Grand Ole Georgiana: Hank Williams’ hometown hangs onto legacy of music star

Grand Ole Georgiana: Hank Williams’ hometown hangs onto legacy of music star
Elementary school students participate in class studies in Georgiana School. (Meg McKinney)
Historical marker sits in the Georgiana community. (Meg McKinney)

Two mutts meander onto a main thoroughfare at midday. They linger until a car horn honks, prompting them to slowly move out of the street. As the world turns, Georgiana is just Hank-ing on.

This tiny town in south central Alabama has changed in many ways since its most famous son lived here for a few childhood years in the early 1930s. Georgiana was a bustling railroad and lumber town then, stemming from its 1855 origins. It looks much the same today but time has not stood still for most of the businesses and 1,700 residents.

A new bypass diverts many outsiders around the outskirts of town. There’s a Fred’s and Subway and several other new businesses on the revised route. Longtime businesses almost a stone’s throw to the north no longer see much of the former beach traffic. Kendall’s BBQ has been a fixture at the Interstate 65 exit for nearly 20 years. On a breezy afternoon, heat from the pit rushes through one of two windows on the small metal building as a UPS driver and an Alabama State Trooper place their orders. The smoky aroma of pulled pork often lingers on satisfied customers.

Railcar and tracks rest underneath cloudy Georgiana skies. ( Meg McKinney)

Folks who choose to follow the road 2 miles into Georgiana will find no traffic lights. Most houses are modest, one-story, well-kept with manicured lawns and gardens, reflective of the blue-collar background of the original homeowners.

Downtown is divided by three side-by-side railroad tracks, one of them suddenly occupied by a long series of freight railcars speeding through. For any pedestrian who dares, a steel and wood walkway built in 1916 provides a path over the trains. On the south side of the tracks, Feed, Seed & Farm Supply closes, as in the old days, at noon on Wednesday, and all day on the Sabbath. Nearby at Lowery Sales and Service, a metal mailbox with a small lock is attached to an outside column for after-hour payments. Cuts & Curls by Erica welcomes patrons on
the corner.

The First United Methodist Church the next block over is, perhaps, the town’s most impressive building, highlighted by tall stained-glass windows within the red brick walls that on one corner rise to a large turret and at the opposite end to a higher steeple. Next door is the log cabin home of the Georgiana Garden Club founded 68 years ago. City Hall on the north side of the tracks holds down one end of a city block adjacent to the Ga-Ana Theatre, where young Hiram Williams watched Westerns on Saturdays and made his local stage debut in 1939 as a 16-year-old performing with the Drifting Cowboys. The theater closed in 1959 and was set for demolition before J.C. Sims bought and renovated it in 1999. A little farther back is Food Giant, the town’s grocery store, and not too far down State Route 106 is the new Trustmark bank.

But the wholly unexpected aspect of downtown is the dominance of its medical community. Building after building is occupied by healthcare businesses: DCI Georgiana dialysis center, Reliable Home Health, Butler Primary Care, Alabama Wellness and Prevention Center, Georgiana Medical Clinic, Emergency Medical Services, Ivy Creek Clinic, Stabler Clinic and, a few blocks away, Georgiana Health & Rehabilitation.

Georgiana Hospital

Patient receives care at Georgiana Hospital. (Meg McKinney)

With about 880 fewer beds than University Hospital in Birmingham, Georgiana Hospital is one of Alabama’s smallest medical facilities, if not the smallest. Administrator Patti Cook is quick to point out that doctors and nurses in Georgiana meet the same state and federal standards as those at UAB and other nationally prominent facilities. Former patients point to the professionalism of employees at the 23-bed hospital. One woman posted on social media about her unexpected visit while driving from Atlanta to Texas:

“My car flipped three times and hit a tree. It was just me and my little dog. I was SO scared but when I got to the hospital, the staff was AMAZING.”

Georgiana Hospital has two doctors, three nurse practitioners and is one of the major local employers, with 85 on staff.

“We have some homegrown nurses, so most of our patients know them,” Cook says. “Even though we’re small, some people actually prefer to come here. It’s the personal care that keeps them coming.”

Cook notes that in emergencies, it’s a 20-mile drive in either direction to reach another hospital, so Georgiana’s is often a lifesaver. There is a helipad for transport when injuries require more specialized treatment.

The Georgiana clinic specialty is family practice. Last year, tragedy struck when longtime local physician Dr. Roland Yearwood died while climbing down Mount Everest. Two years earlier he had treated climbers on the same mountain after a deadly earthquake shook Nepal. His widow, Amitra, continues to work in the local ER. The Yearwoods raised their children in Georgiana and devoted two decades to the community before his death, Cook says.

“The smiles on our patients’ faces, that’s what it’s all about, that’s what rural healthcare is all about,” Cook says. “It doesn’t take any special training to treat someone nice.”

Faye’s Florist

Sixty years ago, Ken and Faye Gipson built a business that would become a filling station, grocery store, meat market and, for two decades, a Greyhound depot before morphing into a florist shop. To get their dream off the ground, Faye quit her job at Nightingale Uniform Co., one of the city’s most successful factories, and Ken left his timber cruising work for W.T. Smith Lumber Co., then the area’s largest employer.

Bits and pieces of the Gipson’s business through the years remain. It’s easy to see that the concrete block building was once a Texaco station: the familiar old encircled red star sign is stored inside. There are still large Coca-Cola coolers, a chopping block and all of their city business licenses from the past six decades.

Faye’s Florist remains a fixture in the small Alabama community. (Meg McKinney)

Beyond the silk and live flower arrangements that fill the main entrance room, hundreds of family photos line the walls and desktop of Shirley Gipson Hitson, who has helped run the business with her brother, Cecil, since their father died in 2001 after 51 years of marriage to their mother. However, Faye, who was instigator in the move from grocery store to florist in 1975, has yet to retire.

