HOLLYWOOD SINKS ITS TEETH INTO A CORNER OF THE OLD SOUTH
THE GRACEFUL LITTLE CITY of Covington could easily have emerged from a time capsule. It has all the vestiges of an old plantation economy with its antebellum homes, magnolias and a town square with a Confederate monument.
However, this city (population: 13,500) just 35 miles southeast of Atlanta along I-20, is a hustling up-to-the-moment place. With a little help from Hollywood, it has stepped into a new day.
Never been here? Watch the 2014 feature film Selma, and you’ll see the polished wood interior of the historic Newton County Courthouse. Revisit TV’s “The Dukes of Hazzard” (1979-85) and see the ornate courthouse tower. Tune in to the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries” and see the Mystic Grill restaurant, the 1850 Worthington Manor and plenty of other spots.
Covington has been a choice film location since the 1970s and now pulls in tourists from around the world who come to commune with settings from their favorite movies and TV shows — especially as “Vampire Diaries” approaches its eighth season. The Travel Channel, in fact, has rated Covington the sixth-best vampire destination in the world.
Covington, home to more than 60 film productions, has been cast as a Civil War village, a 1950s town and a modern-day city. Today it’s known best as Mystic Falls, Va. (“The Vampire Diaries”) but has also been home to the long-running “In the Heat of the Night” (1988-95). Here’s more about its past and present.
Leonard Covington, a War of 1812 general, generously gave his name to the city — and no less than 10 other U.S. towns and counties. Covington was incorporated in 1822, nine years after the general was shot down in battle. The land, once part of Creek Indian territory, became a cotton-growing and textile-producing area. During the religious fervor of the Great Awakening, an evangelical movement in 1800s, Salem Camp Ground was established for religious revival meetings, which continue today.
Who lives here
Before being walloped by the Great Recession, Covington was one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. Some of its 13,600 residents commute to Atlanta for jobs. Others work locally in manufacturing. The city’s two historic districts showcase elegant 1800s houses, but a quarter of its residents lives below the poverty line. Covington Square is busy, with restaurants and businesses ranging from computer repair stores to financial services to clothing shops.
What to see
Covington, though small, is big on art. Maybe it’s the influence of those Hollywood types, but the city supports its artists. Visit Southern Heartland Art gallery or WildArt Creations gallery and gift shop, on opposite corners of the square. Both offer community painting times when anyone — beginner or pro — can come in and wield a brush. The Arts Association-Newton County can clue you in to the next concert on the square or any other local event. Covington Regional Ballet has a school; students and adults do three performances a year — including an annual Nutcracker and a contemporary ballet.
Of course movie and TV fans — especially lovers of “The Vampire Diaries” and its spinoff, “The Originals” — can tour to their hearts’ content. Get information at On Location Gifts in the square or at the nearby tourist office.
Visitors also can take self-guided driving tours of 45 historic homes and other buildings with a map from the tourist office. In neighboring Porterdale (population: about 1,300), for example, the Porterdale Film Crew holds impromptu movie screenings.
Where to shop
On Location Gifts, aka Vampire Stalkers is great for memorabilia, including hoodies. Step in to New Shoez on Monticello Street and get a special fitting of name-brand comfort, including the Georgia Boot, Durango and Aetrex labels. Southern Heartland stocks art supplies; PomPoms and Pirouettes has your ballet leotards and tights. Bread and Butter Bakery sells fresh loaves plus mouthwatering chocolate chip pecan and cranberry pecan pies.
Where to eat
For Southern soul food and a cordial atmosphere, try Town House Cafe. A traditional meat-and-three is served at this family-owned eatery, which broke the color barrier on the square in the late 1960s. Mystic Grill, a bar and restaurant, is proud of its spicy shrimp and grits and its Clocktower burger, piled high with bacon, cheese and onion rings. Your Pie serves brick-oven pizza in an open and airy loftlike space that includes leather armchairs. Also: Try the pizza and pasta at Amici, the coffee at Square Perk Cafe and the ice cream at ScoopS, where you can sit in yellow rocking chairs or blue booths.
What you might not know
One of Georgia’s more infamous “tourists” — William Tecumseh Sherman — stopped in Covington three days out from Atlanta. His soldiers burned and ransacked the countryside but somehow left most of Covington’s homes standing. A map at the tourist office lets you follow Sherman’s march in your car and includes audio that describes sites all the way to Savannah.
The spirit of outdoorsman and newspaper columnist Charlie Elliott lives on in the rocks, trees and ponds of the 6,400-acre Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center in nearby Mansfield. Go there to hike, bike, picnic, watch birds, ride horses, fish, hunt or just enjoy the lodge. The visitors center and museum has a collection of outdoor lore, a freshwater fish aquarium, a bird-viewing alcove and a collection of Elliott’s writings.