Construction Work Begins for New Visitors Center at Macon's Historic Fort Hawkins

By JIM GAINES — [email protected]

MACON, GA (07/25/2013) - The first dirt moved Thursday at Fort Hawkins, as a line of ceremonial shovelers kicked off construction of a two-story, log visitors center.

It’s the first of several planned uses for $750,000 in local sales tax money earmarked for the 1806 fort site.

“This is something we’ve been trying to do for 15 or 20 years,” said Mike Cranford, chairman of the Fort Hawkins Commission.

Nearly 100 people turned out on the hot, sunny morning to stand in an asphalt parking lot, the former site of a gas station fronting Emery Highway near Maynard Street.

“The cabin will actually be sitting right here,” Cranford said from behind a lectern.  He was backed by a row of shovels stuck in the dirt, flanked by a drawing and floor plan of the center.

Fort Hawkins was built on the high east bank of the Ocmulgee River, and it served as an important frontier post in the War of 1812. Macon was founded in 1823.

“This is the birthplace of our city,” Councilwoman Elaine Lucas said.  It’s right to focus attention on the restoration of such a historic site, she said, thanking those who worked to make it happen.

Nearly a quarter-century ago Mayor Lee Robinson “rejuvenated” the Fort Hawkins Commission, and the city bought the site under Mayor C. Jack Ellis, Lucas said.  She, former councilman Cranford and Councilman Ed DeFore have all been involved for years, she said.  “But the bottom line is, it was all of you,” Lucas told the crowd, which included many other Fort Hawkins Commission members.

Marty Willett, Fort Hawkins project coordinator, said the all-volunteer commission has met monthly since 1990.  He has served on it since then and has long looked forward to serious work on the site.

“It’s an exciting day in the history of Fort Hawkins, which has a long and interesting history,” Willett said.

Councilman DeFore told onlookers that he attended an elementary school that once stood next to the Fort Hawkins site, and he recalled watching Depression-era federal work crews rebuilding one of the fort’s corner blockhouses.  It still stands atop the hill.

The fort’s original plans burned in the British attack on Washington, D.C., in 1814, but archaeological digs have turned up the line of the wooden palisade, a second blockhouse and at least one interior building, along with thousands of artifacts.

In November 2011, Bibb County voters approved a special purpose local option sales tax that included $750,000 for Fort Hawkins.  The Fort Hawkins Commission plans to spend $200,000 on the visitors center; $300,000 on landscaping, a trail, signs and security; $175,000 on preparing the sites and historic exhibits; and $75,000 to rebuild a “major portion” of the fort’s east, west and south walls.

Hearthstone Log Homes of Tennessee has said it’s willing to build the visitor’s center at cost, altering the company’s standard “Riverside” design to include a meeting room, gift shop, library and two floors of historical exhibits.

“We’re hoping to get the visitors center completed by the end of this year,” Willett said.  The commission hasn’t chosen a grand opening date but will likely have a “soft opening” in early 2014, he said.

A master plan for rebuilding the entire fort calls for $3.5 million.  Willett has said the commission will seek further funding from private groups, using the SPLOST work as proof that it’s a viable project.

Theron Ussery, a member of the SPLOST advisory committee, thanked local elected officials for adding Fort Hawkins to the $190 million SPLOST project list, and voters for approving it.

Mayor Robert Reichert said he’s confident the visitors center will increase tourism on the site.

He thanked the Peyton Anderson Foundation and Mercer University for their participation.  The city wanted the site, while Mercer wanted a piece of land the city owned elsewhere.  So they agreed to a swap, with the Foundation covering the difference in price, Reichert said. City crews demolished the gas station in late 2012.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 478-744-4489.