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New life breathed into Smyrna ‘Depot District’

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Cannon County farmer Casey Reed lays out vegetables for purchase at Smyrna Depot District’s Farmer’s Market held every other Saturday through August. Photo courtesy of Dan Whittle

Smyrna, TENN. – How do you think “Chicken Pike” got its name?

When Smyrna was truly a small town with less than 2,000 residents in the 1930s, trains stopped here at least two times daily.

“Smyrna was where chicken farmers would load their chickens on the trains that stopped here at the depot platform daily,” shared the late Johnny Barnett, a lifelong resident of Smyrna. “And the next stop on trains headed from Nashville to Chattanooga, was the old Florence Depot, where farmers there would herd their turkeys to be loaded onto the box cars there.”

Now that the Town of Smyrna has more than 40,000 residents, as projected in the next census leading into this latest New Millennium, trains just whistle as they speed through Rutherford County’s second largest city, uh, “town” that like Murfreesboro, has exploded in population during the past three decades.

Although no trains stop in Smyrna in this modern-era, new life is being breathed into Smyrna’s historic/restored Train Depot, as evidenced during a recent Saturday when Woodbury farmers Casey and Russell Reed brought “squash, cucumbers and maters” from their “6-R Farm” located in rural Cannon County.

“It’s our first time to bring our farm produce to the Smyrna Depot,” shared Casey as he sold a sack of squash to Rutherford County resident Reba Mitchell. “Judging from the turnout here today, the old Smyrna Depot is the place to be on farmers’ market Saturdays.”

How can a city, uh, “town” still be a town when it has more than 40,000 residents?

Depot District volunteer Amanda Johnstone attempted to answer that question.

“I’m here as a volunteer working on behalf of the Smyrna Independent Merchant’s Association that promotes buying local, including the produce and art products on display here today,” Amanda noted. “And as part of our town’s recent rededication of our Depot District, we’ve officially claimed the title ‘Tennessee’s Town’ to use in marketing.”

Bee keeper Jerry Born had his “honey” and “honey” on display as hundreds of visitors flocked to Smyrna’s newly-designated Depot District designed to attract attention to the Town of Smyrna’s railroad heritage like honey bees are attracted to nectar.

“My honey, Marie, is here helping me today,” Born confirmed that he wasn’t born yesterday. “And my bees and their honey are doing a great job here today too.

“I currently have four bee hives, but recently lost two hives,” Born prescribed with customer Anna Holt of Bradyville.

“Local honey certainly benefits local folks with allergy problems, and that’s a proven medical fact.”

More than 20 vendors filled the Depot District this recent Saturday.

“Our vendors are very encouraged,” noted Johnstone. “We plan on having market days every other Saturday through July 12 and 26, plus Aug. 9 and 23, starting at 8 a.m.”

The railroad has played an important role in Smyrna’s heritage, including being fought-over property during the War Between the States.

Former Smyrna resident/railroad depot employee Mark S. Womack has recorded some of the railroad’s colorful past.
“I recall the Gandy Dancers,” noted Womack, “when they lined the tracks to do their repair work on their respective 10-mile section of rail line.

“Each Gandy Dancer would have their own lining bar (long steel bar) used to align the rails as they were replaced,” Womack explained. “Their foreman could be seen squatting low over the rails, a few yards in front of the working Gandy Dancers, to give them hand signals for aligning the replacement rails. Five or six men would work as a team on each side of the rails.”

But how did the work crews of mostly black men come to be known as “Gandy Dancers?”

“Gandy Dancers were named after the Chicago-based Gandy Manufacturing Company, and they would sing rhythmic chants in cadence as they performed their heavy work, lifting and replacing links of rail,” RR history preservationist Womack reconstructed back in time. “They would reside oftentimes in sleeping cars parked on short spur lines alongside main rail lines, and had their own designated camp cooks. In the 1940s, the Gandy Dancers would move up and down the railroad on motorized little cars. Before that, they moved up and down the railroad on little cars that required two men doing the pumping.”

Womack described how he got to work in the 1940s at the train depots in Smyrna and Murfreesboro.

“To get to and from my railroad job in Smyrna in 1942, I drove my Model A Ford back and forth to Murfreesboro. I bought my first car from the late Robert Overall, a Murfreesboro car dealer at the time.”

Tagged under  depot, district, smyrna, whittle

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