Every town has its stories. In Rome, Ga., those stories are curated by Selena Tilly, who relies on more than pictures on a wall or artifacts behind a glass case–even though you will find some of them at the Rome Area History Center where Tilly is the director.
Tilly tells those stories with displays that can take you back to that time in history. It comes naturally to her. Her father, Ralph S. Tilly, tried to persuade Rome leaders in 1957 to establish a local history center in an old school building. Her father passed down his love of history to his daughter, taking her to meet Rome historians that are known well by the locals.
Tilly has been a part of the History Center since it first opened in a former Otasco building on Rome’s Broad Street. More recently, she has led the renovation of the History Center that not only reminds locals of their past but gives people who may have never stepped foot in Rome a complete picture of the Northwest Georgia town.
At the history center, you can sit on a bench just like people used to do while waiting on a train at one of Rome’s now closed depots. Grab the large captain’s wheel and pretend you are navigating your own vessel down one of Rome’s three rivers. Sit down at a replica of an old-fashioned snack bar and imagine the sound and smells of a burger frying on the grill and feel the anticipation of the first sip of an ice cream float.
For Tilly, history must always tell the truth and the truth is not always pretty. The fun-looking snack bar tells the story behind a historic civil rights movement in Rome. Sixty-two African American students walked from the town’s Main High School to downtown Rome and sat at downtown lunch counters, which was illegal at the time. The students, ages 15-18, were arrested. The snack bar is something Tilly made sure was part of the museum.
“The snack bar is something that I’ve always wanted to re-create after hearing about, and researching the sit-ins that had taken place on Broad Street during the Civil Rights movement,” Tilly said in an email interview. “I also found out that the history center had hosted the surviving members of the Sit-Ins and one of the things that they were promised was the center would re-create a portion of a snack bar to help tell the story.”
Tilly used skills she learned from her grandfather, a master carpenter for more than 50 years in the area, and from attending Rome’s technical school where she studied drafting and design. When Tilly outlined her vision to Rome tourism officials, she was told it could be difficult to get workers to construct her visions. Tilly said, “We can do it!” She completed all of the carpentry needs, while tourism director Lisa Smith and numerous volunteers helped hang the new sheetrock.
The redesign took the History Center from what Tilly describes as a “bowling alley” configuration with rows and rows to a center with a flow pattern that takes visitors on a journey through Rome’s history.
“One Saturday I took a chair and I would sit it in the center of each aisle,” Tilly said. “Then I would look around for a few minutes, close my eyes and make the changes in my mind that I felt would best. Then I would transfer the image from my mind to paper by sketching it. I also use this same technique when I’m doing research. I can close my eyes and literally turn pages in a book that I have already studied or my notes.”
The entrance contains a replica of Rome’s famous landmarks, the clock tower. Visitors can then begin their journey through Rome history on the left, learning about the area’s Native American heritage and Civil War involvement. Rome is one of the towns burned by Union troops on Gen. William Sherman’s famous march to the sea.
Rome’s waterways are an important part of the town’s history and Tilly has included parts of the steamboat Dixie and the above-mentioned captain’s wheel. Trains were a big part of Rome’s commerce and Tilly has recreated an old-fashioned train station.
Tilly has included a replica of an old-fashioned parlor in honor of Ellen Axson Wilson, the former first lady of the United States. An accomplished artist, Ellen met her future husband and future president, Woodrow Wilson, when he visited his cousin in Rome. Ellen died while her husband was still in office and is buried at Rome’s Myrtle Hill Cemetery.
You will also find an old-fashioned movie projector carbon arc light along with pictures depicting Rome’s rich theater history. The Nevin Opera House opened in 1880 in downtown Rome and provided a variety of entertainment until it burned on Dec. 31, 1919. A replica of the entrance to Opera Alley is in the museum.
Tilly says the exhibits and the center itself will continue to evolve.
“The archive will become a place for people to sit and enjoy a peaceful day researching their family or a different facet of the area and its history,” Tilly said. “New technology is being used now to upgrade our collection system so it will become more user-friendly and easier to look up objects, conduct research, and document any and all pieces in our collection. You will be able to see a 360-degree view of the item without ever having to handle it.”
Admission to the museum is free and Tilly and her part-time staff member, Tony Pope, says more people are visiting.
“It’s exciting to see the look on not only kids’ faces, but adults who see things for the first time,” Tilly said. “When I see a smile, or hear a laugh, my heart sings because I know they are truly enjoying what the history center has to offer.”
Tilly received a standing ovation at a recent meeting of Rome’s Tourism Board but she gives much of the credit to those who came before and those who walk with her now.
“I am walking in the shoes of some awesome people that came together and made the center a reality,” Tilly said. “I was there as a volunteer, but it was their vision to create a history center to be proud of, and I hope that I can do justice to their dreams.”