HAZLEHURST, Ga. – Atlanta. June 1936. A few patches of the horse-and-buggy Old South remained as the once slow-moving city first named Terminus and then Marthasville began emerging into the glass-towered mega-metropolis that it is today.
But during that summer, a big book titled “Gone With the Wind” was published by a little woman named Margaret Mitchell – she stood just under 5 feet tall – and perhaps for one of the first times the Civil War was told from a woman’s perspective.
Three years later in 1939, the silver-screen version of the book heated up movie theaters with scenes such as the burning of Atlanta and the smooching between Scarlett O’Hara and her rascally beau, Rhett Butler.
Even today, plenty of Southerners never really have considered the book or movie as fiction. Some even would call it, in the Southern lexicon, the gospel truth.
But no matter if it’s partly fact or mostly fiction, today you can follow the recently designated Gone With the Wind Trail through Georgia on a voyage to discover the history, legacy and legend behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and complex life of its author.
From Kennesaw and Marietta north of Atlanta and then to the heart of the city and finally south to Jonesboro, home of the fictional Tara, the trail identifies an established route of key sites connected to “Gone With the Wind.”
“The lure of Southern belles, dashing gentlemen and antebellum architecture act as a magnet to countless numbers of national and international tourists each year,” said Theresa Jenkins, executive director of the Marietta Visitors Bureau. She describes the Gone With the Wind Trail as a “unique tourism asset” exclusive to Georgia.
The Gone With the Wind Museum in Marietta is a personal favorite stop on the trail. Located in an 1875 former cotton warehouse, the museum is a veritable circus of memorabilia from the private collection of Christopher Sullivan of Akron, Ohio.
Among the items, the piece d’resistance is the original Bengaline honeymoon gown worn by Vivian Leigh and one of only eight original costumes still known to exist. It is, says Connie Sutherland, director of the museum, “the most talked-about item” in the collection.
Near Marietta is Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park that pays homage to the tumultuous 1864 battle where the Rebels temporarily stopped the Yankees’ advancement toward Atlanta. The park is a peaceful place for a hike and is most beautiful in the spring and fall. Leave your metal detector at home, though, as relic hunting is strictly forbidden.
The trail follows on to Atlanta, where the Margaret Mitchell House & Museum is cocooned by the towering skyline of the city. Mitchell lived here, at the time the Crescent Apartments, with her husband, John Marsh, while she wrote the novel. She named the tiny apartment that they called home “the dump,” but today it is listed the National Register of Historic Places and operated by the Atlanta History Center.
Also downtown is the Atlanta-Fulton County Public Library, which has one of the most extensive collections of Mitchell’s photographs, books and personal items in existence, in total about 1,500 pieces, including her 1937 Pulitzer Prize and the Remington typewriter she used to pound out the book.
Not far away is Oakland Cemetery, Mitchell’s final resting place. As much a garden as it is graveyard with elaborate funerary art and architecture, more than 70,000 also rest here alongside her and golf legend Bobby Jones, Atlanta’s first black mayor Maynard Jackson, and about 3,000 Confederate dead in unmarked graves.
Other in-town stops are the Atlanta History Center, which has one of the largest Civil War exhibitions in the nation, and the Atlanta Cyclorama and Museum. The Cyclorama is jaw-dropping with its three-dimensional panorama that realistically depicts the 1864 Battle of Atlanta with life-size characters, music, narration, and painting that by itself weighs more than five tons.
As much as everyone wants to believe that Tara, the O’Hara plantation that figured so prominently in the storyline, was real, the grand home existed only Mitchell’s imagination. But you can visit Stately Oaks Plantation in Jonesboro to get a sense of what living in the antebellum South was all about. Built in 1839, the home is open for tours with costumed docents.
Also visit Jonesboro’s Road to Tara Museum, which also has an extensive and quite impressive collection of memorabilia.
Although all the attractions are open year round, frankly, my dear, one of the best times to hit the trail is spring, when all of Georgia is awash in pink, fuchsia, and lavender blossoms of azaleas, wisteria, dogwoods, magnolias and peaches.
Whether you consider yourself a “Windie” — a dyed-in-the-wool, always faithful fan of anything “Gone With the Wind” — or if you’ve only once seen the movie or read the book, you’ll appreciate the efforts to keep the memory of Georgia’s most beloved story alive.
Don’t expect to see the trail all in one day, though. Take your time. Because as Scarlett O’Hara herself reminds us, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”