“It made more money than the gas station did,” the founder says, smiling.

More than 40 years ago, Faye took floral arrangement courses at Southern Living and, through the years, each family member learned the craft from her.

“Mother said the other day, ‘Boy, if I could only think of something else to make more money,” says Shirley. “The silk trucks come around here once a month to deliver, and the drivers tell us about another florist that has bit the dust. There’s too much competition nowadays from Walmart, Dollar General, Fred’s and the online florists.”

Faye Gipson says there are only a couple of her original customers still alive. There are no stores still open from a list of nearly 100 local ones a century ago. Georgiana once had motels, cafes, drink bottlers, car dealers and a casket factory.

“It’s just the facts of life for a small town,” Shirley says, noting that her father-in-law had a successful shoe shop that long ago went out of business. “Georgiana was a blooming little place at one time.”

This florist, like most others, looks to Mothers’ Day, Valentine’s Day and Easter for big sales, as well as funerals and weddings. “So far, Walmart hasn’t made and delivered funeral arrangements,” Shirley says with a laugh.

Friendly G’s

If not for a few folks focused on their iPhones, it would be easy for a diner to think they’d been transported to the 1950s. As opposed to fast food chains where the employees yell “welcome” to each person walking through the doors, at Friendly G’s restaurant it’s often the customers who say “howdy” when they step inside.

“Y’all still spoiling that grandbaby?” a man says, talking to another across the dining room. “Oh, yeah!” the person responds.

A busy day for Friendly G’s in Georgiana. (Meg McKinney)

Another man enters, looks around the room nodding in each direction, then says “How y’all?” to no one in particular. There are five booths and five other separate tables, yet he seats himself at one of two long tables in the center of the restaurant, where many single patrons pull up a seat. He listens to others’ conversations but never butts in.

Two signs hanging from the ceiling at either end of Friendly G’s list in felt-tip script the day’s specials: veggie soup, grill cheese and a drink for $6 or fried pork chop, mashed potatoes and gravy, peas and cornbread for $6.50. Most customers go for choice B. The waitresses bring a personal pitcher of tea to each table. Diners frequently return their plates cleaned to the front counter. Many people buy a box of Girl Scout cookies as they pay their bill. One exiting customer says to everyone: “Y’all be good!”

Barbara Gunter was a waitress for four years before her brother bought the restaurant and she began working for him. In 2005, he sold it to Barbara and her husband, Foy, and they still work every day at Friendly G’s: “One of us is here all the time,” she says, noting that Foy had never been in the restaurant business until they bought one.

The Gunters have nine full-time employees, including their daughter, Sierra Davis, and her husband, Patrick, and Barbara’s sister, Rebecca Chamberlain.

Georgiana School

Members of the basketball team and coach pose for the camera. (Meg McKinney)

Things looked hopeless for the Panthers as the three-time defending state champion Sacred Heart squad went into a stall, leading Georgiana High School by four points with four minutes remaining in the 1A basketball finals at Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. But after several Georgiana steals and last-minute heroics, Jamicheal Stallworth sank a long three-pointer to tie the game with 15 seconds left. For a few minutes, it appeared the Cardinals’ unsurpassed championship streak might be ended.

Hundreds of Georgiana fans were watching the Panthers – in the state Final Four for the third time in four years – and the traveling faithful clapped and cheered for their boys as the game went into overtime. Three Panthers made the six-man All-Tournament team but Georgiana once again fell short of the title.

Students participating in an activity. (Meg McKinney)

Built in 2010, the $12 million Georgiana School is a pre-K-12 facility on a single campus divided into sections for 450 elementary, junior high and high school students directed by about 40 teachers. Scenarios shift as visitors walk along the sparkling tile floors.

“We’ve all had to learn how to handle having all the grades together under one roof,” says Assistant Principal Cynthia Smith, who previously taught at the separate Austin Elementary. “It certainly keeps you busy. There’s never a dull moment.”

Each hallway includes bulletin boards with tips for safely moving from class to class, visiting the restrooms, getting along with others and similar etiquette messages. Overhead widescreen TVs broadcast continuous notices and a Picture of the Day, compiled by the Future Business Leaders of America Club.

“We’re a close-knit school,” Smith says. “We tell our children that no one is going to give them anything,” Smith says, “but if they apply themselves, they can go far.”

Alabama Power Office

Like almost everyone else in town, Alabama Power Customer Service Representative Patricia Ray has a Hank Williams story. Although she’s been in the Georgiana Office for 17 years and given directions to the nearby museum on countless occasions, she only knows the country music legend through relatives.

“My husband grew up in the community Hank was raised in,” she says as customers stream in and out. “The festival originated at Mt. Olive Church across from where Hank was born, but it got a little too rowdy, so they used a field belonging to my husband’s granddad, Otis Ray, for the festival.”

Customer service representative Patricia Ray (Meg McKinney)

The Hank Williams Festival soon moved to the property surrounding his boyhood home and museum, and Ray eventually became a volunteer for the annual event. She’s a member of the Three Arts Club that compiles the annual festival program, selling them for $5 each to raise money for scholarships for local girls.

“By the grace of God … the girl who was working here was expecting a baby,” she says. “They needed someone to work here and I got the job.”

Ray says she enjoys working at the center of the action in Georgiana, being across the street from First Baptist Church, next door to the hospital, a block from the railroad tracks and 2 miles from I-65. She is happy in her hometown.

“It’s just family,” she says. “In the summertime it gets hectic out on the interstate with the beach traffic. But Georgiana is just home to me.”

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