There is no “fort” in Fort Valley. If you believe local lore, the town’s original name, Fox Valley, was a victim of either sloppy handwriting or poor eyesight.
When the post office was established in 1825, and the paperwork sent to Washington, a slanted and illegible “x” was mistaken for an “r” and a “t.” So, you could blame it on the folks in Washington, who never have been able to see straight anyway.
Nevertheless, the valley survived and the fox came back dead. Long live the fort.
If Christine Evans Murray could have had her way, she would have painted the town and called it Art Valley.
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She grew up with a self-taught passion for drawing, but a deep sense of regret she never had the opportunity to take lessons and learn the fine points.
She moved to St. Louis in 1929 with her husband, where he saved a bank from going under during the Depression. There, she furthered her education at Eden Theological Seminary.
When her husband retired, the Murrays returned to Fort Valley. They renovated her grandmother’s house and turned it into a showcase. She furnished it with English antiques she bought at auctions after World War II.
“When you stepped into her home,” said a friend of the family, “you stepped into a different era.”
Murray often would look around at her hometown palette — a place rich in colorful characters, beautiful old homes, picturesque peach orchards and pecan groves and rows of bright, yellow school buses parked at the Blue Bird plant on the edge of town.
She had an artist’s eye but not a trained one. She lamented her childhood, the emptiness of someone to guide her brush strokes.
With no children of her own, she was determined to reach out to the young people in the community. She began offering free art lessons to children on Saturday mornings. She did the best she could with what she had.
Classes were held in a tiny tenant house that was moved to from her family’s property to an alley across from the county jail, located behind what is now the BB&T Bank on North Camellia Boulevard.
The house had no indoor plumbing and more spider webs than a haunted house at Halloween. But Murray pushed on with her dream. Along with Jewel Bird McMinn, she organized the Jailhouse Alley Art Center 50 years ago this fall.
Murray longed for someone to teach her so she, in turn, could teach the children more than just the fundamentals of art. In life, we are either the student or the teacher. And sometimes we are both.
She noticed an article in the local newspaper, The Leader-Tribune, about a new family in town. The story mentioned that Dodi Lovett, whose husband had joined the staff at the First Baptist Church, was an art teacher.
“When Miss Christine came to see me, I was in blue jeans with my hair in curlers and a mop over one shoulder,” Lovett said, laughing.
Murray was dressed, as always, like a prim and proper Southern lady. She was big on grammar and social graces.
“She had called ahead to make sure I was home, but it never occurred to me I should dress for afternoon tea,” Lovett said. “She told me she had grown up in Fort Valley and had wanted to learn to draw and nobody could help her with that. She had made a pledge when she became an adult that no child would have to ask for art lessons.”
Lovett taught four days a week in the back of an apartment on Everett Square. Murray took weekly lessons from her, then continued teaching children on Saturday mornings.
Soon, the Jailhouse Alley association evolved into group of women artists. Lovett first taught them in charcoal, then pen and ink. They later advanced to other mediums, such as watercolor, acrylic and oil.
“There was a building in Jailhouse Alley where the sheriff used to live downstairs and the jail was upstairs,” she said. “It was unoccupied, and the county let us use it for art classes. We had a kiln and potter’s wheel and mat cutting equipment.”
The original tenant house was damaged by a tornado in 1975 and eventually torn down.
In 1972, the JAAC held its first art show and printed its first calendar. Now, both have become annual traditions. Since 1984, the association also has awarded the Christine Evans Murray Memorial Scholarship to a deserving senior art student from Peach County High School.
Although the group has dwindled in number from 70 to about 14 artists, it meets every Thursday in the home economics room at the old high school.
The artists represent six counties. Longtime members Betty Cleveland, Caroline Tilley, Margaret Mathews and others represent artists from all walks of life – from retired teachers to former flight attendants.
Ernestine “Ernie” Stofko-Dikon, who has an art studio in Bolingbroke, has been the group’s teacher for more than 30 years. Member emeritus Marion Page continued to paint into her 90s and made the 60-mile round trip from Byromville every week. She celebrated her 100th birthday last month in a nursing home in Statesboro.
On Nov. 4, the Jailhouse Alley artists will celebrate the 50th year with a show and sale in the social hall at the Fort Valley United Methodist Church from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. It is free and open to the public. My wife and I have been going regularly for many years.
As part of the anniversary celebration, a bronze plaque in founder Murray’s memory will be placed in the Everett Square Park next spring.
Lovett, who now lives in Centerville, Tennessee, still teaches art lessons. She plans to attend the art show and said she is not surprised the Jailhouse Alley is still an important part of the community a half-century later.
“It’s a unique group of ladies who don’t compete with each other but enjoy each other and are complimentary and support each other,” she said. “I’ve belonged to art groups where there was competition and politics, and those groups have not lasted. Groups like this are fun. They go to lunch together. If somebody paints something or gets an award, the others applaud. It’s a different spirit.”
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.