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Atlanta is Cleaning Its Attic of Odd Bits of the Old South


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April 28, 2005



Atlanta Is Cleaning

Its Attic of Odd Bits

Of the Old South

Eccentric Museum Collection

Is to Be Auctioned Off;

A Lock of Jackson's Hair



April 28, 2005; Page A1


A six-shot revolver, part of a stash of Civil War-era memorabilia being auctioned off outside Atlanta Saturday.


James Elliott, founder of the Atlanta Museum


More from the collection


ATLANTA -- This city began bulldozing its downtown more than 50 years ago, burying most of its Deep South remnants under skyscrapers and superhighways. But a red-brick Victorian house at 537 Peachtree St. stood its ground. The sign outside welcomed all to the Atlanta Museum. Admission price: $2.

Inside was a trove of Confederate and other relics: a water glass said to have been used by Robert E. Lee, Civil War rifles, cannonballs and a 19th-century photograph of John Wilkes Booth. It amounted to a sort of crazy uncle roosting in Atlanta's attic.

But on Saturday, virtually everything from the Atlanta Museum will go on sale, the latest sign of this city's often awkward relationship with its past. Among the more than 800 items up for auction: a framed lock of Andrew Jackson's hair, the desk on which Georgia's ordinance of secession was drafted in 1861, a leather hatbox supposedly used by a Confederate lieutenant to smuggle communiqués to sympathizers in England and a contraption that is said to incorporate one of Eli Whitney's original cotton gins.

Attached to many of the artifacts are documents and affidavits from the 1930s and 40s. "The below items, listed, were bought by my grandmother, Mrs. C.R. Brannan, at Richmond, Va., from Jeff Davis, president of the Confederacy," reads a statement signed in August 1938 by Lelia Eaves. "One ruby finger bowl...Four crystal goblets...Two green Port glasses..." As a group, they're expected to fetch at least $1,000.

Atlanta always has been more interested in building than keeping, says Mary Gene Elliott, a daughter-in-law of the museum's founder: "It's just Atlanta. They tear things down, build something new."

Georgians have long struggled over how to engage with the past. In 2001, the legislature stripped the state flag of its prominent Confederate battle-flag emblem. But that move inspired a backlash among many rural voters who felt they had had no say in having their heritage taken away. They took it out on Gov. Roy Barnes, a flag-change proponent, in the 2002 election, helping boot him from office.

More recently, a group of state senators -- including the white Republican majority leader -- co-sponsored a resolution to erect the first statue of a black political leader on the Atlanta state capitol grounds, still dotted with statues of old white politicians, including some ardent segregationists. The resolution, honoring Henry McNeal Turner, a lawmaker elected in 1868 during Reconstruction, sailed through the state Senate. But by the time the resolution came out of the state House of Representatives, a companion measure had been attached, calling for more study. "It was frustrating," said Sen. Vincent D. Fort, the African-American author of the resolution.

Many of the pieces from the Atlanta Museum were acquired by the museum's founder, James Elliott. In the early 1900s, Mr. Elliott, who was one of Atlanta's first pilots, dropped leaflets for politicians running for office. Flying home from one mission, he followed the wrong set of railroad tracks, ran out of gas, crashed, broke his leg and ruined his airplane, according to the late Mr. Elliott's daughter-in-law.

Turning to antiques, Mr. Elliott quickly became a keen appraiser -- and one of the South's original "pickers" who combed the region for relics. He amassed so much currency from the rebel states that Life magazine said he aimed to become "a Confederate millionaire."

Atlanta's downtown changed as companies arrived from the North. Developers started clearing room for them, but Mr. Elliott and his museum remained. In 1945, he bought the Victorian house on Peachtree Street, writing on the check stub: "One old house, saved."

Mr. Elliott's affinity for collecting extended beyond the Confederacy. He salvaged a World War II airplane, said to be a Japanese Zero, and parked it out back. Inside, visitors wiggled through rooms packed with oddities like Nazi uniforms displayed on mannequins and a sofa supposedly owned by Margaret Mitchell. A staircase landing held a Victorian suit of armor. On the second floor was a throne, which Mr. Elliott told visitors belonged to Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. Some of Mr. Elliott's Confederate money was displayed behind a glass case.

"I've never told anybody exactly how much I've got," he told a newspaper reporter in 1962, "because I'm afraid someone would break in here and steal it."

By the end of the 1960s, Atlanta's fathers were trying to distance themselves from the images of dogs and water hoses used against civil-rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., about 150 miles away, touting Atlanta as "A City Too Busy to Hate." In 1973, Atlanta elected Maynard Jackson the first black mayor of a major Southern city, and African-Americans eventually felt comfortable enough here to call the city the "Black Mecca." More transplants of all races moved in, many with no links to a Southern past.

Mr. Elliott died in 1975. His son Jim kept the museum going, along with Jim's wife Mary Gene. Devout preservationists, they rebuffed offers from developers looking to bulldoze the place, even as attendance dwindled.

The couple finally closed the museum for good in 1996, locking the relics on the second floor behind a metal gate at the top of the stairs. Plastic sheeting was used to protect against dust and occasional leaks when it rained. Winos sometimes took shelter in the basement to escape the winter cold. Jim Elliott died in 1998.

Late last year, an Atlanta couple became interested in the Atlanta Museum's old home, offering the Elliott family approximately $900,000 for it. They plan to move in, and may eventually turn it into a bed and breakfast. The sale is expected to close soon. The buyers weren't interested in the contents of the house.

But lots of other people were. Mrs. Elliott was saddened at losing the pieces but wanted them to have good owners -- and fetch top prices. Proceeds will go into a trust fund that is part of Jim Elliott's estate. At the museum's auction -- to be held at the Folk Fest Inc. auction house near Atlanta -- the bidding will open with a 51-inch-long, silver-inlaid, double-barreled shotgun, circa 1860, that is expected to bring in at least $500.

One item required particular care: the cotton gin. In 1944, Mr. Elliott, then in his collecting heyday, bought the gin from an east Georgia man, beating back collectors from New England. Auctioneers predict it could sell for at least $50,000, even though its exact provenance is unclear. Some gin experts say there are enough pulleys and other add-ons to suggest the gin isn't an authentic Whitney -- but, rather, one of myriad Whitney knockoffs that spread throughout the South in the 1800s. Mrs. Elliott says it's genuine: "I think it's the original. I believe the story."

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It's one of the reasons I hated Atlanta and left, all of the culture has been burned, razed, or bulldozed to make way for modern crap. Additionally, the corrupt city govt. there has made sure to erase any evidence of the Civil War from the city.... as if to try and deny it ever happened. Down in the "Underground" there was a lamp post bent at about a foot off the ground from a civil war cannon impact. There it stood... covered with chewing gum and flyers for rap groups and nightclubs. :doh:

Margaret Mitchell's house, the house the author wrote Gone with the Wind, was burned down three times during restoration and renovation before they put a 8 ft. fence around it and hired a security firm to guard it until the work was finished. What's that tell you?

Atlanta... a city with no culture, no history, and no future.

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It's a shame, but at least the house will be put to good use again and not leveled. The past should not be forgotten, and I'm all for preservation.

Lots of historic sites where I grew up in NY. Wish I was still living there so my daughter could see them all. Not the mainstream stuff, but the small out of the way stuff like the Stoney Point battle field and such that most folks can't even find.

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