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Student-developed exhibit about more than just maps

June 30, 2017

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These days, when you want to go to an unfamiliar place, you simply whip out your smartphone and use your GPS, or use the system in your vehicle. Most people don’t rely on maps anymore.

But maps are not just for navigation – they also tell a story. Maps are pictorial histories of exploration and settlement, ownership and economics, environment and culture.  Or so says a new exhibit at the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau, “Putting Us on the Map: Georgia and its Coastal Plain.” This unique collection of maps tells much about the story of Georgia, the Coastal Plain and Bulloch County. 

According to Dr. Brent Tharp, director of the Georgia Southern Museum, a collaboration was created between the CVB, the museum and the Georgia Southern University Department of History to help visitors to Statesboro come to a better understanding culturally of the area they were visiting.

Tharp teaches a class of museum studies graduate students each year, and says that as they learn about all things museum, they find that the one thing that all museums have in common is exhibits. This year’s class worked on the current exhibit, using artifacts from the museum’s collection of maps, including maps from the early 18th century all the way up to the 1950s and 1960s.

“We brought the maps out and the students worked with them all through the semester, and they came up with this exhibit,” Tharp said. “This is their work. There are a variety of artifacts along with the maps that really tell the story of the area.”

Tharp said many people see maps but they don’t understand how maps are made. The exhibit includes a unique part of that process, a surveyor’s compass dating from the 1840s. The compass was used by members of the Hodges family up until the early 20th century, he said.

Included with the compass is the chain that was used to measure property lines, as well as a couple of plats in Evans County.

Tharp said the students wanted to include some of the Native American history in the exhibit.

“While they didn’t leave maps, we have some really important maps that say some things about (the Native Americans),” he said.

Early maps showed some of the Indian trails in Georgia that later became roads. On display is a map from 1740 that shows Native Americans depicted hunting deer and lions. Despite that foible, the map showed that the mapmakers actually knew the coast of Georgia fairly well.

“You could pick your way through even today with this,” Tharp said.

Displayed among the Native American-related maps are two that show some of the state’s most difficult history. The first map, dated 1835, shows large counties in the southern portion of the state, and the northeast corner still occupied heavily by the Cherokee.

Just 20 years later in 1855, the second map showed a drastic change – all evidence of the Creek and Cherokee are gone, because of the Trail of Tears and the gold rush in North Georgia.  The second map shows every bit of that area had become organized counties with courthouses and county seats.

During this rush toward development, fraud became the order of the day. The state of Georgia developed a land lotter to alleviate the issue. Tharp said people went in and waited to see if their names were drawn. If a person’s name was drawn, there was another drawing for a piece of land. The winner in that lottery would simply pay a small fee and the land was his.

Included in the exhibit are maps reflecting the lottery, as well as a small-scale barrel containing slips of paper bearing the actual names of people from the lottery drawings in the 1800s. Visitors touring the exhibit can pull the names out, lottery-style, and read who received what , then compare the land awarded to the maps on display.

Tharp said this portion of the exhibit is key to gaining knowledge about more than just history.

“It’s important for not just history but for genealogy as well, and helps you understand how the state was really settled,” he said.

One of the larger maps in the exhibit is a soil map of Bulloch County from 1910. It is displayed near a winnowing machine, circa 1900, and a cotton basket from Glascock County.  Bulloch County was an important agriculture center for the early 19th century for the state.

As a part of this portion of the exhibit, a small-scare wooden cotton gin is on display, along with some cotton that visitors can run through the gin to gain understanding of the process. The model was made by a carpenter at GSU, Tharp said, using plans from The Eli Whitney Museum. The map displayed with the gin is from 1891, and shows the percentage of the population in each county that were slaves.

By the mid-19th century, maps were being used more for travel. The exhibit reflects this, showing the development of roads in the state, as well as canals and railroads. On display is a map from 1922 showing the railways throughout the state of Georgia, the primary mode of transportation at the time.

As highways across the state were developed, travel by rail began to decrease. The last section of the exhibit takes a look at highways and tourism. In Statesboro, known in the 1950s as The Tourist City, that meant Highway 301.

“It became the one place that was really reliable to get a good, clean motel, to get a good restaurant, to get your car repaired,” Tharp said. “That wasn’t true in other communities up and down 301. So we gained a reputation for that and it was really a place that people stayed for a long time.”

Included with this portion of the exhibit is a Rand-McNally atlas, donated by a former student at Georgia Southern. The atlas shows Georgia Southern in the wrong place. The student noticed this, wrote Rand-McNally, and pointed it out. After the atlas-maker researched the claim, they found it was true, apologized, and responded that the error would be corrected in the 1994 atlas. It’s been correct ever since.

The final portion of the exhibit is all about the Blue Mile Project, and the development planned that will rejuvenate the section of South Main Street along Highway 301 that connects Georgia Southern to historic downtown Statesboro.

The announcement that Statesboro had won $1 million for the revitalization of South Main Street came while the students were working on the exhibit.

The exhibit will be in place at the CVB until April 2018. For more information, go online at


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