Now and then, when I get especially exasperated because the Democrats and Republicans refuse to work together on anything, I think about the little South Georgia town of Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald is a truly unique place that could teach us all a lesson.
In the early 1890s, an economic depression swept across the United States. At the same time, a terrible drought ravaged the farmlands of the Midwest. Once-fertile farms became dusty wastelands, leaving thousands hungry and desperate. A call went out for help.
The State of Georgia, which was still recovering from being thoroughly devastated during the Civil War, responded with notable generosity. Numerous trainloads of food and feed were shipped into the devastated areas.
In Indianapolis, Philander H. Fitzgerald, who was both editor of the American Tribune and an attorney specializing in Civil War veterans’ affairs, was deeply moved by these acts of mercy and kindness.
For years, Fitzgerald had dreamed of establishing a colony in a warm climate for aging Union soldiers. He worked with veterans and knew their problems. He wanted to give them relief from the bitter Northern winters and the unrelenting droughts of the time.
Georgia’s display of charity convinced him it was the right place for his colony.
Through editorials in his newspaper, Fitzgerald detailed his plan to veterans. At the same time, he appealed to Georgia Governor William Northern, a Confederate veteran, for assistance in locating a site.
Governor Northern responded with a promise to help. Fitzgerald was flooded with inquiries from veterans.
Fitzgerald organized the American Tribune Soldiers’ Colony Company. He sold sufficient stock to enable the purchase of 50,000 acres of virgin pine forest in the heart of south Georgia.
The name of the new colony came naturally: Fitzgerald.
By the summer of 1895, before surveys of the town could be completed, people began arriving — by wagon, by train, and on horseback.
Although the colony was open to “all good people,” Union veterans, 2,700 of them, were in the majority.
Among them were survivors of every major Civil War battle, of Sherman’s March to the Sea, and of Andersonville Prison.
One stockholder was a member of the contingent that captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Ironically, Davis had been captured less than 15 miles from the site of the new colony.
As surveyors worked and the town took shape, colonists set up housekeeping in shacks, tents, and covered wagons.
When the streets were laid out, seven were named for Union generals and seven for Confederate generals. A wooden bandstand soon became the social focus of the community. The music ranged from Yankee Doodle to Dixie.
Seeking to provide local employment and attract tourists, the Colony Company constructed an impressive wood-framed hotel.
Its name was to be the Hotel Grant-Lee. But in deference to the town’s location, it was christened the Lee-Grant.
The town opened its first school in the fall of 1896. Children from 38 states and two territories attended. Of the 12 teachers, only one, the superintendent, was a Southerner. The Colony Company provided free textbooks.
With the first year’s hardships behind them, the colonists planned a Thanksgiving celebration festival. Invitations went out to the surrounding area.
Many of the locals were skeptical of their new Yankee neighbors, but hundreds attended the festival to see for themselves.
As part of the festivities, the town wanted to stage a parade, but they feared it might be asking for trouble. Out of caution, they decided to have two parades: one for Union veterans and one for Confederate.
Their plan didn’t work. Witnesses reported what happened:
“When the band struck up a march, veterans in gray, recognizing the accomplishments of the colonists, stepped into formation with veterans in blue, and all marched as one beneath the Stars and Stripes.”
A news article said, “The stage was set for the future of Fitzgerald by men who, having met once on the field of battle, determined on that day to meet again on the field of life and forge a unique and enduring city where North and South reunited.”
I don’t know what Fitzgerald is like today. I suspect it’s an ordinary place, not much different from any other small town in Georgia — or, for that matter, in any other state.
If it doesn’t measure up to the high bar it established long ago, that would be understandable.
But Fitzgerald says something important about our potential. It proves that, regardless of the circumstances, we can choose to do the right thing.
So, when the shallow, carping politicians test your patience, or when you encounter pettiness, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, or outright bigotry, take a deep breath and think about Fitzgerald, Georgia.
Today, the town’s motto is “History, Harmony, Heritage.”
Philander H. Fitzgerald would approve of that.