The travel brochures at the Ocmulgee National Monument used to brag that “people have been coming here for centuries.”
Yes, there were signs of civilization long before they paved the driveway leading from Emery Highway and built a staircase up the side of the Great Temple Mound.
There is evidence of human habitation going back some 17,000 years -- way before Facebook posts -- from the days of the Ice Age hunters.
We may have a new consolidated government in Macon, but the Earth Lodge dates back more than 1,000 years and is considered one of the earliest council chambers in North America.
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Guy LaChine hasn’t been coming to work at Ocmulgee for centuries, even though some days must have felt that way. This has been his home since 1989, and he’s been in Macon for 24 of the 37 years he has been with the National Park Service.
Friday is his last day. LaChine (rhymes with machine) is retiring after serving as both chief ranger and chief of operations.
He may be leaving, but it will never leave him. It has been on-the-job learning every day.
His lifelong love of history was the reason he became a park ranger. He grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., with the Great Smoky Mountains in his backyard. The Smokies stretch across more than a half-million acres and attract 9 million visitors annually, making it the most popular national park in the U.S.
Every summer, the LaChine family would take vacations to national parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. His father was a member of the Kiwanis Club. LaChine would go with him to the civic club’s popular “Travelogue” series at the Knoxville Auditorium. He was fascinated.
He majored in history at Hanover College in Indiana and thought he might like to teach. Instead of grading papers, he opted for the outdoor classroom of the National Park Service. The more than 400 sites include national parks, battlefields, monuments, historic sites, military parks, trails, recreation areas, lake and seashores and scenic rivers.
In 1975, he sent out some 50 applications for a summer job as a park ranger. Two offers came back. The first opportunity was at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park in Chalmette, La., site of the Battle of New Orleans. He settled on Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island.
“I thought I was going to the beach,” he said, laughing.
He drove across the Marshes of Glynn made famous by poet Sidney Lanier and was charmed by the island’s majestic oaks draped in Spanish moss. By the end of the summer, he had become an expert on the battles of Bloody Marsh and Gully Hole Creek.
LaChine began full-time with the park service in January 1978. He spent three years at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, which has more than 1,400 monuments and historical markers to commemorate the first major battle of the Civil War fought in Georgia.
He later was a ranger at the De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton, Fla., and Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, one of the famous “iron plantations” of eastern Pennsylvania.
After going through a divorce, LaChine returned to Georgia to be close to his children. The road led to the banks of the Ocmulgee River, along the fall line, where he put down roots in the shadows of the flat-topped, ceremonial mounds.
He was impressed with the park’s architectural and historical significance to Native American heritage. The skilled construction of the earthworks and the sophistication of the Mississippian culture was amazing.
It was designated as a national park in 1936 and was the first site east of the Mississippi to be recognized by the National Park Service as a “traditional cultural property.” The archaeological excavations in the 1930s were the largest ever in Georgia and among the most extensive in the country.
LaChine figures he has left footprints across most of the park’s 702 acres during his ranger days. It is almost mind-boggling to take inventory of the diverse wildlife, despite the close proximity to an urban area. If it runs, crawls, slithers, flies or swims, chances are it’s lurking out there somewhere.
LaChine said wearing a ranger’s uniform may make him an “authority figure” but it has never been an “ego” trip.
“It can never be about you,” he said. “It’s about the people who come to the park, what they are looking for and how you can provide it.”
He met and married his second wife, Toni, in Macon. He even jokes that he courted her on the Great Temple Mound.
The spiritual aspect of the Ocmulgee National Monument has become meaningful to him.
It was, is and always will be a sacred place.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.