I have always considered myself fortunate to claim dual citizenship between the two towns I grew up in, so when someone asks me about my hometown, I usually answer with “Which one?” because in my mind, I do in fact have two of them. Jackson was the first, because that’s where my parents made their home, where my bedroom was physically located and where all my stuff was kept but throughout my growing years, I spent a lot of my free time in Jenkinsburg. I have a wealth of memories of that small town, the people who lived there and who watched over me as I grew. One small town is equal to one big babysitter, as I would find out many times.
Jenkinsburg, Georgia is not always easy to find on a map but it’s there. Some 370 people make their home in “The Burg” as we called it when I was a teenager and probably several hundred more live in the unincorporated area that surrounds the city. You won’t find a traffic light in town, at least not yet although it’s probably not too far off. You won’t find a McDonald’s or a Burger King but you can usually find the Mayor just by driving around town. It’s most prominent feature is a tall water tank, one which I have a personal history with but its most enduring features are its homes, churches, streets and people.
My grandparents lived for over 50 years in the same brick house on Maple Street, the main avenue in town. Maple Street paralleled the mainline railroad track and the state highway that connected Macon with Atlanta and if you spent any time in Jenkinsburg, you learned to live with the freight trains that rumbled through town every day, sometimes a couple of times an hour. I have history with the train track as well but more on that later. My grandmother, her three sisters and her brother were born and raised in Jenkinsburg in a large white house just up the street from the one she raised her own family in. Jenkinsburg and much of its history was a part of her life blood.
Having grandparents just five miles up the road meant that I was frequently a visitor in their home and would spend many a night with them. Sometimes my parents liked to take trips without the kids and 90% of the time, Jenkinsburg is where I would stay when they went out-of-town somewhere. I came to know the quiet, narrow streets and the homes and people who lived on them as well as the ones in my own neighborhood.
My grandmother liked to “go visiting”, which was something of a pastime in Jenkinsburg and when I visited, I always went with her. She never learned to drive but Jenkinsburg was small enough that you could easily walk to most any house there and this was something she and I shared, a treasured memory today. I think that all but one of the people we visited then are long gone now but I remember each of them very well.
Mr. and Mrs. Norton, who had a small farm across the street with horses. Ruby Lane, a sweet spinster lady who always used the salutation “Miss” before her name. Miss Ruby was a special lady who made tea cakes for me (small shortbread cookies) anytime she knew I was coming to visit. The Jolley house, just behind my grandfather’s property, where Wayne Jolley, a kind deaf man, taught me sign language.
The Haley house, seated next door to Ruby’s home, was one of my grandmother’s favorite stopping places, where she and Mrs. Haley could catch up on the news of the day. There was Mr. and Mrs. Ford, who lived in a pretty white house that adjoined the other side of my grandparent’s large and rambling yard. Mrs. Ford worked in the drugstore in Jackson where my mother had all our prescriptions filled and she manned that counter well into my adult years, knowing all the customers by name. The home of Betty and R.A. Cook, who lived a couple of blocks away and who owned one of my favorite eating places in Jackson was another stop-off if we were going in that direction. A visit to Otis and Ruby Mangham was almost certain if she felt up to walking that far. These many eyes kept watch over me when I would venture off alone, riding my bicycle from one block to the next or just walking from the house over to visit one of the neighbors.
Most of the time when I went walking with my grandmother, we would end our journey at the large white house of my great-grandmother, who had lived there alone for nearly twenty years after the death of my great-grandfather. I remember the house well, including its screened in back porch, complete with a covered well that had gone unused since running water had come to town decades before. The high-ceiled house had several rooms but I think the only ones I ever saw was the kitchen, which opened up to the screen porch, and her large sitting room/bedroom on the south side of the house. During the cold winter months, she would only heat that one room and she would sit in her chair and read, watch TV or entertain visitors that dropped by. She has been gone 40 years this year but I still remember her and her house well, even though I haven’t set foot in it since she left.
