Historical society guest speaker emphasizes the importance of preserving past

Published 9:00 am Thursday, July 27, 2023

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The director of a museum in Newnan, Georgia talked to members of the Chattahoochee Valley Historical Society (CVHS) on Sunday about her efforts to preserve the history of Newnan and Coweta County in an area that has been taken over by the urban sprawl of nearby Atlanta. In 1970, Coweta County, Georgia and Chambers County, Alabama were very similar in population. Coweta County had 39,268 people about 50 years ago. At the same time, there were 36,356 people in Chambers County in 1970. While Chambers County has lost population since then, Coweta County has been taken over by metro Atlanta.

In 1970, Newnan had around 11,000 people, an area similar to West Point and Lanett together. In the 2020 census, there were more than 42,000 people in Newnan and 150,000 people in Coweta County.

There are many people in Newnan-Coweta County who have moved there over the past 50 years. There’s an opportunity for them to learn about their adopted hometown and home county. This keeps Larisa Scott plenty busy. She’s the director of the McRitchie-Hollis Museum near downtown Newnan. It’s located in a 1937 Neoclassical house, where one of Newnan’s more prominent textile families lived. This gorgeous home is evocative of history. If its walls could talk what stories they would tell.

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Newnan and Coweta County has a rich history a knowledgeable person in the field could talk about for hours. The town was founded in 1828 and is named for North Carolina General Daniel Newnan. It was originally known as Bullsboro, a name for one of its major roads today.

“There are a lot of neat, interesting stories about this house,” Scott told CVHS members and guests during Sunday’s online presentation. “It was the home of Ellis Peniston and his wife Mildred. They had no children, but Mrs. Peniston had some sisters living nearby.”

When the Penistons died, one of Mildred’s nieces lived in the house and raised four children. One of those children, Edgar Hollis, was educated at Emory University. “He was a man of books and letters,” Scott said. “He was a librarian at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He kept homes in Newnan and in Washington. He wanted his home in Newnan to be a museum.”

In 2012, the Peniston home was restored. The home today bears his name and that of his grandmother, a McRitchey.

“He loved her dearly and wanted the house to be named for her,” Scott said. “The house had lots of beautiful old furniture, rugs and tapestries. It was started as a furniture museum and is transitioning into an exhibit museum. It’s a mix of the two right now.”

One of the home’s more impressive features is a grand staircase.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” Scott said. “On the wall behind it are paintings of birds. Most people think it’s wallpaper, but it’s a striking painting of birds that can be seen in the local area.”

One of the prominent displays in the museum is of Newnan native Alan Jackson, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and who is well known for his song, “Way Down Yonder on the Chattahoochee.”

“He has four sisters living in Newnan,” Scott said. “They gave us some of his cowboy hats and suits he wore in concerts.”

A popular site for visitors is the vintage kitchen. It’s a holdover from the time the Penistons were living there in the 1930s and 1940s.

There’s an exhibit about the 1948 John Wallace trial, which took place in the Coweta County Courthouse and drew wide media coverage.

John Wallace, who grew up in West Point, was a prosperous Meriwether County landowner and businessman. He was convicted of killing a White sharecropper named Wilson Turner, who he accused of killing one of his prized bulls. The case is noteworthy in that the key testimony came from two Black men who worked for Wallace and helped him hide, and later burn, the body.

The trial is also famed for the role of famed Heard County fortune teller Mayhayley Lancaster. After the murder and rumors were going around of Wallace’s involvement, he went to see her and she worked him like a glove, telling him that she had seen flies at the well.

This motivated Wallace to pull Turner’s body from an abandoned well where he and two of his field hands had placed it. The three men pulled out the body and burned it, leaving some tiny bone fragments that were introduced as evidence of a murder at the trial.

More than likely, Wallace was found guilty because of the Jim Crow segregation of the period. The two men who helped Wallace talked about it to those they knew. The Black community was well aware of what had taken place. Mayhayley was one of the relatively few White people who knew what had been done with Turner’s body.

This part of the story has been on the stage in Newnan in the very popular play “I See Flies at the Well.” Every performance was a sell out and plans are being made to have it once again.

Much of the memorabilia that will be housed in the museum is being stored in a house across Clark Street from the McRitchey-Hollis House.

“A committee will decide what will go into the museum,” Scott said.

The grounds of the McRitchey-Hollis House are worth a visit.

“We have a wonderful garden and gazebo out back,” she said. “We have rented it for weddings and other get togethers. The University of West Georgia-Newman has a lecture series here, usually on local history.”

Two Georgia governors have been Newnan residents. They include William Yates Atkinson, who was governor from 1894 to 1898, and Ellis Arnall who served from 1943 to 1947.

There’s a museum in Newnan that focuses on the community’s African-American history. It’s known as the Coweta County African American Heritage Museum and Research Center, or Carwell House. It has lots of genealogical records of African Americans who lived in the county. Newman is home to what is believed to be one of the country’s largest slave cemeteries.

Scott said that Newnan is well known for his many historic homes, many of which predate the McRitchey-Hollis Home. Some are Plantation-style homes that were built before the Civil War and many were constructed in the post-Civil War Victorian era. One of the Newnan homes served as the headquarters of Confederate General and Alabama native “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, who is credited for saving Newnan from Union occupation in the 1864 Battle of Brown’s Mill. Many Newnan homes served as hospitals for wounded Confederate soldiers in the 1964 Atlanta campaign.