As I walked along the shady sidewalk through town, every person I passed nodded, smiled, and asked, “How you doin?” Renovated old buildings with gorgeous facades lined both sides of the brick-laden street. Local business owners beckoned me with warm smiles to come inside and explore their shops. It really didn’t take long for me to discover the southern charm of Thomasville, Georgia.
The southern charm didn’t end there. I spent a long weekend exploring the history of the town, visiting the local shops and plantations, and discovering fantastic local food. And of course, there were oak trees, pecans, and Victorian architecture because what would a southern town be without each of those?
Discover Thomasville 144 E. Jackson Street, Thomasville, GA | 229-228-7977 | thomasvillega.com
Pebble Hill Plantation
Plantation history is inexorably linked to Thomasville’s popularity as a tourist destination today. This might seem counter intuitive, but that’s because the cotton and rice estates were short-lived and quickly replaced with plantations full of paid staff members.
Like many southern towns in the early 1800s, Thomasville was surrounded by agricultural plantations. And like many southern towns in the late 1800s, their economy was upended entirely with the conclusion of the Civil War. As property values plunged, the plantation owners resorted to selling their last great asset: land.
The Grand Winter Resort Era began around 1875 when wealthy northerners rode the aptly named Southern Railway to the southern terminus in Thomasville. Seeking a place to escape the harsh winters of the north, they began purchasing plantations for pennies on the dollar. They hired the former slaves as full-time caregivers for the estates, transforming them into sporting plantations for entertaining friends and family.
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Today, Pebble Hill Plantation is the only sporting plantation open to the public. The plantation was purchased in 1896 by Howard Melville Hanna, an industrialist from Ohio. The plantation was then given to his daughter, Kate, and eventually became the home of her daughter, Elizabeth Ireland Poe. When Poe died in 1978, she left instructions for the Main House to be opened as a museum.
The guided tour of the Main House began along a grand hallway connecting several rooms. Each room was opulently decorated with plush furniture, beautiful décor, and the walls covered with hunting-themed artwork. Room after room, I listened to stories of the Hannas and Elizabeth Ireland Poe, the transformation of Thomasville, and the era of sporting plantations. The tour concluded in a gorgeous sitting room with walls of large windows flooding the room with brilliant sunlight.
Not everyone who ventured south for the winter could afford to purchase an entire plantation. Instead, many opted to build a winter cottage to have a permanent place to visit in Thomasville. Dozens of homes were built throughout the town, and some of those are open to the public today.
The Lapham-Patterson House is one of the most unique Victorian homes in town. The 6,000 square foot home was built for C.W. Lapham from Chicago. Lapham instructed his architect, Tudor Rommerdal, to design a house reminiscent of nature. The result was a three-story house where no two windows or doors are the same size or height, and there are no right angles on any walls.
Listed as a National Historic Landmark, the home is open for guided tours. Beginning in the bedroom, the guide told the story of Lapham’s experience with the great fire in Chicago and how that influenced his design of the house. For the next forty minutes, the tour continued through rooms lit with gorgeous stained glass windows, constructed of local heart pine, and the guide filled the air with stories of the families who lived there.
Exploring Downtown Thomasville
With the influx of vacationers into Thomasville during the Grand Winter Resort Era came a need for infrastructure and local business. Streets were paved, a modern sewer system built, and electricity lit up the night.
The Mitchell House Hotel and Piney Woods Hotel were built in the heart of downtown Thomasville. The posh hotels were capable of hosting 300 guests each and included only the finest amenities for just $300/night. The Mitchell House Hotel was a gargantuan building covered an entire city block. Today, only portions of the building remain with the ground floor occupied by commercial businesses and upper floors serving as condos.
The Grand Winter Resort Era came to an end when the railroad was extended into Florida. People quickly traded the sporting plantations and scent of longleaf pines for oceanfront lodging and sandy beaches. The era symbolically ended in 1906 when the Piney Woods Hotel burned to the ground.
There are three great places in Thomasville to learn about the history of the Grand Winter Resort Era, the industrial age that followed, and African American history throughout the decades.
The Thomasville History Center is a great place to start with a general history of the town, including loads of information about the local plantations. The Jack Hadley Black History Museum details the history of African Americans in Thomasville from the time of agricultural plantations to today. Finally, the Flowers Foods History Center has a nice exhibit detailing the history of the bakery that was founded in Thomasville and includes dozens of brands today.
Although the wealthy northerners moved on to other adventures, Thomasville used that early momentum to continue growing as a southern travel destination. Broad Street, the “main street” through downtown, is still covered with the original bricks laid during the winter resort era. Shops are still occupied by local artisans and restaurants. People still travel from across the country to visit the small town.
