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August 2020
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Convict camp should be on Historic Register

Two weeks ago we published a story about a local Facebook page that has captivated the community. “Photos of Pickens County Georgia” is a forum where people can share old photos of Pickens’ past. The page highlights how important history is to us collectively, and how our cultural history shapes our identity as a community.

While the photos being shared on this page are invaluable, preservation efforts should go beyond just taking pictures when there’s an opportunity to keep significant pieces of our physical history intact. The recent, palpable sadness caused by the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral shows that some buildings carry more historical weight than others and, if the community recognizes that early enough, they can keep these important structures around for future generations to enjoy. 

The “old convict camp” on Camp Road is architecturally one of the most unique in the county, with its all-marble façade and barred windows, and is culturally significant as a facility that housed chain gangs after it was built in 1938 - but the convict camp is notably absent from the list of Pickens County properties that appear on the National Register of Historic Places, and that needs to change. 

(Places on the list are: Georgia Marble Company and Tate Historic District; Pickens County Courthouse; Pickens County Jail; Tate Gymnasium; Tate House; and private residences the Cagle House and the Griffeth-Pendley House. These listings were added between the years of 1974 and 2008). 

There is plenty of confusion surrounding The National Register of Historic Places and what a designation does and doesn’t do.  Contrary to popular belief, a designation does not place restrictions on the use of private property, nor mean a building can never be torn down, nor require it be repaired, restored, or maintained. Property owners’ rights do not change under this designation. 

But if a designation doesn’t mean the building will be preserved what’s the point? 

Briefly defined, being on the National Register of Historic Places is an honorary title and an official list of properties that are considered worthy of preservation because they are significant in the areas of history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture. The program, overseen by the National Parks Services, aims to “coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.”

Benefits of a property being on the list include: helping project planners and developers (public or private) know which buildings are most valuable to the community; education by way of thorough, publicly-accessible documentation about why the property is historically important (this information must be provided during the nomination/application process); the opportunity for property owners to qualify for the Federal Historic Tax Incentives Program that helps recoup rehabilitation costs; and it strengthens arguments about preservation efforts. Property owners can also put up a plaque at the property that shows it has been added to the list (but they don’t have to). 

There are also studies that have found areas that have historically preserved properties see a positive economic impact in property values and tourism. 

We need individuals and community leaders to make it a priority to be preservation minded and take steps to preserve our historical places, or risk seeing them dissappear. We remember the public outcry over the old log cabin at the corner of Cove Road and Grandview Road. The cabin, thought to be built sometime in the 19th century, was torn down and replaced by a Dollar General despite last-ditch efforts to save it. Had someone at some point in the past taken initiative to document the history of the building and get it on the list the outcome could have been different. 

While a designation on the National Register of Historic Places doesn’t guarantee an historic building won’t be torn down or changed, it’s a step in the right direction and one that should be taken for the old convict camp.