As a kid growing up in the state of Georgia, it wasn’t unusual to be told, as a response to some sort of misbehavior, that you were going to be “sent to Milledgeville.”
Doesn’t sound too bad, right? What sort of punishment for “acting up” would a trip to a medium size, middle Georgia town that once served as the state capital be? It wouldn’t be much of one, except for the presence of Central State Hospital, once the world’s largest mental institution.
Now, if it seems wrong to you for authority figures to both belittle mental illness and threaten children in the same sentence, then you are obviously not the type of person who would do so. Unfortunately, you were not around when our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends’ relatives did just that.
It was a horrifying thought, to be sent away to a place that we really didn’t understand. It was a different time back then, in the 1960’s and ‘70s; a far less politically correct time; a time when sensitivity to mental health issues was much less common among the people we grew up around. Mental hospitals were referred to as “looney bins,” or “funny farms;” a person with a mental illness might be called a “lunatic,” or someone who “wasn’t playing with a full deck.”
So back then it was perfectly acceptable to use the possibility of being sent away to enforce good behavior. For all we knew, Milledgeville was inseparable from the hospital it hosted. It was a town full of crazy people; a place where people who didn’t, or couldn’t, follow the rules were forced to live, isolated from the rest of society.
Now, of course, we know that this isn’t the case. Whatever bad things did or didn’t happen at Central State Hospital have no bearing on the town itself. We’d always been intrigued by Milledgeville, but neither of us had ever visited. So it was that on a Saturday in early May, we found ourselves zipping South on Highway 441, on a mission to find out what it was like in the Old Capital City.
We pulled into town a little before 1:00pm. We parked on Hancock Street and headed for our first stop in Milledgeville, The Local Yolkal Café, which we’d heard was the place for breakfast, brunch or lunch. We entered to find a bustling eatery, teeming with both townies and students from Georgia College and State University, which was holding graduation that night.
We were seated in the dining room, which was loud due to the steady flow of diners that came and went, and reviewed the menu, which included such options as steak and eggs, six varieties of eggs benedict, a low country omelette, and chicken and waffles. Since it was lunch time, we ordered shrimp po’ boys, which the menu described as a cross between Savannah and New Orleans. When the sandwiches arrived, we dug in. The shrimp was crispy and delicious, made even better by the remoulade sauce which accompanied it.
We made short work of the sandwiches, washing them down with a “Millimosa,” a local version of the traditional mimosa which replaces orange juice with watermelon juice. Very refreshing on a warm day, and just the thing we needed to prepare us for what lay ahead.
After lunch, we headed South in search of the main reason for our visit, the previously mentioned Central State Hospital. We drove along Wayne Street, unsure of what we’d find when we arrived at the hospital campus. We’d read an Atlanta Magazine article from 2015, which stated that the hospital was no longer accepting patients, and that only a handful remained on site.
As we approached the hospital, businesses and homes began to give way to abandoned buildings. We arrived at the Powell building, which during the hospital’s heyday was the main administrative building. We parked on the street, got out of the car, and stepped into another world.
The campus of Central State is massive. No other word could do it justice. There are over 200 buildings on the 1700-acre property, most of which are no longer in use. We began our tour by walking through the pecan grove in the center of the campus. A sign posted at the entrance informed us that the grove was intended as a place for patients to relax and enjoy the outdoors. While it was beautiful, an eerie feeling- which would stay with us for the remainder of our visit- permeated the area.
We crossed the grove and approached the buildings across the street. Long abandoned, the structures were overgrown with vines, the lawns covered with underbrush. There were “no trespassing” signs all over the place, warning us that both the buildings and the grounds were unsafe and off-limits. We walked along Swint Avenue, taking in the decaying buildings and doing our best not to imagine what had happened inside them.
There was an ominous vibe hanging over the place; a feeling that demanded reverence as well as caution. The campus had the feel of a ghost town, deserted and forgotten. There was almost no traffic, and a thick silence filled the air. Despite the warnings, we couldn’t resist the urge to get a closer look, so we ducked across a grassy expanse and approached one of the buildings.
We walked around the side of the structure, which was covered by thick vegetation. The silence deepened as we retreated further from the street. We walked up to the building, peering into windows at the wreckage inside. Even in its dilapidated state, it was easy to imagine patients going about their day to day lives, some of whom would never see the outside world again.
For the next two hours, we moved from building to building, slipping into restricted areas more than once along the way. Eventually a security guard, who may or may not have witnessed us going where we didn’t belong, pulled up in a truck and advised us that, while it was okay to walk around the streets, we were not allowed to go behind the buildings. We briefly contemplated telling her that we could promise not to go back there again, but decided that doing so would not be the wisest course of action.
Back in the car, we drove deeper into the campus. Some of the buildings had been converted into prisons, though most were abandoned. We paused to take in the fences and razor wire; the similarity between asylum and prison not lost on us. After spending quite some time exploring the empty streets, we headed back toward town. It was only by accident that we happened upon Cedar Lane Cemetery.
