Burning Desire to Preserve Community History
By Rebecca Johnston, Canton Resident
Shortly after the Civil War ended, freed slave Phillip Keith established a school and church on land he received during the Emancipation in what is today the Pea Ridge-Nineteen community. An old fire station, another symbol of the history and diversity of the predominantly Black Pea Ridge-Nineteen Community just north of Canton, is now being granted a new life.
The North Canton Volunteer Fire Station served the community for many decades and was home to the first all-Black volunteer fire department in Georgia. As the new Cherokee County Fire Station No. 9 opens its doors just across the street, plans are moving forward to renovate the old building for a community center to be owned, managed, and used by the surrounding community.
Frankie Shepherd remembers when her father, Charlie Ferguson, and brother Tony began dreaming about the volunteer fire station back in the mid 1970s. “My dad and his friends decided we needed a fire station,” Frankie reminisces. “They decided to get the ball rolling, and my brother Tony went to talk to Mrs. Ernest Stone, who lived nearby, to ask her to donate land for the fire station.”
Mrs. Stone agreed, and the next step was to find the funds to build the station.
Frankie points out that while the Black community had the plan to build the station, support from the White community, such as Mrs. Stone, helped the project succeed. “My dad went to talk with the sole county commissioner, Trammel Carmichael, and he agreed the county would give them a certain amount,” Frankie recalls of the time almost fifty years ago.
The first committee to get the fire station rolling included J. D. Weems, Kenny Tanner, Betty Holmes, Davis Morris, and Dillard Austin, as well as the Fergusons. Reverand Alan Patrick, pastor at the nearby Hickory Log Church, was also part of the committee. Wylene Bryant of Canton, a local businesswoman, helped with many of the details.
“The fire station meant that the homes of those living here would be safe and in the case of a fire, we would not have to wait for firefighters to arrive from Canton,” Frankie explains.
Equally as important was the pride the community felt about the station. “It meant a lot to my dad and the other men. Their community had something they built, and they took pride in it. They felt that ‘This is ours; we built it,’” she says. “We were all like family here. We are a community of faith, and we loved each other.” Frankie says the people in the community also looked up to the senior leaders of the community. “We were proud of what we had and proud of our ancestors, like Phillip Keith, the former slave who donated the land for the church and the school. We are appreciative of all those efforts,” she emphasizes.
Until a few weeks before his passing several years ago, Charlie could most often be found at the fire station complex, which at that time was in use by Cherokee Fire and Emergency Services. “Mrs. Shepherd said he was up there from dawn to dusk hanging out in the old community business office. He loved his fire department and the career firefighters who resided next door. Many stopped by and hung out with him,” Tim recalls. “I was fortunate enough on a few occasions to stop by and see Charlie myself. He called me when there was any kind of problem with the building that wasn’t getting repaired. I welcomed the time and opportunity to go see Charlie and find out what was happening and talk awhile.”
The original fire station building stands unused today, but not for long. Cherokee County Fire Chief Tim Prather applauds the project to convert the old station into a community center. He points out that it honors Charlie Ferguson and those who helped establish it. “The new station is dedicated to Charlie. He brought the community together to help provide the service. Not only was the site a fire station, but it became a community and recreation center as well,” Tim says. “Charlie was commonly referred to as the mayor of North Canton. “
Frankie said she was not planning to be part of the efforts to renovate the building, but her cousin said she should join in the plans, so she attended a meeting at the church. John Heard, president of the board, soon asked Frankie to chair the committee, and in no time County Manager Jerry Cooper reached out about applying for a federal Community Development Block Grant to fund the project.
Bryan Reynolds, director of Cherokee County Community Services Agency, is also involved with the project and says the county expects to award the design contract to the architects in December and complete the project in 2021. The Community Development Block Grant of $370,000 will cover all costs of the renovation. “I estimate seven to nine months to complete the design and construction phases. It could vary depending on several factors, including a complete evaluation of the building, the scope of work needed for repairs, weather, etc.,” Bryan explains.
Frankie hopes the community center will offer classes such as yoga and computer training for folks in the community, a goal Bryan says is reachable. The center will be owned and operated by the local nonprofit group, Charlie Ferguson Community Center, Inc., Bryan points out. “When I spoke to Frankie, I told her the county stands ready to partner with the group to provide senior and youth programming for the center. It will be up to their board. I hope the board is open to the idea,” he says. “I believe the community will benefit greatly from a place where people can gather, hold meetings and special events, and take part in community programming. It could also rented for private events. How it is used will ultimately be up to the nonprofit board.”
Frankie says she always hoped the fire station would come back to the community when the new fire station was built. She first broached the idea to Fire Chief Tim Prather a few years ago, and she is glad it is becoming reality.
The fire chief remembers the day Frankie asked him about the station. “The year that Mrs. Shepherd was presented the Cherokee Citizen of the Year award, I walked up to extend my congratulations. After I introduced myself, she said she had been wanting to talk with me. She told me the North Canton community would like to have the old fire station back to be used as a community center when we moved out of it. I thought it was a great idea, and I said I would do what I could to assist with that goal.”
While Cherokee County is now served by paid firefighters, volunteers have long had a role of importance in keeping the community safe. “The Volunteer Fire Department is the original fire service in Cherokee County that we have built upon. We still occupy and operate out of some of the fire stations that were originally built by volunteer fire departments,” the chief points out, although the demand for fire and emergency medical services in Cherokee County far exceeds the resources that can be handled totally by volunteer fire departments. “We are running about 29,000 calls a year. Not many businesses today will let employees leave the job to go help. We have many career firefighters today that were originally volunteer firefighters in their communities.”
Frankie, who is also the former principal of Ralph Bunche School, is glad the community center is fast becoming a reality. She hopes it will serve as a reminder of all of the people, Black and White, male and female, who have worked together to make her community strong. “We want to keep our history alive. I hope we will have a wall of history at the center to honor all who helped us along the way,” she says.