Any regular reader of PorterBriggs.com knows that the South extends far beyond stereotypes—it routinely defies them indeed—encompassing diversity and modernity stretching as far across the spectrum as anywhere else in the world. However, the cherished ideals of the South—things like antebellum plantations, quail hunting, and the bounty of a shade-giving pecan grove—do live on, and they can be found in Thomasville, Georgia.
The type of success in an agrarian life that the South long has stood for in the greater American story is found here, and it’s not a work of renaissance alone but a continuation of a longstanding effort and ethos of agricultural production. That’s found throughout southern Georgia, but nowhere is it as evident nor as broadly successful than Thomas County. Perhaps the greatest lesson Thomasville can offer the rest of the South is how you build on what you already have, how innovation and success do not mean a replacement of what is extant but instead augmenting it for the present day.
Thomasville’s agricultural production is impressive. Dairies and cheese-making, pecan groves, swine, field and truck crops, and poultry are all strong. Beef cattle less so, but there’s that as well. Good rail infrastructure allowed Thomasville in earlier times to ship out its produce more readily than many other locales, and today its agricultural products such as cheeses from Sweet Grass Dairy are sought all over Georgia and beyond.
With a tradition of small farms and quality production, it’s not surprising that a number of restaurants and other businesses that can make use of this bounty of food have cropped up in Thomasville. Sweet Grass Dairy started selling its cheeses in town, and then opened a full bar and small restaurant at the same location offering cheese plates and other traditional fare such as burgers and sandwiches. I tried their appropriately-titled Taste of Thomasville cheese board and was beyond impressed: the cheeses lived up to all expectations, but the real winner was locally-produced wildflower honey, house-roasted pecans from local groves, and local jams and preserves. Everything, true to the name, was from Thomasville or its environs. Their bar with its craft cocktails has quickly become a favored gathering place for locals.
While there, I was informed that the county’s two rival schools—Thomasville High and Thomas County Central—were slated to play a football game that night and I shouldn’t miss it, so I made plans to attend. It’s that kind of place: you come in for lunch and get invited to a football game and told where the best places to go quail hunting are before your food has even come out—it’s just like that.
You also will be told about Liam’s, the restaurant that put Thomasville on the foodie map in the first place. A restaurant that some will say is the best in the region and others will say, no, it’s the best in the whole state—a claim that undoubtedly puts restaurants in Atlanta and Savannah on notice. Once I ate there I could honestly say this: it’s an unequaled and unique experience for sure. There are few places you can both get a fine French-inspired meal in the dining room or choose from drinks and simple, rustic, but wonderful sandwiches in the bar, but here it’s possible. Liam’s also sells cheeses—it seems everyone around here is in the cheese business. Quail makes an appearance on the menu as well. While making ample use of local farms, Liam’s also sources far and wide for the best raw ingredients they can locate, including some cheeses from New York state and pork from Iowa. They also know how to pour a drink, and don’t be surprised if the owners stop by to chat.
Jonah’s Fish and Grits is another Thomasville tradition and serves, as its name would suggest, exemplary seafood prepared in accord with Southern conventions, though there is plenty of innovation too, with crab-stuffed salmon being an option alongside the grits and fried shrimp. Like Liam’s and Sweet Grass, there is an emphasis on locally-sourced and fresh ingredients here and also on returning to roots with heirloom recipes for sides such as fried green tomatoes and fried pickles. These Southern foodways extend far beyond this region of Georgia but found a renaissance here, and the whole restaurant scene is certainly richer for it.
Coffee is big here too, with Thomasville’s Grassroots Coffee Company leading this trend. The coffee shop has expanded to Valdosta now, where it has won rave reviews, and the Thomasville location even includes a small boutique, Sturdy Brothers Dry Goods, which sells hand-crafted leather goods such as wallets and bags. Next door, another boutique, Smith Collective sells an elective and whimsical array of men’s and ladies’ clothing, jewelry, and home goods. The items for sale at Sturdy Brothers are also made in the region, and many local shops lean towards goods that are either locally-produced or hard-to-find, and many have an online presence allowing them to expand their commerce beyond Thomas County. The same applies to the arts, with The Wiregrass Gallery leading the way as an artists’ collective offering a wide variety of visual artworks.
What allows for this wellspring of creativity, quality, and commercial success in Thomasville, when many small Southern county seats seem to be struggling with their economies? Part of it is the fact that Thomasville always has been relatively affluent with a successful plantation economy which led to the diverse, larger, and highly-adept farms nowadays. Also, money stayed local—people continued to shop, bank, and do business locally. The downtown adapted to changing times—it did not fall to them. In many regards Thomasville thus serves as a shining example to other small Southern regional centers of how this can be done. Some of the esteemed plantations now cater to quail hunting for which the region is renowned. Pinion Point Plantation has long been known as a private quail hunting preserve, while Sinkola near Thomasville is a favored attraction for gentleman hunters, and Myrtlewood Plantation also offers hunting opportunities.
Deer, duck, wild turkey, and dove are all popular for hunters in this part of Georgia, but the bob-white quail is the animal which has put Thomas County on the map. At Sinkola the hunts are conducted just as they have been for decades—indeed hunting quail first became a popular part-time in the early 1800’s. Dogs, guides, and a lot of luck are all necessary in the quest for the challenging and wary bob-white. Like fox hunts of England, hunting the bob-white requires planning and teamwork and is a far cry from jumping in your truck during deer season and just heading out to see if you can score a buck. It’s a gentleman’s leisure pursuit if ever there was one, and the traditions run deep.
I did make it to the football game, and I think possibly most of Thomas County did as well. Parking was scarce to say the least, but the welcome was warm. Thomasville High’s stadium was literally filled to capacity, and the talented bands from the two schools put everyone in a festive mood. When someone speaks of Friday night lights, this is exactly what they mean: small-town rival schools in the game of the season with the whole town cheering them on, dreams being made, and hard work paying off. It was an amazing game, and though Thomas County Central won, the effort of both teams was clear as was the enthusiasm of the fans, which matched in fervent intensity that of an SEC college game. Whether you come for the celebrated restaurants, to buy some local cheese, or to seek out the elusive quail—whatever your business in Thomasville, I strongly recommend taking in a high school football game if possible.
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