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Train enthusiast, philanthropist and former Cairo resident Hampton Ward shared his vision for a major model railroad exhibit to be constructed in a section of the historic downtown train depot with members of the Cairo City Council Monday night.
Ward, who is responsible for the existing model railroad and railroad history exhibit at the Grady County Museum and History Center, is willing to donate his extensive collection of model trains and other railroad memorabilia to the Grady County Historical Society for an exhibit in the depot, which he says would be a major tourist attraction in downtown Cairo.
Along with Ward Monday night was Dave Bennett of Train Installations LLC of Woodstock. “Dave is the best train display builder in the country. I’ve known him for 17 years and what we are proposing for the depot would not be possible without Dave,” Ward said.
Along with his extensive collection and the generous gift of a local benefactor, Ward says the model railroad exhibit would be a “first class operation.”
“This would be good for Cairo and the citizens of Grady County. It will be an attraction that people will come to see. If you rent space in the remainder of the building this exhibit would contribute to the success of the other tenants and to traffic of people coming to the depot,” Ward said.
The railroad enthusiast said he would rather his train collection end up in Cairo instead of on E-bay when he is deceased.
Ward reminded the council that Cairo was a “whistle-stop town” where the trains had to stop to refuel or take on water. He said that “all Americans” built the railroads, not the railroad owners and he said it was his desire to teach younger generations about trains.
“What do you need from who to make it work?” Mayor Howard Thrower III, asked.
Ward said all he needed was the approval of the council and to be granted approximately 1,500 square feet of space in the west end of the depot.
He said additionally, the display area would need to be air conditioned and “old railroad lights” could be purchased to be hung.
Mayor Thrower asked how long it would take to put the exhibit in place and Ward indicated between six months to one year from beginning to end. Bennett said it would more likely take a year to complete.
Cairo City Councilman James H. (Jimmy) Douglas said that the city was not in a position at this time to make a decision. Douglas said that the city had just completed the demolition of the interior of the depot and was in the early stages of drafting a plan for the historic structure’s future.
The city councilman said that until a plan was developed and the needs and wishes of any potential tenant was known the council could not agree to the train exhibit being part of the long term project.
“I like the idea and I’m not saying we won’t do it, but right now we are not ready to make any decisions or commitments,” Councilman Douglas said.
Ward said he had time, but expressed his wish not to delay too long. An approximation of eight to 10 months was batted around and Cairo city manager Chris Addleton said that the city should be in a position to make some decisions within that time period.
“This is very exciting, but I agree with Councilman Douglas its too early for us to commit. We don’t want to rush into anything,” Councilman Jerry Cox said.
Ward’s father was the late Rev. Herschel H. Ward Sr., pastor of Cairo’s Eastside Baptist Church from 1955 to 1959. Ward graduated from Cairo High School in 1959 and then moved with his family to DeLand, Florida, where he attended Stetson University.
He created and managed United Cleaning Specialists, a successful cleaning service for industrial and commercial clients in seven southeastern states, then decided when he retired in 1995 he would begin collecting trains.
In 2012, Ward donated a portion of his train collection to the Grady County Museum and History Center. He brought in Bennett at that time to construct the overhead display that is currently one of the exhibits at the museum. Then in 2016, Ward added more of his collection to the local exhibit.
Ironically, his love of trains began in the fall of 1958 when a large delegation of Cairo High School Syrupmaker fans boarded an Atlantic Coast Line 10-car special for a train trip from Cairo to Waycross, where Cairo defeated the Waycross Bulldogs 7-0 to remain undefeated for the season.
“One of the best memories of my life was that trip to Waycross on the train. We really had fun,” Ward recollected to The Messenger in a previous interview.
Even though the time he spent in Cairo was short, he has maintained a close personal friendship with retired banker Tommy Voyles and his wife, Sadie.
City manager Addleton said he spoke with Ward following Monday night’s meeting and he said they both were encouraged about the prospects of the new, much larger exhibit being part of the longterm depot revitalization.