With more than 12,000 patients at its height, it isn’t surprising that a large number of people died at Central State. Much more disturbing is the haphazard way the deceased were handled. Over the years, 25,000 patients were interred in unmarked graves at neglected cemeteries in the area. All but a handful of the marked graves at Cedar Lane were identified not by the patient’s name, but only by an iron marker bearing their inmate number.
These markers- which had been pulled from the ground at the patients’ actual burial sites by lackadaisical groundskeepers- were collected from the cemetery by concerned Milledgeville citizens in 1997. 2,000 of these iron markers were installed that year to commemorate those who died at the hospital. These markers, along with a bronze angel located 175 yards South of the cemetery, serve as a memorial to those lost souls. Deeply moving, and more than a little unsettling.
After walking around the cemetery, we headed back downtown. Our visit to Central State had been unnerving, reminding us that mental health care, while much better than it used to be, still leaves much to be desired. I’ve never been much of a believer in ghosts; worrying much more about the physical horrors in the world than the spiritual. But if ghosts do exist, I’m convinced that this erstwhile asylum is one of the most haunted places on earth.
Next on our agenda was a visit to Andalusia Farm, home of author Flannery O’Conner. After our time at the empty hospital, we were in need of something beautiful and serene. The open expanses and great, old trees were just the ticket.
We parked in the gravel lot and headed across the lawn, pausing at an enclosure which housed a stately pair of peacocks. We learned from a plaque that Flannery O’Connor loved and raised peacocks and other peafowl.
We explored the large cow barn- one of many barns on the property- which housed the animals along with a “milking parlor.” We peeked into the windows of the milk processing shed. We ambled through the tenant house; a rustic two-story cabin that predates the main house.
Although the upper floor is used as offices and therefore closed to the public, the bottom floor is airy, colorful and welcoming. There is an addition to the house for literary gatherings and educational events. In the brightest, sunniest room of this cozy wing, the curators set up a vintage typewriter and a stack of paper. Visitors are encouraged to write something and leave it behind, so we obliged.
Back in town, we headed to the campus of Georgia College and State University. We strolled through the home of the Bobcats, taking in the red brick buildings and white columns. In the quad, a student posed in graduation garb as family members snapped photos.
We cut across campus, passing more and more students in full graduation mode. Eventually we came to Clarke Street and stool gazing at the Old Governor’s Mansion. The historic home, built in 1839, was home of eight governors of Georgia from its completion to 1868. Now home to a museum, the Greek Revival structure has been designated a national historic landmark.
Eventually all the walking we’d been doing began to wear on us; that and the heat. As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, it has been a hot spring in the Peach State. It was time for a little pick me up, and we found just what we needed at Blackbird Coffee.
Located on Hancock Street, Blackbird roasts its own beans. We stepped inside the blessedly cool shop and were immediately struck by the charm of the interior design. The plaster that had once covered the walls was partially gone, revealing the red brick underneath. Artwork by local artists hung on the walls. The bar curved from the door across the room, ending at a few small bistro table.
We ordered and took a seat on a comfortable couch. The few sip of coffee invigorated us. By the time we’d finished our drinks, we were ready to finish our trip strong. We headed back outside, and walked around downtown, stopping for a while at the First Presbyterian Church.
As we stood gazing at the ornate structure, a pole on the front lawn caught our eye. There was something engraved on it, and we stepped closer until we were able to read it.
“May Peace Prevail On Earth.”
As evening approached, we decided it was time for dinner. There were a number of options available, but in the end, we would up at Metropolis Café on Wayne Street. We were seated on the outdoor patio, and enjoyed the gentle breeze as we checked out the menu.
We would up ordering the steak and chicken kabobs, which came with rice, grilled vegetables, and a greek salad. We ordered beers and sipped them as we waited for the food. Nothing like a Terrapin Hopsecutioner for a little taste of home!
After a few minutes the food arrived. Hungry after a long day, we tore into the kabobs. The meat was tender and juicy, with blackened grill marks adding a subtle crunch. The salad was fresh and delicious, with balsamic vinegarette dressing. We polished off the entire order, including a heaping serving of naan bread. We’ve had a lot of very good food already on our travels, but Metropolis Café is definitely one of the best so far.
By the time we’d finished dinner, darkness was upon us, and it was time to say goodbye. We headed out of town to begin the 70-mile drive home. Soon we would be back in Athens, snug in our little corner of the world. Three trips into our tour, we’d already seen so much, with still so many places yet to visit.
More cities and towns await all around our home state. So close and yet so far…
For more information about Milledgeville, visit the official tourism site here:
Before we leave you, we’d like to pause for a moment to mention the loss of one of Georgia’s most famous natives. Just as we were finishing up this week’s post, Gregg Allman, founder of the legendary Allman Brothers Band passed away due to complications from liver cancer.
The Allman Brothers are an iconic band; godfathers of southern rock and one of the great live bands of all time. Songs like Midnight Rider, Statesboro Blues and Jessica are a permanent part of Georgia lore. Thanks for the memories Gregg. RIP.
That’s all for now. As always, thanks for reading! We certainly always appreciate it. We’ll be back soon with more of our experiences “knocking around” Georgia. Until later…
Next time: The Bear Team will invade Morgan County to check out the “town too beautiful to burn.” Madison, you’re on deck!
By: Keith and Dena Maxwell