By Celia Coates
Laura is a friend who doesn’t sit still when there’s a new place to explore or something fascinating to discover – that’s how she found Fitzgerald, Georgia. She was visiting friends and heard about a nearby town filled with chickens that have the right of way in traffic, so she went to see the town for herself.
Laura brought back a reprint of a promotional article that was published in 1896 that tells the story of the town:
“For several years Mr. P.H. Fitzgerald, of Indiana, had an idea of locating an ‘old soldiers’ colony’ in some place where the old vets might live in peace and happiness and spend the remainder of their lives in a congenial and pleasant climate; in some place where they might erect homes for themselves and families, and which they could leave as a rich heritage to their children. There was no place in the North which was suitable or desirable, as the winters were severely cold and unpleasant, naturally he turned to the South as the best place of all.”
Fitzgerald was born in 1849 in Indiana and was too young to have fought in the Civil War himself. He studied “Commerce, Accounting, and Law,” was admitted to the Bar in 1872, and went on to represent widows and injured soldiers as they sought their pensions. He bought a newspaper with a circulation of 300, renamed it THE AMERICAN TRIBUNE, and increased its readership to 28,000. In his paper he promoted the idea of reuniting the country by creating a town built by veterans from both the North and the South. He did not create the town by himself, but it sprang from his idea and was given his name – Fitzgerald.
The bright prospects were described in the flowery language of 1896:
“Gathered together here are brave patriots clasping arms of friendship and love, and the best citizens of the universe are struggling together to erect a city that will forever stand as a living monument of integrity, perseverance and patriotism.” (But this was a time in our history when ‘brave patriots’ included only white Civil War soldiers.)
“As to the city of Fitzgerald itself, there has never been a city more beautifully surveyed and laid off. In locating and laying it off wise heads were brought together, and as a result their sense and good judgment is shown on every hand. … The streets west of Main Street are named after the leading Confederate generals, and the streets east of Main Street are named after the leading Union generals; there’s Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Thomas, Logan, Meade and Hooker, and their brave antagonists, Lee, Jackson, Johnson, Longstreet, Gordon, Bragg and Hill, who will be commemorated in this city among the Southern pines, while the men who fought under their leadership on either side clasp hands, with a respect for each other such only as brave men can feel, and renew their vows of loyalty to a common country and a common flag.”
Mr. Fitzgerald had already begun searching for a state that would welcome his town when his attention was caught by an act of generosity: “…the suffering people of Nebraska, who, visited by a dire calamity, famine, were calling for aid from more fortunate sections….”
The state of Georgia responded. “Ex-Governor W.J. Northen sent two train loads of provisions to Nebraska to be distributed to the people who were so greatly in need.”
Then, “Not desiring to become entirely responsible for the location of a colony of such magnitude,” five men from other midwestern states traveled to Georgia with Fitzgerald and together they chose the first 40,000 acres that were set aside for the new town.
The brochure goes on to describe the growth of the colony city:
“The vanguard was small, but in the rear were to follow thousands. Many came in wagons through the country, others came by rail. At first it was a wagon here and a wagon there, it was one man here and two men there; and finally, it was one train load, then two train loads, three train loads, etc., until now about seven thousand people are on the colony lands busily engaged in preparing their tracts and getting them in a state of cultivation.” (The population of Fitzgerald today is around 9,000.)
“The old soldier contingent in the colony is largely in majority. Many hundred of them are there, but there are also large numbers of farmers from Nebraska. Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and other Northern and Western states. … There is the best of feeling between these people, and they help each other along in the enjoyment of life’s pleasures by a kind word here and kind act there, and so it goes.”
“We had a many obstacles to overcome; we had a trying time for awhile, and had thousands of anxious souls to pacify. We did this, and more. We had to fight enemies without, but we gained the hard fought battle and now success is ours.”
Now, for a moment, back to the chickens.
It turned out that they were beautiful Burmese chickens with vivid orange and yellow ruffs and shiny black tail feathers. The town website says,
“Flocks of chicks were released several miles from Fitzgerald at the Ocmulgee River. Populations of the bird never took hold and for some reason, they left the river site and made their way to downtown Fitzgerald where they have propagated and prospered ever since.”
Not only are they beautiful, but,
“… Burmese chickens are also more athletic than your average chicken. According to one poultry resource, if caught in a fight, Burmese chickens will move around and think out their moves, while other breeds move straight into the fray.”
They have been a source of neighborly disagreements in Fitzgerald with some people feeding them and others shooing them out of their gardens or off their cars. No one is allowed to harm them or even to take their eggs. But now, there is a truce and the chickens have become a tourist attraction that brings some material good to the town.
Like the chickens, the people of Fitzgerald came from elsewhere and settled in because it was a good place to live and prosper. Sometimes the stories in WINN are simple – as in this post – but they are still about kindness, generosity, and the common good. In our embattled times – although it would be wise to fight like the more strategic Burmese chickens – it would be even better if we could find a way to create peace – to grow together – in our bitterly divided country.
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First, Thank you, Laura.
The reprint, FITZGERALD, GA.: The Colony City, was from an article published in THE SOUTH ILLUSTRATED, Atlanta, Ga, April 1896 by the Community Bank of Fitzgerald in celebration of the town’s Centennial.
The image that accompanies this post is Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol.
You can learn more about the chickens: