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Preserving history
Woman loans 100-year-old wedding dress to museum

WINDER - Jessie Maffett and her mother, Meldevene Gunter, spent many afternoons stitching together by hand the gown that Maffett would wear in her Sept. 22, 1907, wedding to James Nichols of Winder.

Gunter, an Indian princess born and raised in Gwinnett County, according to family lore, hand-crocheted the lace that festooned her 12th daughter's bridal costume.

The mother and daughter had no idea Maffett's granddaughter, Martha Lowe Blalock, would wear that very dress 86 years later when she walked down the aisle toward her future husband on May 15, 1993.

The dress hung for years in the Marietta museum, the town where the Blalocks wed. Now, the gown is back home in Winder, where it was originally created, on permanent display in the Barrow County Museum.

"The dress is batiste and cotton," Blalock said. "My mother kept it very well preserved. We had to get it white again and fix some holes."

Flanking the century-old gown are a picture of a petite Martha wearing the gown on her 1993 wedding day, a photograph of the Nicholses leaving for their 1907 honeymoon and their elaborately decorated marriage certificate.

The dress belongs where the people of Barrow County can enjoy it, Blalock said. Her family's history goes deep into Barrow County soil. Blalock's grandfather Nichols owned a marble company and created the big monument in the Russell cemetery, she said. The dress itself was likely made from Barrow County cotton during the era when the flourishing local textile industry fed, clothed and housed its residents.

"We loaned the dress to encourage more people to visit the museum," Blalock said.

The Barrow County Museum resides inside the former jail, a castle-like brick structure built in 1915 that sits next to the courthouse at 94 E. Athens St. in Winder. The distinctive turret that gives it its regal appearance is the former hanging tower, although no prisoner ever hung from its rafters, according to Bill Cook, president of the Barrow County Historical Society.

"About the time it was finished, they decided it was inhumane to hang, so they never built scaffold and they sent them to Atlanta to be electrocuted," said Nelda Brookshire, museum volunteer.

Exhibits are divided into rooms honoring schools and churches, doctors and medicines, aviation, the textile industry and one's dedicated to Sen. Richard B. Russell, of Winder.

The museum hosts about 1,000 visitors each year and is supported by the Barrow County Historical Society through dues, Pope said. The county owns the building and pays for utilities and maintenance. Nevertheless, it suffers from termite damage and needs a new roof, Cook said. The county is searching for a grant to pay for the estimated $200,000 to $400,000 in needed repairs, he said.

Museum volunteers will accept nearly any bit of memorabilia, but are especially interested in pieces from the textile industry.

"Barrow County was the work clothing capital of the world," Pope said. "We have a buttonhole maker, but we have had trouble finding anything else to do with the industry. You'd think someone would have a pair of work pants folded up in drawer somewhere."

SideBar: If you go

What: Barrow County Museum

Hours: 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and other times by appointment.

Where: 94 E. Athens St., Winder

Cost: Free admission

For more information call 770-307-1183.