1910 Depot still stands proud

Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Depot Center president Jo Ann Bennett stands beside the Eena Grieshammer and Roxie Cates Memorial Depot Center and Public Library sign at 105 West North Dewey Street in Manila. (Photo courtesy/Nan Snider)

Thanks to the generosity of two Manila women, the city's 104-year-old train depot continues to be a vital link in the town's history and growth. The Manila depot was constructed in 1910 by the Jonesboro, Lake City and Eastern (JLC&E) Railroad, after the company extended its tracks to Manila in 1900 to accommodate the growing need for agricultural and timber transport.

The JLC&E was purchased by Frisco in 1938, operating the line as the Blytheville Subdivision. The passenger and mail service ended in 1948 and the office closed in 1977.

"The last train came through Manila on Dec. 31, 1977," said local historian Donna Jackson. "The citizens of Manila have always been very nostalgic about this depot and didn't want to see it be destroyed like so many others have been."

The Manila Business and Professional Women (BPW) organization took leadership in restoring the depot early on with plans to use it as a community meeting house and to establish a small museum.

"The museum proved to be in great need of complete renovation and costly repair," said Jo Ann Bennett, Depot Center Committee president. "Two Manila sisters, Eena Grieshammer and Roxie Cates, expressed interest in establishing a memorial in the city. With the help of a former Manila resident and Blytheville attorney Oscar Fendler, the sisters agreed to leave their estate in the form of an endowment to the depot project."

The BPW organization became the Depot Center Committee Inc., a non-profit organization formed to promote the heritage and culture of Manila. The group has been successful in securing the listing of the depot on the National Register for Historic Places in 1997. The depot sits at its original location on the northwest corner of South Dewey and Baltimore Avenue between North and South Dewey Streets.

In 2001, the committee hired master carpenter Gary Plummer to renovate the depot and construct a new building to house a city library and community meeting room. All of this was made possible by the sisters' endowment and, in their honor, was named the Eena Grieshammer and Roxie Cates Memorial Depot Center and Public Library.

All committee members take an active role in the many endeavours sponsored by the Depot Center Committee. As a writer and publisher of several area histories, Jackson was appointed to oversee the depot museum. She published "Reflections of Manila. Manila Centennial 1901-2001" in 2001 and "History of Manila, Arkansas, Veterans and Generations of Service" in 2013.

"We always have a big citywide Veterans Day celebration," Bennett said. "It starts out at the Herman Davis monument and finishes here with a meal served In the community room."

The museum is an especially busy place during the Veterans Day celebration.

"The museum is kid friendly and children are eager to learn about Manila residents who served in military service, as well as how life was in Manila 50 or 100 years ago," Jackson said. "We try to keep it interesting for them. We will also have our fourth Tales from the Cemetery tour this year for fifth and sixth grade Manila Elementary students."

The tour will present four prominent Manila citizens from the past who will be represented by members of the community. The actors relate stories about the lives of individuals and their impact on the city as they stand beside the tombstones of the deceased in the Manila Cemetery.

This living history program hopes to enhance the students knowledge of their city by making the contributions of former residents known to them.

"We rent out the depot community room to the public and have bookings every week of the year," Bennett said. "We can seat 120 people. The Manila Business Committee, the Lions Club and Scouts hold their regular meetings here, plus several church events are held here."

The Depot Committee partners with the Manila Business Committee to work on many fundraisers. Plans are to publish the organization's second cookbook with funds to be used to replace the tile floors in the depot community room.

"We placed antique street lights along Manila's main street and are responsible for the Christmas decorations," Bennett said. "We work in partnership with the city and enjoy undertaking projects that help our residents."

Funding has been secured for a train mural to be painted on the depot by local artist Dan Donovan.

"Our desire is to always look to the future of the city while guarding its history at the same time," Bennett said. "We are always looking for new and inventive things to keep visits to the Depot Center interesting and to encourage volunteers to come forth and make their own contributions to the city, both physical and monetary."

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