Memory of Appalachian poet Byron
Herbert Reece lives on in Blairsville
Part six in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution series on fun things to do in the North Georgia Mountains.
Georgia has a proud heritage of producing literary luminaries. The legacies of authors like Margaret Mitchell, Flannery O’Connor and Joel Chandler Harris continue to live on.
Not so for Byron Herbert Reece, the once-celebrated poet of Appalachia, whom most people called “Hub.”
Reece was nominated for a Pulitzer, winner of two Guggenheim awards, lauded by AJC editor Ralph McGill as one of the “great poets of our time” and the subject of Georgia’s official historic drama, “The Reach of Song.”
But a recent conversation with an English professor at a Georgia university who was unfamiliar with the author was a painful reminder of Reece’s precarious place in history.
Born in Blairsville in 1917, in a log cabin on land now flooded by the Vogel State Park lake, Reece liked to say he was “a farmer first and a writer second.”
He began writing poetry between chores on the family farm. Influenced by his religious faith and exposure to mountain music, he wrote lyrical verse that celebrated natural beauty, retold stories from the Bible and mourned tales of unrequited love. His first published collection, “Ballad of the Bones,” attracted national attention, as well as a number of marriage proposals. In all, he published two novels and four volumes of poetry, but his later output failed to live up to the hype generated by his debut.
In the span of 10 years, literary tastes had changed. Poetry in the post-World War II era was co-opted by the Beat Generation, and rhyming poems became old-fashioned. None of his books paid well enough to raise the family’s meager standard of living.
Tall and lanky, with chiseled features, brooding eyes and a fop of longish hair atop his head, Reece could have been a stand-in for Tom Joad, the world-weary hero of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” as played by Henry Fonda.
He certainly suffered many of the same woes as Joad: the hardscrabble life spent farming an unforgiving landscape, devastating illness and loss, the suffocating veil of hopelessness.
But where Joad found salvation in anger and action, Reece ultimately succumbed. He had already nursed his mother until her death from tuberculosis, his father was in the late stages of the disease, and Reece — who was left to run the family farm on his own — was suffering from the same illness. As tragic as it was, a bullet to the head at age 40 must have seemed like his only escape. Biographies of the author always note that Mozart was playing on the record player at the time of his death, and in his desk drawer were the recently graded papers for a class he was teaching at Young Harris College.
There are efforts to keep Reece’s legacy alive. In 2012, the Byron Herbert Reece Farm and Heritage Center opened. Located on a 9.3-acre parcel of the family property, the site features several buildings that were moved there and restored. The family home is now a visitor’s center with a small exhibit of family artifacts and a store selling Reece’s books. The double crib barn and other outbuildings are devoted to demonstrations of farming techniques and implements from the era. A one-room purple house called Mulberry Hall is where Reece was said to have spent hours reading. And there is a peaceful poetry trail that takes visitors through a small ornamental garden appointed with benches and markers that bear verses from Reece’s poems.
The Reece Farm and Heritage Center is included on the Southern Literary Trail that highlights the homes of significant historic writers in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. And on Sept. 23, the 100th anniversary of Reece’s birth will be commemorated on the site. The Byron Herbert Reece Centennial Festival of Remembrance will feature a barbecue, a performance by the North Georgia Chamber Symphony Quartet, a dramatic reading and remarks from local dignitaries.
Byron Herbert Reece Farm and Heritage Center
10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. Free. 8552 Gainesville Highway/U.S. 129, Blairsville. 706-745-2034, www.reecefarm.org.
Byron Herbert Reece Centennial Festival of Remembrance. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sept. 23. Free. Byron Herbert Reece Farm and Heritage Center.
Southern Literary Trail. www.southernliterarytrail.org.
Discover North Georgia Mountains
From outdoor activities to culinary treats, the AJC has your favorite activities covered in this special travel series of stories and videos on fun things to do in the North Georgia mountains.
Find previously published stories and videos on fly fishing, waterfall hikes, breweries, wineries and dining options at www.myajc.com/travel.
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Wine tours and tastings beckon tourists
Get your brews in Blue Ridge
North Georgia waterfalls offer refreshing views
Practicing the art of fly fishing in North Georgia
Dining in North Georgia