There is perhaps no better way to know a place than to walk around in it.
That’s reason enough to take a walking tour through Pembroke with Alex Floyd, a fourth-generation Pembroke-ian and the director of the city’s Downtown Development Authority.
Floyd, who took over as DDA director in June, is trying different things to give residents and visitors alike a way to be more involved in the life of the city. The walking tour is one such idea.
“There’s a history on every corner,” Floyd said, as he took a reporter on a walk around town, cup of coffee in one hand and a brochure in the other.
The mile-and-half-saunter through a handful of downtown streets is an eye opening journey through the last century and then some. Homes that date from the 1890s and early 1900s, and buildings along Main Street that have been home to everything from grocery stores and car dealerships to the county’s first movie theater, and it, the Tos Theater, is being renovated, slowly, to its former glory.
The downtown also housed grocery stores — at one point there were nine, and two “rolling stores,” Floyd said, meaning flatbed trucks that rolled into town loaded with food for sale.
There also was a funeral parlor and two banks, a dentist’s office and, in one case, a booming warehouse owned by the Sims brothers where tomato seedlings were packed and shipped around the country.
Though the tour has a starting and ending point, the stories tend to intersect. A tour taker will learn where Pembroke’s first doctor built his home, though not from the money he made from patients, but instead from turpentine interests.
There’s the fading Ballard Obelisk Flour mural dating to the 1920s on the side of what is known as the Miles and Bailey buildings. It was painted at a time when interest in Egyptian artifacts was high due to discovery of ancient tombs, and it’s just possible to make out what was once a sphinx.
There was a Maxwell car dealership at a time in the early 1900s when Pembroke was a “four-car dealer town,” Floyd said, also offering buyers Fords, Chevrolets and Dodges.
There’s the place where a used mule lot stood next to the oldest house in Pembroke, and a mile away the house once lived in by J.O. Bacon, the head of the Georgia Highway Department in the mid 20th century and the man for whom Highway 204 is named.
In its front yard is a live oak estimated by arborists to be between 225 to 250 years old, making it older than Bryan County.
“That tree probably sprouted in Effingham County,” said Floyd, a nod to the changing county lines of Georgia’s colonial past. “It was probably a real impressive tree when they built this house 120 years ago.”
The house is the second-oldest in Pembroke and was built by the town’s first mayor, W.J. Strickland. He served in the Bulloch County militia during the Civil War and as such “is the only confederate mayor of Pembroke,” Floyd notes.
The first mayor was also the father of the town’s first doctor, J.O. Strickland, and Mayor Strickland’s daughter married Col. Albert Deal, one of the founder’s of Georgia Southern University.
“So W.J. Strickland is the founding father of Pembroke, the father of Pembroke’s first father and the father-in-law of Georgia Southern,” Floyd said. “I think that’s kind of neat.”
There’s more serious history as well. Julius Morgan, who built a block of buildings downtown in the 1910s — including the first in Bryan County to have electricity - became a fighter for civil rights in the 1930s when he fought to be able to serve on a jury.
“Morgan was a Polish and Jewish immigrant,” Floyd said. “The rule is that only people of good moral character could serve on juries, and sometime in the early 1930s someone decided that Jewish men weren’t of good moral character. Morgan took it all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court and won.”
Morgan died in Savannah in 1936, possibly having moved there to be closer to where his case was heard, Floyd said, but his family lived in a stately home in downtown Pembroke until it burned in the 1940s. Many of those grand homes in that area are no longer there, having burned.
But the courthouse and old jail is there — barely big enough to hold more than a couple men — and the Burkhalter home, the Tindol Hotel and much more.
Long ago, on a corner where Carla’s Furniture Gallery is thriving today, there sat an old Atlantic White Flash gas station, just across College Street from where Clyde’s convenience store and a McDonald’s are today.
Near the White Flash was the old press for the Pembroke Journal, where current Mayor Judy Cook had a job setting type. It’s where the first switchboard in Bryan County connected callers when telephones were still a newfangled invention.
“There’s history on every corner,” Floyd said, who also makes it clear that Pembroke is still a young city in many respects, having just turned 100 in 2005.
That means a lot of the history he finds and shares is still alive in memories of those who’ve grown up in Pembroke and seen much of it.
That means he has plenty of help keeping the town’s history fresh.
“Anything I have needed so far I’ve gotten,” Floyd said. “It’s great to live in a town with so many involved people that know you and want to help you.”
The next tour is at 9 a.m. March 3. Call Floyd at 912-653-4413 for information.