Under the fallen leaves heaped on the front porch of one of Crawford’s oldest remaining houses, Tommy Gentry could barely make out a hint of metal.
He reached down and picked up a broken padlock.
“This was on the front door,” Gentry said sharply. “They cut the lock. That’s how they got in.”
Gentry, 80, is renovating the old Mobile and Ohio Railroad section house on Charlie Hairston Road that sits next to the tracks intersecting the town. He led an effort in 2015 to keep the town of Crawford from selling the house to someone who wanted to tear it down, and about a year ago he purchased a quit-claim deed to the property for $2,500.
Now, Gentry is offering another $200 in “ransom” for a mantel piece he believes was stolen from the living room. He discovered when working in the house three weeks ago it had been pried from the wall. Outside, he found the broken padlock and deep ruts from tire tracks in the front yard.
It was one of three original mantel pieces in the house, so Gentry carefully removed the other two and stored them elsewhere for safekeeping. Then he took out a classified advertisement in The Dispatch last week imploring whomever purloined the mantel to return it. The ad promises “no questions will be asked” and the “law is not involved.”
“This mantel is simple; it’s not ornate, but it’s important,” Gentry said Wednesday as he milled about the house. “I think whoever took it saw it as a trophy. Maybe they thought this house was abandoned, and their motive was they love history and wanted a piece of it.”
Gentry is hopeful it’s not too late and that his “ransom” offer will be enough.
“Salvage people pay big money for that stuff,” he said.
The mantel might have been missing far longer than Gentry believes. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History only documented two in-tact mantels in that house in 2015, and a photo taken that same year of the living room that is posted on the MDAH website shows no mantel above the living room fireplace.
So far, Gentry has gotten no calls about the ad.
A winding trail of ownership
MDAH records place the house’s construction around 1880. It served as the home for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad section manager, who was charged with maintaining a 10-mile stretch of tracks.
“It’s one of the few remaining examples of a section house that exists in the state,” said Barry White, deputy state historic preservation officer with MDAH.
It continued serving as a section house until at least the 1930s. But by 1954, when Gentry moved to Crawford with his family at age 14, the B.L. Gaskin family owned it and was using it as a private residence.
Deed records at the Lowndes County Tax Assessor’s Office show ownership shifting from Gaskin to Charlie Hairston in the early 1980s. Hairston owned the property until 2014, when Wells Fargo bank gained possession. The bank donated the property to the town in March 2015.
Crawford, then led by Mayor Fred Tolon, attempted to sell the property to private ownership through a sealed bid process. One of the bidders, according to Gentry and Crawford town attorney Tim Hudson, wanted to clear the house from the lot. That led Gentry to contact MDAH to block the sale.
While the section house is not a designated State Landmark, the state antiquities law gives MDAH latitude to review proposed changes to potentially historic properties under public ownership. With no additional protected status, White said, MDAH would have no purview over changes to the property once it transferred to private hands.
In a letter to the town in August 2015, MDAH officials said the house was “in need of maintenance but surprisingly sturdy.” Further it deemed the house a “prime candidate for renovation.”
Town officials ultimately rejected the first set of bids and agreed to work with MDAH in initiating a separate bidding process aimed at finding someone to renovate the house or selling the lot separately.
But there was a catch.
Wells Fargo had failed to pay taxes due on the property in 2015 — before it deeded it to Crawford — so Crisler Properties purchased a claim on the property through the county tax sale, which meant he could take ownership through a tax deed if the back taxes weren’t paid within three years. Neither Wells Fargo nor the town of Crawford paid the back taxes, and Tax Assessor/Collector Greg Andrews said Crisler Properties was issued a tax deed on March 12, 2020. Two weeks later, Crisler sold the property to Gentry.
Gentry’s journey in and out of Crawford
Gentry operates the Army Surplus store on Main Street in Crawford, less than a half-mile from his ongoing renovation project.
Though M&O Railroad is long-since defunct, a different company now owns the tracks that first got Gentry interested in railroad history. A century ago, he said his grandfather ran a small sawmill in Crawford, and trains moved his lumber along the M&O line.
“Trains still blow through here about every day going 70 miles per hour,” Gentry said.
Born in the “big city” of Hattiesburg, Gentry still remembers first seeing the horses and mules tied along Main Street when his family moved to his father’s hometown of Crawford in 1954.
“It was like entering the Twilight Zone,” Gentry said with a chuckle. “I loved it. We were living in the country.”
Gentry never lived in the section house but went to high school with a girl who did, though he admitted he was “never invited to any of her parties.”
He served in the U.S. Army for three years and earned a degree from Mississippi State in petroleum engineering in 1968, he said. Gentry worked on an oil rig in South Louisiana until Hurricane Camille hit the Gulf Coast a year later. He returned to MSU in 1970 to earn a degree in agricultural economics but never took a job in the field. Instead, he went into the Army Surplus business in 1975, running stores either in Crawford or Hattiesburg ever since.
He’s seen many of Crawford’s old houses torn down during his lifetime. That’s the main reason, Gentry said, he’s fought so hard to save the section house.
A ‘wild idea’
The section house holds some remnants of its past — the remaining mantels, doors, windows and much of its original footprint. But renovations from the Gaskin and Hairston eras are apparent.
Those, Gentry said, will be gone soon enough, all except for the indoor kitchen and bathrooms, which he plans to update.
“Everything else 20th century, I’m getting rid of,” he said.
That includes removing the house’s exterior siding, the screened-in porch at the rear and any walls that aren’t original. Inside, he has already removed some of the paneling in an effort to restore the original wood walls.
He’s doing all the work himself with hopes of renting it out for weekend visitors, or maybe even capture MSU sports fans looking for a place to stay on game day.
“It may be a wild idea,” Gentry said. “I’ve got to see if there’s a market for it. Somebody said I might should contact Airbnb to see if I can get it on there. Maybe I’ll try that.”
First he has to complete the renovation, a daunting project for which he has no set timeline. In the meantime, he joked, since the house was built a decade or so after the Civil War, he might find some hidden treasure there.
“I hadn’t found any gold or Confederate money stowed away yet,” he said.