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Collective Memories at Macon’s Grotto

For the Macon Telegraph.

Just a short walk through the woods from the south end of Forest Hill Road lies a scattering of ruins. Walls and steps deep down into a ravine are nearly invisible beneath decades of kudzu and ivy overgrowth; columns stand lonely and isolated, the inscriptions cut in their stone barely legible from abuse by the elements; statues lay face-down, crumbling and looted; and on top of a hill sits a structure of steel and stone with a chimney, one small room, and an elevated, empty alcove.

The land the ruins sit on was appropriated from the Creek Indian Nation in 1821 and later in that century found its way into the hands of the St. Stanislaus College, who built a retreat on the property which included a reflecting pool and a shrine to St. Bernadette Soubirous modeled after a rock cave in Lourdes, France where the Virgin Mary was said to appear to the saint. To those in Macon who know of its existence, the place is simply known as the Grotto.

A few weeks ago, I made the trek down the narrow path, disturbing several spiders and avoiding the poison ivy, to record a band out of Athens, Cicada Rhythm, in the setting. Their gentle, halcyon, folky sound blends well with the ambient hum of crickets punctuated by soft bird calls and the rustle of leaves as tiny creatures move about in the canopy above.

The Grotto is perhaps the most hidden-in-plain-sight secret around Macon. Seemingly everyone knows about it, but simultaneously, individuals speak of it as if they have some sort of proprietary, esoteric knowledge of the place.

When the videos from that recording session hit social media, the response was surprising. Various recollections associated with the ruins poured out and many people shared the links the place had to significant milestones of their lives in Macon. The Grotto seems to have become part of the city’s shared consciousness, one of those places where the accumulated memories are nearly tangible, a place that drips with visceral energy.

Unfortunately, the place doesn’t evoke those feelings for all visitors. The stones that make up the structure are nearly fully covered with the kind of graffiti that results from a group of kids boasting below average intelligence splitting a sixer in the woods. Beer cans are strewn across the ground and scars of small, hastily built fires darken the interior of the cave.

To combat that blight and draw attention to the place, the Historic Macon Foundation has named the Grotto – along with the Cotton Avenue District, the Bobby Jones Performing Arts Center, the John B. Brooks House, and Ogelthorpe Street’s Train Recreation Center – as one of this year’s ‘Fading Five’ properties around the city. It’s a great step towards recognizing the importance of the place to Macon’s history and investigating the links that it connects between the city’s citizens, and it will hopefully ensure that the Grotto is able to be the setting for more memories to come.