Contact: North Carolina Railroad Company
Long before American Idol singing champion Scotty McCreery put Garner, N.C. on the map, the little railroad town was the dear home to the Wake County residents who grew up keeping time by the train whistle, skipping along the rail corridor to go to church, school, and passing time counting box cars.
Today, Garner is all grown up. Its population is up to 30,000 and the town is home to many young professionals who appreciate its proximity to the hustle and bustle of Raleigh, jobs throughout the Triangle, and who love its small town southern charm.
McCreery sings about that charm in his ode to his hometown, "Water Tower Town," Garner is a place where "Friday night football is king, sweet tea goes good with anything... you can see who loves you from miles around, in a water tower town."
Garner got its start when the North Carolina Railroad crossed through the area in 1847 bringing with it commerce, economic development, and a train station. In that year, after a tie-breaker vote by the Speaker of the State House of Representatives, Garner was chosen as the location for a train station.
"Garner's Station" was established with the construction of a post office in 1878, and the Town of Garner's Station was incorporated in 1883, according to town records and "History of Garner and Environs," by the Garner Historical Committee.
Born in 1913, Lucile Stevens, a petite, lively woman with bright blue eyes and a crystal clear memory, can remember at least the last 90 years, all the way back to her girlhood when she lived in the same house she calls home to this day.
On a balmy Friday afternoon last May, Stephens was entertaining guests on her back porch. Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams, local historian Kaye Buffaloe Whaley, Garner public information officer Rick Mercier and Garner Revitalization Association director John Hodges had gathered to reminisce about Garner's past and to daydream about its future. Over a snack of chocolate chip cookies, soft drinks and bottles of ice cold water, Stephens described her growing up years next to the North Carolina Railroad in Garner, and how that railroad corridor, the tracks and trains that came through each day were part of her landscape, her life, and her memories. She points toward her backyard.
"We'd go up in the grove and wait for the train to come," she says. "My father had the grandchildren all take a penny and go up there when they'd hear the train come or see the smoke, and they'd guess how many box cars were going to be on that train and whoever got the closest would win all the pennies."
"He taught them how to gamble," she says.
Williams and Whaley grew up in Garner too.
"I grew up in the Free Will Baptist Church," Williams says. "And on Sunday morning when the preacher was going into his hellfire and brimstone sermon, the train would come by and drown him out. He didn't save too many souls."
Mrs. Whaley lived by the railroad tracks in the Auburn community, which is located about halfway between Garner and Clayton.
"And the only way I could get to Old Garner Road was to go across the railroad tracks," she says. "We would watch the train come by, and see it smoke and all that. Auburn had a depot, and the people in Auburn would go to Garner for supplies and things they needed."
Stevens remembers traveling to Raleigh from Garner on the train.
"We could go to Raleigh for about 50 cents," she says. "We'd walk down there to the station. We'd go shopping and come back late in the afternoon. We'd spend the day in Raleigh."
Someone in the group remarks "commuter rail," and everyone laughs.
"Having a railroad as part of your town gave you status," Williams says. "Especially if the train would stop, as opposed to just flying through the town. If it stopped, you were on the map with a depot and that gave you status."
Hodges, the downtown revitalization director weighs in.
"It would create commerce too," he says. "We had businesses that would not have formed if the train had just gone through this farming area. So it was the beginning of our commerce. And we had some spin off businesses that moved further out. It started the growth."
An 1887 map shows Garner's link to Raleigh as an, unpaved country road. This small section of roadway eventually became known as Central Highway, one of the oldest and most-traveled corridors in North Carolina. When the highway was finally paved in 1916, it grew into the U.S. Highway 70 Tar Heel State travelers use every day. But it doesn't stop in Garner or even in North Carolina. It runs from Atlantic, NC on the east coast all the way through New Mexico and into Arizona.
As Garner grew, U.S. 70 was widened and re-routed to bypass the downtown commercial district and cut the town into two halves.
The highway helped and hurt Garner, according to Hodges.
"I basically have a job because the highway cut the town in half," he says.
When U.S. 70 went through Garner, the historical structures along Main Street, the old churches, and the original schools languished along the railroad corridor, while the growth migrated over to the other side of the thoroughfare.
"Highway 70 was built so close to the railroad track in the original downtown, there's not really room in between to do much. The neighborhoods were cut off, and the roads were cut off. I guess we've been working at it 25 or 30 years consciously trying to knit the two pieces back together," Hodges says.
As if a town divided by a highway were not enough, in 1974, the Town Hall building, located in Garner's original historic district burned down. The local government moved across Highway 70 to a parcel of donated land behind the brand new Forest Hills Shopping Center.
"At that time, it seemed more logical to move the town hall there because it was the center of commerce," Hodges says. "They expected this was going to replace the old traditional downtown. Now that (shopping area) has declined, and the downtown area has tried to have a resurgence."
The Town of Garner has a redevelopment plan for its historic district, targeting young professionals who want affordable living in an urban setting, with a generous dose of community spirit thrown in.
Lake Benson Park and White Deer Park offer green space that will always be there.
"That's where Kaye's (Whaley) folks all lived, down in there where the parks are," said Garner Public Information Officer Rick Mercier. "That's green space that will always be there, no matter how this community grows, it's always going to be there as a place to get away and a place for families."
Stevens remembers that land yielding strawberries and peanuts.
"They raised the best peanuts," she said, reminiscing. "My high school boyfriend, Beryl Buffaloe, Kaye's daddy's first cousin, used to bring me the peanuts they raised."
Through all the changes, Garner is working to hold tight to its roots as a small community, and is one of 60 North Carolina towns included in the state's Main Street Program.
"Our mission is to take a look at the not necessarily just the historic, but the authentic assets of our community, and get the most use out of them, rather than just making up or starting from scratch," Hodges says.
The town recently converted the original Garner High School into a performing arts center, and is trying to raise money to move the old train depot and turn it into a history museum.
"In the last couple of years, we have had over a million dollars in private investment just in our very small central business district, and almost all of it has been provided by the young creative class, entrepreneurs who are buying properties and restoring them," Hodges said. "It is one way we are trying to preserve the past and prepare for the future."
Several leaders have voiced support for development of passenger trains that just like in the old days will carry people to entertainment venues and jobs throughout the Triangle. While it might be more modern and sophisticated than the train Stevens once rode into Raleigh for a day of shopping, it will be a mode of transportation that fills the same purpose.
"Now we are in a unique position because we are turning back to the railroad," Hodges said. "We're turning back to the depot and the stores and the buildings that were built because of the railroad. They're in their next iteration of usefulness and becoming a center of the community again. So we're cycling back to all of those things that sprang up along the railroad, and whether it happens right away or in the future, we're very uniquely positioned to be able to take even greater advantage of it."
And Lucile Stevens, who can look back over nearly a century of rail service, growth, and changes in her hometown is excited about the prospect of passengers riding a train out of Garner again in the future.
"Won't that be great," she says.