The largest state east of the Mississippi River, Georgia has a land mass of about 57,000 square miles, much of it rural. Picturesque small towns, mountains, rivers, and forests, as well as 64 state parks and historical sites, ensure people can enjoy spectacular scenery and unique points of interest throughout the state. My goal this year is to get out there, visit Georgia’s back roads, and discover its hidden gems. First up is a day trip south to Juliette and surrounding areas. Here are some highlights if you would like to drive this 200-mile loop excursion!
From Fayette County, head southeast to Griffin on GA 16. If you need some footwear, your first stop might be The Sock Shoppe, just off GA 16 in Griffin. The store first opened in 1936 and third-generation family members still sell socks and other merchandise at good prices. Back on GA 16, cross over I-75 to the town of Jackson, home of Lake Jackson and nearby Indian Springs State Park. In Jackson, take GA 42/23 south toward Juliette. Here you might catch a mouth-watering whiff of barbecue or Brunswick stew as you pass the famous Fresh Air Bar-B-Cue, open since 1929. Bear left toward Macon on GA 23/87 and follow signs to Juliette.
The quaint town of Juliette is really a movie set, situated on the Ocmulgee River in Monroe County. It is the home of the Whistle Stop Café, where key scenes were filmed for the popular 1991 movie, Fried Green Tomatoes. Once a thriving town that featured a train depot, cotton mill, and one of the world’s largest water-powered grist mills, Juliette declined in the late 1950s when the mills closed and merchants began to shut their businesses. In 1991, movie producers re-imagined the neglected buildings of Juliette into the fictional town of Whistle Stop for the movie.
After the filming of Fried Green Tomatoes concluded, the movie sets remained as a tourist destination, with the Whistle Stop Café becoming a fully-operational eatery. Here you can order the delicious and ever-popular fried green tomato sandwich and then wander through the charming shops along McCrackin Street. Bike lovers will want to save time to stop at the Old Mill Museum in the former grist mill to view classic motorcycles, with a particular emphasis on Harley Davidson motorcycles.
Other points of interest near Juliette include the Jarrell Plantation Historic Site on Juliette Road. Owned by the Jarrell family for more than 140 years, the Jarrell Plantation was started in 1847 by John Fitz Jarrell as a cotton plantation. Before the Civil War, the 600 acres were tended by 39 slaves. The plantation survived General Sherman’s advance south and, after the war, the family increased its holdings to 1,000 acres. Former slaves continued to farm the land for a time. After his death, John Jarrell’s son, Dick, raised his family of 12 children on the plantation and diversified the family interests. He added a cotton gin, saw mill, sugar cane press, grist mill, and much more. In 1974, the buildings were donated to the Georgia State Parks system. This historical site is an example of authentic farming buildings from the 1800s and the 1900s.
After visiting the Jarrell Plantation Historic Site, you can drive through or stop to fish or hike at the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, one of more than 550 national wildlife refuges in the United States, and a valuable ecosystem for the management of wildlife. Partly due to over-farming, Georgia’s vast forests were cleared in the 1800s to plant cotton. Over the years, the land lost its soil fertility, and the lack of trees encouraged serious soil erosion. After the Great Depression, much of the land was abandoned by farmers, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service began restoring the site. The Piedmont site was established in 1939 to restore eroded and over-farmed lands to their former condition, and to encourage wildlife to return to the area.
Back on the road, take GA 23/87 south past Lake Juliette and then GA 18 west to Forsyth. Stop on the square for a view of the impressive Monroe County courthouse. Georgia is known for its 132 courthouses listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Only Texas has more courthouses than Georgia! Usually the most prominent and imposing building in each town, Georgia courthouses are treasures that are falling into disrepair. Many communities are engaging in efforts to preserve these important landmarks. Continue your drive west on GA 18/41 to Barnesville to view another of Georgia’s historic courthouses.
From Barnesville, go south on GA 36 and you will pass Rock Ranch, a 1,500-acre working cattle ranch, founded by the late Truett Cathy of Chick-fil-A. The Rock Ranch is a destination unto itself for a day trip, especially if you have children. It boasts more than 35 rides and attractions, and an array of seasonal festivals and entertainment, so you will want to carve out many hours to explore Rock Ranch.
After enjoying the Ranch’s fun, continue on GA 36 to Thomaston and then take GA 74 northwest toward home. You can make a quick side-trip on GA 18 to Woodbury. (This is not the Woodbury of The Walking Dead fame – that would be Senoia!) Woodbury is a charming small town that will be of special interest to antique and junk shoppers. Enjoy a delicious meal at the Black Bird Café, housed in a vintage, exposed-brick building with stamped ceilings and wonderful artwork.
As you head north from Woodbury on GA 74/85, look for signs for the Red Oak Covered Bridge and make this your last stop. Built in the 1840s by noted bridge builder, engineering genius, and freed slave, Horace King, the bridge is the longest wooden bridge in Georgia, and you can drive (slowly) over its bumpy, wooden expanse! For more ideas on Georgia back roads to explore, visit exploregeorgia.org.