Toccoa, Georgia – Go For The Waterfall, But Stay For The History
My tour of waterfalls seemingly at an end, I spread the map out on my lap and contemplated the best route between Tallulah Falls and Atlanta, Georgia. As I scanned my options I noticed a red dot on the map, not far from my current location. I squinted to make out the small print: Toccoa Falls. Another waterfall! There was no question I would divert to see it.
Upon arriving in Toccoa I stopped by the renovated train station that serves as the area’s Welcome Center to ask directions. My intention was to make a quick stop at the waterfall and then be on my way but the gracious staff convinced me there was much more to see in this tiny town nestled in the foothills of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. With no schedule to adhere to, I decided to investigate what Toccoa had to offer.
I began with the Stephens County Historical Society Museum and the Currahee Military Museum, both also located within the historic railroad depot. In the Historical Society Museum I wandered from exhibit to exhibit, learning about well-known personages connected with Toccoa. I was not surprised to discover that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was among them. Roosevelt’s love affair with Georgia is well known; he often traveled to his vacation home in Warm Springs, Georgia, which became known at the “Little White House.” On one such occasion in 1938, he stopped in Toccoa. In a speech made from the rear platform of his special train, Roosevelt commented:
“I do not have to tell you that I am very interested in the State of Georgia. You go hand in hand with the rest of the nation. If anything happens to you, it hurts the rest of the nation, and if anything happens to the rest of the nation it hurts you. So we are all in the same boat; we are all plowing the same furrow.”
However, I was intrigued to read that James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, got his start in Toccoa. Brown, who in the early years was singing in the Toccoa Community Choir, hooked up with a group of young men who were performing as the Gospel Starlighters. As their unique new style emerged – what some called a combination between gospel and “loud music” – they changed their name to the Famous Flames, and the rest is history.
This sleepy hamlet was also birthplace of Paul Anderson, who won the Gold Medal for weightlifting in the 1956 Olympics. From snake oil salesmen to renowned artists, Toccoa has bred a fascinating melange of the famous and infamous. I was impressed. But the best was yet to come.
Double doors led into a separate wing housing the Currahee Military Museum, dedicated to documenting and preserving Toccoa’s military history. In 1942 the federal government acquired what at the time was a fairly remote parcel of land near Toccoa and began training a new type of soldier, the Paratrooper. Five thousand men arrived at Camp Toccoa for the rugged program that July; the 1,600 who successfully completed the training became the 506th Parachute Infantry Division of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division – the “Easy Company” featured in Steven Spielberg’s award-winning HBO series “Band Of Brothers.” The 17,000 soldiers of the 501st, 506th, 511th, and 517th PID who trained at Camp Toccoa during World War II have also been immortalized in “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Dirty Dozen.”
Though the museum contains an interesting collection of medals, photos, maps, weapons, and military uniforms, it is the old stable that most visitors come to see. Built in Aldbourne, England in 1922, it is one of the actual stables that housed both Able and Easy Companies of the 506th before and after D-Day. Many veterans who had lived in the stables returned to England to visit the site after the war. One by one the stables were torn down, until only one remained. Realizing the historical significance of the structure, the owner offered it to the town of Toccoa, which arranged for it to be disassembled, flown to the U.S., and reassembled inside the museum.
Veterans are regular visitors to both the museum and the site of Camp Toccoa. With the exception of one old building that was a bunk house, the original camp structures have long since been torn down, however camp streets are still visible and are marked by fire hydrants. Four marble pillars at the Airborne Monument mark the original entrance to the camp; each pillar is engraved with the name of one of the regiments that trained at the camp, as well as the number and location of jumps made during the war. But it is the nondescript dirt road leading up the mountain that attracts most visitors; they come to make the brutal three mile run up the steep mountain, as every paratrooper who came before had done.
From the museum I walked two blocks to Doyle Street to see the recently restored 100-year old neo-classical courthouse, crown jewel of Toccoa’s downtown historic district. The exterior boasts four large lonic columns, a detailed cupola with a four-faced clock, and a balcony from which politicians addressed the citizens, even though they had to crawl through a window to access the balcony. Although the interior had long been rumored to contain an underground tunnel that was used to transport prisoners from the train depot to the courthouse, no such tunnel was discovered during the renovation. However, a shaft running from the judge’s bench on the second floor to the basement was discovered; no one knows why that shaft from the courtroom all the way down to the boiler room exists.
Toccoa’s devotion to historic preservation is evident all along Doyle Street. The entire downtown has been added to the National Register of Historic Places and many of the buildings have been restored or are in the process of being restored to their original brick facades. Red brick paved sidewalks lead past ice cream shops, antique malls, and country diners. This city of 10,000 captured the national spotlight when its Main Street program was named one of the top ten revitaization efforts in the United States.
At the suggestion of the Welcome Center employee, I stopped at the Cornerstone Restaurant for lunch and was pleasantly surprised – not only because I enjoyed an absolutely delicious vegetarian meal, but also because of the warm welcome I received. In fact, every single person I met in this town was friendly; one man, seeing my camera, even suggested I check out the selection of used lenses available in the antique mall.
With so much to see and do in the area, my “quick stop” turned into a two-day stay. Toccoa borders the Chattahoochee National Forest, Lake Russell Wildlife Management Area, Yonah Lake, the Tugaloo River, and Lake Hartwell. The area is rich in Cherokee Indian history as it was the center of the Cherokee Nation during the mid-1700’s. Numerous special events held throughout the year include the Toccoa Harvest Festival, the Currahee Arts Festival, Taste of Toccoa, and the Currahee Military Weekend, during which paratroopers who trained at Camp Toccoa and Currahee Mountain reminisce about their training experiences.
I did eventually find my way to Toccoa Falls, as well as another small waterfall in Henderson Falls Park, and although both were worth seeing, they paled in comparison to the the town’s other attractions.