Georgia’s Wiregrass Region is vast, stretching from the Okefenokee Swamp westward as far as the area around Bainbridge. It’s a region that encompasses a rich human and natural history, ecosystems found nowhere else in the world, and examples of the type of pioneer spirit for which America is renowned. If the region—a land of independent and self-sustaining families and a rural way of life—can be said to have an epicenter, it is Valdosta, the largest city in the region.
Founded in 1860 when the railroad bypassed the extant locality of Troupville and settlement moved closer to the rail line, Valdosta quickly grew into an important center of the area’s cotton crop and other agricultural pursuits. While now the fourteenth-largest city in Georgia by population, Valdosta at the turn of the century was even larger and was ranked as having the highest per capita income in the entire nation by Fortune Magazine in 1910 due to the good jobs it provided across the board for residents.
Alas, throughout the twentieth century Valdosta fell on hard times at several critical points, including in recent years, but local efforts to bring vitality back to downtown, as well as the benefits of a regional university—Valdosta State—have proven for an economic and cultural rebirth that could serve as a model for other Southern cities of the same size and situation.
Valdosta’s start in life came at an unlikely time in Southern history, right around the onset of the Civil War. It was a time of transition from a plantation economy to one that was more diverse, from a rural way of life to one where cities would play a greater role. Postwar, cotton remained king in the region until the ravages of the boll weevil took their toll on the crop and forced diversity to come to the local economy. Now education, transport, the military in the form of Moody Air Force Base, and agriculture, including peanuts, pecans, field crops, and livestock, all contribute to Valdosta’s and the entire region’s economic base.
Perhaps most interesting though has been the dedication of the downtown area to recognizing its innate worth in terms of architectural and social history and repurposing its turn-of-the-century urban core to one that attracts people downtown and benefits both the economy and general quality of life. Valdosta may no longer be the richest city in the nation per capita income, but it has a real richness all the same.
Southern cities and towns like Valdosta, most of which came of age in the 1850’s to the 1910’s, grew up around the all-important railroad, and much of the whole reason behind having regional centers like these was to provide a means of transporting goods in and out of town and storing and selling those goods. The same basic concept is the reason port cities like Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, were key to the rise of the plantation South in the first place: the railroad allowed localities much further inland to have the benefit of timely transportation and made it possible for larger crop yields to be grown and moved into other markets.
The problem is, however, that as the railroad became less crucial to retail economics and as the businesses serviced by rail moved out of city centers, the buildings that went up downtown for rail-related purposed often became vacant—they were industrial buildings in a non-industrial setting. Also, in even more recent times, as big-box stores and the Internet created challenges to traditional retail business, many retail space and offices in downtowns found themselves vacated. This is a trend all across America but very evident in the South where often-impressive early-twentieth-century buildings now sit with vacancies.
In Valdosta, a concentrated effort is afoot to change this situation and bring dynamic businesses to downtown, and it’s working. The rich cultural influence of Valdosta State University and the young people it draws to the city can be felt in two performing arts efforts—the Theatre Guild Valdosta and Cinema—both of which are located downtown. The Theatre Guild operates out of the Dosta Playhouse, which is a single-screen movie theatre built in 1941 and restored by the Guild to its original splendor. Cinema operates out of another location and focuses on film and a diverse selection of cinematic offerings throughout the year.
Restaurants have been another means of recapturing the glory of downtown and adding something to the local cultural fabric. The rise of New Southern cuisine has been a facet of Southern life chronicled by the media and seen as vital to an appreciation of the contemporary American South, and one of the leading restaurants which pioneered this movement is located right in downtown Valdosta: Steel Magnolias. Focused on farm-to-table regional cuisine with its roots in the immediate area around Valdosta and the bounty of Wiregrass agricultural production, Steel Magnolias serves innovative but tradition-based dishes such as shrimp and grits, chicken and dumplings, and duck breast served with duck sausage. The physical space it went into is prime downtown real estate and, despite the challenges in terms of size and interior, has been turned into one of the most charming restaurant spaces in the South.
And Steel Magnolias isn’t alone: The Bleu Café just down the street also offers quality, innovative food in an attractive space and utilizes what once was a retail storefront property. Less formal than Steel Magnolias, Bleu Café is known for its selection of tacos inspired by cities across the South—such as a fried chicken taco from Savannah or a South Beach one with fried fish—and also its pizzas. It also has a bar that runs the entire span of the right side of the restaurant and is a popular gathering place after work. A number of other restaurants have taken advantage of downtown locations—from the downhome King’s Grill to the upscale 306 North—and provide something for everyone. It would be nearly impossible to be in downtown Valdosta and claim that one could not find a good place for lunch or for dinner with this variety.
Valdosta, as the seat of Lowndes County, sports a fine example of an historic courthouse and the concept of the courthouse square in the center of town as the center of the community. Valdosta had two courthouses prior to the building of the historic one that served as its seat of court from its construction in 1905 to the completion of a new Judicial Complex nearby in 2010. The 1905 structure was designed by architect Frank B. Milburn, and through the use of classical revival architecture conveys a sense the power and worth of justice and community. As with many Southern towns and their courthouse squares, the one in Valdosta set the tone for surrounding buildings, and impressive structures dedicated to business and law grew up all around this heart of downtown.
Another thing Valdosta is long known for is its high school sports: Valdosta High has had, for decades, the winning-most high school football team in the entire nation and that proud tradition is given some competition nowadays by across-town rivals Lowndes High. Both schools field incredibly good football programs and have also excelled in other sports. Valdosta State University also has a strong sports program and one of the best intramural and student recreation programs for its student body in the country as well as an innovative, leading master’s degree program in coaching pedagogy that was one of the first in its type in the world. Signs of the love of sports in this city are seen everywhere you look, from college kids jogging around the Valdosta State campus to a Valdosta High cross-country team sticker on a car parked downtown, and there is a high level of pride in local sporting institutions, as there ought to be, given the ample accomplishments of those institutions.
From the new businesses sparkling in old buildings downtown to the beautiful and sprawling campus of Valdosta State University, this city provides a real wealth. Often overlooked in the cycle of supposedly cool Southern cities that make the rounds in magazine and television coverage, Valdosta displays reality: it illustrates the very real challenges and triumphs possible in a modern mid-sized Southern city, and it demonstrates its unrelenting success despite changes currents in economics and society. It’s an example worth checking out and a font of Georgia history.
Many More Fantastic Photos of Valdosta, Georgia, Here