“Downtown Jenkinsburg” consisted of a number of narrow, paved streets that formed six squares, all of which were perfect for a kid who liked to ride his bike without having to worry too much about cars. If you made the six smaller squares into one big one, my grandparent’s house would have been on the bottom right side and the Methodist Church, where my grandmother attended and took me with her was on the top left, diagonally across town. These six squares were my boundaries as a child and in those days, a ten-year old could be allowed to roam on his own, or at least that was the misconception that I had. I was never alone though.
People sat on their porches more in those days or in chairs out in the yard, like my grandparents did. Jenkinsburg was a very social place and anywhere I went, people knew where I was and if I was getting into something I shouldn’t, my grandmother would know about it before I got back to the house. When I was about 12, I decided to climb the water tank that towered over downtown Jenkinsburg. Someone had left the ladder down or had put a ground ladder up to the one that scaled along the side of the tank and that was just too great of a temptation to ignore.
Yes, I could have easily have fallen off the ladder but you don’t think about such things when you’re on an adventure. The climb took a long time but the view of town was worth it and I could see the other water tanks and the courthouse tower in Jackson from up there quite easily. Coming down was pretty tiring and about halfway down, I heard voices and noticed Mr. Ford and my grandfather standing at the base of the tank looking up at me. This did nothing to speed my progress and although I have never regretted the view, I did live to regret the act of doing it.
I also managed to get in trouble a few times for playing on the train track. The lumbering freight trains fascinated me and you could always hear the train coming long before it got there or even before you heard the horn. The tracks would make this funny sound, which I can’t really describe, as the sound travelled down the thin metal rails. I always made sure I had a few pennies to put on the track and after it would pass, I had fun trying to find them, all flattened out and usually lying somewhere along the rail.
From their front yard, I would sit with binoculars on clear days and watch the skydivers jumping from a small plane that took off from an airstrip a couple of miles away. It was exciting to watch the little dots jumping out, followed by the parachutes opening as they would gently descend to the ground. After this, I would usually walk next door to the old Post Office to get my grandmother’s mail but in reality, it was the promise of a Three Musketeer candy bar from “Miss Majorie” Sims, a sweet and kindly lady who served as Postmistress that kept me coming back. She taught me the combination to my grandparent’s post office box so I could get the mail out myself before they ruined the boxes and put key locks in. I think it was three clockwise turns, ending on the “H”, one counterclockwise turn to “F” and then back around to the “I” to get the door open. It’s funny the things you don’t forget.
Other people lived around town that we would visit by car such as my Great Aunt Louise who lived in at least four different houses around Jenkinsburg during my lifetime. I once spent two weeks with her during the summer while my grandparents took my mom and brother on his western trip, something my grandparents did for each one of us. We canned squash, visited Flora Price, who wrote the Jenkinsburg News column for the Jackson Progress-Argus, got more squash from the Harris family just down the road from her house and took flowers to the local nursing home that used to be in the town. She was as good a cook as my grandmother was and I ate like a king the entire time.
Jenkinsburg was a lot like Mayberry in those days and in many ways still is. I chased trains, climbed a water tank, watched people jump out of perfectly good airplanes and rode my bike all under the watchful eyes of good men and women who were simple, real and enduring in memory. I helped my grandmother tend the graves of my ancestors who rest in the Jenkinsburg cemetery next to the church she attended her entire life and we walked those little blocks and visited all of those wonderful people who were special to me for many years. Every year I watched their beloved maple trees change from green to the brightest colors of fall and I still marvel at them today as they stand watch over the house they shared for five decades.
I ate tomatoes, plumbs and muscadines off my grandfather’s vines in the summer and cracked open pecans from the backyard trees in the autumn as the smell of burning leaves drifted through the air. I spent quality time with quality people, without an iPhone, video games or ear buds in my ears. I marveled at the special gift that was the art of Southern conversation, of genteel voices, accented with the just the right amount of regional dialect and laced with laughter. I experienced true small town charm, exemplary manners and grace firsthand from people who exemplified those characteristics best.
Jenkinsburg is still a small town today, bigger than it was then and with a lot of new businesses growing along the highway but with the same values and sense of community that made it a special place then and now. In my heart and in my memory, it’s still my other hometown and always will be.