By Jan Swoope/The Commercial Dispatch
WEST POINT — It’s not so often a grown man gets to report to work and play with trains. For Terry Craig, though, it’s a weekly joy. As curator of the Sam Wilhite Transportation Museum on West Point’s Depot Drive, he is not only conductor of the largest working stationary train of its scale in North Mississippi, he got to build much of it.
The small museum just may be one of the area’s best-kept secrets. It was the vision of the late Wilhite, a West Point native who became president and chairman of the Columbus & Greenville Railroad in 1981. The Mississippi State alumnus and World War II veteran died in 1998, but not before seeing the circa 1884 depot in his hometown open its doors to the public, a reminder of how transportation has evolved since the 1700s — and what a critical role his beloved trains played.
After being open only by appointment for some time, the museum is now more accessible thanks to recent funding by city officials. As of March, Craig is able to open the doors every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Of course, he’s happy to open by appointment other days of the week. There is no admission charged, but donations are accepted.
From the narrow trails of Native Americans to the modern highway system of today, the museum provides a glimpse of the vision and progress of our forefathers during a 200-year period. While a lot of historic information is available, it is the remarkable train that delights children and captures the imagination of young and old alike.
“The trees are my babies,” smiled Craig, explaining how he used copper and lichen to craft hundreds of miniature trees filling the massive display that sends trains on four railway lines humming through the small-scale Mississippi countryside — past depots, pastures and cityscapes that represent West Point, Columbus and Starkville.
When switched on, rail cars trundle by diminutive structures, most of which Craig painstakingly made “from scratch,” using paper, wood and plastic. There’s his rendition of West Point’s 1872 Henley House, as well as the Swift building. Pens filled with cattle represent Prairie Livestock Inc. An ingenious backdrop, painted by Erin Gavin and Cindy Davis of West Point, depicts planes flying above Clay County’s Payne Field, the historic World War I training facility, now vanished from the landscape. Waverley Plantation is also “seen” from the rail cars.
On the outskirts of this imaginative West Point, tracks run through White Station, where legendary bluesman Howlin’ Wolf was born. He used to watch the rumbling night trains, sparks flying from their stacks. He would later credit them with inspiring iconic songs, like his “Smokestack Lightnin’.”
In the area loosely representing Columbus, Craig put a turntable and roundhouse, used for turning and servicing railroad rolling stock. Columbus is still home to the Columbus and Greenville Railway’s venerable roundhouse. An airport and planes signify the Golden Triangle Regional Airport.
Starkville is marked, in part, by the MSU football stadium on the backdrop.
The terrain includes almost any tableau engineers of old might have seen in the busy days of rail transport — automobiles idling at intersections, houses under construction, even a housewife hanging out her wash. What people won’t realize is that the clothesline took Craig two hours to construct.
Craig, who played with trains as a boy but never worked on the railroad, is rather modest about this small world he’s helped create. It was an undertaking he didn’t initially expect to tackle. He certainly never envisioned he would invest about 30,000 hours in it.
“At first I thought the Boy Scouts might take it on as a project, or that architecture students at MSU might,” he said. It wasn’t long before he realized that much of the job, if it were to be completed, would fall to him.
“But it’s fun,” said the resourceful curator, who still hopes to add more buildings to the display. “There’s been a lot of hands though in this, a lot of hands,” he credited.
One pair of helpful hands belongs to J.R. “Bob” Gray of Columbus, who followed several generations of his family in becoming a railroad man. He worked for the C&G from 1947 to 1994 and has been recognized as a historian for the railway. He co-authored, with Theresa Peay, a book titled “Depots Along the C&G Railway.” Gray assists Craig in any way he can with maintenance of the museum and with railroad history.
Walking through the section of the museum set up as a train station office, he pointed out interesting displays, including mannequins in period dress. One of the figures honors Fannie Emilie Johann, who worked for the Illinois Central for 42 years, walking to and from work every day. Visitors are tempted to approach her and ask for a ticket on the next train.
As Gray talked of vintage photographs on the walls and glass cases filled with memorabilia, it became obvious the railroad is in his blood.
“There’s about only one way I reckon they’ll get it out of me, and that’s formaldehyde,” he acknowledged.
That devotion to the rails is shared by many who spent their lives working on this ground-breaking mode of moving goods and passengers around the country. Railways changed America, and the transportation museum hopes to share part of that history.
The exhibit includes more, of course — a gleaming 1927 Model T restored by the Smithsonian that served as a C&G inspection car, a ceiling-high mural depicting civilian and military aircraft that have filled Mississippi’s skies, panels with facts on how we move around, from the early Natchez Trace to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
The transportation story continues to evolve, but a trip to the Wilhite museum can illuminate where we’ve been and how far we’ve come.