I started exploring Thomasville where I often find myself: a coffee shop. Grassroots Coffee was downright charming with creaky hardwood floors covered with a tin metal roof where I enjoyed a rather nice mocha latte and one of those breakfast biscuits that melts in your mouth. Almost next door, I found The Bookshelf to be a wonderful resource for local interest books, albeit at new prices. I think South Life Supply Co. was probably the best place in town for locally made leather products, where I almost bought a new toiletry bag that I really didn’t need.
Kevin’s Fine Outdoor Gear and Apparel was the place to go if you wanted to look your absolute best while doing any kind of outdoor recreation in Thomasville. Located inside the gorgeous Pringle Block building, the outdoor gear store had everything from Yeti to hunting clothing.
Dining in Thomasville
What southern town would be complete without a bevy of local restaurants with fantastic cooking? Thomasville has an array of dining options within walking distance of downtown. The hardest part will be choosing which one to visit.
I had to wait almost two hours to get a table at Jonah’s Fish & Grits. You might immediately scoff at this, but the moment the parmesan crusted grouper was placed in front of me, I knew the wait had been worth it. For a completely different kind of delicious meal, try Liam’s right next door and order a charcuterie board with three meats, mustards, and pickled vegetables.
George and Louie’s, right on the edge of downtown, was the best place in town for fresh seafood. It looked inviting, but I opted instead to grab a 10” gourmet pizza at AJ Moonspin (don’t worry about the size; they also offer a 16” pizza).
Wine goes with any meal if you want it to. At the corner of Broad and Jackson Streets is the Farmer’s Daughter Vineyards Tasting Room. Renee and Clayton Moss planted a few grapevines across the road from their cotton farm in 2014, hoping to create an heirloom for their daughter and vineyard’s namesake, Charlie.
My last meal in Thomasville was my favorite. I got a table at Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Shop and ordered a burger. Not just any burger, though; never frozen, hand patted, this burger was topped with house-made pimento cheese and included fresh-cut fries.
The Big Oak
Probably the most notable icon of a southern town is the oak tree. In Thomasville, The Big Oak is a locally preserved 340-year-old oak tree spanning 170’ and standing 72’ high. Maintained by the Thomasville Garden Club and the city, the tree spans a gorgeous little property at Crawford and Monroe Streets just minutes from downtown.
Visiting The Big Oak provides a rare opportunity for travelers: the chance for a selfie without having to awkwardly hold your phone at arm’s length. A high-resolution camera mounted to a utility pole across the street is pointed directly at the tree. Visitors can dial a phone number, listed on the board at the base of the tree, and then visit http://www.rose.net/plogger/index.php to view and download the photo!
Best Time to Visit
The wealthy northerners who made Thomasville a destination spent their winters in the southern town. It’s still a great time to visit; January has an average low of 39 degrees and an average high of 63. By comparison, the middle of the summer has an average low of 62 and an average high of 92.
My recommendation for the best time to visit Thomasville is late April through early May. Nights are comfortably brisk, and the days pleasantly warm. Roses begin to bloom near the end of April, and the trees follow soon after that. With the literal scent of spring in the air, this is a wonderful time to visit Thomasville.
The annual Rose Show & Festival is held the third weekend of April to coincide with the blooming roses. The three-day festival includes a parade, flower show, concert, and street vendors throughout the town.
Where to Stay
In 2019, the designs for a new Marriott Hotel were revealed to the public. Expecting a late-2020 opening date, the four-story hotel will stand at Dawson Street and Remington Avenue, just a block from downtown Thomasville. It will be the only hotel in the downtown historic district when complete, and probably the best place to stay. Until then, here are some recommendations for where to stay in Thomasville.
My top recommendation for lodging in Thomasville is Hampton Inn. Located along U.S. Highway 19, along with most of the other hotels, Hampton Inn offers a fantastic hot breakfast each morning included in the modest price of the rooms.
Holiday Inn Express and Suites is a great place to stay if you’re traveling with family. The hotel offers rooms with one or two beds, but the King Suite comes with a king bed and sleeper sofa for extra room and comfort.
A great budget-friendly option is Baymont by Wyndham. The recently renovated hotel has all-new furnishings and bedding and rooms with either a king bed or two double beds.
Thomasville Bed and Breakfast, located inside the historic 1908 Fannie Bottoms House, is the closest accommodations to downtown currently. Built during the peak of the Grand Winter Resort Era, the home features 12’ ceilings, comfortable bedding, and a peaceful place to spend the night.