My first visit to Midway, Georgia, was about fourteen years ago, and it was accidental. We were driving the sleepy backroads south of Savannah when suddenly I screeched, "Whoa, what's THAT?"
What had caught my eye was a Congregationalist church. In Georgia, the label is enough to define it as unusual: Congregationalism is the direct descendant of New England Puritanism, and so it's not something one expects in heavily Baptist/Methodist rural Georgia. But what really stunned me was that the church was 18th century, complete with shutters on the windows.
The church has gotten a fair amount of press since that day, but at the time, it would have been news to most colonial historians, and it certainly was to me. I managed to get the story on the place's origins. A group of Puritans had departed Dorchester, England, in the 1620s, and founded Dorchester, Massachusetts. When they ran short of land, by the late 17th century, they were looking to colonize further afield, and a party of Dorchesterites settled in (you guessed it) Dorchester, South Carolina. In search of somewhere a bit less mosquito-ridden, they abandoned the town in 1751, and trekked to Georgia (not known as a mosquito-free zone, alas), where they founded... Dorchester.
The Brits burned down the original meetinghouse during the Revolution, but its replacement, built in 1792, is the church you can see today, along with the wonderfully creepy graveyard with its New England-style gravestones.
What's especially striking is that these Puritans had no problem with slavery, because they were making money hand over fist from African labor in their rice fields. Only in New England, where large-scale slavery was impossible thanks to the crummy soil, did Puritans seldom own slaves. It was all about profit, not principle.
Okay, back to 2010...Dorchester (now known as Midway) is still a surprisingly sleepy place, but I had a lovely time there last week at Midway Middle School and Liberty Elementary, talking to hundreds of kids . But since the town is now on the edge of massive Fort Stewart, many of the kids belong to Army families. How strange then, to speak to this cosmopolitan group, including descendents of both English Puritans and African slaves, of another time, another place, and another war, as I explored children's lives in World War II England with them.