Thursday, May 08, 2008
I've been to Kennesaw, Georgia twice now.
The first time was in the mid-90's when I was traveling around the Atlanta area trying to get bookstores to carry copies of a book on the Atlanta Campaign.
At the time, Kennesaw was most famous for a 1982 city ordinance making it mandatory for every head of a household to own a firearm with the right kind of ammo. I was there because I wanted to see the General, and because I'd heard of a store there that sold Civil War books, Wildman's Civil War Surplus and Herb Shop.
I knew nothing about Dent "Wildman" Myers before my visit, but this description on a flickr page captures the flavor of his establishment: "a fascinating and horrifying shop specializing in Confederate Civil War memorabilia and southern white supremacist paraphernalia." The wild man, wearing two revolvers in a Wild West holster, was in the shop when I stopped by (photo and profile here, write-up by the Southern Poverty Law Center here). It was pretty much as described in those articles. My main memory of the place was that it filled to the rafters with all manner of random stuff, like a surreal curio shop in some African-American nightmare. The store and its proprietor make for a deeply weird and unsettling anachronism—an unwitting museum with an out-of-time caretaker.
Across the street was the Big Shanty Museum, an old cotton gin housing the locomotive from the "Great Locomotive Chase." I spent the rest of my brief stay in Kennesaw admiring the great engine, and the quaint museum's assemblage of relics. I love railroad history, and Kennesaw is a railroad town. It's gratifying to see they have an active historical society—check out the Kennesaw Historical Society website here. Of special note are links to some pretty thorough driving tours, one on retracing the route of the General, and one on the route of Sherman's armies in the 1864 campaign (both written by Robert C. Jones).
Fourteen or so years later, I returned to Kennesaw in company with the good folks of the Civil War Forum. I'm here to report that Wildman's store is still standing, and apparently still in business (I assume under the same ownership). And happily, the old Big Shanty Museum is now the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, with a large, modern addition built to look like part of the original gin. The change is fairly dramatic. What had been, essentially, a locomotive in a barn has been transformed into a signifiant museum with three permanent exhibits and space for rotating shows, a library and archives, and all still anchored by the General. In 2001, the museum became part of the Smithsonian Institution's Affiliations Program, making it a stop for traveling Smithsonian exhibits.
I wonder if Dent Meyers will cross the street this summer to take in the new Liberty on the Border: A Civil War Journey in Time exhibit (running through September 7th). According to the museum's web site, the exhibition "explores the differing attitudes of Americans on slavery leading up to the Civil War, the dilemmas faced by African Americans during the war, and the lasting impact slavery had on the struggle for human rights."
Tomorrow: a night at the museum, and a day in the city