The older I get, the more interested I become in my people. Not my support staff here at work—those selfless little souls who fetch me coffee and keep track of my social calendar. I mean my real people. My ancestors. The ones who lived long ago and never suspected that their hopes and dreams and fortunes would eventually boil down to me. What sort of people were my people? What were their lives like? And did they have a nice house?
Fortunately, I’m much better off than most when it comes to tracking down my people, as my great-grandfather’s house is perfectly preserved and open to the public in Augusta, Ga. This strange twist of fate is in no way attributable to my great-grandfather, remarkable man that he was. No, it seems that he and Woodrow Wilson’s father were both ministers of the First Presbyterian Church, at different times, of course, and that the old manse in which they both lived, worked and raised their families is now a historic site, known as The Boyhood Home of Woodrow Wilson.
Well, this summer I finally went to see it. Would it hold any clue as to how I became the person I am today?
The first surprise was Augusta, Ga. I say surprise because even though it’s the second- largest city in the state and world famous as the home of the Masters golf tournament, it has a shabby, old-fashioned air. No attempt has been made to gussy the place up, and though Broad Street has an allée of trees down the center, the sides are lined with hotels and department stores that went out of business 40 years ago. Just to the south the buildings are much older. There’s the amazing Medical College of Georgia (1853) and the First Presbyterian Church (1809) and catty-cornered from that, the old manse (1859).
I studied it carefully from the outside as I waited for the first tour to begin. It’s a solid brick house, two-and-a-half stories, built very close to the street. In its favor: a classic, timeless look. They’re still building homes like this today. Not so wonderful was that it looked a little plain. I was hoping for something grander from my people.
The tour started. Inside, things became more interesting. The rooms were large and beautifully proportioned, very light and airy. There was a parlor decorated in the latest style of the day, a big dining room with a sideboard where once sat the elaborate Victorian silver pitcher that now sits in my brother's dining room. Upstairs the bedrooms were big and square, each one on a corner. The bathroom that my great-grandmother installed had been removed in the cause of historical accuracy. The kitchen was in a separate building out back, as were the servant quarters, the carriage house, and the hayloft where the children of the household played.
The more I saw, the more I could feel the house speaking to me. I could actually see ghosts of ancestors in the corner. But not until we got to the study did I figure it out— that’s when the house became shockingly familiar. They had arranged the study as if the family just left. There were games and books lying on the floor where the children were playing, and the minister’s desk was there with all his paperwork. And bookcases lined the walls…
This was the way I had grown up. My family has always lived in a house like this. It’s in our bones. We’ve always chosen a big, solid, unpretentious house, simple on the outside but extremely comfortable on the inside. It’s always been in the best part of town, the old WASP suburb if possible, and it must appear discreet and understated. Inside it can be as nice, even luxurious, as possible. But in its soul it must remain the home of a Presbyterian minister.
I left the Boyhood Home understanding my family as never before. This is where our lifestyle and values were formed, and they’re still going strong, 130 years later.
I had to find out more about my great-grandfather. He turns out to have been a remarkable man, one of the leading citizens of his day. He was so fair-minded that he was chosen to mediate labor disputes and so intellectual that he taught himself to read Gaelic as a hobby. I’ve read a couple of his sermons. Frankly, they’re a lot like this column—long paragraphs dense with type. He did not preach a social gospel per se but implored people to be good and fair-minded and to lead their lives in a way that would please God.
Back in those days, a minister was judged by his preaching; and here my great- grandfather pulled out all the stops. One Sunday he found himself in the pulpit beginning a sermon on Human Forgiveness or some such thing when he realized that something was wrong. He’d been suffering little attacks lately, and about 10 minutes into his talk he sensed that another was coming, a big one. Without missing a beat, he changed topic in mid-sermon and began to preach on Impending Death. Somehow he got through and then, as he left the pulpit, he collapsed. They carried him over to the manse, where he died an hour later.
Presbyterians in Augusta are still talking about it.
Augusta and east central Georgia
This is bed-and-breakfast country,
And don’t miss the Flannery O’Connor home
near Milledgeville or, most important, the Laurel and Hardy Museum in nearby Harlem. Ollie was born there, and while the museum is mostly souvenirs and memorabilia, the lady who runs the place shows Laurel and Hardy movies in the back room, even if you’re the only person there. What other museum in the world can guarantee belly laughs?but I am Presbyterian enough to enjoy the vicarious luxuries of the Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Lake Oconee, conveniently located right in the middle of everything. The food is great and every night they have a bonfire with free s’mores for everyone. may well be the most interesting and historic part of the state. It’s an easy day’s drive from Sarasota, and a couple of days driving around the old antebellum towns make a perfect long weekend. Don’t miss Washington, Madison, Eatonville and Milledgeville, all full of old homes that Sherman did not burn. (Each one claims the General spared it because he found it so beautiful; at this rate he must have spent more time looking at houses than marching to the sea.)