Eatonton’s Stepback community captures a glimpse of turn-of-the-century life and celebrates tradition during the holiday season
Story by Susan Larson | Photography by Virginia C. Linch
It started out as a man cave. Roger Pierce was looking for a 20-acre lot where he could build a house. While searching for the perfect place, a 115-acre spread on Dennis Station Road went up for sale. The price was unbelievable, so Pierce bought it and built his house on it.
And then some.
In 1998, a way off yonder, he added a little getaway cabin for the pure enjoyment of it.
“I did it because I like it. It’s just my hobby,” Pierce explains. “I called it my man cave, a place where I could just go and relax.”
Pierce took such delight in creating this cabin that he thought he’d try his hand at something else. His next project was a grist mill, a device used to grind corn into cornmeal, grits, and cracked corn for chickens and livestock. Every detail was historically accurate, down to the granite grinding stone. The twelve-foot wheel is so perfectly balanced that only a trickle of water is needed to begin spinning.
The next thing he knew, he had an entire village – a rural 1900s-era community that he called Stepback. Each of his 26 structures is authentically constructed. Some are recycled from old buildings he dismantled and some are made from trees growing on his property. For others, with the help of Hallman’s Wood Products, Pierce had all the lumber rough cut, exactly as it would have been over a century ago. Everything is furnished with period antiques, tools, and accessories and all equipment is in working order
“It’s a step back into time,” Pierce says.
The first step back along the trail is the general store, stocked with thousands of authentic items from the past, salvaged from people’s attics and old stores that had shut down. One of Pierce’s proudest possessions is an old J.P. Coats revolving spool display filled with real wooden spools of thread. Close by is a pump for castor oil.
“People would bring in their own containers and fill them up,” Pierce says. “And here’s a tobacco cutter. The store owner would take a cut of tobacco like this and cut it into plugs.”
Wooden boxes of tobacco products line the shelves, such as Early Bird, Lucky Strike, Chesterfield, and Lucky Joe. Many still have the original price tags. Postmaster Cigars were two for a nickel.
Pierce walked me along a wall where he displayed a variety of bottles, jugs and jars. “See those?” he says. “They all have the original paper labels on them. It’s hard to find jugs with paper labels on them anymore. Today they print the name right on the glass. If you find something with a paper label on it, you can get a good price for it.”
A 1902 Sears and Roebuck catalog caught my eye. Prices were unbelievable. I could have spent the day browsing through it. “It’s a good reference,” Pierce says. “Sometimes folks give me things and I don’t know what they are. I’ve looked them up in the catalog and was able to find some of them.”
As we headed toward the door, Pierce says, “There’s one more thing I want to show you. Do you like a bargain?”
“Doesn’t every woman?”
“Well, look at these shoes,” he says. “I found these in an old store down in South Georgia. I asked the man how much he wanted for them. He said they were five dollars a pair, but if I took them all, I could have the whole box of them for free.”
Before we left, Pierce pointed out a framed document on the wall proclaiming him the Mayor of Stepback and signed by Putnam County Commissioners Howard McMichael, Sr., Sylbie Yon, Steve H. Layson, Jimmy Davis, and Sandra Adams.
The Mayor then led me up to the Stepback schoolhouse, which has a desk dating back to early 1800s, a bell hanging outside the door, and a wooden paddle hanging on the wall.
The church, which is up the hill a stretch, has two front doors; one for men and one for women. The piano was built in 1900 and the pews came from a church that was built in 1857. The finely-detailed pulpit was salvaged from an old church in the Smoky Mountains. The panels on the doors are held in place by wooden pegs. Couples are welcome to get married in this church any time of year. When they ask what the requirements are, Pierce says, “Just love the Lord first and love each other.”
Other attractions include a windmill, a covered well, and a wash shed. The smokehouse is made of logs from trees on Pierce’s property. A covered bridge, liquor still, and outhouse create a feeling of life in the village, as does the cemetery on the hillside, giving visitors a feeling that real people once lived there.
Pierce’s replica of the olden days looks so real that Tytan Productions, based in Eatonton, filmed part of its movie, “83 Days,” set in 1944, at Stepback. They found the authenticity preferable to any movie set that Hollywood could produce.
As for keeping things real, Stepback’s “Victorian Floozies” enjoy greeting guests and they do not skirt around any details. These volunteer hostesses are so named because they discovered through research that in the late nineteenth century, any woman wearing fewer than three petticoats was considered to be a floozie. I don’t know how they checked women’s undergarments back then, but when this detail was revealed, these women huddled around in a circle, lifted their skirts and proclaimed themselves Floozies.
From here, the real world of Stepback wove its way into the real world of the local community. Inspired by the Floozie spirit, local quilter, Sandy Gilreath, was working on a pattern designed by Sue Spargo called Bird Dance. Gilreath looked at the ornate birds on her quilt. Bird Dance didn’t seem dramatic enough.
She says, “Every Southern girl knows that if a woman has too many accessories, she’s in danger of being considered a floozie. I love to see people smile when they look at my work, and this piece has generated a lot of giggles when people see the title, A Flock of Feathered Floozies.”
Stepback is open year-round for group tours. Pierce welcomes school children, scouts working on badges, photography clubs, and anyone interested in history. There is never an admission fee.
There is one annual Christmas event every December. Visitors are welcome to not only tour the grounds, but also to get involved at all 26 steps along the trail. They can sit down for a spell at the general store and play checkers with bottle caps. A schoolmarm conducts class all day long at the schoolhouse where children and adults can write on slates, work math problems on the blackboard or make a Victorian Christmas ornament. They can also play on the old swing outside the building.
There is live music at the church and you never know what local celebrities might entertain visitors, including church organists and the Eatonton Harmonettes, a ladies’ barbershop ensemble led by Lu Feldman. Visitors are even welcomed to play a tune of their own. This year, in the spirit of keeping things real, a wedding will be performed from 2-2:15 p.m. All visitors are welcome to attend. Don’t worry about what to wear. Pierce and most of his friends will be in overalls.
Whether you come to the wedding or not, refreshments of hot chocolate and boiled peanuts will be available for everyone.
“When you come, don’t forget to bring your camera,” advises award-winning photographer Jim Gilreath, who has been taking pictures at Stepback for years.
“My grandfathers were both farmers and I love seeing what Roger has done. I actually remember them using some of that stuff,” Gilreath says.
Among those artifacts at Stepback, Gilreath found a real hidden treasure.
“When I was a child, I found remnants of a still in the woods,” he says. “I asked my grandmother what it was and she said for me to hush because we don’t talk about that.”
At Stepback, he got to see and photograph a real still in perfect condition.
Gilreath highly recommends Stepback for practicing photography.
“There are endless opportunities of all genres, architecture, still lifes, landscapes, and people, plus working on aspects like technique and composition leading to that little extra something that becomes your style.”
Photo ops abound and for added fun, anyone can come dressed in a period costume – thrift store dress or a simple pair of overalls.
Stepback’s Holiday Open House is held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., December 14 at 176 A Dennis Station Road in Eatonton. Just take a step back from your routine and a step back into time. Step back and just enjoy the scenery or step up and don your Victorian garb. Either way, your step back in time will be well spent. Admission is free. The experience, priceless.
For more information call (706) 473-1379, visit stepbackgeorgia.com or find Stepback on Facebook.