Rising from the rust: Historic water tower renovation symbolizes revitalization in Cuthbert

Credit: Alan Mauldin

Credit: Alan Mauldin

The little town of Cuthbert is centered on a square that is the intersection of U.S. Highways 27 and 82, although the main Highway 27 route now bypasses the city. But it’s Highway 82 and a structure that went up in 1895 that gives the town a claim to fame.

A short distance from the city’s downtown square, a water tower stands in a patch of grass, with one side of the highway passing to the west and the other to the east. The tower, the only known historical structure located in the middle of a federal highway, has survived a 1909 tornado that blew the top into a cemetery across the roadway.

Last repainted in 2000, the structure itself has been long neglected for the water tank that hasn’t been used to store the city’s water for 50 years but has remained a landmark near the city center.

Like other rural towns across the state and nation, the Randolph County seat of Cuthbert, located some 45 miles northwest of Albany, has seen its population decline, with a drop of 7.5% between the 2010 U.S. Census and 2020, when it had a population of about 3,100. The hospital closed in October 2020, joining the ranks of rural hospital closings that also includes nearby Fort Gaines and Richland.

With a poverty rate of more than 40%, Cuthbert has a median household income of about $20,700, less than a third of the state’s $65,000.

Four years ago, Mark Englund and wife Tracy moved to Cuthbert from Atlanta to open a wedding venue at one of the Antebellum houses along College Street, Highway 82′s name inside the city limits.

Along with the Barr family and the Lakes, the couple has invested in several projects. The group has purchased the former Colonial Store grocery chain building, which sits adjacent to the water tower, with plans to turn it into a bar and grill. Other plans include a bed and breakfast and studio apartments at the former Reagan Jewelers on the downtown square.

“We knew if we were going to be successful, we needed to help the city,” Mark Englund said. “We’re going to do something with all of those buildings. We’re making a nice city here. It’s not just me, it’s a lot of other people.”

Although the water tower got a fresh coat of paint 23 years ago, it only covered its structural deterioration. Rust is showing through on the tank as well as the supporting structure that has not been refurbished, and there had been talk of tearing it down due to lack of funds to make it sound.

State Rep. Gerald Greene, a Republican who lives in Randolph County, secured about $30,000 in state funding for the renovation project, and Englund and the We Love Cuthbert group raised about the same amount in donations.

During a Friday phone conversation, Englund said he had just learned that the Short & Paulk Building Supply chain, which operates a store in Cuthbert, had agreed to give a significant discount on paint needed for the project.

Englund, who himself has gone up in a crane to perform some of the work, said the goal is to do a top—quality job on a small budget.

“We’re sand-blasting it,” he said. “We’re getting all the rust out. We’re replacing the bolts, checking welds.”

The project calls for a grade of primer used on ships, so it should last “until the next guy comes along and decides to do this,” Englund said.

The driving force behind the project to improve Cuthbert is the “broken-window theory” — the idea that if one resident replaces broken windows then other people will do the same.

“We looked for the project that we could do to promote change, and it was the water tower,” Endlund said. “It’s been a two-year fight. It’s taken a village to do it.”

Once the water tank is coated in a fresh coat of white, a mural will include the original inscription with the city’s name and year founded (1831) and “Home of Andrew College.” On the opposite side will be painted “Short & Paulk,” and “We Love Cuthbert.”

The new life for the water tower continues a theme of saving history in the city, said Greene, the state representative who helped secure the state funding. Years ago, the county’s original courthouse building was declared structurally unsound and a new building was constructed for county offices.

With a lack of money, the county originally planned to tear down the historic brick building.

“A lot of people were talking about taking that courthouse down,” Greene said. “I said ‘Nope, you ain’t going to do that.’”

The representative also helped secure some state money for that project, and the building was saved and is now used as a museum and for some county functions.

Likewise, the fate of the water tower had been in doubt for years.

“We were afraid it was going to fall down,” Greene said. “It was one of the most endangered historical structures, and it was the most endangered one in the state of Georgia. Everyone has been so excited to see it getting started. Not only Cuthbert but all of Randolph County are so glad of it all coming together.”

Credit: Albany Herald

Credit: Albany Herald


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