Published: Thursday, July 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 30, 2004 at 11:25 p.m.
Lake Butler City Manager Richard Tillis looks down at the photo of charred devastation, then up at the shiny restored surroundings of the Townsend Building, and his expression seems to be a combination of relief and disbelief.
"All the debris was sitting here. It was probably 10 feet deep," he says, pointing to a spot in the center of the room, referring to what the building looked like before restoration began. "It was a disaster."
"It was a home for the pigeons," adds Cindy North, president of the Union County Historical Society.
Seven years after the project began, it will culminate with a dedication today for a piece of Union County history that will eventually hold even more links to the county's past.
"When I was a child, I could come up here and eat ice cream," says Marjorie Driggers, holding up a picture of what was then the Lake Butler Drug Co.
That picture was from 1914, seven years before Union County would come to be. It was then part of Bradford County. Driggers explained that in 1856, Lake Butler had been the county seat for New River County, which encompassed what is today Union, Baker and Bradford counties.
In 1861, Baker County was formed and New River's name was changed to honor Capt. Richard Bradford, the first Florida officer killed in the Civil War. It also triggered a long-running county-seat tug-of-war between Lake Butler and Starke.
It flopped back and forth four times before the argument was settled for good in 1921 by carving off Union County, with Lake Butler as its county seat. The remainder stayed Bradford County, with Starke as its county seat.
And when Florida's newest and smallest county was born, county commissioners needed a place to meet, judges needed a place to hold court, and the room over the drug store was just the place.
"This was at least 50 years a pharmacy," says Bill McGill, Driggers' brother, who remembers coming there for ice cream, to visit Dr. J.M. Mann's office in the back, and running down the balcony that connected the second floor to two neighboring buildings.
While 410 W. Main St. may be one of the prettiest pieces of downtown Lake Butler real estate today, it didn't show that much promise when Tillis first poked his head in the door. That was back in 1996 after learning of the city's plan to restore the building.
In its later days, the building was home to Lyman Green's Bar-B-Que. A fire in 1983 gutted it, and it sat there as a crumbling home to Lake Butler pigeons for another 13 years. Eventually Green's son Charles donated it to the city.
Tillis recalls he could look in and see the sky peeking through what was left of the roof. Those roof pieces looked to be hanging so precariously, he decided that even before clean-up could begin, he'd bring in a crane to bump the roof and bring it down.
The next Monday when he arrived at work, he discovered a storm had done the work for him. The roof remnants, along with sections of the second-story walls were mixed in with the rubble already on the ground.
The roof and outside were rebuilt in the first phase of the rehab in 1997-98, but the details of turning a shell into a working building have taken years, and thousands of hours of labor by inmate construction crews from nearby North Florida Reception Center.
For months it has looked almost ready from the outside. For months, the city commissioners would ask Tillis, "How much longer?" and his standard reply - so standard it got to be a joke - was "45 to 60 days."
"They got to where they'd ask that with a grin," Tillis says.
Well, today they'll be grinning for another reason. It's really done.
Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings will be there to help mark the occasion, along with James Crosby, who heads Florida's Department of Corrections. They'll get to see the new branch office for the North Florida Regional Chamber of Commerce and the new meeting room downstairs that can be rented for community or family functions.
But members of the Union County Historical Society are hoping the big empty room upstairs with the commanding view of the surroundings will get the attention of those who call Union County home. That room will be the home of a new county historical museum.
Like the "build it and they will come," idea in the movie, "Field of Dreams," members of the historical society are hoping that having the space will inspire folks to explore their attics, barns and closets for photos and memorabilia of life in Union County over the years.
They've already got a bit of a start. Driggers was able to salvage several historical pictures that used to hang in the Farmers and Dealers Bank. She also found an old wooden bread-making bowl and a wooden rake.
McGill has a 48-star American flag from the USS George Washington from 1919 when it carried President Woodrow Wilson to France for the Versailles Peace Conference. His dad, long-time letter carrier Dewitt T. McGill, was a sailor aboard the ship.
The museum hopes to attract artifacts from all parts of the county, not just Lake Butler, McGill says. "Anything significant" is his broad definition of what will work.
"We know several people have something for the museum," North says, "but we didn't have anywhere to store it."
So today, members will celebrate the end of construction, the saving of a piece of history, and the start of a new bit of Union County history.
How you can help
The Union County Historical Society is collecting items of interest that relate to the history of the county, for possible inclusion in the new Union County historical museum. For information, call Cindy North at (386) 496-3044.
Gary Kirkland can be reached at (352) 338-3104 or email@example.com.
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