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Explore Macon, a Halfway Point in ‘The Heart of Georgia’

February 19, 2024

Publication: Tampa Bay Times
By Susan Taylor Martin
Published Aug. 6, 2023

Driving from the Tampa Bay area to the North Carolina mountains can be a long slog, even when traffic is moving well on I-75. But my husband and I have found an ideal halfway point — Macon, “the heart of Georgia.”

Once a center of the cotton trade, Macon today is better known for its rebounding downtown, its rich African American heritage and a music scene that nurtured legends of rock and soul — the Allman Brothers Band, Little Richard, Otis Redding and many others. The city, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, was one of just 12 U.S. destinations to win a spot on the New York Times’ list of “52 places to go in 2023.”

On our first trip to Macon, we stayed at the 1842 Inn, a small, antiques-filled hotel in one of the city’s beautifully restored Victorian houses. On our most recent visit, we checked into Hotel Forty Five on Cotton Street in the center of downtown. Originally the headquarters of an insurance company, the 11-story building — among Macon’s tallest — has been repurposed into a sleek boutique hotel with 94 rooms, a restaurant and a coffee shop.

After unpacking we headed to Hightales, the hotel’s rooftop bar with indoor and outdoor seating and walls adorned with music memorabilia. I had a fruity cocktail called Laid Back, after Gregg Allman’s debut solo album. This is a good place to consider the following: Gregg and brother Duane were born in Nashville and started their band in Jacksonville, but it is Macon, where they moved in 1969, that is determined to preserve their legacy. Part of a main street is named Duane Allman Memorial Boulevard, and one of Macon’s most popular attractions is the Big House, a Tudor mansion turned museum where band members lived in the 1970s.

From the hotel we set out on foot to dinner. Macon has a shady‚ walkable downtown with old low-rise buildings, many with decorative cornices, that reminded us of New York’s Greenwich Village. New businesses and indications of ones about to open reminded us too of St. Petersburg 10 years ago — on the cusp of oh-so-trendy before 30- and 40-story towers began springing up. At Kinjo’s Kitchen + Cocktails, an Asian fusion restaurant that opened during the pandemic, our server told us that he grew up an hour away in Dublin, Georgia. “We never used to come to Macon,” he said, although the city now draws many young people like him.

The next morning we drove a few blocks to the Tubman African American Museum. Known as “The Moses of Her People,” Harriet Tubman was an escaped slave who led dozens of others to freedom before the end of the Civil War. She also served as Union nurse, scout and spy, and in later life was active in the women’s suffragist movement.

The museum with its stunning rotunda pays tribute to Tubman and other distinguished African-Americans, including an inventor who helped develop the electric light bulb and some who were the first to desegregate major organizations. There are artifacts of the Jim Crow era, like a whites-only drinking faucet and the door from a doctor’s office marked “colored waiting room.” This year, the museum is hosting a special exhibit on Tyler Perry, the filmmaker, playwright and actor who created and played the movie role of Mabel “Madea” Simmons. As the exhibit notes, much of Perry’s work reflects his Christian faith and Black church culture.

Lunch was downtown at Ocmulgee Brewpub, recently rated Macon’s No. 1 restaurant by Tripadvisor. Customers order at the counter — we had a smash burger and a salad with candied pecans, dried cranberries and crumbled blue cheese — and sit on picnic tables and benches.

Next stop was the home of Capricorn Records, founded in 1969 and often credited as the birthplace of Southern rock. The Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Wet Willie and others recorded some of their biggest hits in the Capricorn studio, which produced 26 gold or platinum albums and five gold singles in its decade-long history. With support from Macon’s Mercer University, the Capricorn name was revived in 2019 with the opening of recording studios and rehearsal rooms to foster the development of new talent.

The adjacent Capricorn Museum has a made-for-selfies wall of album covers as well as several exhibits: One shows how Capricorn artists helped boost Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign by playing at rallies and benefit concerts. (Carter, a big music fan, picked “The South’s Gonna Do It” by the Charlie Daniels Band as his campaign song.) The museum’s virtual record bins let you digitally thumb through albums, pick a cut and play it. (I listened to a personal favorite, the Allman Brothers’ “Jessica.”)

Another oft-visited if somewhat eerie attraction is the Rose Hill Cemetery, burial spot of Duane, Gregg and two other members of the Allman Brothers Band. Opened in 1840 as a cemetery and public park, Rose Hill has simple slabs mixed among ornate Civil War and Victorian headstones. So many fans look for band members’ graves that directions are posted on a door at the cemetery entrance.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the Otis Redding Museum. A Georgia native called the “King of Soul,” Redding was at the peak of his career when he died in a 1967 plane crash. His “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” became the first posthumous No. 1 record on the Billboard Hot 100. Another song he wrote, “Respect,” was a huge hit for Aretha Franklin.

That night we dined at Dovetail, an acclaimed downtown restaurant specializing in farm-to-table Southern cuisine, and concluded the day with $5 drinks and live music at Grant’s Lounge. This no-frills lounge opened in 1971 and, as its “wall of fame” photos show, hosted Tom Petty, Charlie Daniels, Elvin Bishop, the Allman Brothers and many others during Capricorn Records’ heyday.

H&H Soul Food is a Macon institution, so that’s where we breakfasted on our last day in Macon. It’s the kind of place where men in bib overalls sit next to bankers in suits at tables with blue-and-white checked plastic cloths. The restaurant’s co-founder, “Mama” Louise Hudson, was such good friends with the Allman Brothers that she once traveled on their tour bus.

The final stop on our tour was Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park on the city’s edge. The big earthen mounds, built by the Muscogee people centuries ago, are the most striking feature of a park with 8 miles of walking trails through open fields, wooded hills and swampy lowlands. Here, the only musical sounds are those of the birds.