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Fitzgerald, Georgia 31750

Surprising Past

By Tom Seegmueller

It often takes the passing of generations for the wounds of war to heal, if they ever can.

Ironically, in the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” nine miles from the site where Jefferson Davis was captured by Union Calvary and “Forget Hell” bumper stickers can still be seen, combatants of the Civil War did so in their own lifetime. This was possible due to the foresight and tenacity of Philander H. Fitzgerald of Indianapolis, Indiana, who had served in the Union Army as a drummer boy.

Following the war, Fitzgerald was appointed by the governor of Indiana to serve as a pension attorney representing Union veterans. He was also an astute businessman and investor which led to his purchase of the Veteran’s Review, a newspaper he renamed American Tribune, raising its circulation to more than 25,000 copies per week.

During the early 1890s a widespread depression gripped the nation and a long-term drought was devastating farms in the Midwest. Fitzgerald used the Tribune to promote his dream of creating a colony for Union veterans and their families in the South where they could spend their remaining days in a milder climate.

Fitzgerald founded The American Tribune Soldiers Colony Company, selling 50,000 shares of stock in the Company for $10 a share. Shares of stock were to be converted into lots in town or 5- 10- 20- or 40-acre “farmettes.” Fitzgerald’s plan was presented to a number of Southern governors and Governor William J. Northern pledged his support leading Fitzgerald to select the state for his colonization plan. An early report stated, “The hospitality of the people is all that could be desired and all colony people of the North will receive a warm and hearty welcome by the natives.” The report added, “Not one of us yet has had the privilege of seeing an alligator.”

During this period Southwest Georgia encompassed vast first growth pine forests with a scattering of rural farming communities and turpentine operations. The village of Swan with a population of 40 was one such community. Here the Drew brothers operated a lumber and turpentine business, making use of the thousands of acres of virgin pine forest they owned in the area.

The money quickly poured in from veterans seeking immediate relief from bitter winters and drought stricken farms. By July of 1895 enough stock had been sold to allow the Colony Company to purchase 50,000 acres of land from the Drew brothers. Eventually another 50,000 acres would be purchased, creating a 100,000-acre square block for the creation of the colony.

An expeditionary company of 462 men and 72 teams of horses were sent to the site to begin surveying and clearing the land for eventual settlement. Beth Davis, a local historian recorded, “As the dream was becoming a reality, it was clear not all the nation’s bitter wounds had healed… He wanted a four square city in the center of the tract. It took a while because they had to move the town’s center stake three times because some Southerner would refuse to sell an inch of land ‘those Yankees’.”

Fitzgerald is one of few true planned cities in the country. The core of the city was laid out in a 1,000 acre square containing four wards subdivided into four blocks, each containing 16 squares creating 256 identical land lots. Four were set aside for schools, 12 for parks and 36 for commercial use. The remaining lots were for residential use. Each lot faces a street and an alley, which terminate in the four drives bordering the city.

Unexpectedly, while the surveyors were getting a start on the task at hand, veterans and their families began arriving at the site of the new colony. By the fall of 1895, more than 2,500 people had made the trek to their new home. However, they could not settle permanently until the survey was complete. “They had to go somewhere. Can you imagine thousands of people setting up housekeeping in the heart of a pine forest? Those who did come were forced to live in tents or covered wagons, camping out in the pine woods or building crude shelters.

The village was dubbed “Shacktown” for all the temporary shacks being constructed. The Daily Gazette, a South Georgia newspaper, wrote that Shacktown lined both sides of the wagon road and was like the midway of a carnival. Every fourth or fifth house was an eating house. People were living in all manner of habitation except good ones,” Davis explains.

A teacher from Nebraska helped ease the housing shortage when she got permission to build a hotel. The Colony House was a two-story structure with wooden shutters instead of windows. Here as many as 36 men shared a single room.

As the survey drew to completion and Shacktown became Fitzgerald, the assignment of street names was undertaken. Initially they began naming the streets for Union generals but soon realized that this might be an affront to Southern colonists who made up about one third of the colony. Alesia Davis, director of tourism, explains, “They would be fair to the Union and Confederate side so they named a certain number of streets for Union generals and a similar number for Confederate generals. Streets running north are named after Georgia Rivers and streets running south are named after Georgia trees. They had a sense of humor—they put the fire department on Sherman Street of all places!”

One of the largest challenges facing the rapidly growing colony was the lack of supplies. To alleviate this challenge, they temporarily suspended construction on the city and built a railroad line to service the colony. When it was completed, they scheduled regular excursion trains, advertising for people to come look at the Yankees. Many tourists were interested, and in 1896 the construction of the Lee Grant Hotel began. Top billing was again diplomatically given to the man who commanded the Confederate forces.

The colony grew quickly while other areas were suffering the effects of the depression. It prospered largely due to the influx of cash into the local economy from more than $50,000 a month in Union veterans’ pensions. In an effort to promote and celebrate their success, they constructed the Corn and Cotton Palace and held an exposition there.

Invitations were sent to nearby towns and a grand parade of veterans was scheduled for the event. The Confederate veterans were scheduled to parade in their gray uniforms, and following a short break the Union veterans would parade in their blue uniforms. Organizers hoped that all would progress peacefully, but there was some apprehension as post war sentiments were still strong.

However, as Beth Davis recounts, “When the doors opened to the Corn and Cotton Palace, out came the bands, and they came out playing the national anthem. They had played as musicians in the war, and they knew how to march, and they knew how to play, and they liked to do both. Out came the veterans, those who had worn the blue and those who had worn the gray, and marched as one behind the Stars and Stripes. They were saying to Georgia and the nation and the world as a whole that as far as they were concerned not only was the war over and done with, but also that this was again the United States of America. Old wounds were healed, old barriers broken, as men who had met on the field of battle met again on the field of everyday living and taught this nation and the world an unforgettable lesson on forgiving and forgetting.”

The parade came to be known as the Parade of Unity and the veterans that marched that day formed Battalion One of the Blue and Gray.

In a strange twist of fate, the Corn and Cotton Palace would not survive the display of Fitzgerald’s prosperity. In an effort to show the effectiveness and professionalism of the colony’s volunteer fire department, the pavilion was intentionally set on fire. Unfortunately, they did not rise to the occasion in this instance and the structure burned to the ground.

Two films featuring the town of Fitzerald.

Freelance filmmaker Sol Landsman profiled the South Georgia town of Fitzgerald in 1946. An unknown local film enthusiast also tried his hand at profiling his hometown on 16mm film as "The Old Fitzgerald Story" (c. 1939-1941). Preservation of these films was funded by a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation. Fitzgerald Town Film and Brinson Collection.