While it was renovated as recently as 1990 and still used as the Town Council chambers until 2002, anyone walking inside might easily think the building had been untouched for decades. Dust lines the walls, floorboards creak and a stair railing feels like it’s about to come loose from the wall.
“You can see in its current shape there’s really nothing you can use it for,” said Mayor Steve Baswell, eying his footing as he showed off the building recently. “If we don’t do anything about it, it’ll end up collapsing in on itself.”
Baswell has dreams for the building that include restoring it to how it looked in the days when it was Ohatchee’s train depot, turning it into a community center and town museum, and perhaps bringing some life back to what he calls the “old town.”
It’s a plan in the “thinking stages,” Baswell said, but in February the Town Council approved a $2,000 fee for Fortinberry Associates Architects from Vestavia Hills to assess how much of the building is salvageable.
Dating the old Town Hall is tricky. Ohatchee resident and local history buff Rance Humphries said he has a photo from 1924 of his grandmother standing at the depot with her sister, who traveled every summer from Kentucky to Ohatchee.
“But it’s even older than that,” Humphries said. “The original town of Ohatchee burned more than 100 years ago, and after that fire, that’s when the train depot was built.”
The old Town Hall is part of what’s now commonly called “old Ohatchee.” Situated off of Main Street in front of the town’s high school, the old Town Hall is just one of several buildings on its block that look transported from the 1950s.
“That was the old grocery store, before we had a Piggly Wiggly,” Baswell said, pointing at the row of padlocked buildings a few feet away from the old Town Hall. “Growing up, that was the post office, that was the drugstore, and that, believe it or not, used to be a movie theater.”
As Baswell tells it, the old town was a thriving center for the western half of Calhoun County in the early part of the 20th century. It’s only when Ohatchee became incorporated in the 1950s that what’s now called the old town began to disappear. First Alabama 144 came in and bypassed the town, before meeting with Alabama 77 at the intersection where the current Town Hall and main shopping center stand.
“The town sort of migrated with the highways,” Baswell said.
With the exception of the old Town Hall, all the old buildings are privately owned and the town doesn’t have the money to buy them back or fix them all up. But Baswell said if he can make the community center and town museum a destination spot, there’s no reason why the area couldn’t host craft fairs and other activities in the summer months with a little maintenance.
“I would love to see the old town come back to some kind of life,” Baswell said. “It’s never going to be what it was in our memory, but I would like to see some activity here.”
Humphries said he’d welcome back the sight of the old town too, but doesn’t know if it’s feasible.
“In Ragland they had a perfectly restored old building and they made a museum out of it,” Humphries said. “But they couldn’t keep it open, they couldn’t keep it staffed. I learned with the Etowah Historical Society preservation is about having the resources to do it, and being able to preserve it afterward.”
If the older part of Ohatchee is to start looking like its old self, the first step will be to renovate the old Town Hall — which will cost money that Baswell said the town doesn’t have.
“The rough guestimate we had was that it’s going to be around $250,000,” Baswell said. “Once we have a more concrete number, we’ll start seeing if we can get some grant money.”
But even if the money doesn’t show up, Baswell said he’s happy putting everything he can into the building himself and asking other Ohatchee residents for help too.
“If we can’t get grant money, then we’ll have to see if we can do it ourselves,” Baswell said. “That’s what folks here are used to doing anyway.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.