Monday, September 14, 2015

Okefenokee Swamp: A Defiant Wilderness

Over the past two summers Russell Library intern Kaylynn Washnock assisted in curating the new exhibit, “Seeing Georgia: Changing Visions of Tourism in the Modern South” opening September 18th in the Russell Library’s Harrison Feature Gallery. The exhibit investigates how the state transformed itself from a way station along the route to Florida into a tourist destination during the twentieth century. It addition to highlighting six popular destinations in Georgia the exhibit considers questions of access, preservation, and economics – who could go, how they got there, and what motivated them to visit different attractions. The exhibit also explores the professionalization of the tourism industry and the roles of modern amenities in shaping the modern tourist experience. This post is one in a series where Kaylynn offers a preview of the exhibition.   

Postcard, ca. 1960s. Courtesy of Ed Jackson.
Williamson S. Stuckey Papers,
Russell Library
The Okefenokee Swamp is perhaps most famous for its successful resistance of all attempts to subdue and exploit it. Occupying 700 square miles in the southeastern Georgia, it was drained by timber companies, dredged for canal construction, and its wildlife hunted to near extinction. Yet this primitive swamp remains intact, attracting tourists in spite of itself, translating a reputation for danger and mystery into a popular attraction. In the 1920s, conservation groups like the Okefenokee Preservation Society and The Georgia Society of Naturalists began stressing the importance of the Okefenokee ecosystem in hopes of protecting the swamp and its wildlife. After public outcry, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Conservation of Wildlife Resources visited the site and had the U.S. Biological Survey further investigate. In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order #7593 establishing the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge after the government spent $400,000 purchasing land from the Hebard Cypress Company.

Movie Poster and Ephemera Collection,
Hargrett Library
Local Native Americans called the Okefenokee Swamp, “Okefenoka,” which means “land that trembles when you walk on it” because of the unstable peat moss deposits that appear like floating islands. Although “swampers” or residents native to the swamp counties include hunters, loggers, firefighters and even canal diggers have long depended on Okefenokee, Hollywood didn’t “discover its unmatched charm” until the 1940s. Movie producers and Swamp Park boosters exploited the dangerous “lost world” atmosphere to tempt vacationers into a visit. Under the direction of Dr. Wilbur Clair Hafford, the Tourist Bureau of the Waycross and Ware County Chamber of Commerce organized a civic, non-profit corporation Okefenokee Association, Inc. for the purpose of developing a tourist attraction at Okefenokee.  With the approval of Georgia Governor Ellis Arnall and the U.S. department of Agriculture, the Association leased 1,200 acres to create the Okefenokee Swamp Park. Opened in October 1946, the Okefenokee Swamp Park continues today as a private tourist destination offering boat tours, educational displays, and sightseeing that capitalizes on the allure of the swamp.
Okefenokee park brochure, ca. 1950s.
E. Merton Coulter Manuscripts, Hargrett Library.
Want to find out more about Georgia Tourism? Visit Seeing Georgia: Changing Visions of Tourism in the New South on display in the Harrison Feature Gallery in the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries from September 18, 2015 through July 30, 2016. The Russell Library gallery is free and open to the public weekdays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 1-5 p.m. For more information, email or call 706-542-5788

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