Frank Mills’s home at 246 Main Street in the town of Toomsboro, forty miles east of Macon in Wilkinson County, is not for sale. This would not be particularly noteworthy if not for the fact that practically the entire town around this eighty-nine-year-old man is. On the block is the hotel. The barbershop. The train depot from which Army infantryman Mills once departed for war. The bank where he deposited his wages from working the nearby mines. The theater where he played gospel piano on Saturday nights. All told, there are thirty-three parcels, each vacant, spanning eighty-five acres—barely 7 percent of the town’s total area. But those properties comprise, in no uncertain terms, the heart and soul of Toomsboro.
The asking price, if you’re interested, is $2.45 million. And if you have that kind of money lying around, you probably have time to dream up something to do with an entire town. The current owner, David Bumgardner, made his fortune selling cars in Florida and dropped $530,000 for twenty-eight properties in 2002, with the notion he could turn Toomsboro—a place that evoked the tiny Boone, North Carolina, of his boyhood—into a tourist attraction. He bought up a few homes as their occupants moved away or died off and sank hundreds of thousands into refurbishing the fourteen-room Willett Hotel, refinishing the nineteenth-century hardwoods. Then the economy crashed and, well, you can imagine the rest.
Bumgardner had, in turn, bought the town from a man named Bill Lucado, whose roots run a bit closer to Toomsboro: He’s a retired music promoter and lumberman from Macon, and when he and a partner bought the properties at auction in 2000 for $265,000, he told Macon’s Telegraph, “We’re just going to play with it.” “Playing with it” entailed shutting down the opera house (more of an opry house) and the restaurant—essentially the only two attractions left.
Despite its grim-sounding name, Toomsboro didn’t seem destined for this undignified end when it was chartered in 1904. The town is named after Robert Augustus Toombs, a U.S. congressman who was also secretary of state—of the Confederate States of America. That he stayed here only to escape Union soldiers may be symbolic, as Toomsboro is a place that, at its peak, was home to barely 600 souls and whose population today is generously put at 472. The Central of Georgia Railway once stopped here night and day, dropping off and picking up goods and people. When the Army drafted Frank Mills in 1944, he left for Fort McPherson on the midnight train from Toomsboro—literally. Mills’s father, Hugh, ran a grocery store on Main Street.
The Norfolk Southern still thunders through town. But it doesn’t stop. The depot is boarded up, the rotting timber of its walls and platform collapsing. The only real traffic on Main comes from big diesels with orange cabs hauling kaolin—an ingredient once essential to Kaopectate—between the dozens of surrounding mines and processing plants. The trucks rattle through with the slow, trickling pulse of a patient on life support. There are exactly two open businesses in what passes for Toomsboro’s downtown: the post office and the florist, who moved into the one-story building erected by Mills’s father (it previously housed his grocery store) and built a brisk business around funeral arrangements and tending to graves on behalf of relatives who now live too far away to visit.
How did this happen? Gradually, as it has in almost every other small town in the country. As of 2010, more than 80 percent of Americans lived in cities and suburbia. Census data shows that even though Georgia’s population increased by 18 percent between 2000 and 2010, thirty-one rural counties, including Wilkinson, lost residents. When people leave, small businesses close, driving more people to the cities to look for work. Where the cycle starts is a different story in every town. But the end is the same. Not long after Mills returned from the Army, he went to work as a foreman in the kaolin mines that had opened in nearby McIntyre and had pulled many workers away. Then in the early 1950s, Route 57 was paved like so many roads at the time, along with the new Interstate Highway System now cutting across the U.S., making exodus faster and easier and signaling the rise of trucking and the decline of the railroad.
Also in the fifties, the bank that had withstood the Depression closed, and by the time Mills’s parents retired in 1959, selling Mills General Merchandise to their son, the store was one of only about seven merchants left. That same year, the school closed, its dwindling classes bused off to a consolidated school in Irwinton, the county seat some six miles away. In 1971 the passenger train ceased to come through, and pretty soon the freighters took the depot off their list of stops. The population shrank as old-timers died off and their children left for jobs in Irwinton, Macon, and Atlanta.
Then a funny thing happened: The town experienced something of a resurgence. In 1975 Joe Boone, a former Georgia House of Representatives clerk and member of the prominent local Boone family of lawyers, politicians, and newspapermen who owned much of Toomsboro, cleaned up an old store in the middle of town as a place where he and his friends could gather and play country and gospel music. Mills sat in on piano on opening night. Boone called it the Swampland Opera House, and within weeks people were coming from nearby counties to have a steak at the restaurant next door and set up folding chairs at the theater for Saturday performances. Admission was anything you cared to put in the hat. An annual Syrup Festival, named after the local sorghum syrup mill, grew around the music venue in the 1980s and 1990s. Even after Joe Boone died in 1996, a group of locals formed a nonprofit to keep the show onstage.
But by the end of the century, the vacant properties were too expensive to maintain, and the remaining Boones, now living in Tennessee, were ready to divest their holdings. In November 2000, the opera house, the hotel, the restaurant, the train depot, the syrup mill, the cotton warehouse, the bank, and several other buildings all went up for auction. Locals waited with anticipation as each individual property went on the block. A Roswell man bought the Willett for a mere $50,000 and envisioned an art school and studio for his artist wife. Mills and a group of townspeople pooled together $45,000 to buy the Swampland. For a moment the town seemed saved. But then, at the last minute, Lucado swooped in, buying the entire lot of properties and overriding the individual sales, thus setting into motion a chain of nonevents that find Toomsboro today precisely where it was when Lucado took control thirteen years ago: empty, waiting for a suitor with deep pockets and a special brand of entrepreneurial naivete.
The miraculously preserved gristmill; the bank with its brass teller cages and dusty vault; the barbershop with its worn vinyl chairs and rusted Frigidaire, looking as if Floyd from The Andy Griffith Show is just out to lunch; the carefully restored, mid-nineteenth-century hotel with the double-decker porch—the whole scene is ready-made for a film location or a festival setting, says Lucado, who’s now actually been hired by Bumgardner to help sell the place Lucado once owned. The old storefronts would welcome an antiquing district, and the nine vacant houses could host a corporate retreat.
Mills, along with many citizens here, would settle for the Swampland Opera House reopening. “I’m sick over the whole thing,” says Mills.
For now, the only sound on Main Street is the clanging of bells as the railroad-crossing lights flash and the long barricades swing down. The horn of the locomotive blasts as the freighter glides through, rumbling out of view toward the nearest city. Then all is still for a moment while the crossing arms raise with a jerk, releasing the queues of kaolin trucks lined up in front of the flower shop in the building Frank Mills’s father built. The diesels rattle back to life, hurrying their dusty cargo through town to its destination.
This article originally appeared in our August 2013 issue.