On the road to spring

Sure, it turned warm this weekend, but what true Bostonian believes it will last? Our winter-worn reporter went in search of other Bostons . . . where the sweet season we dream of is already here

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By David Filipov
Globe Staff / March 6, 2011

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BOSTON, Ga. — The St. Augustine grass grows fat outside the Boston Garden. Thriving rows of liriope line sidewalks and crosswalks, and the Bradford pear trees are in full bloom. Memories of a frigid winter are rapidly dissipating in the warm breeze. Temperatures are tickling the high 70s.

Yes, springtime has arrived at last in Boston. Unfortunately for us, this Boston is in southern Georgia, just north of the Florida Panhandle. This city of about 1,500 people is the proud home of the Boston Mini-Marathon, and calls itself “the second-largest Boston in the USA.’’

“Oh, we’ve had a brutal winter, for us down here,’’ said Bill Carson of Boston, Ga., who grew up pretending to be Larry Bird on the basketball court off South Main Street that he and his friends named after the Boston Celtics’ former home. “It was frigid cold. I think we even had snow once, for about five minutes.’’

Shovel-weary Hubsters: Don’t you wish you could say the same?

As our Shaq-size snowbanks gradually melt away, exposing the ugly, icy detritus winter leaves in its wake, a Globe reporter last week set out in search of spring in Boston — any Boston. Sure, warm weather is flirting with our northern latitudes; balmy days like yesterday (and maybe today) are tucked between stretches of bitter cold (remember Thursday?). With a forecast of an iffy week ahead, with drizzle and temps in the 40s, we’re not ready to believe in it. Not yet. Spring, true bird-chirping, flower-blooming, shorts-wearing spring, remains a mirage.

A meander through some southern cities and towns that share the Hub’s name revealed that Bostonians from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Deep South plantations are all shaking off rough winters — at least given what they are used to.

On a recent Sunday morning, a persistent subfreezing chill hung over Boston, Va., a tiny crossroads amidst rolling farmlands a short drive from the sloping peaks of Shenandoah National Park.

“Spring has been coming very late, usually in May,’’ said Jim Bankston, a former game warden who was drinking coffee with a group of regulars at the Boston General Store, which, along with a post office and a gas station, forms the commercial center of this locality.

City folks come to this Boston to enjoy the solitude, Bankston said. They also come for the deer, grouse, turkeys, rabbits, and black bear. Oliver North and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia are among the Washington headliners said to have hunted in the Boston area. Virginia Bostonians believe the place was named in the mid-19th century by migrants from Boston, Mass. But that is all the two communities share, Bankston said.

“Massachusetts is a terrible state. It doesn’t believe in the Second Amendment,’’ he said, noting that he was carrying a .40-caliber pistol. “I wouldn’t want to live there.’’

“We don’t believe in global warming,’’ Bankston added. “We believe in letting nature take its course.’’

A few miles down the road stood a sure sign of nature doing just that: The witch hazel tree in Chuck Henderson’s backyard was in full, yellow bloom.

“This is a perfect specimen of spring,’’ he said.

Like the Bay State, Virginia also has a South Boston that considers itself a completely separate entity. However, in Virginia, the chasm is as much physical as it is cultural: the state’s two Bostons are separated by more than 150 miles. So when the mercury touched 70 degrees in South Boston, Va., the next day, the difference was not completely unexpected.

But such warm weather was premature, said Ellen O’Neal, who works at The Prizery, a former tobacco packing facility that the town has turned into a museum and community arts center.

“This is weird weather,’’ she said. “We will pay for this. We could get snow into March.’’

The warm spell had coaxed a row of winter pansies into bloom at the entrance to town, where a sign marks the spot that is a major source of South Boston pride.

In 1781, American General Nathanael Greene crossed the Dan River, completing a brilliant strategic maneuver that saved his army and lured a British force under Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis far from its supply base in Charleston, S.C.

Bostonians in Massachusetts can boast the Battle of Bunker Hill, a British victory that in fact provided an important moral victory for the Colonials. The crossing of the Dan was a no-less pivotal moment: the starting point of a campaign in which Greene lost major battles, but so weakened the British that Cornwallis retreated to Yorktown, where he eventually surrendered.

It is hard to tally the exact number of Bostons in the United States. Kentucky alone has several unincorporated localities with the name. In its search for spring, the Globe chose the one that is home to the largest Jim Beam bourbon distillery. There, Frederick Booker Noe II, grandson of Jim Beam and master distiller for nearly 40 years, earned the sobriquet “The Virtuoso’’ for the spirits he wrought from corn, rye, and barley.

On a recent afternoon in this Boston, the fields that provide some of that corn were still light brown and bare and the temperatures in the 40s. But the steady chirp of frogs complemented the distant barrage of target practice at the military base in Fort Knox, about a 40-minute drive away. The slightest whiff of warmth accompanied the sweet caramel scent wafting from the distillery’s smokestacks.

“As warm as it’s been, we may see some more winter,’’ opined Kevin Smith, director of bourbon distillery operations at the Beam facility in Boston. Smith is looking for crab apples and dogwoods to blossom for his sure signs of spring.

The season does not always bring good times, said Christine Duncan, 81, who has lived in Boston for more than 70 years and compiled a history of the tiny village. Duncan recalled the floods that cut off the town last May and filled houses with water when nearby rivers overflowed.

“We were cut off from everything for days,’’ Duncan said. “You either got out by boat or helicopter, or you stayed.’’

The floods have not eroded some Bostonians’ love for their town.

“You’ll never find another in the country like Boston, Kentucky,’’ said Laverne Douglas, 92. “Everybody’s friendly. Everybody knows each other.’’

Speaking of which, the most common question the Globe was asked in the South was whether Cheers, the bar where everybody knows your name, is a real place. There is indeed a real Boston pub that inspired the show, the reporter would answer truthfully, but it wasn’t called Cheers until after the show made it famous.

Such technicalities did not perturb Carson, of Boston, Ga., from adapting the Cheers logo and slogan for the eatery he and his wife own, Boston’s Main Street Cafe. “Where Everybody Knows Your Name . . . And Your Business,’’ it says on the menu.

“We’ve had fun with the Boston rivalry,’’ Carson said. “We’re always comparing ourselves to the other Boston, the bigger Boston.’’

Bostonians in the Peach State listened sympathetically to stories of snowfalls in the Bay State. Mayor Danny Groover is a lifelong Bostonian who has spearheaded a successful renovation project — are you listening, Mayor Menino? — that greened up the city’s central artery with planters, trees, and tasteful brick sidewalks to attract businesses and visitors. Groover claimed that wintry weather could still return to Georgia.

But in the verdant fields of the old plantations, in the lush croplands, and along city streets dotted with flowering Japanese magnolias and budding azaleas, all signs pointed to a spring that had sprung.

And that suited Barbara Sneed just fine. Sneed, 52, smiled when asked what she thought about our Boston.

“Too cold. Too large,’’ she said. “This is my kind of Boston right here.’’

David Filipov can be reached at