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Rex: community, family and history

The Grist Mill, right, is said to date back more than 100 years and still stands as a landmark in the Rex community. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

The Grist Mill, right, is said to date back more than 100 years and still stands as a landmark in the Rex community. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

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Several businesses have come and gone over the years in the shops downtown in the historic Rex village. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

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The trusses from this old one-lane bridge obscure the driver’s view of the red barn-like mill in the town center. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

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Rapids from Cotton Indian Creek run through this waterway in the center of Rex. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

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Cotton Indian Creek opens up into these wetlands just south of the historic Rex village. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

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Trains regularly whistle through town in Rex, just a few blocks from where Cotton Indian Creek occasionally floods after heavy rains. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

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The Grist Mill backs into Cotton Indian Creek in the historic Rex village. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

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A marble marker in Rex celebrates the life of Melvinia Shields McGruder, the ancestor of First Lady Michelle Obama. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

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Two roads take motorists into the historic Rex village. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

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Janet Johnson moved to Rex about 15 years ago and participates in the community’s annual yard sale. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

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Chris Michael, center, helped daughter Leeann Michael, left, search for hidden eggs during the Rex Community Spring Fling Easter egg hunt Saturday as her proud mother, Bridgette Puckett, right, watched from a gallery of other parents. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

REX — As with an approaching thunderstorm in the distance, low hums from locomotives echo through town — lumbering around mysterious bends and along the seemingly endless straightaways.

Trains whistle through regularly along these tracks, flanked by slender trees bordering the historic village.

Rex folk are accustomed to the periodic breaks in calm — sounds of chirping birds and gentle splashes from Cotton Indian Creek that still flows with purpose behind the old Grist Mill.

Gayle and Jerry Beddingfield own the retired mill, a bright red barn affixed with a large wooden waterwheel that barely reaches the waterline. At one point the wheel spun under the weight of the creek’s rapids running south into Henry County.

“It has gotten quite a bit dryer since development,” said Gayle Beddingfield. “Water is not as plentiful as it used to be.”

She and her husband are relative newcomers to Rex. They bought the mill back in the late 1970s, after relocating from Forest Park where they grew up together just “three doors apart.”

“We love Clayton County. We love Rex,” she said. “It’s just always been a quaint little place for families. Family means a lot to us, and there’s a lot of family here.”

Families have steadily moved into the community partly to take advantage of its affordable housing.

A few subdivisions have been developed around the village since the 1990s, selling the area’s relaxed feel and its convenience to major thoroughfares. Ga. 42 and I-675 traverse the community but a few miles west are Ga. 54 and I-75 — all connections to Atlanta fewer than 20 miles north.

“When I first came to Rex, the post office was actually inside one of the buildings in the town center,” said Beddingfield. “It’s moved a couple of times.”

Across the way is Janet Johnson, who moved to Rex about 15 years ago. The retiree bowls regularly with friends and sells her handmade jewelries at the community’s annual yard sale.

“I love it here,” said Johnson. “I’ve got a lot of friends.”

Johnson said the small community was not immune to the recent housing crisis. Home sales declined in the 2008 recession but have begun to stabilize.

“We have lots of renters now,” she said.

The community — which has immediate access to a county recreation center, a post office, parks, schools and a local chain grocery store — is a growing suburb.

“It was very rural,” said Gayle Beddingfield. “When we came down, there was no traffic light, everybody knew you just take-and-give.”

She recalled just how rural the place was in the 1970s, telling the story of a neighbor’s runaway cow whom police helped lead home. They tied the bovine to the squad car and walked it back, she said.

These days the Beddingfields help organize community events for the town, which hosts its annual Rex Community Spring Fling Yard Sale in April. This year’s event incorporated an Easter Egg Hunt sponsored by the local Cub Scout Pack No. 115.

The yard sale is held near Tiffany Beddingfield Drive, a street named after their daughter who died in 2007 in a car accident.

The Beddingfields, now in their 60s, run the Rex Mill Step-up Program in which participants volunteer with nonprofits Rainbow House and Kinship Care.

“We keep ‘unity in the community,’ and try to work with our neighbors to step up and help the community,” said Beddingfield. “It is a nice community.”

Neighbors help each other still, which is how things get done since the town was last incorporated in the late 1930s.

The sturdy old bridge that passes over the creek floods sometimes, and residents have to mark it closed to traffic with orange cones whenever it does.

“When we get those real, real heavy rains we just have to watch the water,” said Beddingfield.

It has become second nature in this neighborhood that lays claim to being the home of Melvinia Shields McGruder, the ancestor of First Lady Michelle Obama.

McGruder was born a slave in 1844 and died in 1938, a few years after Joann Evans-Morgan’s birth.

Morgan, 79, was born in the house the Beddingfields now call home — the house next to the old mill to which her artist father paid tribute in a painting.

“My daddy and momma moved here in 1931,” she said. “My grandaddy run that corn mill for years and years and years.”

Morgan still lives right up from the old mill that she also remembers as Rex Chair Company.

There was a corner grocery store, too, at one time.

“That’s changed hands over the years,” she said.

“There were only three cars in Rex for years,” said Morgan, casually recalling the owners by name and family history.

Her stories went back to her youth.

“Everybody ripping and running all the time,” she said. “We played ball with a stick and a ball in the yard — swimming in the creek together.”

The creek was deeper then, and the water could run six feet clear over a man’s head, said Morgan, who would go down to the creek to collect water for household purposes.

“When I was little there was no running water in Rex,” she said. “Everybody had wells.”

Morgan remembers the sounds from a grind-up record player on the front porch during Friday night weenie roasts.

“And all the kids would come to that,” she said. “In the summer time, we always had it, and they’d always know to come.”

Of course, she eventually started a family of her own.

She worked 53 years, including 38 years for a handbag factory in Conley.

“I had to work two jobs to raise my kids,” she said.

Over the years, generations were added to the community and new families moved in.

Her daughter and son-in-law even bought a house in Rex.

“They were born here and raised here,” said Morgan. “Their kids were born here and raised here.”

The storyline is nearly echoed by neighbor Elaine Puckett.

Puckett, 44, lives in Rex Depot a couple of blocks from the old mill. Her daughter Bridgette Puckett, 22, and granddaughter Leeann Michael, 19 months old, are residents too.

She was born and raised in Rex, and stayed in the neighborhood after she was married. She said her father helped her move.

“My daddy walked me across the street,” said Puckett.

Not much, still, has changed in this growing community tucked comfortably south of the international city of Atlanta.

Morgan still keeps up with her old friends from the neighborhood even though some of them have moved away.

She grew up with Helen Helton-Coplan of McDonough, who at one time was postmaster in Rex.

“There were five or six of us that graduated together,” said Morgan. “We’re still good friends. We go out to eat once a month.”