RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: DNA of a hometown keeps shaping through changes

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

The town’s firefighters are on the square tonight to practice controlling their monster water hose. It makes for a good free show, and about a dozen spectators and a black dog gather to watch.
I have an excellent vantage, the veranda of the Tarrer Inn, a 1905 hotel, which in my youth was a boarded-up boarding house where teachers had once lived. Vines and time had overtaken it. We used to call it the Ghost Hotel.
Now the renovated inn is a pretty pink showplace with 12 guest rooms and period antiques, and staying here I can’t decide if I feel like Scarlett O’Hara or Dodge City’s Miss Kitty. The desk clerk leaves at 9 p.m., and we guests have the place to ourselves, an honor system that’s touching.
I did not grow up here; my parents moved away before I turned 2. But I spent much of each childhood summer with grandparents who remained near Colquitt, and the courthouse square and nearby Spring Creek seem part of my DNA. The earth at Colquitt smells like home.
But I can’t get over the duded-up version of Colquitt these days. For one thing there are the giant murals, over a dozen, painted on everything from a mighty peanut silo to Main Street walls. I’ve seen murals all over this country, including excellent ones in Rayne, a Louisiana town with frog-themed paintings. I’ve never seen any that are as well done as these.
My favorite mural is one painted by Wes Hardin called “A Young Soldier Leaves Colquitt.” A bus is waiting behind a World War II draftee in a new uniform, giving his mother a hug. His father, looking forlorn, holds his hat and waits his turn to say goodbye.
The square was much more rudimentary in my day, with the hardware store, the E-Z Shoppe dime store, Wyatt’s Grocery, a fabric store and the gift shop. There was a theater, too, where one night with cousin Donna I saw Doris Day and David Niven in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.” My maternal grandfather, our Pop, dropped us at the picture show. I remember worrying that he wouldn’t have approved of the “racy” film, daring because it mentioned the word “divorce.”
Now around the square there are antique emporiums and a bookstore and even a Chinese restaurant. Imagine Chinese food in Colquitt.
I know you can’t go home again, but every few years it is fun to try. Colquitt keeps reinventing itself as Georgia’s First Mural City and an art mecca with a popular folk-life play called “Swamp Gravy” and even seminars to teach other small towns how to capitalize on home-grown talent.
As I sit and watch the firemen try to tame their wild hose, I keep thinking of Pop and what he might think if he could come back and see all the changes. Once a week, usually on Friday, he’d drive from his home to the pay booth on the square and telephone us. For years he had no phone at home.
What would he make of a world that no longer needs phone booths because everyone in Colquitt – and the rest of the world – is walking around talking on untethered telephones? I think he’d love the murals but miss the hardware store. I feel certain of one thing. Pop would be down there with the group watching the firemen spraying the square with city water. He never could resist a free show.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.