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Leila S. Case: It’s all here and more — Colonial patriots to rum

It’s hard to believe that Americus has been home for almost 40 years – the longest period I have lived anywhere. My roots thrive in Sumter soil because I was determined I would “bloom where I’m planted.” I love this community, its rich history and its people who adopted me and have always made me feel welcome.
Last week the Americus Rotary Club, the community’s oldest service organization, celebrated a milestone anniversary; the fifth-grade students at Southland Academy culminated a six-week hands-on study with Patriots’ Day, a living history experience of the Colonial period of this great nation; the 44th annual meeting of Sumter Historic Trust was held; a salute to military veterans of all wars took place, and Americus lost Anna Moraitakis Cheokas, a community-minded individual and artist, the widow of Arthur Cheokas and mother of Mike Cheokas, local businessman who continues his parents’ legacy of giving back to our community as our representative in the Georgia House of Representatives.
There was great hoopla when the Americus Rotary Club was officially chartered in September 1918, as the eighth Rotary Club in the state. There were visiting dignitaries, a parade through downtown streets followed by speeches, an air show at Souther Field and a dinner party.  Since its founding, Americus Rotarians have achieved many major projects and continue to enjoy a long history of bettering the community.
Almost nine decades later the club celebrated its 97th birthday party in style, too, although there were no parades, speeches or air shows. I had privy to the interesting, educational and fun party by virtue of my Rotarian husband Bruce, and we both felt privileged to accompany Mary Ann Crowley, club president, who baked the four-layer birthday cake.
Never in their wildest imagination would the club’s charter members envision that this landmark anniversary would be celebrated in, of all places, historic downtown Richland, once a thriving agricultural  community, in nearby Stewart County, to tour a rum distillery. However, had they been present, they would have thoroughly enjoyed visiting Richland Rum Distilling Co. and sampling their product – Richland Single Estate Old Georgia Rum. It was love at first sip. Rare, smooth and memorable and what connoisseurs call “the real deal.” I never liked rum until I tasted Richland Rum distilled, not in South America but southwest Georgia.
Erik Vonk, the proprietor, made everyone feel “at home,” extending a warm welcome, inviting us to follow him to the spotlessly clean room where magical things happen to the freshly pressed sugar cane juice that goes from gently heating in two large copper pots to fermentation to aging in white oak barrels for up to four years before it’s bottled. As Vonk speaks, I detect a slight accent that one doesn’t often hear, and I soon learn he is a native of southern Holland who found his way to America in 1979, and 20 years later, to Stewart County. Vonk and his wife Karin purchased a farm that had one time been used to grow sugar cane, named it Vennebroeck Estate, planted cane and started distilling. The first crops were failures, but he sought expert advice from University of Georgia agronomists and he was soon on the way to creating an award-winning rum that has put the tiny town of Richland back on the map.
After a wee sip of rum, we cut the divine cake doused with none other than Richland Rum and sang “Happy Birthday” to the Americus Rotary Club. A tip of the hat to Rotarian Cindy Pryor whose idea it was to observe the club’s milestone at Richland Rum.
Out and about: Among those blowing out the candles on the Rotary Club’s birthday cake were Don and Sybil Smith, Reda and Kelly Rowell, Thurston and Gail Clary, Cindy Pryor and her sister Claire Pryor Peeples, Steve and Mona Nelson, Rene and Angela Smith, Russ and Jo Childers, Steve and Jeannie Stanfield, Norman Race, Karen Holloway and Joe Daniels and Mr. and Mrs. Darryl Hawkins. Elsewhere Wilma Kinslow, JoAnn Pope, Mary Torbert and I had the opportunity to join Southland’s fifth graders and their teachers as they turned back the clock to the Revolutionary War to observe Patriots’ Night – the living history conclusion of the Why America is Free curriculum. Held at the plantation home of Paul and Jeannie Hall, everyone, students and adults, dressed in Colonial-era attire, muskets were fired and you would have thought the British would attack any minute – it was authentically done and the students gained so much from this educational program; following the sweet funeral service for Anna Cheokas at Calvary Episcopal last Saturday morning, I was glad to have the chance to speak with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, both of whom incidentally look hail and hardy – and to finally meet former Americus resident and attorney Warren Fortson and his wife of Atlanta who I had heard so many good things about for years; smile and say hello to the Rev. Jeff Wallace, new rector at Calvary Episcopal Church, and his wife Stephanie Wallace, who moved here from Texas earlier this week; congratulations to the winners of the 15th annual Miss Historic Southern Plains pageant held last Saturday at Plains High School. They are Kaylee Ewing, Miss Presidential Pathways 2016; Katherine Marable, Miss Historic Southern Plains 2016, and Zyan Campbell, Miss Historic Southern Plains Outstanding Teen 2016, and congratulations to Mark and Crystal Waddell, who have directed the pageant, a part of the Miss America Organization, since its inception.

Leila S. Case lives in Americus.