The late Dr. Ed Cashin Jr., Augusta’s foremost historian, left us with many answers about our past and very few secrets. There was one, however, that always seemed to bother him.
Why did the city of Augusta celebrate its lavish and well-attended bicentenary in the wrong year – 1935 and not 1936?
The choice bothered him and deserved a chapter of its own in his 1992 book on local historical curiosities. Perhaps it was because he had enjoyed the event so much as a student in Augusta.
He is asking a valid question.
A letter dated June 14, 1736 from Georgia founder James Oglethorpe ordered the authorities to build the city that would become Augusta on the largest, flattest, driest piece of land along the Savannah River between the rapids and the ocean.
The year 1736 is well established and over the years various historical associations have tried to get the Augustans to celebrate it every June 14th to associate it with Flag Day and the birthday of the US Army. That never caught on.
Maybe it just wasn’t that dramatic.
We know that Oglethorpe himself came to visit in 1739. He rode in on the old Creek Indian Trail – what we now call Wrightsboro Road. His group was greeted with a musket salute, and he was generally satisfied.
One of Oglethorpe’s group described Augusta as a town “inhabited mostly by Indian shopkeepers and traders … well located in a pleasant, healthy part of the country”.
Oglethorpe could probably have had more influence on his new metropolis, but he only stayed 10 days before rushing home when he heard that Britain was at war with Spain. He left the city with a plan for growth, but Augusta’s civic leaders did not follow him.
For one, he wanted the city to grow by adding places like Savannah. Augustans seem to have thought of such open parks as a waste of prime real estate and filled them with buildings.
Instead of growing south towards what was then a swamp, Augusta went west on what is now Broad Street for financial reasons – the traders “hopped” each other towards the Creek and Cherokee trails to be the first shop on this side of town, to which traders came when they came with fresh furs from the west.
Although Augusta did not follow Oglethorpe’s vision, she certainly tried to make amends in May 1935 with a one-week bicentenary anniversary. According to all reports, it was a lavish affair with pageants, parades, dances and competitions. There was even an official poem.
The focus of the event was a replica of the arrival of Oglethorpe two centuries earlier. In this strangely costumed version, he was greeted by Native Americans as his boat went up the Savannah River. He then haggled with them for ownership of the land before claiming the property. (Imagine Columbus Discovers America meets the Manhattan Island purchase.)
Everyone fondly remembered the bicentenary in later years, but Cashin was never shy to point out that they should have waited until 1936.
Well, maybe there is an answer – marketing.
For example, if you remember, the Atlanta Braves celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2015. However, they arrived in Georgia in 1966 so most might think they’d wait until the next year. They didn’t. They decided to celebrate their 50th anniversary, not the completion of 50.
Augusta seems to have done that in 1935 – she celebrated the city’s 200th anniversary.
By arriving a year early, they were also able to combine the event with the 150th anniversary of the Augusta Chronicle and the 100th anniversary of Georgia Railroad Bank, a major advertiser in the newspaper’s bicentenary special. A beautiful illustration by artist WE Snowden highlights all three.
History is not only full of such compromises, it celebrates them sometimes.
Bill Kirby has been reporting, photographing and commenting on life in Augusta and Georgia for 45 years.