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Old bank building transformed into McDuffie's 'marvel'
McDuffie Museum opens

History was made in the county last weekend with the grand opening of the McDuffie Museum. Approximately 75 people attended the invitation-only event Saturday afternoon and 110 others came Sunday for the public grand opening.

"It's hard to believe that we've actually come to the grand opening after all this time," Museum Board President Rusty Lovelace said after Saturday's event.

The Building

Located at 121 Main Street in downtown Thomson, the museum is in the old First National Bank of Thomson and adjacent pharmacy buildings, which were remodeled this year by Two State Construction Company and 2KM Architects, Inc.

"I'm thinking of all the people who made their livelihoods out of this bank, (Past Presidents Paul Bowden, Monroe Kimbrell, Ben Johnson, Bill Leverett and Jack Baston). And I wish they could be here to see this, because they would all marvel at the condition of this building," Mr. Lovelace said during his welcome speech Saturday. "It is just beautiful."

The construction crew had to remove asbestos and lead paint from the exterior of the buildings. The old pharmacy building was painted to match the brick of the bank building. The eagle which hung over the front door of the bank when it was opened was refinished with paint and hung back in its original spot.

The ceiling inside the bank, which had been dropped twice through the years, is restored to its original height. The balcony, which was once an oval extension made of wood interwoven with brass and sporting a large, 1930s art deco clock on the wall, is now flush with the wall with a black railing and faux columns on each side. Mr. Lovelace said large art will be displayed where the clock once hung.

The tall windows were replaced with modern ones that resemble the old style, and Two State Construction Vice President Jeff Cowart was able to locate marble at a discount price to replace the marbled window sills.

"The bank was nice when they had it here, but it wasn't fancy like this," Mr. Lovelace said.

Some furniture original to the bank was donated back to the museum, including two Chippendale red leather sofas, a wing-backed chair, old desks and a conference table.

The old vault serves as a mini theater for the museum, and the old safe inside will be used for storage of videos. During his comments at the ceremony, Museum Board Vice President Epp Wilson said the hinges on the vault door are welded open so that no one can accidentally be trapped inside.

"I used to work for the Knox Corporation and I opened my first bank account here in 1950," reminisced Board Member Mary Wells, as she sat inside the vault watching a slide show. "This building is just beautiful, now. It's like a dream come true for McDuffie County."

Another vault in the rear of the building will serve as storage for valuables. Most of the gallery space in the 13,500-square-foot museum building is completed, but the library and research area and catering kitchen is still under construction. The elevator can not be put in until more funds are raised.

"I think it's beautiful. I think it's going to be something interesting and nice," Mozell Peeples, of Thomson, said Sunday as she wandered through the building. "It was my bank, and I worked for about 15 years at the movie theater next door, so I couldn't wait to come see it."

The Exhibit

At center stage of the grand opening was the Smithsonian Institute's Museum on Main Street exhibit, "Key Ingredients: America by Food."

"This is a red letter day for us, and what makes it possible is the exhibit that you see all around us," Board Member Robert E. Knox, Jr., said in his speech during Saturday's event.

Thomson was one of 12 sites selected across the state to host the exhibit. Mary Anne Coussons, the executive director for Camellia Partners for Heritage and Economic Development, Inc., put in the application to be a host site while the building was still only a dream.

"I walked through this building a year ago, and I don't think I'm in the same building anymore," said Arden Williams, the program officer for the Georgia Humanities Council, who sponsors the exhibit. "The Smithsonian told us that Georgia had more applications than any other state that is hosting this exhibit, so that makes it even more important that Thomson was chosen to be a host site, because it was very competitive."

The exhibit focuses on how Americans produce, prepare, preserve and present foods. Members of the humanities council came to Thomson last summer and interviewed cooks featured in a book that is given to everyone who visits the exhibit.

"Looking at all this about food preparation has me thinking about how spoiled we are now," said Patricia Foster, Lincolnton, as she toured the exhibit Sunday. "I remember ice being delivered for our ice box when I was little. ... Looking at those pictures, it's amazing what women did a long time ago. Just having to regulate the temperature of a wood stove, I don't see how they did that. I have enough problems cooking with my oven."

The Museum

Because of the Smithsonian exhibit, museum board members, architects and contractors had slightly over six months to actually do the work, transforming the old building into a state-of-the-art facility.

"They really pulled the rabbit out of the hat for us," Mr. Wilson said.

Last minute details, such as touch-up painting and security system installation, were taking place last Tuesday when the Smithsonian exhibit arrived at the museum in crates.

Therefore, the exhibit is the only thing presently in the museum.

"It's nice, but I'm a little disappointed because I was expecting more about McDuffie County," said Bonnie Martin.

But Mr. Wilson encouraged everyone to keep returning and watch the progress of the museum. The Smithsonian exhibit will be on display at the museum until Sunday, Feb. 22. Mrs. Coussons said she already has several other exhibits that are slated to come right after that. She also said the board wants to create a historical timeline of McDuffie County, and possibly a video, too. But because she has been acting only as the interim director of the museum, she said those details will be left to the new curator. The board has been interviewing candidates for the position, and is supposed to make a final decision this week.

"Hopefully, the curator is going to take the reigns, and really get things going," Mrs. Coussons said.

Admission to the museum is free, and free parking is available in the rear of the building. For more information, call 706-595-9923 or 706-597-1000 ext. 103.

Web posted on Thursday, January 15, 2009

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