Warner Robins turns 70: Group aims to collect oral histories

bpurser@macon.comMarch 3, 2013 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP-gblankenship@macon.com
Yvonne Elliott, center, with her son Jim, left, records an oral history about her life in Warner Robins as a part of the effort by the Warner Robins Heritage Society to collect histories to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the creation of Warner Robins.

WARNER ROBINS Longtime Houston County Sheriff Cullen Talton shared how his wife of 63 years won her first date with him in a bet.

“That’s her story, and she’s sticking to it,” Talton, 80, said with a laugh. “I know she’s telling the truth.”

Talton met his wife, Peggy, his senior year at Warner Robins High School. Peggy Talton said a girlfriend confided that none of the girls could get Talton to ask them out. She shot back that she bet she could within a week. Unaware of the bet, Talton did ask her out, but it wasn’t until the last day of the school week that he invited her to go with him to a basketball game.

“That’s how we wound up together,” said Talton, who graduated high school in May 1949. He and Peggy married in January 1950. He was 17, and she was 16.

Talton recounted the story for the Warner Robins Heritage Society’s oral history project, which aims to preserve the city’s relatively short history.

On Wednesday, the Heritage Society will host a 70th Anniversary Pioneer Breakfast for residents of 50 years or more to commemorate the renaming of Wellston to Warner Robins, which occurred on March 5, 1943. However, the breakfast is already full, and the deadline to register has passed.

So far, more than 50 oral recordings have been captured on video, with more than 60 additional people identified to have recordings made and more expected.

A few of those already recorded include Jack A. Bell Sr., 91, one of the first dentists to come to what is now Warner Robins; state Rep. Willie Talton, who was one of the two first black Warner Robins police officers; and former longtime city recreation director Claude Lewis, who shared a story about how Jimmy Perkins Memorial Field got its name. Lewis was keeping score at a baseball game when two players collided, and Perkins died after the freak accident.

Some of the oral histories include common stories told from different perspectives such as personal accounts of the April 30, 1953, tornado that struck Warner Robins and Robins Air Force Base and killed 18 people.

The histories also include funny personal stories and memories including the night motorists clogged Watson Boulevard and created a traffic jam to view the first street lights. Many remember Watson Boulevard when it was a dirt road.

The birth of the project

Art Howard, the Heritage Society’s president, said he and friend Jack Armistead were sitting in Sunday School at Trinity United Methodist Church one morning in the fall of 2011 talking about what they believed was a fascinating story shared with them about the early history of Warner Robins.

“What I realized is everybody’s got a story,” said Howard, a retired Air Force C-130 navigator. “It just struck me that there ought to be some way to collect them.”

Howard shared his thoughts with a few friends, including Marsha Priest Buzzell, executive director of the Warner Robins Convention and Visitors Bureau. The CVB already was talking about such a project, “If These Walls Could Talk,” in relation to the historic 1918 Elberta Depot where the CVB is housed.

“There were these pockets of people around town having the same thoughts,” Buzzell said.

Tom Stoner, who had earlier videotaped oral histories for the Warner Robins Rotary Club about its members, said he heard about the idea from Buzzell. He came on board the project with Mike Chalout, who conducted the interviews for the Rotary Club project.

The Heritage Society held its first public meeting about the project May 5, and the first oral history was taken May 30. An ad hoc committee under the CVB, the volunteer organization received a $5,000 grant from the Flint Energies Foundation for the oral history project. The group also collects a $24 annual membership fee.

The momentum for the project continues to grow.

Dianne McMichael, a charter member of the Heritage Society and wife of retired banker and Houston County Commissioner Tom McMichael, noted, “If we don’t capture it now, we’re going to lose some people. ... It’s too much valuable information that could be lost.”

She also hopes to solve a mystery through the project.

A safe once was kept at the 1918 Elberta Depot, which is now located on Armed Forces Boulevard. The combination was forgotten, and the safe proved unbreakable although many tried, Dianne McMichael said. Through the years, the safe itself eventually was forgotten and lost. McMichael said she believes the safe may contain some personal belongings of her late uncle, Bruce Holland, who was a station manager at the train depot.

Fred Hardin, another charter member of the Heritage Society and actively involved in the Warner Robins Little Theatre since 1972, also hopes to unearth more historic details about the theater that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012.

Jerome Stephens, charter member and president of Rebuilding Together Warner Robins, also contributed an oral history to the project. His late grandmother is Wellston native Pearl J. Stephens. She is credited with persuading the school board to build the first tax-supported school in the black community by donating the land.

Stephens told of his life experiences including being part of the first graduating class of that same school in 1965. The schools were desegregated a few years later. “It’s very important you keep history for future generations before it can be lost,” he said.

Former Mayor Henrietta McIntyre, also a charter member of the Heritage Society, said it’s not only important to capture the city’s history while it’s young but also to preserve older structures.

“Every time I see them tear down an old building, I want to get a shotgun,” she said.

Those who are interested in giving an oral history about Warner Robins for the project may call 922-5100.

Capturing history

Tuesday afternoon, 76-year-old Yvonne Elliott sat inside the bridal suite at Central Baptist Church preparing for the videotaping of her oral history. Her son and longtime city attorney Jim Elliott was by her side.

Adjusting the video camera’s aim, Stoner smiled and encouraged her to relax. He told her the two recording sessions would take about 30 minutes each, with a short break in between.

“The time will pass quickly. You’ll hardly realize it,” Stoner reassured her.

Buzzell, who volunteered to do the interview for a vacationing Chalout, smiled and joked with Yvonne Elliott.

Stoner said the first oral history was taken in a home. But the decision was made to capture the histories at Central Baptist to better control lighting and sound. Stoner, a member of Central, uses his own equipment.

McMichael, who schedules the oral histories, also was in the room. Hardin was seated nearby, with some notes jotted down about questions he planned to ask.

Elliott talked about her late parents, Pierce E. Cumpton Sr. and Lena Wimberly Cumpton. Her father was a Twiggs County farmer and World War I prisoner of war. After returning home from the war, he later contracted tuberculosis. Widowed in her 30s, her mother was able to land a job at the base and commuted. She later packed up the children in a big Buick and moved the family to a house in Bonaire until the school there burned.

Yvonne Elliott was in the seventh grade when the family moved to Warner Robins. Her mom continued to work on base, Elliott baby-sat and one of her brothers picked up a paper route.

“We would take anything available because we had to eat,” she said.

An older sister married a military man who went off to war. She came to live with the family with their baby while he was away. Elliott’s mom would often bring young airmen, who were about the same age as Elliott’s brothers, to their home.

Elliott laughed recalling how her brothers used to tell tall tales to the “Yankees” who were just as curious about the Southerners as the Southerners were about them.

Jim Elliott said he felt like Warner Robins had arrived on the map when McConnell-Talbert Stadium was built. A Republican, Elliott also joked that when he was a child his mother “made him” shake Lyndon Johnson’s hand when Johnson, a Democrat, came down Ga. 247 during a stop at the base during his 1964 presidential bid.

Yvonne Elliott also talked about how a lot of young adults moved to the area in the city’s formative years.

“You had a young town with a lot of young people with a lot energy who wanted to make a better community,” she said.

Warner Robins became known, Elliott noted, as the International City, a common thread among many of the other oral histories.

“They came from everywhere just to get work,” she said.

Because of this diversity, Warner Robins was unique among Southern cities, she said.

“You could be anything you wanted to be in Warner Robins,” Elliott said.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.


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