By Joel Hall
The recent construction of a Rex Road bypass has united the Rex Village business community, and ignited efforts to rediscover the area's past.
Several business owners, as well as the Clayton County Department of Economic Development, are working to designate the community as a historic district, and restore the village to the thriving boomtown it once was.
Perhaps not as well known as other areas of the Southern Crescent, Rex Village is a collection of 19th century buildings, many of which are still in use today by local businesses. The buildings include the historic Rex Mill, a gin house, the Rex Furniture Company building, the Mercantile Building, and several historic storefronts and cottages.
While much is forgotten about the village's past, recently discovered photographs and documents show the area once was a hotbed of activity, according to Randall Toussaint, assistant director of the Clayton County Economic Development Department.
"During its boom period, Rex was a thriving railroad town," Toussaint said. "Photo documentation dates the city back to 1837. During its strongest period, Rex was a major anchor for distribution ... Most of the documentation we have about the town, and the mill, come from that era."
Toussaint said the town grew up around the Rex Mill, which distributed grist, a type of grain which could be ground into meal, or flour, and transported across long distances. According to Toussaint, records show the mill was purchased around 1837 by Walter C. Estes, a state senator who is responsible for laying out the village.
"I.L. Hollingsworth was the original owner of the mill," Toussaint said. "The rumor is that the mill was named after a dog, and when Mr. Estes purchased the mill, he named the town after the mill, so it is rumored that the town is named after a dog. He [Estes] was one of the first planning graduates from Georgia Tech, and he used that knowledge to determine the topography of Rex and the mill."
According to Toussaint, Estes founded the Rex Furniture Company, which for a time was one of the Southeast's largest producers of rocking chairs. He also founded the Rex Mercantile - a 19th century supply and convenience store - as well as the Rex Bank.
Today, the Rex Village Business Association consists of several stores, operating in the same area that Estes cultivated.
Operating in the old gin house is Malik's Barbershop, Yolanda's Beauty Salon, and the House of Naomi, a seamstress shop. Tucked into the historic storefronts are Payless Paint and Flooring Center, and Rex Dental Lab, a business that manufactures false teeth. In what was once an old, retail furniture store is GP (God's Property) Automotive. Tucked behind the old Rex Furniture Company building is the 1-800-Wallpaper company.
Many of the businesses in Rex depend on the traffic that happens to find its way along Rex Road, but according to Toussaint, business was recently stunted when the Georgia Department of Transportation built a bypass around the village.
The bypass, which opened at the end of July, Toussaint said, was built to alleviate traffic jams caused by two-way traffic passing Rex's circa 1936, one-lane bridge, which sits at the foot of Rex Mill.
"Rex Village kind of sits in a valley and the bypass connects the two peaks," Toussaint said. "Right now, traffic that enters Rex typically enters the bypass." However, "it opened a window as to how we could improve pedestrian mobility. A lot of the structures are the same as they were at the turn of the century. Many of the buildings have fallen into a dilapidated state over the years, but what you also see is that there is a tremendous opportunity for historic preservation," Toussaint added.
Paul Abraham, president of the Rex Village Business Association, said the group was started in the year 2000 as a way to bring more attention to retail within the village. The opening of the bypass has heightened the desire of local business owners to rediscover the area's past and re-brand it as a historic district.
When the bypass was built, "it really put a damper on a lot of the businesses here," Abraham said. "Our focus is to put some attention on the Rex Village, and get it restored. Some of the stuff that has been here has been here since the 1800s, before Civil War activity. Even though the bridge has opened, it gives us an opportunity to bring people here for sightseeing."
While members of the Rex Village Business Association were researching their own history, the village recently became the subject of national attention when genealogists, hired by The New York Times, traced First Lady Michelle Obama's lineage to Melvinia Shields, a slave girl who grew up in the village.
Abraham said he believes the national attention may work in the area's favor.
"Prior to [The New York Times research], we were doing our own historical research about Rex," Abraham said. "It has brought a tremendous amount of interest in what we are doing. I've known a lot of people who didn't know Rex was here and now they want to know where Rex is located."
Clayton County Commissioner Sonna Singleton, who represents the Rex area, said she, and other residents of the area, saw the potential for the area in the late 1990s. She said she believes there is now momentum to bring in new business to the historic setting.
"Back in the late 1990s, we started the Historic Rex Preservation Society," Singleton said. "We thought it would be a destination area, but it kind of fell by the wayside. We were just a group of citizens trying to make it happen. Now that we have the expertise of the Economic Development Department ... I think it could be a real destination."
Toussaint said the Clayton County Economic Development Department is working on an Urban Redevelopment Plan county commissioners may be able to vote on in the first quarter of 2010. He said the plans will include the creation a formal Rex Preservation Society, new signage for the area, new overlay districts to protect the area, and incentives to businesses willing to renovate and set up shop in the area.
"The mill has been placed on the [national] historic registry for some time, but the town hasn't, and that is what we are working on," Toussaint said. "We're working with the [county's] department of planning and zoning and the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation to designate the area as a historic landmark. By designating that area as a historic district, people working to revitalize the area would be able to receive historic district tax credits by doing so.
"The current storefronts are actually mixed-used commercial development," Toussaint said. "We would like to use that with zoning overlay districts to protect the area as well. The goal is to actually restore it back into a thriving retail corridor that incorporates historic architecture."