Brian Brown’s Vanishing Georgia, Part I

Every state needs a Brian Brown

Tom Poland

Posted April 19, 2024

By Tom Poland
A Southern Writer
www.tompoland.net
tompol@earthlink.net

There’s another Georgia out there—a weathered, sun-bleached, fading Georgia. It nonetheless possesses the “beauty of decay” as one photographer put it. People caught up in the hectic rush pay it no mind. Brian Brown, however, does. He journeys across Georgia documenting what was, and in many cases, what won’t be much longer. Thanks to Brian’s images and words on VanishingGeorgia.com, places and things of note live on, turning vanishing Georgia into enduring Georgia.

As one who travels the less-beaten path, I can tell you the South our elders knew so well is vanishing. The country stores, the tenant homes, structures that defy description, old farmhouses, and inactive churches as well as forsaken hotels languish. And yet they bring beauty to the land and contribute to an everyman’s “blue-collar” history.

Brian Brown (Photo courtesy of Brian Brown)

From Aaron to Zuta, Georgia, a visual survey is yours. I visited my home county, Lincoln, on his website. I saw the Wright House where my third grade teacher lived, the Club House where I went to my first social, and the Chenault House near my mother’s homeplace. Mom often talked about the Chenault “Place” and its connection with the Confederacy’s stolen treasury. And I saw the old Lincoln Journal building where my career as a columnist began.

Brian’s eye for birds and native plants led to his first published work, age 16, in The Oriole, Georgia’s ornithological journal. He went afield with Roger Tory Peterson, author of A Field Guide to the Birds, in Monroe County. His roadside wildflowers essay appeared in Georgia Botanical Society’s magazine, Tipularia. While working on his high school newspaper he interviewed Erskine Caldwell, legendary author of Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre, possibly one of Caldwell’s last interviews.

Brian Brown on the road documenting a vanishing Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Brian Brown)

Brian began casually photographing vernacular architecture in the countryside around his hometown, Fitzgerald, in 1998. Today his archive includes over 125,000 images. His website, with over 9,000 locations and 27,000 photographs, makes Vanishing Georgia the largest publicly accessible independent archive focused on the state, with at least one photo, often many more, from all 159 counties.

In his words, Brian “brings attention to the countless forgotten villages and towns, which have all but disappeared with the passing of passenger railroads, the loss of viable employment, and the ensuing diaspora to larger cities. I strive to give them a permanent photographic presence for future generations.”

The loss of historic structures motivated him to create Vanishing Georgia.

“I’ve often told the story of the loss of historic barns and outbuildings on my family’s farm in Ben Hill County, and how frustrating it was not to have photographs of those places. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were still numerous barns typical of a working farm, including tobacco barns, hay barns, a smokehouse, packhouse, stock barn, pig barn, and tenant houses, though I believe the tenant houses were gone by the time my memory kicks in.”

Tobacco barns topped his list when he got interested in documenting South Georgia.

“I lamented that none of my family’s tobacco barns were preserved in photographs. I’ve come to realize that I was probably part of the last generation to experience these old farms the way we did, as commercial and industrial farming was taking over by the 1980s.” 

Challenges

Oak Grove Methodist Church, 1919, in Screven County, Georgia, beautiful in decay. (Photo courtesy of Brian Brown)

Brian says that other than being chased by mad dogs backward down a half-mile driveway or having a shotgun pointed his way by a front-porch vigilante, he’s been lucky. “There are always challenges to getting access to certain places, but 99 percent of the owners I’ve approached have been cooperative. Many have gone out of their way to share all the information they can about the history of their properties.”

When he started out, he looked at a Georgia atlas and picked a county to explore on a day trip.

“I’ve always been a big map nerd, so obscure little villages beckoned me. In-between these forgotten places, I could reliably find old farmhouses, barns, and country stores, as well as some fascinating churches. In the past ten years, I’ve noticed when I revisit an area, landmarks of past travels have disappeared.”

These days he’s typically on the road three days at a time, and virtually every mile of the trip is planned.

“I usually focus on two or three counties at a time, but always find things along the way—that’s still the main objective. Over the years, many people have shared locations of interest, and I keep a working list, along with sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places and other local surveys.”

In Part Two we read about the rewards of documenting Georgia.


Tom Poland’s website at www.tompoland.net

Email Tom about most anything at at tompol@earthlink.net 

This content is being shared through the S.C. News Exchange and is for use in SCPA member publications. Please use appropriate bylines and credit lines.