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History on display at train depot

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

During much of its lifetime of 129 years, the train depot that sits at the intersection of Mill Street and Main Street in Jonesboro has been a center for commerce and a marketplace for farmers to sell the cotton they had grown.

In modern times, it became a storage place for Historical Jonesboro/Clayton County, Inc. More recently, it has undergone two restorations and become home to the Clayton County Convention and Visitors Bureau's "Road to Tara Museum."

"It's kind of like the old courthouse [across the train tracks from the depot]," said Jan Turner, a Historical Jonesboro/Clayton County docent at Stately Oaks Plantation, who led a restoration effort at the depot in 1996.

"It's a landmark for this city," Turner said.

As the Jonesboro train depot, the facility has had two lives - one as a commercial center for the town, where farmers sold their wares, and more recently as a tourism center, where visitors to Jonesboro come to learn more about local attractions, peruse the "Gone With the Wind" exhibit at the Road to Tara Museum, buy souvenirs, or purchase tickets for one of two local tours.

But there is one chapter of the train depot's existence which did not take place in Jonesboro at all. While the gray, stone train depot has served the county seat of Clayton County for much of its life, it was originally the train depot not for Jonesboro - but Barnesville, where it was first built in 1867.

It was dismantled stone-by-stone and transported to its new home in 1880 by its owner, the Macon and Western Railroad, Turner said.

Turner said one reason why the depot was moved to Jonesboro was that the city had been lacking a permanent train depot since the original one was destroyed during the Civil War. Union troops burned the town's first depot, which was located on the north side of town, near the Confederate cemetery, on Aug. 31, 1864, during the Battle of Jonesborough (the original spelling of the town's name).

A temporary, wooden train depot had been built near the site of the present depot as the railroads were rebuilt, but it did not meet the area's needs, Turner said. That leads to the other reason why Barnesville's depot was moved - the large weighing scale that came with it, which could be used for selling cotton to companies.

"That was the place where the farmers brought their cotton to be weighted and sold," Turner said. "Even as late as the 1950s, they were still bringing cotton to the depot."

In 1914, waiting rooms, one for white people, and another for African-Americans, as well as a ticket booth, were added onto the north side of the depot, according to the Clayton County Convention and Visitors Bureau's fact sheet on the depot's history.

Eventually, the county's economy changed, and the railroad stopped using the depot in the 1960s. Historical Jonesboro/Clayton County purchased the depot from the railroad in the early 1970s, according to Turner. Historical Jonesboro/Clayton County officials renovated the building, but it was essentially used for storage, she added.

When the Clayton County Convention and Visitors Bureau prepared to purchase the building in 1996, another renovation took place, with Turner in charge of the efforts. She said the national historic register had to approve the renovations because it is a national historic site. As a result, the people in charge of the renovations were not allowed to change the building much from its original appearance.

Those renovations resulted in the depot becoming home of the "Road to Tara Museum" in 1999, according to Clayton County Convention and Visitors Bureau spokesperson Megan Spears. The museum mainly features displays on the movie and book versions of "Gone With the Wind," but it also has displays on the Battle of Jonesborough, and the depot's original duty as a marketplace for cotton farmers.

The bureau also has a welcome center, and a gift shop in the depot. Spears said it is also the place where anyone who wants to take a tour of Jonesboro can sign up for the "Southern Belles and Whistles Tour," or "Peter Bonner's 'Gone With the Wind' Tour."

More than 13,000 visitors stop by the depot each year, Spears said.

"Jonesboro has got so much great history, and the depot is one of those great pieces of the city's history," Spears said. "We chose to move into the depot because it is an icon, and because many communities that have train depots have converted them into welcome centers."

Kristen Jabanoski and Ariel Lewis, two recent graduates of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., who are taking a road trip to their homes in New England, stopped by the depot Thursday after seeing a sign for it on Intestate 75.

"We wanted to see Atlanta because of the [Georgia] Aquarium, and we happened to see a billboard on the interstate advertising this place," Lewis said.

"I read this book a year or so ago, so I really wanted to see the museum," said Jabanoski, a native of Foxboro, Mass. "I think it's an interesting place."