Alex: We were driving back home after a wonderful and relaxing weekend in Savannah. We’d spent most of the trip recharging, so we were both feeling a bit adventurous. Heather had the idea to take the next exit with a brown highway sign we saw, no matter what it was. We had no idea what we were in for when we pulled off on Exit 49 for the Fort King George Historical Site.
After a few twists and turns through the tiny town of Darien, we parked and made our way up to the museum entrance. As we opened the door, we found ourselves face to face with a British soldier taking refuge from the heat and humidity. When we paid our admission, we found that we had arrived on the perfect day at the perfect time. The site was filled with reenactors and there would also be various demonstrations throughout the day including a cannon and musket firing down in the fort itself.
We had a bit of time before the explosions, so we took the opportunity to walk through the museum itself before heading back outside. The fortress itself was built by British Colonel John “Tuscarora Jack” Barnwell in 1721. The fortifications were only manned for half a dozen years before Barnwell and His Majesties Independent Company were driven back to South Carolina by the dangerous environment and the threats from the Spanish, French, and native population. The exhibits were very informative, with scale replicas of the fort and a variety of artifacts. The interior was clean and well maintained, and the exhibit on medical procedures and medicines were just as gruesome as they were enlightening (Two words, bleeding bowl!).
It was a short walk from the museum to the fort, but it was incredibly scenic. A few reeanctors strolled ahead of us as we passed the remnants of the sawmill that was in operation from the early 1800s until 1925. Unfortunately, saw milling obliterated the original site of Fort King George, which was painstakingly reconstructed in 1988 with the help of the Lower Altamaha Historical Society and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (see more here). It is always fascinating to see the multiple layers of history existing simultaneously as you walk from the modern day museum, to the turn of the century brick and mortar sawmill operations, and then finally to the fort built of tough seasoned cypress.
The reconstruction is beautifully well done; the wooden palisade juts up from the earthworks and looks just as imposing as it must have looked centuries ago. The four-story wooden blockhouse towers over the area. Today its only manned by locals and tourists armed with nothing more frightening than a digital camera, but it would have been a much more threatening location filled with its garrison of sweaty unhappy colonial soldiers armed with muskets and cannons loaded with grapeshot.
Inside is even more impressive, especially with the troupe of local reenactors. A whole chicken roasted on a stick over an open fire near the enlisted men’s barracks as we wandered around the parade grounds. A family in colonial dress played folk songs long out of fashion. Most of the smaller outbuildings are simplistic one room affairs, but the open kitchen and smithy were worth a look. Inside the fort, the walls seemed less threatening and more reassuring, most likely because the cannons were all pointed in the other direction!
We were watching the river flow past the docks when we heard a massive explosion. The cannon demonstration! We hurried back to the blockhouse in time to see the end. All of the “soldiers” were friendly and knowledgeable, and they talked through the various steps for firing artillery along with the different kinds of rounds they could fire. Once they finished with the cannon, the soldier we saw when we first walked in to the museum started the musket firing demonstration. It was great to see someone who enjoyed history and teaching really getting to do what he loved. It was also very impressive to see just how fast he fired his musket at “battle speed” where he loaded and fired in less than twenty seconds.
Once the loud and exciting noises were over with, we explored the blockhouse itself. It was a very interesting construction, with the only feature not a part of the original plans being permanent stairs in place of ladders that could be easily removed in case of attack. The interior was interspersed with firing slits all around, including the viewports for several cannons. Even the floor included murder slots that could be unblocked by a fitted piece of wood to allow the soldiers inside to fire down on interlopers beneath the overhanging lip of the blockhouse.
We were starting to feel the effect of Georgia’s heat and humidity, those same factors that gave the fort’s founder so much trouble. On our way back to the glorious wonder of modern technology known as air conditioning, we stopped by the “Highlander House.” This daub and wattle house was an example of the sort of construction that may have been used by the Scottish settlers who reclaimed the area a decade after the fort was abandoned and later founded the nearby town of Darien.
It is amazing; the things you might miss if you don’t stop and take a moment to enjoy them. We had no plans to hear cannon fire when we woke up this morning. We weren’t carefully plotting out when each demonstration would be. We just pulled off the highway and had the incredible opportunity to take in some of Georgia’s rich history. Take a moment next time you’re on the highway to do the same, and see what sort of wonderful things you can find.