Wednesday, August 1, 2012
What do a strand of Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee’s hair, a Hitler Youth dagger, a Lionel O gauge locomotive and a Paleo Indian arrowhead have in common?
They are among the eclectic collection of memorabilia, esoterica, collectibles and artifacts displayed at the Walker County Regional Heritage & Model Train Museum housed in the former Chickamauga train depot.
The stone depot was built at a time in the late 1880s when the Central of Georgia Railway operated twice-daily trains between Chattanooga and Cedartown. After passenger service ended the depot was used by the local schools and recreation association as well as being home to the public library.
After years of neglect, about 20 years ago the building was repurposed due to the efforts of retired businessman Adair Brotherton who “had a vision of a local museum,” according to museum volunteer Frederick Ufford.
“He’d had displays of historical artifacts inside his furniture store,” Ufford said.
Purchased by the county, then turned over to the city, the building houses a museum that began as a model train layout augmented by an eclectic collection of old furniture and items related to the region’s pre-1940s history. Trains still run in never-ending circles; a rope bed still anchors a display of once everyday items, now collectible antiques; and the history of Chickamauga is still shown in photographs and on maps.
But the museum’s emphasis has shifted from the region’s pastoral history toward the martial memories of local soldiers, whether they served in the fields and woods of North Georgia, on the Pacific’s waves, in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia or on the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We are starting to push the Civil War aspects of the area, particularly during the 150th anniversary of that war,” said Ufford, whose wife Kathie is the museum’s director.
Wearing his Civil War re-enactor uniform — he is a chaplain with the Independent Southern Guard Brigade, 16th Georgia Infantry — Ufford delights in sharing his passion for the past.
“I started putting stuff in here about 20 years ago,” he said while walking between rows of cabinets filled with guns, photographs and personal mementos.
Stopping to point out a World War II bomber pilot’s jacket here, a Waffen SS uniform there, Ufford said there are now 29 display cases filled with civilian and military items.
“This isn’t just a military museum,” Ufford said. “We’re trying to preserve our history.”
A love of history is what Keith Tumblin says led him to become a volunteer at the museum.
“I probably got that interest from my first-grade teacher,” he said.
Like Ufford, Tumblin said people from Chickamauga “can’t believe what’s on display” and both local and foreign visitors are surprised by the museum’s very existence.
“I’ve had people come in that have no clue about what the museum has here,” Tumblin said. “They just think it’s just for model trains.”
The museum has world-class items on display.
For some pieces it is the verbal account of how the souvenir was acquired and carried in a seabag or pack throughout a deployment.
For others, it is a relative’s recollection of an ancestor and the tales they told.
Some, like the display of Lee’s hair taken from a locket, carry an authenticated provenance.
Other displays have stories untold but ripe for a museum visitor’s imagination.
What fate brought two bullets together in mid-flight? Who knows, but the result can be seen at the museum. Two projectiles, one a Union 3-ring Springfield rifle bullet, the other a Confederate 2-ring Gardner rifle shot, violently smashed together to forge an indivisible whole and serve as a metaphor of the Civil War.
In another area, the uniforms on display might tell far different tales of the same place, France, and time, June 6, 1944. Within a few paces of one another are three uniforms that might have been worn that day: a German Waffen SS uniform, the jump gear of an American paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division and a B-24 bomber pilot’s flight jacket that has the words “D-Day” written on one of the symbols indicating missions flown.
Could the three wearing those uniforms have had even the most fleeting contact 68 years ago?
The museum is a place where visitors not only get to look at model trains and speculate about relics of war, they are allowed to handle some of the items on display.
That brought “oohs” and “aahs” from Floridians Zach, 12, and Lexie, 11, Oliver, who were visiting the museum with Chickamaugan Samantha Oliver. The youngsters enjoyed the train table, but what piqued their interest were the displays of military hardware.
“My great-grandfather fought in Korea,” Lexie said as she drew a cavalry saber from its scabbard.
Zach, who said he recognized many of the weapons from the video games Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, was all eyes when handed a percussion cap rifle to hold.
For the Olivers, like many who chance upon the Depot, there is so much to see that one visit to the museum is not enough. Before leaving, the family felt the attraction of the past and were already planning their return.
That, for Ufford, is why keeping the museum open is so important, not only to preserve relics but to foster the same passion he, Tumblin and others feel for history.
Quoting the masthead of “The Gilmor Blade,” newsletter for the Col. H.W. Gilmor Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, he said, “Those who allow the surrender of their history also surrender their future.”