Ed Grisamore

Grisamore: Wooten bringing new life to old Talmadge homeplace

McRAE -- If walls could talk, and floors and windowsills could whisper, the stories would flow from the house at Sugar Creek Plantation.

Stories about the old guard and the New Deal. Stories about dirt farmers and mudslinging. Stories about red suspenders, white supremacy and black widow spiders hiding in outhouses on the political stump.

Royalty once lived in the 12-room house on U.S. 341, a few miles south of town. The Golden Isles Parkway hasn’t always been a four-lane, running through the wiregrass and marshes to the coast.

Sugar Creek was the legendary homeplace of the Talmadge family, Georgia’s most well-known political dynasty. It was a rural palace in a patch of the Deep South where most people spent their lives within a few miles of where they were born. Many of them pulled through the Depression, fought a losing battle against the boll weevil and watched their livelihoods disappear when mechanization caused small, family farms to perish.

Although Gene Talmadge and his son, Herman, were champions of the little man, they were big-time politicians. William Anderson’s biography of Gene Talmadge is titled “The Wild Man from Sugar Creek.” He was Georgia’s governor for three terms, and he died after being elected for his record fourth. He used to claim poor farmers “ain’t got but three friends on earth -- God Almighty, Sears Roebuck and Gene Talmadge.” Herman also was governor and served four terms in the U.S. Senate.

For the common folks who were their constituents, the Talmadge homestead was never an approachable front porch. They couldn’t just show up in the yard or knock on the door without being an invited guest. Even those who got a foot inside the parlor never had full run of the house. It was always a room or two. The hallway. The kitchen.

As a child, Jim Wooten remembers those enchanted trips past Sugar Creek. He was born in Telfair County and moved to Macon with his family when he was 6. But he would come back to spend summers with relatives.

“It was a place of great mystique,” he said. “I always knew it was important, and things that mattered in our lives were taking place there.”

Jim retired as associate editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2009. He was the first newspaper reporter to cover the candidacy of Sen. Sam Nunn. He followed Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign as a staff writer for U.S. News and World Report. He was listed as one of the “100 Most Influential Georgians” by Georgia Trend magazine.

He now has something else to add to life’s portfolio.

He bought Sugar Creek Plantation in December 2011.

It’s interesting that a well-respected conservative columnist, who wrote about both policy and politics, would own the former home of Georgia’s most famous political family.

And that a man who grew up one of six children in a single parent family in Pendleton Homes, one of Macon’s first public housing projects, would have a key to the front door of the house that gave rise to two of the South’s most colorful and controversial elected officials.

Sugar Creek was built in 1937 and had fallen into disrepair for almost a decade when Jim returned to his Telfair County roots. The yard had grown so thick with vegetation the house almost could not be seen from the road.

He purchased the property with the intent of renovating the house and living there with his wife, Ann. But Ann’s health problems forced him to rethink his plans and instead make it available for meetings, weddings, receptions, parties and other social events.

“It’s a state treasure and a piece of real estate that dominated Georgia politics for 50 years,” he said. “It needed to be preserved.”

Restoration began two years ago this month. A few private events have been held there, and plenty of curious travelers have stopped when the gate is open to check on the progress. Many tell stories about wondering what it would be like to peek in the window.

Jim will open the doors to everyone Friday and Saturday as part of the annual “Peaches to Beaches” weekend. Guided tours will be available. Although the 4,500-square-foot house is not a museum, visitors will leave with a deep reverence for its place in history.

“It has a great flow. You can tell it was built by somebody in politics who had large numbers of people in the house,” Jim said.

Sometimes people’s illusions of what it will look like rises above their expectations. Sometimes it falls below.

Still, he said, it is “an important, grand place. You can go to Georgia Avenue or College Street in Macon and find grander homes. But many of the people in Telfair County back in those days lived in three- or four-room houses. Then this came along and was put in their midst.”

There was a perception that the people who lived there were larger than life. And, in many ways, they were.

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.