A sense of belonging, ties that bind, precious memories...sentiments often associated with your hometown. Each Thursday for the next few weeks, we will shine our light exclusively on one hometown.
Just about halfway between Savannah and Augusta, there's a proud city we celebrate today, the county seat of Screven County, Sylvania, Georgia. Its name is literally translated "forest land," but it's the vastly improved downtown that has everybody talking, newcomers settling, and business booming.
Hilda Bazemore Boykin remembers how downtown Sylvania used to be. "My Dad had a grocery store right here on the square, so I was one of the 'village chillin,'" she told us. "Sylvania was a really pretty town when I was growing up."
Back then, as in so many Southern towns, everything revolved around one special building. "The courthouse was right here on this very spot, and it filled up the entire square here and everybody loved the courthouse," Boykin recalled.
Till some decided it was out of date. "It was torn down in the '60s," Boykin said. "It was just one of those things that happened and we can't go back and fix it."
In the years that followed, it seemed like the life had been sucked out of downtown Sylvania. "It was almost like it was dead downtown, like a lot of cities are," said Mayor Margaret Evans.
Businesses closed and boarded up, landmarks were removed. "It went through a bad 'paved' stage," said Boykin. "Everything was just paved over."
But with the dawning of a new millennium, Sylvanians decided to get busy, to restore former glory and revitalize downtown. "I am very proud," said Evans. "It took a lot of people working together and everybody really did. It was teamwork that did it."
A fountain fills the void where the courthouse stood, and business nearby is booming. "We've done real well with the downtown area as far as filling up the buildings, and it's a wide range of business now in the middle of town," Boykin told us.
Some in a building owned by a gentleman who chose Sylvania just a handful of years ago. "I was working at Kansas State University and we were in the process of considering where we would live when we retired," Dr. Ben Smith. "My wife had said, 'I don't want to live anywhere without palm trees.' There are palm trees here."
The least of many reasons why the Smiths chose Sylvania. "It's just a grand place to be."
"He rode through, liked it and decided that he wanted to live here," said Mayor Evans. "If it looked like it did, like seven years ago, he would have never stopped, I don't think."
Another Ben--Ben Mercer, lifelong resident and current councilman--knows some of the quality characteristics that probably attracted Prof. Ben Smith and others. "Beautiful, peaceful, concerned," he said of his town and its people. "And there are some jobs available, believe it or not."
Both downtown, and on the edge of town. "We have a textile industry here that's doing well," Mayor Evans said. "And then we have a bearings plant, an international company now, and they're all the time adding jobs, which is just absolutely wonderful."
But how could they top all this off, to continually display the creativity, talent and resolve that brought them so far? With a dump of a diner turned art gallery, that's how.
"Oh the Soda Shop's our pride and joy," said Boykin. "We took a building that had not been used in years and we now have Screven County's first art gallery. The artists are all local.. And we've sold a surprising amount of art. It really is amazing. "
"I'm just very proud of Sylvania and I think that, like I said, the people care about each other and it's just a community spirit," said Evans.
Kind of like Hilda Boykin remembers from a magical time years ago. "I have a great sense of pride that it has come this far and we've gotten so much cooperation from just everybody in town," she said. "The whole county's been interested and this is the county seat and it sort of sets the pace of what's happening in the county, but I think everybody's really proud of what's happened in Sylvania right now."
Mayor Evans told us the city is working on getting infrastructure in place to make sure Sylvania is positioned to accommodate even more growth once the new four-lane Savannah River Parkway between Savannah and Augusta--and through Sylvania--is complete.