If you just saw it in photographs you’d think that the tiny town of Rex, Georgia would be located in the most rural part of the state. Maybe somewhere down in south Georgia, or among the the cotton fields out by Bostwick. Before we went to Rex I figured it would be the kind of town we’d have to drive miles in the country to find, most likely getting lost a couple of times, probably losing cell service. But that’s not the way it went at all.
Rex is only 20 or so miles south of Atlanta, and in Atlanta the suburbs stretch far. The farmland that once surrounded Rex gave way to subdivisions and gas stations years ago. If Rex was hard to find at first, it was only because we were so surprised that it was to be found there, right off a highway, practically under an overpass and directly under Hartsfield-Jackson’s flight path. But for a 19th century village completely surrounded by modern subdivisions, Rex is surprisingly well-preserved. It still has many of its original office buildings, including a bank and brick mercantile store complete with fading ghost signs. An old farmhouse or two can be found just off the railroad tracks.
The heart of old Rex village is its mill. It’s been there for over a hundred years, sitting right by Big Cotton Indian Creek. Up until at least the 1930s, local farmers were bringing their grain to be milled, maybe stopping by the store across the tracks to buy some Ballard’s Obelisk Flour. The mill is still the town’s biggest draw, but for different reasons. Hollywood film crews looking for a bit of the rural south close to the comforts of Atlanta have already discovered it. So have amateur photographers, apparently. While Drew was taking pictures the mill’s owner pulled up and told us to photograph all we want, but handed us a liability release form just in case we happened to fall off the stone dam or into some long-forgotten well. You never know, he said.
It was a peaceful place, but standing on the dam (liability waver signed) and seeing rows and rows of boxy houses encroaching upon Rex made me nervous. I thought it would be only a matter of time until they swallowed up the village whole. Fortunately some things have changed since then. There has been talk of turning downtown Rex into a folksy tourist destination, converting the old bank and store and maybe even the mill into restaurants and shops and bed and breakfasts. So far that’s just talk.
There’s also been a lot of talk about Michelle Obama and her roots in the area. After learning that the First Lady’s great-great-great-grandmother, Melvinia Shields, had been a slave on a nearby plantation, the village of Rex put up a monument dedicated to her. The unveiling made local headlines, but the monument’s vandalization a year later put tiny Rex into the national spotlight. It was a setback, but the monument is being fixed (if it hasn’t been fixed already), and it’s still—along with Rex itself—an important stop on Clayton County’s heritage trail.