Salvaging history

– The renovation of Central of Georgia Depot encapsulates Madison’s post-war history –

Scribbled faintly across an old freight scale in the historic Central of Georgia Depot is the name, Bill Peacock. It’s one of many faded names written across planks and walls inside the freight room of the depot, which was built in 1901. Each represents a life partly unfolded in the busy depot, then Madison’s center of commerce, during the early 1900s.

What reasons compelled these turn-of-the-century workers, merchants, and travelers to etch their names on the walls of the then booming depot? Were they just examples of historic graffiti? Or do they reflect the ubiquitous human urge to be known and remembered, even in some small way, after we’re gone. Unfortunately, most of their stories have been lost to time.

Yet, the names that remain, standing the test of time and decay, piqued the curiosity of today’s historical preservationists working on bringing the dilapidated depot back to life – and along with it, the stories of the people who built it, worked it, and passed through it.

Joe Smith, the architect overseeing the restoration of the depot, has uncovered some of those stories while researching the mysterious names on the walls.  As it turns out, some of the stories are rather remarkable.

“I went down the rabbit hole,” says Smith, who tumbled into an historical wonderland. “Preservation is about people, not just buildings. I care a lot of about this building. I’ve taken the time to get to know the history of this building and through the building, get to know the people who built it and were here in it.”

So Smith did some digging through archives and old newspapers and was able to find out more about Bill Peacock, the man who jotted his name across a massive freight weight. He was an African-American porter for the Central of Georgia Depot who earned local praise in the Madisonian in 1929 after saving “a small colored boy” from being hit by an oncoming train near the depot. Smith also discovered Mr. Peacock worked for the depot for nine years, served in World War I, and lost an eye. Peacock turned out to be a brave veteran and local hero living during an era of racial inequality and oppression.

“These are stories we don’t hear, that have been long forgotten, but they are the stories of Madison, just as much as the antebellum period of history,” says Smith. Smith has found biographical information for some of the other names and companies memorialized on the walls. “We are keeping all the graffiti,” says Smith. “We will share whatever we can find out about each of the names and each of the companies that were a part of this place.”

Once the depot is fully restored and open to the public, visitors will have the chance to acquaint themselves with these unique local stories, thanks to the diligent research of preservationists like Smith.

The City of Madison identified the Central Georgia of Depot as part of its broader plan to revitalize the West Washington Gateway, which is one of six areas throughout the City of Madison in need of improvement under the Downtown Urban Redevelopment Plan, which was created in 2011. City officials, under the guidance of the Historic Madison-Morgan Foundation and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), plan to transform the Deport into a multipurpose space, serving as an environmental center and trailhead, as well as a conference, training, community, and tourist center.

“This has been years in the making,” says Smith, satisfied with the progress made thus far in the restoration process.

After the City of Madison acquired the historic depot, it was relocated just 75 feet away on North Bull Street across the railroad tracks. Smith and his crew recreated the waiting area of the depot that was torn down in the 1960s. For Smith, the Central of Georgia Depot restoration project is particularly special and pertinent in telling the story of Madison.

“Madison is known for its history and how well it has preserved its history. But the depot represents a time in Madison that is not well known,” explains Smith. “The depot encapsulates the purity of Madison’s history that not a lot of people know about.”

The depot was a booming center of commerce and travel during the post-bellum period decades after the Civil War.

“Everything came through this depot – groceries, furniture, cars,” says Smith. “There is no space in Madison that interprets this period in Madison’s history. There is not a lot that talks about what Madison was after the Civil War and that is why I think this is such an incredible building.”

According to Smith, the depot’s prominence in Madison dwindled after roadways improved and bus service became available in the 1920 and 1930s.

“By the 1950s, they discontinued passenger tickets altogether,” says Smith.

For Smith, recreating the waiting room that was torn down in the 1960s deeply impacted him. Smith describes the original waiting room as a relic to the era’s institutional racism.

“You know, they had segregated waiting rooms. That’s not a pleasant part of our history, but it still needs to be told,” says Smith. “We think we are so far past all of that, that we are uniquely different from the people who lived before us, but learning about how people were treated with these segregated waiting rooms, you realize it just wasn’t that long ago.”

Smith is currently looking for ways to preserve the historical integrity of the depot while adding modern standards of safety and equal access. The building must abide by current fire codes and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.

“We must tread-lightly,” says Smith. “The first rule is to do no harm. We are to stabilize the building and leave it mostly as-is while adding minimal modern updates.”

Smith is looking forward to the day when the depot is complete and ready for the public.

“This is a very special place and will be a great asset to the City of Madison,” says Smith.

Now, the exterior of the depot is almost complete, with just some minor work left to do.

“Next, we start on the interior,” says Smith. However, there is no timeline set for completion on the restoration and rehabilitation of the inside of the depot until enough funds have been raised to complete it. The Historic Madison-Morgan Foundation launched a new fundraiser in August aiming to do just that.

A swanky beach party was held at the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, featuring the musical styling of “The Swinging Medallions,” a 10-piece band that electrified the crowd with upbeat swing renditions of popular songs from various decades.

The event drew 200 people who purchased tickets for $75 a piece. In ticket sales alone, the HMMF raised $15,000. But the real shocker came during intermission when an anonymous donor pledged up to $5,000 for the depot’s restoration, to match up to $5,000 in donations from the dance. All the money raised through that event will go toward the ongoing restoration of the depot – specifically, outside work such as restoring the freight room doors, replacing battens on the freight room, restoring some original exterior wood, and painting the entire exterior with an historic color scheme.

The mission of HMMF is to help preserve Madison’s and Morgan County’s historic architectural and natural resources. “Our first project was the publication of ‘Madison, A Classic Southern Town,’ and the restoration of the abandoned depot was a perfect fit for our second project,” says David Land, president of HMMF. “In addition to raising much-needed funds through this event, we were also able to enlighten our guests about the project through a grand display of posters, photos, documents, brochures, and other materials about the history of the depot and its restoration.”

To make a donation for the ongoing restoration of the Central of Georgia Depot, send contributions to the Historic Madison Morgan Foundation at P. O. Box 8, Madison, GA 30650.

Written by Tia Lynn Ivey

Photographed by Jesse Walker

 

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