When Tifton ophthalmologist Larry Moorman and his wife, Debra, donated the Forest Lakes Golf Course to the ABAC Foundation in 2002, they had no idea of the long-range implications of their $1,000,000 gift to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.
“It’s a perfect fit,” Moorman said at the time. “A golf course used for educational purposes is great for the students. It will provide valuable hands-on experience, putting students in real life situations. Being on a golf course will give students a totally different perspective than what they learn from textbooks. I am a big supporter of ABAC, and for me, this donation is all about ABAC.”
Since that time three other Tift County landmarks are now owned or operated by ABAC.
Georgia legislators decided in 2010 that ABAC should take over the operation of the Georgia Agrirama, and it became a part of the ABAC campus as the Georgia Museum of Agriculture and Historic Village.
In 2018, City of Tifton officials contracted with ABAC to take over the management of the historic Tift Theatre, a Tifton landmark since 1937. In 2019, the Council of Garden Clubs of Tifton, Inc., donated the Fulwood Garden Center to the ABAC Foundation so that it could be operated by ABAC.
When Tifton founder Henry Harding Tift made a quite generous donation which helped Tifton win the bidding from Pelham for the location of the Second District Agricultural and Mechanical School on Nov. 23, 1906, he planted a seed which continues to grow. The area high school became South Georgia A&M College which became the Georgia State College for Men which became ABAC in 1933.
“Of all the investments I have ever made, this school has brought me the biggest dividends,” Tift said at a commencement ceremony years later.
ABAC President David Bridges could add a hearty amen to that sentiment.
“I’ve always said that businesses in a community come and go,” Bridges, a 1978 ABAC graduate, said. “Colleges in a community come and grow.
“Making the lives of young people better was the mission when the Second District A&M School opened in 1908, and we’re still doing that today,” Bridges said. “We offer only one product, but it is a very valuable product. We offer the opportunity for a life-changing educational experience to every student who walks on our campus. The value of the ABAC experience is absolutely priceless.”
“Priceless” is an impossible number to come up with but a recent study sanctioned by the University System of Georgia determined that the economic impact of ABAC on South Georgia skyrocketed to a record $529,838,507 in fiscal year 2017. That’s a 31 percent increase over FY 2016.
“ABAC needs South Georgia, and South Georgia needs ABAC,” Dr. Renata Elad, Dean of the Stafford School of Business at ABAC, said. “With total employment of over 1,800 jobs directly from student spending activities and an overall labor impact of almost $66 million, ABAC is a strong partner in regional growth.”
With a record enrollment of 4,291 students and instructional sites in Tifton, Moultrie, Bainbridge, Blakely, and Donalsonville, ABAC is growing. But how about those four Tifton landmarks? Has their association with ABAC made them better?
“This past fiscal year we had a record year of revenue for the golf course,” Forest Lakes Superintendent Austin Lawton, an ABAC graduate, said. “There is more public play, and we have doubled our membership.”
As Moorman intended, the course is also a teaching tool, not just for golf course management majors but for the entire college.
“We have natural resource classes come out here to look at different species of plants and trees,” Lawton said. “We had some wildlife classes that trapped our beavers that were wreaking havoc on our ponds. Some classes look at the different soil types.
“That’s besides the golf classes, the turfgrass students, and the golf team which is now practicing out here on a regular basis.”
Forest Lakes, constructed in 1987, still opens to the public every day of the year except for Christmas and “uncooperating weather days,” according to Lawton.
Museum Director Garrett Boone projects 35,000 elementary school students will visit the Museum in 2021 through the Destination Ag program, which has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception almost three years ago.
“It is vitally important to engage students with the importance of agriculture and natural resources at an early age,” Boone said. “We, along with our partners, are working hard to provide opportunities to increase the awareness on the critical role that agriculture and natural resources play in our everyday lives – from the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, to the house we live in.”
Those Destination Ag numbers are on top of the 12,000 or so visitors who attend historical workshops and tours. Add the 34,070 people who attended the 377 events the Museum attracted to its conference facilities last year, and the number buzzes like a South Georgia beehive.
Boone maintains that the original mission of the Museum from its opening on July 4, 1976 is still intact.
“I don’t want the historic side to get lost here,” Boone, who assumed his duties in 2014, said. “We are still focused on historic preservation of life in Wiregrass Georgia from the 1870s through 1910. ABAC students have been a tremendous asset for that historic preservation mission.
“All of our visitors have exposure to ABAC because they are on the ABAC campus. The Museum is a perfect living laboratory for ABAC students for internships. We are a voice for ABAC and for outreach into the community.”
There’s that community angle again. Forest Lakes, the Georgia Museum of Agriculture and Historic Village, the Tift Theatre, and the Fulwood Garden Center continue to be open to the public
“Under ABAC’s management, the Tift Theatre has exploded with activity over the past seven months,” ABAC Arts Connection Director Wayne Jones said. “The increase in activity in the Tift has begun to create momentum among outside renters of the facility. McAlpin Entertainment continues to bring high quality country music concerts as it has for the past several years.”
Tifton residents who watched classic movies on the Tift Theatre big screen during its heyday may not agree but Jones believes the best days of the Tift may be ahead of it.
“While only seven months into the management contract, both the City of Tifton and ABAC have seen tremendous growth in capacity for producing and presenting live arts events because of this agreement, both on campus and at the Tift,” Jones said. “The future looks very bright and full of potential for even greater growth in the coming years.”
The ABAC Concert Band presented its fall concert at the Tift in November and will do the same with its spring concert on April 11. Dr. Susan Roe, head of the ABAC Department of Fine Arts, produced and directed “A Christmas to Treasure” at the Tift in December before a packed house.
Dr. Brian Ray, who directs ABAC’s Baldwin Players, also serves as Artistic Director for the Tift. In that role, he has revived the Tift Community Players who will present six or seven live performances at the Tift this year. A summer drama camp for children is also in the works for the Tift stage.
Museum Curator Polly Huff had the widest smile in the room when the Council of Garden Clubs of Tifton, Inc., presented the keys to the Fulwood Garden Center to the ABAC Foundation on Jan. 31.
“I love the fact that ABAC students will be able to intern at the property in several different areas,” Huff said. “Those internships will range from curatorial tasks to guided tours of the home and the gardens.
“The second area of possible engagement for the students is in the area of event rentals and marketing. We’re also hoping to work with the ABAC horticulture professors and the Horticulture Club to identify and label some of the unique trees and plants in the gardens and create a self-guided tour booklet for visitors.”
Constructed in 1914 as a home for Paul D. and Ruth Vickers Fulwood, the interior of the structure became a part of history almost immediately. The beautiful flooring installed at the Fulwood home was originally intended for the home of Henry and Bessie Tift. The mill sent the flooring to the Fulwood home by mistake.
“Mr. Fulwood always said that the floors were the finest element of the home,” Huff said of the original flooring which is still in place today.
ABAC has already put the Fulwood Garden Center to work when it served as the site for a meal on Feb. 7 for the 30-person staff of Georgia Organics, who were in town for the Georgia Organics Conference.
“The group toured the home, heard a little bit about its history, and enjoyed a cozy meal,” Huff said.
Bridges called the ABAC experience “priceless.” South Georgians who engage ABAC and its many components, which may include grinding cane at the Museum, laughing at a Tift Theatre comedy, launching a golf ball into a blue sky at Forest Lakes or enjoying a “high tea” at the Fulwood Garden Center, would probably agree.