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New home, down home
Newcomers from the North find friendship in west Forsyth
Northern Trans 6 es
Jeff and Abbe Baicher and Connie and Jerry Bender talk about moving to Forsyth County. - photo by Emily Saunders

newcomers audio redo 1

Click to listen to audio excerpts from our newcomers interview.
In their minds, they heard haunting strands of banjo music.

In conversations with friends, they endured jokes about road-kill rodents and north Georgia backwaters.

In the atlas, they found the Peach State, and then, like 64-year-old Empire State native Gary Colangelo said, “Where the hell is Cumming?”

But what a group of 12 new neighbors, all from Northern states, found over the past two years since moving to Forsyth County has been camaraderie and a sort of shared Southern comfort for Yankee expatriates.

Instead of twanging steel strings, they have heard “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” and “please” and “thank y’all.”

“I’m used to that because in the Midwest, people are just very giving and kind and helpful. But down here I found it too,” said 67-year-old Phyllis Buntoff, who moved south from Cudahy, Wis.

“And of course, when I open my mouth and say anything, they all know I’m not from down here. So it’s, ‘How are ya’ hon’? Can I he’p ya find somethin’?”

Instead of leaky tin roof shacks dotting the banks of an untamed river on a movie set, they found bright and cheery homes in the Concord Village Farms subdivision off Aaron Sosebee Road in western Forsyth.

There, in their new garages, they sought out places to hang snow shovels that’ll likely shovel more red clay than wet stuff.

“People where we came from think you eat possum down here a lot, like you’re moving to ‘Deliverance’ or something,” said 66-year-old Mark Allen, who relocated from Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Not so, he said.

“It’s a great area, great for kids. You have so many things going on. It’s amazing what you can get done in this state for a little bit of tax money.”

And instead of the isolation strangers in a strange place often encounter, they found each other. And in each other they found they have a whole lot more in common than the reasons they moved — a mutual disdain for the North’s high tax rates and snowfall totals, their relative ages and old addresses.

The neighbors and their remarkable amount of shared experiences has helped Allen’s wife, Vicki, feel right at home in Forsyth.

“I think the scariest thing — I don’t know about anybody else — for me was, as you get older, I thought it’s going to be hard to meet people,” she said.

“We were probably all nervous about that ... and really in the first few weeks we missed our friends back home. And we still love our friends back home. But we don’t miss them so much anymore. We’ve met so many wonderful people down here.”

What the newcomers all said they do miss, though, is hard rolls fresh from the bakery and good pizza.

Cornbread and country ham hasn’t won them over yet.

To watch the grandchildren grow up

Most of the newcomers in the group left their northern homes because their children left first. All of them have family in the area, many of them with children and grandchildren in Forsyth and northern Fulton counties.

“That’s why we’re all here,” said Gary Colangelo.

And for some, like his wife Sue, 63, who lived all her life in Wynantskill near Albany in upstate New York, moving wasn’t easy.

“I moved from the house that I was brought home from the hospital to, so I had never moved,” Colangelo said. “This has been a very difficult move for me.”

The Colangelos’ son Gary Jr., and daughter Tara Stewart, and their spouses and children, all live in Forsyth.

Their presence made the moving decision easier, so much easier that, when Gary and Sue moved, they brought her parents with them. Though Sue’s mother died last year, her 98-year-old father, Harold Rowe, still lives with the couple.

Bill and Dottie Dunn, said the decision was pretty much made for them as well.

“When our first granddaughter was born and we went to the hospital, she looked at me with those big blue eyes and [seemed to say], ‘Don’t you want to watch me grow up?’” Dottie Dunn recalled.

“When our son invited us to come, we felt so welcome to be near them that we couldn’t wait to get here.”
The couple — Bill, 65, and Dottie, 66 — may have the most in common with both their new northern neighbors and native rural Georgians.

The Dunns seem like regular country folks; it’s just the part of the country that’s different.

They lived in the rural Cumberland Valley area of Mechanicsburg, Pa., before coming to Forsyth.

