Local News

June 22, 2014

Sounds of history

Local, state officials celebrate renovations at Clisby Austin House

Just as officials with local and state agencies cut the ribbon last week to open the newly renovated Clisby Austin House in Tunnel Hill to the public, a train passing nearby blew its whistle, seemingly sounding its approval of the work.

If you closed your eyes, you’d almost think the General and the Texas had come back to relive their chase through the nearby tunnel during the Civil War.

“This is one of the best examples of a pragmatic, practical approach of using a little bit of state money and local money and local energy and talents to make a place come back to life,” said Bruce Green, director of product development for the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “When we go across Georgia in the other 158 counties, we’ll say go to Tunnel Hill, go to Whitfield County, and go see what that community is doing with this incredible historic asset.”

Incredible indeed.

On the very wooden floors that still grace the rooms of the Clisby Austin House today, Union Maj. Gen. William Sherman walked in May 1864 as he directed strikes against Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston’s troops and devised his Atlanta Campaign.

For that reason, Green said the house will draw history-minded tourists from across the nation.

“I’m going to tell you why the heritage and cultural tourism traveler comes,” Green said. “They want to stand in the place where it happened. It happened right here, it happened all around us, it happened when that train went through that tunnel.”

In the years since the war, the house had served as a private residence before the last owners, the Kenneth Holcomb family of Tunnel Hill, generously donated the house and surrounding property to Whitfield County in 2011. Today, the historic treasure is managed by the Tunnel Hill Historical Foundation.

To help pay for badly needed renovations, the Dalton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) applied for and received a Tourism Product Development Grant for Tunnel Hill from the Georgia Department of Economic Development last year. A similar grant earlier had provided funds for an eight-passenger golf cart that has completely changed the experience for tourists visiting the tunnel and the Clisby Austin House, said Brett Huske, director of tourism for the CVB.

Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting celebrated the completion of renovations by the Whitfield County Buildings and Grounds crew, including scraping and painting exterior wood, making structural repairs to the front and rear porches, and installing fencing and drainage systems around the home.

“I want to give a special shout-out to Gary Brown’s crew,” Huske said. “They really went above and beyond with the work that they did. You’d have to see pictures to see how challenging some of the construction work was that they were dealing with, not to mention that they were working at times in some pretty cold conditions during the winter.”

Huske and other speakers praised the partnership that has been forged by Whitfield County, Tunnel Hill, the Tunnel Hill Historical Foundation and the CVB to turn Tunnel Hill into a growing historic destination.

“When I talk to my colleagues around the state, they’re impressed when they learn that four organizations in Tunnel Hill can come together to work collectively to generate positive economic impact through tourism,” Huske said.

Their partnership efforts are definitely paying off.

Huske said admissions to the visitors center increased to $25,000 in 2013, up from $8,200 in 2011 and $20,000 in 2012, “and we just see that continuing to grow in the future.”

Tunnel Hill Mayor Kenny Gowin called the partnership between his city and the county, the CVB and the historical foundation “a great one” and praised the historic site as “one of the great things” that’s happened in his city during his 30 years in office.

He also delivered news about the nearby historic depot, which now belongs to the city.

“By the end of next month, we’re hoping to have some figures of what it’s going to take to have it back to where we need it to be,” Gowin said. “We have all kinds of ideas about where it’s going, but we’re going to narrow that down and get started on that. Then we can add the depot to all of this, too. We’re going to have something that people are going to come from a long way around to see; evidently they are already with the increase in the attendance.”

Whitfield County Commissioner Gordon Morehouse, representing the board, praised the partnership efforts to preserve historic sites in the county, which he said continues to support documenting, maintaining and preserving local heritage.

Janet Cochran, who works with the Department of Economic Development’s Tourism Division and is also a member of the Tunnel Hill Historical Foundation, agreed with Morehouse’s assessment of the value of working together.

“As I go through the region, I don’t always find that kind of cooperative partnership that we’ve seen” here, she said. “This summer marks 10 years that the tunnel and the museum have been open and operating six days a week all year long to the general public. That speaks very highly for what has happened here, and it’s just a sign that things are continuing to grow and progress, and we’re looking for even more success as we move along.”

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