Rick Badie's Gwinnett: My town now has a reason to hope

A colleague shot me an e-mail as soon as she saw the origins of the press release. It was Millen, my hometown in South Georgia.

Early this year, a Georgia Southern professor and a grad student located a prisoner of war camp that had been built by Confederate forces during the waning days of the Civil War. Camp Lawton, it was called, and it happens to be on the grounds of Magnolia Springs State Park, a stone’s throw from the city limits.

The discovery is being hailed as the largest of its kind in modern history. Hundreds of artifacts have been found.

Sue Moore, the Georgia Southern anthropology professor who made the find, called it “one of the most exciting and intriguing Civil War discoveries of the modern era.”

I’m excited, too, but not so much for the historical aspect of the find, though it’s significant. I’m excited and hopeful for Millen, a once-thriving little community whose downtown bustled with men’s and women’s shops, the obligatory pharmacy grill and a couple of supermarkets. (Yes, Piggly Wiggly was one.)

These days, the county seat of Jenkins County could use some love, good news and media attention. When the country went into recession, Millen caught the flu. It practically expired.

At one time, this county of 8,500 residents had the highest jobless rate in the state at 21.3 percent. That was more than double the statewide average at the time.

Moreover, Jenkins saw its total compensation — wages plus benefits — plummet 23 percent in 2008, more than any other county in the nation, says the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Manufacturing plants that provided jobs have closed. Cotton Avenue, the main drag, looks drab except for Cindy’s Cafe, owned by a classmate.

A year ago, I interviewed town leaders about the sad state of affairs for a book I’ve yet to complete. They tried to be positive, but couldn’t sugarcoat reality. How can you when you preside over a town with no major employer to speak of?

When we talked, King Rocker, the town mayor, ran through the list of plant downsizings and eventual closings.

“Times just got bad,” he said. Depressingly so.

Most people have heard of the Andersonville Civil War prison, located in Sumter County in southwest Georgia. Camp Sumter is a national historic site. Camp Lawton, which replaced the Andersonville prison in the fall of 1864, doesn’t carry its successor’s cachet. In the words of a historian, the Lawton prison has been little more than “an obscure Civil War footnote.”

Perhaps that will change with this new discovery. With it, a depressed little town pretty much near its last gasp may get a reprieve, a substantial employer or two. Something.

Last year, the Andersonville National Historic Site drew nearly 140,000 visitors. In the late 1990s, a movie was made about the prison, aptly called “Andersonville.”

We’re approaching the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (2011-2015). Let’s hope leaders in my hometown have their thinking caps on.

Rick Badie, an Opinion columnist, is based in Gwinnett. Reach him at rbadie@ajc.com or 770-263-3875.