“The thing that surprised us the most was that north Georgia is mountainous, beautiful country,” Bill Dunn said.

“We’re from a mountainous area. We come down here and it’s much the same. We were very pleasantly surprised.”
Their son Bryan Dunn, who attended and then worked at Georgia Tech, now lives in Alpharetta with his wife, Lisa, and their two children.

“We knew he was leaving Pennsylvania because there’s no tech business in Pennsylvania,” Bill Dunn said.
“It wasn’t a surprise to us because we knew he was going to move some place. We were just hoping it wasn’t California.”

Jeff and Abbe Baicher, both natives of Brooklyn, N.Y., weren’t so cool with the move when their daughters, Melissa Bonafede and Jennifer Tise, told them they were heading south.

“We were heartbroken. We didn’t plan on moving,” said Abbe Baicher, 54. “(We said) Georgia? Where is Georgia?”
Jeff Baicher, 56, was more to the point.

“My first reaction,” he said, “was no ... way.”

But of course, there was a way. The Baichers moved from their longtime home in central New Jersey near Manalapan.
And now that Abbe is the subdivision’s social director it’s been parties at the neighborhood clubhouse and cow pastures ever since.

“A bunch of us,” she said, “we have the greatest view — a cow pasture.”

Her husband agreed.

“Where I grew up in Brooklyn, and Abbe also, we had goats across the street. They buried bodies under them, which is true.”

“So it was a similar setting in Brooklyn and New Jersey,” Abbe said.

“New Jersey was very rural,” Jeff continued. “They had a lot of horse farms.”

“But we didn’t have cows in our backyard,” Abbe said. “That’s what sold us on this house.”

The wedding anniversary club

Apart from shaking loose their northern roots to migrate South with their families and then landing in the same Forsyth County subdivision, the dozen newcomers have something else in common.

The Allens, Buntoffs, Colangelos and Dunns, along with Jerry and Connie Bender, who moved from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, were all married within a mid-May to early June span 43 years ago. The Baichers also were married in May, 25 years ago.

This year, their first full year as Forsyth neighbors, the couples congregated for a group anniversary party at the Ridge in Cumming.

“This neighborhood, there couldn’t be a better place,” said Connie Bender, 62, whose Atlanta area family includes her son Kevin and his family, and her sisters Debbie Simonsen and Sharon Porch.

“We all still feel very young and active,” she continued. “It keeps us younger than maybe if we had stayed where we were or found a different neighborhood that wasn’t as active. All of us together really complement each other.”

And when they’re not complementing, or complimenting, each other, they may be cracking on each other like old friends.

“After 43 years of marriage, I do have a philosophy,” Gary Colangelo said. “Marriage is like a hot bath. Once you get used to it, it’s not so hot.”

John Buntoff, 66, said the secret to his and Phyllis’ marriage is, “I say two words all the time. Yes, dear. Yes, dear.”
But in all seriousness, the Buntoffs and their neighbors saw the strength of their newly forged friendships tested earlier this year when Phyllis underwent knee surgery.

During the ordeal and Phyllis’ recovery, the neighbors brought food, coordinated doctor visits, took John out to play golf and sat with Phyllis while she was laid up.

“This neighborhood is wonderful. They stepped in,” Phyllis said.

“I mean, all our new friends are our extended family. And they just stepped in and took over, and helped us out beautifully, and I’m very grateful.

“We left a wonderful community. But we found, absolutely, another one.”

For the Dunns, whose Mechanicsburg surroundings for more than three decades were far different from their Forsyth subdivision of just 20 months, the experience has already changed their lives.

“We lived out in the country by ourselves for 32 years, so this is the first time we’ve ever been in a community with neighbors,” Bill Dunn said. “I mean, we can walk out the door and talk to somebody.

“It’s been a very fascinating experience and we’ve enjoyed it very much. It’s fun to be able to come down to the pool and there’s somebody down here to chat with. Or just do things with a group like this.

“Really, you can walk across the street and talk to a neighbor or whatever. It’s just been wonderful for us.”