Catherine James is one of our two Student Service Opportunity Award Fellows in Special Collections this year. She is a freshman at Georgia College majoring in Mass Communication.
I am just about two months into my new life in Milledgeville and am almost entirely unaware of the stories, accounts, and histories that make up the quaint little town that I’m slowly learning to call home. Although, from what I’ve gathered in the bits and pieces of history that have been sprung on me through tours, classes, word of mouth, and even details as small as the names of certain campus buildings, Milledgeville has no shortage of rich history. I have only recently started assisting in Special Collections, and it has already taught me a tremendous amount about my new city that I would have otherwise most likely overlooked.
A few days before I started, as Holly was giving me the grand tour of the archive, she opened the door to the stacks in the back, and it was as if the entire history of Milledgeville jumped out at me. The room consists of walls, filled with shelves, filled with boxes, filled with folders, filled with what seems like and infinite amount of papers; and it was that moment that I realized I had underestimated the historical capabilities of this small town.
I am not the only person to enter this university or move into this city unaware of the stories it holds. In fact, sometime around 2000, it became apparent to a few members of the city that the oral history of Milledgeville was slowly dying. They themselves were well affiliated with the hidden treasures the town held, and so they set out to change things.
The group dubbed themselves ‘Swamp Gravy’ and the project consisted of interviewing countless aging volunteers from the community. The goal was to place all of the interviews into a collective set filled with oral accounts of short stories and small histories all taking place in Milledgeville — hence, the birth of Tales From the Back Stoop. A few of the interviews and recollections were even converted into a script that would be used in skits. These skits became popular among the members of Milledgeville and served to unite the community. They have since been performed on many stages, including Georgia Military College, Oconee Regional Medical Center, and First United Methodist Church.
Upon reading just a few of the many historical accounts in this collection, I realized just how noteworthy Swamp Gravy’s contributions were to the city of Milledgeville. The collection consists of typed interviews on paper, electronic or audiocassette recordings of the interviews, and a script of one of the adapted stories. This semester, Shayla Burnett (the other service learning fellow in Special Collections) and I will be digitizing the audio recordings and text transcripts in order to make the full Tales from the Back Stoop collection available to a wider audience.
I was amazed by not only the amount of history and information the collections held, but also by how many different formats these oral histories could take on and still convey each interviewee as an individual with an important and unique perspective of the small town of Milledgeville — the only constant in each and every account.
The very first account in the collection, that of a man named Chris Avirett (Avirett with a long A, as he so diligently expressed in his interview), stood out to me. Avirett attended a high school that lost their accreditation halfway through his senior year, and therefore failed to ever get his diploma. He eventually acquired a GED and, due to his vendetta against the American education system, decided to spend a year working rather than attending college. After a few scattered part time jobs, he landed under the supervision of his friend and discovered his passion — coffee. He slowly worked his way up the ranks to manager at a local coffee shop located in downtown Milledgeville, one whose name is not uncommon among the avid coffee-loving population of Georgia College (myself included), Blackbird. He goes on to address just how small and undeveloped downtown Milledgeville appeared to him as a kid, but that he witnessed its slow transformation into a full-functioning, relatively booming, city, and, for Chris Avirett, this transformation began with the establishment of a local coffee shop.
Reading some of the accounts such as this one in the collection, opened my eyes to just how many people and how many lives share this town with me. This specific collection showed me that, although small and relatively unheard of in the grand scheme of things, Milledgeville is more than just a college town to so many people. Milledgeville is their — and my — home.
“Chris Avirett interview.” Box 1, Folder 10. Tales from the Back Stoop collection. Special Collections, Ina Dillard Russell Library, Georgia College. http://kb.gcsu.edu/finding_aids/11/
“[Photograph of aerial view of the downtown area, Milledgeville, Baldwin County, Georgia, 1973].” Vanishing Georgia collection. Digital Library of Georgia. http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/vang/id:bal079