Our Kind of Place

Measuring Memories in Catfish at a South Georgia Fish Camp

Even after sixty years, Ray’s Millpond keeps things deliciously the same

A gumball machine and knick knacks on the wall of a restaurant entrance


Memorabilia in the entrance of Ray’s Millpond restaurant, in Ray City, Georgia.

DANGER: ALLIGATORS AND SNAKES IN AREA. STAY AWAY FROM THE WATER, read the signs tacked to the rails of the creaky wooden platform behind Ray’s Millpond restaurant. But we were a horde of children on summer vacation, and reading, for those of us who could, was the last thing on our to-do list. Hyped up on fried fish and sweet tea, my cousins and I were bound headlong for the swamp. I was normally a cautious child. But here in Ray City, in South Georgia, along the overgrown berm of a pond long abandoned by its namesake gristmill, the sunlight waning through the pines and moss-drenched cypresses only added romance to the peril. GATOR! A little voice yelled and someone pointed to a floating log. You could barely hear the bullfrogs through the merriment.

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This scene happened so regularly that I couldn’t possibly pin each occurrence to a year. The late nineties, maybe, when our grandparents—who, along with their parents, had adored Ray’s Millpond since the restaurant opened in 1963—lugged us along each time we visited their home in nearby Adel. Or the early 2000s, when the family birth rate skyrocketed, causing me, as the oldest girl in the generation, to dub myself Queen of the Babies. The ruckus remained, but I had graduated from participant to chaperone, making sure no one knocked into the burbling fish tank or tackled a rollator on his sprint out the door. Each year, another cousin would outgrow the high chair and join the gleeful endeavor to wreak havoc on our favorite place on earth.

The swamp behind the restaurant.

Causing a commotion, though, was a secondary pursuit; we came for the catfish, battered perfectly in a light and salty cornmeal crust and falling off the bone. On every visit still, fries and hush puppies seem to multiply across the table like Jesus’s loaves and fishes, scattered alongside bowls of grits (plain, butter, or cheese), pickles (dill and bread-and-butter), and the creamiest coleslaw. We always order gator tail—not caught out back—to split. The menu touts lemon meringue pie and coconut cake, but we opt for the local Roland Farms cane syrup drizzled on Captain’s Wafers, the only dessert you really need.

Fried catfish, gator tail, and all the fixings.

Some nine hundred people call Ray City home, but for everyone else, this kind of feast requires a trek, as any holy grail should. Fifteen minutes down a darkened state route from Adel, downtown Ray City—if that moniker can apply to a crossroads marked by a Dollar General and a railroad track—long ago lost its bustle, but pulling into the Millpond parking lot any given Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night, you’d hardly know it. It’s the kind of place where there will always be a wait, but you won’t really mind. We’ll chat with other tables as we make our way to ours, and someone will inevitably call out my mother’s name from across the dining room, because, to her credit, she still looks much like she did in high school.

If you ask co-owner Heather Heard, Ray’s has changed over the years: In the early days, Heard’s grandfather Lamar Booth would buy whatever fishermen caught on the pond, and his mother, Ann Campbell, would fry it. Now Heard sources wild-caught catfish from Florida. The square footage has more than tripled, the menu has exploded (chopped steak, Gulf oysters, Chesapeake stuffed crab!), and the regulars of yore now bring their offspring’s offspring. But in many aspects—the faux wood tables and brown-cushioned chairs that would feel at home in a hospital cafeteria; the wood-paneled walls bedecked in fishing nets and mounted bass that look as though they might just drop their jaws and sing—time here flows as slowly as the pond water.

A dining room at Ray’s.

But time, of course, is relentless. All of my cousins can read now. The youngest of us heads off to college this fall. My brother got married, and I did, too, and we’ve since brought our spouses to Ray’s Pond each year to overindulge in catfish and stories of the past and the people who have passed—my great-grandparents, my grandfather, my little cousin Brian. Remember how we—? Remember when Nanny and Granddaddy—? Remember—? Because our spouses love us, they pretend they’ve not heard it all a million times.

Now there’s a new generation: My brother and his wife had a baby this past spring. Not yet big enough for the restaurant high chair, he’s on a steady liquid diet and will be swaddled tight to my sister-in-law’s chest at the first sight of beady eyes rising up between the lily pads, but just give him a few years. I’ve seen this scene before.