Fort Valley

Once I knew approximately when I would pass through southern Georgia, I called my friend Robert and announced my estimated arrival. Over the phone, he gave me directions into Fort Valley.

He said, “turn right at the five-point light, go three blocks, and pull into the parking lot at Piggly Wiggly.” 

I thought, ‘He must be kidding me. There is no such thing as a Piggly Wiggly.’

After the trek through the mountains and across the rolling terrain of Georgia, I found the exit off the expressway and headed for my rendezvous with Robert. When I turned at the light and went a few blocks, imagine my surprise when I saw a store with the name emblazoned across the front: Piggly Wiggly.

I met Robert years ago at Shiloh, the commune in the Ozarks my parents had found. When I visited between circus seasons, Robert and I became friends. At the time, I had no idea of his background. After the respite as a youth that led him to that spiritual community, he returned to assume his role with the family business. I was to learn the truth about his story and his family. His grandfather started the Blue Bird school bus company years ago.

 “Let me show you around,” he beamed as he motioned for me to get into his truck.

As we left the parking lot, Robert took me on a personal tour of the entire complex. I saw acres and acres of yellow school busses that filled vast parking lots behind the huge manufacturing facility next to town. After circling the vast complex, he drove up to the main entrance. He took me inside. He then explained that he was being groomed for management by running one of the three companies that made up this huge conglomerate; Cardinal manufacturing.

I walked with him through the long hallways flanked by offices to the large room where the entire staff and workforce were gathered for the special pre-Thanksgiving program. I listened to a plethora of announcements, a call for workers to submit suggestions based on their observations for ways that the company can save money, and the list of various award winners. The conclusion of the program was a vocal rendition of several gospel and holiday songs sung by the company Chaplin.

Robert also took me to the other large part of this company – the Wanderlodge specialty manufacturing plant, where the epitome of luxury motorhomes was built. At that time, the only luxury motorhomes made were either Wanderlodge or special conversions using a bus chassis by either Prevost or Silver Eagle.

The Wanderlodge plant employed interior decorator personnel along with cabinet builders, infrastructure wirers, plumbers, lighting and sound system specialists along with exterior and interior finishers for every state-of-the-art component imaginable and a crew who handled elaborate paint jobs.

This part of the company also had a complimentary campground called the Bird’s Nest for the customers who owned these luxury vehicles. Their customers could camp free while they waited for service, or to simply break up the jump through the state.

Robert invited me to create literature specific to the services I provide for this customer group and place a portfolio of my work in the customer waiting lounge. I was also invited to attend the Wanderlodge rallies that occur throughout the year in various places, especially the main rally that took place here every October called the Rally in the Valley.

As my orientation with this huge company concluded, I became filled with gratitude for this happenstance meeting with Robert years ago. Complimented to receive such an immense boost, this led into what became perhaps the most significant chapter of my life.

In the fall of each year, the Blue Bird Wanderlodge rally in Georgia became the perfect place for me to break up the jump from Michigan to Florida. Every time I came, I found an abundance of painting opportunities for the affluent who gather here. I discovered a busy time before, during and after the rally. I spent the entire month of October here in Fort Valley and this became an established part of my annual route. 

In the coming months, I accumulated photographs of the painted works accomplished on motorhomes during the winter and began to assemble a portfolio. I returned in the spring and placed this portfolio in the Bird’s Nest and while there painted several inscriptions for waiting coach owners. I had developed rally savvy earlier that winter after I landed at River Ranch.

After this introduction to Peach County, the time came to go to Sarasota. I would continue horse and mule training through the holidays in preparation for the circus festival. Then I began my three-month stint as resident artist at River Ranch. I thanked my friend Robert and resumed my trek to Florida. The opportunity to work with John Herriott awaited. In spite of the lingering grief from the heart break of the loss of the woman I loved, great things had just begun.    

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