Rockdale County Historical Society celebrates four decades of preservation

Volunteer Doug McCart spray paints the “Dinky” steam engine, obtained by the Rockdale County Historical Society for display in Conyers in 1983. (File Photo)

Volunteer Doug McCart spray paints the “Dinky” steam engine, obtained by the Rockdale County Historical Society for display in Conyers in 1983. (File Photo)

CONYERS — The history of Conyers and Rockdale County is tied to the railroad and if it weren’t for a group of concerned citizens coming together four decades ago, an important part of that history would have fallen victim to the wrecking ball.

The Conyers Depot, a modest-sized wood and sheet metal building built in 1891, located next to the railroad tracks in Olde Town Conyers, operated as a hub of activity for decades.

People waited at the Depot and caught the train to travel into Atlanta to work and shop. Soldiers going off to war during World War I and World War II waited for the train to carry them to their base. Trains shipped cotton into the station for processing at Callaway Mills in Milstead, and trains carried fabric made from the cotton out of Conyers. Mail came into the Conyers Depot via that station.

But by June 1972, with the establishment of Interstate 20 in 1960s, used by both commuters and trucking services, the Depot fell out of use and closed.

The city of Conyers decided it was time to raze it and build parking spots. The concerned citizen’s group had other ideas though. In June 1973, the group met and agreed that the Depot should be saved.

“It would have meant that we would have lost our heart and soul if the depot would have been torn down for 13 parking spaces,” said Harriet Gattis, a charter member of the Rockdale County Historical Society.

The Historical Society took shape at that first meeting and has been working to preserve history in Rockdale and Conyers since then. This year marks the group’s 40th anniversary.

“They truly have made the citizens of Rockdale County much more aware than 40 years ago. We’ve collected, catalogued, preserved and maintained the historical resources of Conyers and Rockdale County,” said Gattis.

Among the 28 people who attended the inaugural meeting were Robert H. Elliott Jr., the presiding officer; Charles Walker, the group’s elected president and eventual mayor of Conyers; Mildred McElvany, vice president, and a librarian; Lucille Cowan, who helped write “A History of Rockdale County;” Lewis Gardener, treasurer; Margaret G. Barksdale, who also helped with the history book; Tom Hay, publisher of the Rockdale Citizen; Pauline Sitton, a former school teacher; Mary Haines, a chamber of commerce employee; and James Patrick, a banker.

“This is what made the Society great, they were the people who were first elected and took on these roles,” said Gattis.

The Historical Society took on both the preservation of the Depot and the Olde Jail on Milstead Avenue near Rockdale County government buildings. Government officials also had the jail on the destruction list, as a new jail had been constructed and they wanted more parking in that location.

For two years, members of the Historical Society attended government meetings to protest the tearing down of the Depot and the Olde Jail. The group came up against a general consensus from government officials and merchants that saving historic buildings didn’t make economic sense.

At the time, businesses in the historic district slowly moved out and relocated to West Avenue and Salem Gate Shopping Center.

Gattis said the group became known as the “hysterical society.”

“Historic preservation was not the buzz word it is today,” said Gattis.

Unfazed by the label, the Historical Society convinced the city government to allow the group to sign a lease on the Depot building in 1975, with the agreement that it be renovated within two years.

The Historical Society renovated the building, met the deadline and dedicated the building in 1977. A year later, the group dedicated the Olde Jail, which today serves a museum which displays old farming tools, American Indian artifacts, historic household items such a telephone and a stove, and a collection of former sheriffs memorabilia.

“What became the realization when we started doing tours and educating the public is that so many people, like the mayor (of Conyers at the time), had no clue what the history was and how the history was tied to the railroad,” said Gattis, who added that the first train passed through Conyers Station in 1845.

The Historical Society then put its efforts into other projects and published “A History of Rockdale County” in 1979; assisted with a cataloguing of historic photos statewide; and established the Olde Town Fall Festival in 1980, as a vehicle to raise funds for the group.

In 1983, the group added to the historic Depot location by acquiring the Milstead 104 “Dinky” 1905 steam Locomotive, one of the engines that carried train cars full of cotton from Conyers Station to Callaway Mills in Milstead and ferried the finished product — fabric — from the mill back to the station.

“This was the livestock of Conyers. This was our only industry,” said Gattis of Callaway Mills. “It was important to have that (train engine) here.”

The Dinky, which had been displayed the Georgia Agrirama in Tifton, had a $20,000 price tag, and the Historical Society obtained a grant for half the amount and raised the rest of the money themselves. Today, the engine is displayed adjacent to the Depot.

Other accomplishments by the Historical Society include being instrumental in getting the Olde Town business district, and the residential area in Olde Town on the National Historic Registry.

The group also gives regular tours of the Olde Jail Museum the first Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and over the years had invested more into renovations at the jail.

Historical Society members have also mapped all the cemeteries in Rockdale County, including those at churches, and on public and private land.

Currently, the Historical Society has 130 members and is looking to organize activities in conjunction with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

Gattis said this 40th anniversary gives the group an opportunity to review its accomplishments and map out the next decade of projects.

“It’s never ending,” said Gattis.

To learn more about the Rockdale County Historical Society, visit www.rockdalehistory.org.