bishop.

Capricorn also drew famed Rolling Stone keyboardist Chuck Leavell to town. Leavell played locally and in 1972 joined the Allman Brothers until they disbanded.

Leavell then had his own critically acclaimed band before being asked to join the Rolling Stones in 1982.

As Capricorn was closing its doors in 1979, two other men with Macon ties were on the verge of becoming the next big thing.

Bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry met in Macon as high school students and started playing music around town. In 1978, the two moved to Athens, where they met Michael Stipe and Peter Buck.

The four went on to form R.E.M. in 1980 and are credited with pioneering the alternative rock and indie-rock movements. R.E.M. was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

In recent years, Macon made news when hometown son Jason Aldean hit the big time, including being named Country Music Television’s Artist of the Year for 2012.

4. Founding of Macon

Macon has its roots in a fort built to protect our country’s new frontier.

Fort Benjamin Hawkins was the result of an 1805 treaty in which the Creek Indians ceded land all the way to the Ocmulgee River. Construction of the fort started in 1806 on a hilltop overlooking the river and the “Old Fields,” which is now the site of the Ocmulgee National Monument.

Fort Hawkins became a key trade spot and military outpost and also guarded a Creek pathway that later served as a Federal Road from Washington, D.C., to ports in the Gulf of Mexico.

Present-day Cotton Avenue is a remnant of that old road.

When subsequent treaties with the Creek ceded additional land in 1821, settlers already in the area were quick to grab up land.

Bibb County was organized in 1822 and Macon was chartered as the county seat in 1823. Early settlers had referred to the area around Fort Hawkins as “Newtown” but it was officially named Macon after North Carolina statesman Nathaniel Macon.

The city grew and thrived as a hub for the region’s cotton crop, thanks in part to shipping abilities on the Ocmulgee River and later the railroads.

Early city planners wanted a place with green, open space and the city was laid out with wide streets, squares and parks. Many of the streets were named after trees and there was an ordinance requiring residents to plant shade trees in their yards.

As agriculture changed, Macon remained a transportation hub for the region and was dubbed the “Central City.” It later diversified the economy with nearby Robins Air Force Base and a variety of industry.

The city’s humble beginnings are still visible in the reconstructed Fort Hawkins in east Macon. The original fort was decommissioned in 1828 and later burned. A partial replica of the fort was built in 1938 and additional excavations in recent years have uncovered artifacts and a second palisade. There are plans to build a visitors bureau and long-term plans to reconstruct more of the fort.

5. College town

Macon distinguished itself early as a town with institutions of higher learning.

Within years of the city’s founding, the Georgia Conference of the Methodist Church created Wesleyan College and it became the first in the nation to grant degrees to women.

Chartered as the Georgia Female College in 1836, Wesleyan set up shop on the outskirts of town in a building that is now the location of the U.S. Post Office on College Street. The school formally opened in 1839 with 90 students.

In addition to being the nation’s first women’s college, Wesleyan also was the birthplace of Greek sororities. The Adelphean Society, now known as Alpha Delta Pi, was founded in 1851 and the Philomathean Society, now known as Phi Mu, was founded in 1852.

In 1917, the college took “female” from its name and became known as Wesleyan College.

While Wesleyan has the oldest physical presence in town, Mercer University’s history dates back to 1833 when it was founded as Mercer Institute by the Georgia Baptists. The college set up in Penfield in Greene County and operated there until 1870 when the Georgia Baptist Convention voted to move the school to Macon.

The Convention chose a six-acre site adjacent to Tatnall Square and opened the new campus in 1871. By 1874, Mercer had organized a law school.

Mercer made news in 1892 when it played football in Athens against the University of Georgia in what was the state’s first college game. UGA beat Mercer 50-0.

Mercer quit competing in football in 1941 but announced in 2011 that football would return to the University in fall 2013.

Mercer, which started out with 39 students and an annual tuition of $39, has grown to more than 8,200 students and 11 schools and colleges.

Macon is on track to add a third university in 2014. Macon State College will be merging with Middle Georgia College in January 2013 to become Middle Georgia College.

The plan is to elevate the college to university status once a review process is complete.

The step is a continuation of Macon State’s growth from a junior college to a four-year institution with dormitories.

Macon State was created out of a 1965 Board of Regents’ decision to add a two-year college in the Macon area. When the school opened three years later as Macon Junior College, it had the largest charter of students in state history with an enrollment of 1,100.

The college grew steadily and in 1996 was approved to offer bachelor’s degrees and add “State” to the name. Macon State now offers 18 degree programs and 33 certification or associate’s programs.

6. Cherry Blossom Festival

Macon is more of a paint the town pink kind of place.

Since 1982, the city has played host to the Cherry Blossom Festival, which has grown from a small event to celebrate the beauty of the Yoshino cherry trees into an international one attracting an estimated 300,000 people annually.

For 10 days each spring, Macon cranks out the pink and welcomes the world.

