By Tom Poland
“The lost and wondrous wreckage of America. The ceaseless road to nowhere. Yeah, that’s my home.”
That’s how John Mulhouse sets the stage for City Of Dust. His blog (A term I can never bring myself to like) documents in words and photographs places abandoned, crumbling, stuck in the middle of nowhere, and, to be blunt, places few people have the intellect to appreciate. Well, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. Let’s just say few people will travel a ceaseless road to nowhere. Fewer still will seek out such places and photograph, research, and write about them. It takes a special breed to do that.
John’s work resonates with me as it is much like what Robert Clark and I do. We travel a lot of back roads that lead to nowhere and we see beautiful flotsam, a debris trail, if you will, left by those whose lives, business, and homes drifted into oblivion. Someone must record these things so all is not lost to eternity. Artists like John who devote their time and talent to archiving “wondrous wreckage” earn a place in my history temple. Someone has to chronicle the forsaken beauty off the beaten path. John Mulhouse does just that. As testimony to his subject matter’s appeal consider this: well over 182,000 people have turned to City Of Dust for photos and insightful narratives about obscure places, and the count grows by the hour.
Clearwater, Horse Creek Valley: The Clearwater Finishing Plant, now burned. Gone.
So, how did this Minnesota native end up down South showing Southerners the unappreciated beauty of ruins and desolation? Well, he came to Athens, Georgia. Like me, he is a University of Georgia graduate. A Dawg, he earned a Master of Science in Botany and Plant Biology and he, as Robert Clark and I are, is a preservationist. A self-taught photographer, he takes shots of abandoned, forgotten places. His images possess a haunting quality. They capture the sweet beauty seeping from loneliness, like a maple’s sun-struck prismatic crystalline beads of resin. You keep staring at them for a simple reason. Time, captured, stands still.
Aside from his work, his interests are “confusion, heartbreak, rootlessness, dark rooms, and cheap hotels.” He likes ghost towns too, as do I. John moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2009 after spending the previous decade in California, Minnesota, Georgia, and Tennessee. He writes that he “loves the desert, realizes it doesn’t care too much about him, and thinks that’s all as it should be.
John works as the project manager at the Sevilleta Long-Term Ecological Research Program in Albuquerque. Explaining his blog’s name, City Of Dust, John said, “lots of people think the name is a reference to the desert, but it really alludes to the dry, red soil of Georgia.”
For a good while John covered Georgialina—my country of explorations. “For some time,” he said, “I spent my mornings and nights in Georgia and my days in South Carolina.”
Much of that time was in and around Augusta. That’s how I discovered his blog while researching the Great Augusta Fire. Since then, in one of life’s surprises that proves the world is a small place, John and I crossed paths again thanks to the Carolina Bay book I’m writing.
Hankinson and Haugh Bricks, North Augusta
John’s botanical background led him to Savannah River Site where he studied vegetation change in bays at SRS for his thesis. His professor, Becky Sharitz, along with Linda Lee, accompanies Robert and me to SRS on our bay missions.
“If not for Becky,” said John, “I wouldn’t have ended up in Georgia/South Carolina and might never have taken a serious photograph. The South is such a photogenic place and I was happy to find that Augusta—a city that doesn’t always have the best reputation—still caught my eye in a big way.”
John didn’t start City of Dust until he finished graduate school in the fall of 2004. By that time, he had moved back to Minnesota. He had a large number of photos from Georgia and South Carolina and felt compelled to get them out there. “I’d been considering how best to do that for a while, actually. I hadn’t really thought about documenting the histories of the buildings and locations until I began writing the blog and then it came naturally.”
Why sit on all these photographs he figured. And when he got the first comment from someone telling him about their connection to some place he had photographed, he was hooked. “Seemingly forever,” he said.
His photographs and words about dead towns in South Carolina reach out to us. Here’s an excerpt about an abandoned building in Hamburg, South Carolina. An old sign and a homemade cross indicate the building was once a Bible Study Mission. The place unnerved John so he reversed his role as a preservationist of old buildings.
Honky Tonk Hell
I’ve been in a lot of abandoned buildings. It’s normal—in fact, it’s downright useful—to feel at least a little fear when you explore a new place. However, I’ve never been in a building that gave me the creeps as badly as this building, located in the now-non-existent town of Hamburg, SC. What’s strange is that this building is only one story tall, made of sturdy concrete, and has numerous holes in the walls, providing many possible escape routes (and light/oxygen) in the event a hasty getaway is required. So, what gives? Is it the history of this place, set back in the woods above the Savannah River, that accounts for the bad vibes?
Junkyard along Aiken-Augusta Highway
Virtually nothing of the town remains—except this place. Rumor has it that this was once the location of a honky tonk frequented by workers on the river. Clearly, its last incarnation was as a mission. So, good versus evil. But who won? The mission must’ve served mostly women and children, as the floor is littered with women’s and children’s clothes, dolls, and toys. There are dozens of dolls all around, which is pretty creepy all by itself. We tiptoed from room to room as cautiously as possible, even though it seemed unlikely anyone would be there. The whole joint just felt wrong. My companion actually had nightmares about the place.
But it gets worse. There is a small access road near a deserted bridge that leads down a hill to this building. Some years ago, at the top of this road, a man, who had been kidnapped from a Wal-Mart, was apparently burned in the trunk of his car. While we were exploring, we found someone’s eyeglasses lying in the grass near the building. They looked new and reasonably expensive. The glasses hadn’t been there long and whoever lost them probably needed them. I have no idea how anyone could’ve lost their prescription glasses in this particular spot, unless they were out-of-their-minds like us and thought the concrete and steel wreckage looked worth investigating.
I like old buildings and I hate to see them destroyed, even when they’re clearly structurally unsound. In this case, I make an exception. This building might as well be torn down as quickly as possibly. It is the most unsettling, unpleasant, and evil-feeling abandoned building I’ve ever been in. And, hey, as we’ve seen so far, that’s sorta saying something. If they were all this bad, I’d find a new hobby. I always recommend that people don’t explore abandoned buildings. If this one doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. Remember, we go there so you don’t have to.
This August 10th will mark the tenth year he’s provided City of Dust to grateful visitors, an amazing thing considering John never even owned a camera when he moved to Georgia. So, how did his love for photography come about?
“It wasn’t until one of my favorite places to find respite from the sun during bike rides in Athens—an old barn on the outskirts of town—was demolished that I started to think I should capture these places for posterity before they disappeared. I began by using disposable cameras with no thought for anything other than amassing the images for myself.”
The photography is quite personal to John. “I’d cut myself pretty well adrift from the life I’d known back home and felt a strange kinship with these places. I grew quite fond of them. I still think that when (or if!) my photography has any merit at all, it is because I am trying to use these places to learn or acknowledge something about myself, reflect it back like a mirror, and then pass it along to others. To this day, old and abandoned places remain the only subject matter I seriously photograph.”
John acknowledges that the South, particularly Augusta, and nearby locations in South Carolina, got things going. “While a barn in Athens got the wheels turning, I never took a picture in that town. And it’s no coincidence that I hadn’t ever owned a camera back home and then suddenly became enthralled with the minute and even obscure details of my new surroundings.
“The South will always be a big part of who I am and for that I’m grateful. Despite now living in the dusty desert, City of Dust will always be a reference to the dry, red dirt of Georgia that covered my shoes in the summer while I searched for new places to photograph.”
As they say I’m glad John passed through these parts. As far as I’m concerned he’s one of us, a Southern boy.
Tom Poland is the author of seven books and more than 700 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press will soon release his and Robert Clark’s book, Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture.
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