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We slide up the exit ramp in Cecil, where cylindrical "monopoles" rupture the Earth at their bases and balance huge messages -- "Huddle House," "BUSES WELCOME," "IHOP" -- that tower over a ghost village.
"This," Williams declares, "is a dead exit."
This also is where Williams' business got its start.
In 1963, he already had failed at several businesses -- crop dusting, homebuilding, used-car sales. One day, he hammered together a "lean-to" gas station just seven miles down the road, in Cecil. He put the station at the tail end of the new interstate that was working its way down the spine of lower Georgia.
"There was an old bus-painting barn out behind there," says Williams. "And we took them barn doors and painted 'Gas. Next exit' and put 'em out on the highway."
Cars stopped. Lots of them. So Williams bought six bona fide billboards, put them up and kick-started the empire.
But here in Cecil, things didn't work out. The town refused to run a sewer line out to his property. So, in 1980, Williams shut everything down. Everything. And he redirected the signs seven miles up the road to Adel. Not only did his businesses close, but so did a Stuckey's and a Chevron, which had lived off his advertisements.
We pull over the overpass and into the parking lot. The words "Family World" can be made out on the old electric sign. At one point Williams owned and operated a 110-unit motel, a restaurant and three "high-volume gas stations" at this exit.
It is a truly desolate scene. Pieces of plastic, glass and metal hang from the frames of the vacant buildings. And shards of building materials are scattered across the area.
"It doesn't look very good this way," he admits. "But it sure is a lot cheaper just to leave it up and let it stay."
But Williams isn't the type to dwell on the past, unless he's prodded.
"I'm blessed to say the old master gave me the ability to think about yesterday as gone and today's almost over."
The Garden Club lawsuit seems to be going well. Former state Attorney General Mike Bowers is representing the club -- gratis. The justices, who already have placed a temporary injunction against further trimmings, are expected to hear arguments in May or June.
But, overall, the Garden Clubbers aren't optimistic. A state senator who carries water for the industry (and leases land to a billboard company), Don Cheeks of Augusta, is pushing a bill this session that would, among other things, open up more locations. While that legislation in itself isn't Earth shattering, the endless lobbying by a well-funded, relentless industry appears to be taking its toll.
One and a half years after Shackelford quietly lifted a 70-foot billboard height restriction, the billboard companies are changing the nature of Georgia's three-decade-old billboard dispute by changing the situation on the ground: They're avoiding the prospect of unsightly trees blocking their messages by erecting steel sequoias that tower above even the tallest Georgia pines.
At the same time, the industry may be more formidable than ever. Mergers have concentrated billboard power in the hands of fewer companies.
"What it boils down to is citizens against big money," Ager says. "That's the reason [the victories] swing back and forth. But for the most part, it's not going our way."
So much has changed on I-75 over the last 38 years that it's hard to imagine the old days. Just north of Macon, a work crew is erecting six towering "monopole" billboards in one farmer's field.
They're reported to cost around $40,000 each to install. An electrician on the site says builders drive the pole 50 feet into the ground but still only take a week or so to complete the structure.
While Williams' 175 billboards amount to a fair slice along his stretch of I-75, the national companies count their "advertising faces" by the thousands.
But Williams says he's not worried about the billboard competition. In fact, it's the retail portion of his business -- with its increasing labor and utility costs, and its ceaseless competition -- that concerns him most. He borrows to expand the company, and wheels and deals to keep the cash flowing. But the billboards, "I'm proud to say, are title free."
We are at the tail end of our tour, rattling in the Marquis down the sandy single track near the highway and underneath huge signs that each implore motorists to visit Magnolia Plantation.
"One day, if we sell somebody everything or go out of business," he says, with a certain sense of comfort, "we've got a nice billboard company."
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