The Pecan Grove: Claxton’s unique football stadium

Published: Aug. 15, 2022 at 10:32 AM EDT
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CLAXTON, Ga. (WTOC) - The water tower in the center of town declares Claxton, Georgia as “The Fruitcake Capital of the World.”

But this small town is also home to another treasure: A football stadium tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, the home of the Claxton High School Tigers.

“It’s a part of Claxton,” says Evans County Schools Superintendent Dr. Marty Waters. “We’ve had five generations that have come through this.”

The stadium’s official name is Bell Memorial Field. Built and opened in the 1940′s, it was later named in honor local hero John Bell.

“He was captain of the football team from 1950-52, and he was killed in the Korean War,” notes former Claxton High coach and athletic director Mark Stroud.

While Bell’s name adorns the stadium dedicated in his memory, most in town also know this place by another title.

“I call it The Pecan Grove,” says Claxton High athletic director Randy Cooper.

The nickname is an apt one.

Built in an old pecan orchard, he trees stand tall above the bleachers; their harvest provided with the best seat in the house. On the home side, six pecan trees grow right through the concrete stands.

“They’re a part of this place?” asks WTOC’s Jake Wallace.

“Yes, they are. Literally,” laughs Cooper.

“You can tell people who know the stadium well,” says Stroud. “They’ll get here early and they’ll find their shade spot. They’ll get the tree.”

As Stroud once found, you really don’t want to mess with those trees.

“Several years ago, I was the director of operations for the school district,” he remembers. “We were trimming the trees around the stadium and Dr. Waters, our superintendent, got a lot of phone calls. They thought we were tearing them down and were angry.”

The trees are the distinctive feature of the stadium, but they’re not the only things that make The Pecan Grove what it is.

“It’s a little bit of a step back in time when you see the stadium as is,” says Waters.

This place drips with nostalgia. From the matching scoreboards to the concrete bleachers, it’s all very old school in the best way. The sides of the bleachers are painted with spirited messages of “Go Tigers!” “Tiger Pride,” and “Welcome to The Pecan Grove.”

“It’s an old time football stadium,” says Stroud.

“You’ve got families that have sat in the same area of the stadium for years. It’s like church. You go and you expect to see those same faces week after week.”

“There’s a lot of history, a lot of stories, a lot of memories here,” says Claxton High School principal Dr. Paul Mizell. “Friday nights come alive here.”

Across town, the players who take the field on those Friday nights are preparing for another season under the lights at the Pecan Grove.

“A lot of people don’t know, but we take a lot of pride in it,” says senior running back Ruben Berry. “The black and gold makes it so special.”

“The first time I stepped into it, I could feel a special feeling in that Grove,” remembers Claxton head football coach Greg Hill.

Hill knows some things about playing in special venues.

Hill was a star quarterback at Georgia Southern and helped lead the Eagles to the 1999 1-AA national championship. Now he’s entering his second season leading the Tigers. Hill says he feels right at home in the Pecan Grove, just like he did in Paulson Stadium.

“Coach [Erk] Russell used to call [Paulson Stadium] the Prettiest Little Stadium in America. I think the Pecan Grove can go into that same realm,” Hill says. “It’s unique. It’s a small little stadium, but it has its own feel to it. It’s a special place.”

As the Tigers put in the work for their upcoming campaign, they do so knowing they might be the last team to call Bell Memorial Field home.

Soon, Claxton football will leave The Pecan Grove.

“This will probably be the last season we have football in Bell Memorial Stadium,” says Waters. “The pecan trees are causing extensive damage to these concrete bleachers. When you look at the cost factors, unfortunately it’s just cost prohibitive. We’re limited on parking and some safety issues like that. So we’re going to be relocating our football program.”

The last few Friday nights for The Pecan Grove may be on the horizon. But like the trees that surround this place, this place won’t stay dormant long.

“It will live on. This will be the home of flag football, which will be going into our second year. It’ll also be the home to boys and girls soccer in the spring time,” says Stroud. “There’s still a lot of life in this old girl. There’s still a lot of life.”

Claxton opens the 2022 season on Aug. 19 at Tattnall County. The home opener for the potential final season at The Pecan Grove will be Aug. 26, when Claxton hosts Hilton Head.

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