PAYNE CITY -- The sign along Rose Avenue is planted in the ground that once trembled when the giant machines roared at the cotton mill.
“Welcome to Payne City,” it reads. “A Town Within a City.”
Those who are familiar with this place, and its history, know there is no city here, not even a town. It is a village -- or the remnants of one.
Last week, the state Senate voted 49-2 to make it a memory. Not demolish, but abolish.
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The bill, now working its way through the legislative process, would allow the new city of Macon-Bibb, which turns 14 months old today, to embrace the tiny municipality it has surrounded for almost a century.
After years as an island in the Sea of Bibb, maintaining its independence from the encroaching city, this enclave of 215 residents (and at least 137 dogs) has become less capable of carrying its own weight.
Last year, Payne City’s mayor and council waved the white flag, asking the Legislature for permission to join the consolidated Macon-Bibb.
Of course, acquiring an old mill village has nothing to do with the “mill” rate.
But enough of the politics ... and attempts at humor.
The passing of Payne would mark the end of an era. Macon was once a mill town, so to cruise the narrow grid of streets, past the shotgun houses, is a trip down memory lane to a time when cotton was king.
It’s not the same as it once was, but then nothing ever is.
I feel a kinship with Payne City, at least enough of one for an appreciation and a history lesson.
Its front porch is less than a mile from my house. My children all played Little League next door at Vine-Ingle and Freedom Park. I have fished in that lake. The Gris family members are loyal patrons of Payne Mill Village Antique Mall, located inside the old mill, as well as supporting the fine dining nearby at Harpin’s Restaurant, Milltown Market (Dawson’s Kitchen) and the new Twang, in the former Shamrock location.
However, my keenest sense of place came while writing the biography of Durwood “Mr. Doubletalk” Fincher, a nationally known comedian who grew up in Payne City and is perhaps its most famous native son.
During the two years I worked on the book, I felt as if I lived there, too. I roamed the terraces beneath the sugarberry trees from Brigham to Davis, Comer, Green and Gardner. I ventured inside many of the houses, stacked like rows of dominoes. I attended the Payne City reunions every October, where the old-timers gathered over fried chicken and potato salad to reminisce about the good old days and what they called “Payne City pride.”
In 1899, William Sims Payne sold his furniture business and started the Payne cotton mill. Six years later, he sold it to the Bibb Manufacturing Co., but the identity remained. Soon, the 14-acre village carried the name, too, becoming Payne City in 1919.
Rose Avenue, running east from Brookdale, was the dividing line between the mill and village. It featured rose bushes, of course, and picking them -- or any other flower in the village -- was prohibited. The speed limit was 8 mph, although it was later raised to 15 mph. (Still, there has never been a traffic light in PC.)
Like Wal-Mart, the village had everything, only back then you would have called it a general store. There was doctor, social director and a two-cell jailhouse. The town marshal not only kept the peace but reported those with untidy yards to the mill superintendent.
Payne City once held its own Sunday church services. There was a clubhouse and community garden. A majestic auditorium, built in 1920, was made of stucco and would seat 400 people. (It was torn down in 1982.) There was swimming pool, park and Scout hut, although most of the kids preferred to play in the streets and alleys between the houses.
The villagers were not rich folks. They were “lintheads,” living in homes owned by the mill, where the rhythm of life was kept by the sound of the shift whistles and passing trains.
After the mill closed in 1988, the smoke and cotton dust no longer rising from its red-brick walls, some families continued to live in the village until they could no longer take care of themselves. Or their obituaries appeared in the morning newspaper.
The dynamics and demographics of Payne City have changed over the years. There are still good folks who live there, but without the tight-knit fabric of the mill to bring them together. Several the houses are boarded up, damaged and neglected, separated by chain-link fences.
I have no idea what Macon-Bibb will do once it gets its hands on Payne City, except become a dutiful caregiver. It will no longer be a “town within a city,” the hole that refused to join the doughnut, that last little stubborn piece in the jigsaw.
I’m sure it will remain with us in name, like the geographical pockets we call Bloomfield, Unionville, Shurlington, Howard, Rutland and the Peach Orchard.
I have long thought Payne City might make a vibrant arts community, and I’ve heard others propose this, too. Can you imagine fixing up those houses and filling them with the creative minds of artists, actors and troubadours, all living in such close quarters they could hear each other breathing?
It could be done, given our city’s recent vision, energy level and commitment to resuscitate downtrodden neighborhoods. But we can save this idea for another day.
In the meantime, let us prepare to pay our respects.
R.I.P. Rest In Payne.
Reach Gris at 744-4275.