The festival has everything from the traditional midway rides and vendors to hot air balloons, bed races, a parade, pink pancakes, concerts and free cherry ice cream.

The highlight of the festival is always the thousands of cherry trees that dot Macon’s landscape. There are approximately 300,000 Yoshinos, which far outnumbers the nearly 4,000 cherry trees on National Park Service land in Washington, D.C.

The volume of cherry trees in Macon and the festival are due in part to the efforts of Carolyn Crayton, who fell in love with the pink blooms when she moved here in the 1970s.

Macon’s Yoshino cherry trees were first discovered by William A. Fickling Sr. during a 1949 stroll in his backyard. Fickling wasn’t able to identify the tree until he saw a similar pink blossom during a 1952 trip to Washington, D.C.

Fickling began reproducing the trees and sharing them with others. Crayton stepped up efforts to share the Yoshinos in the 1970s and had Fickling agree to donate 500 trees to plant in the Wesleyan Woods part of town.

This partnership eventually led Crayton to create the Cherry Blossom Festival as a way to celebrate the trees’ beauty and honor Fickling for bringing them here.

7. Historic preservation

With more than 5,000 historic buildings, two National historic landmarks and a national monument, Macon is a gold mine of preservation.

An early adoption of repurposing buildings instead of rebuilding, and a miss of the city center by Gen. William T. Sherman’s Civil War March to the Sea are credited with saving so many of Macon’s historic buildings.

There is a dense collection of old homes and commercial buildings in the downtown Macon Historic District but the city boasts 10 other historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hay House -- one of two national historic landmarks -- is open for tours. Construction of the 24-room, 18,000-square-foot home began in 1855 and included then-revolutionary amenities such as hot and cold running water, central heat, a speaker system, a ventilation system and an attached kitchen.

The other landmark is the privately owned Raines-Carmichael House, which sits at the corner of College Street and Georgia Avenue. Built in 1848, the home is noted for a freestanding staircase in the rotunda and inventive architecture that allowed for maximum ventilation in the lower level rooms.

Other historic highlights include the Cannonball House, Sidney Lanier Cottage, Douglass Theatre, Federated Garden Club Center, Woodruff House, the 1842 Inn, Rose Hill Cemetery and Historic Riverside Cemetery.

8. Interstate system

Macon was almost bypassed by what has been called the “Greatest Public Works Project in History.”

It was 1963 and plans were being made for part of the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways to come through the area. The original plan had Interstate 75 going from Forsyth to Perry, but local officials persisted in securing right of way through Macon.

Construction on I-75 through Macon took eight years and was piggybacked by the addition of Interstate 475 and Interstate 16.

I-16 is one of a handful of interstates located entirely within a state. It was built in stages between 1966 and 1978 to ease the transport of goods and supplies between the Port of Savannah and I-75.

The Macon portion of I-16 was completed in 1968 and replaced the need to travel along U.S. 80, which passed through several towns.

Before I-75, travelers coming through Georgia had to take U.S. 41 from Atlanta to Barnesville and then pick up U.S. 341.

9. The Medical Center of Central Georgia

Macon’s first hospital opened in the mid-1840s in an eight-room home.

Within 50 years, local residents began the process of incorporating the hospital and raising money to improve its accommodations.

Dr. Olin H. Weaver organized the newly incorporated hospital as its first administrator and doctor and officially opened the Macon Hospital in 1885 along with seven other staff members. The facility served a population of 22,000 and had room for four private and 16 ward patients.

The city of Macon took over the hospital in 1915, and in 1968 ownership was transferred to the Macon-Bibb County Hospital Authority, which still owns the hospital.

The facility was renamed The Medical Center of Central Georgia in 1971 and remains a not-for-profit facility.

The Medical Center, now the state’s second- largest hospital, has grown to a 637-bed acute care hospital with a Level 1 trauma designation, one of only five in the state. The facility now serves nearly 750,000 with approximately 4,600 employees and 590 doctors.

The Medical Center is the primary teaching hospital for the Mercer University School of Medicine and provides residency and fellowships to more than 100 residents.

In 2011, the hospital spent nearly $24 million on its charitable care.

10. Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter

The state-owned Georgia National Fairground and Agricenter grew out of efforts to promote the state and its agribusiness.

The 628-acre facility opened in 1990 and was the official site of the Georgia National Fair. Since that time, the site has nearly doubled to more than 1,100 acres and includes five show arenas, four exhibit halls, two 480-stall horse barns, four ponds, a midway and parking for more than 15,000.

In addition to the Georgia National Fair, the state also annually sponsors the Georgia National Junior Livestock Show and the Georgia National Rodeo.

However, the fairgrounds host more than 200 other events each year, including concerts, meetings, conferences, trade shows, sporting events, graduations and other livestock and animal shows.

Since its 1990 opening, the fairgrounds has hosted more than 5,000 events. This has led to nearly 17 million visitors and an economic impact of more than $1 billion.

The Telegraph is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service