Sunday, May 17, 2009

Where the trains no longer run

COWAN, Tenn. -- At first glance it is tempting to say this is the town time forgot.

Cowan, down here in Franklin County, is a bit sleepy on a rainy Saturday night. The restaurant we planned to duck into has closed.

A teenager is taking a drag underneath a tree. A stray cat is strolling down the sidewalk. And that's about it.

But, look a little closer, and you realize you've found a slice of Americana.

Cowan is a historical railroad town. Years ago, several branch lines of the North Carolina & St. Louis Railway converged here. It was the last stop before the trains ascended the Cumberland Plateau. So, of course, that meant a lot of pusher engines were kept waiting here.

The town's economy declined after Highway 41-A was built in the 1940s. It coincided with the decline of rail travel nationwide as cars became readily and inexpensively available and highway construction boomed after World War II.

The old rail station is now a museum. In front of it is a restored Texaco gas station that is also a museum. The town center includes an antique shop, a bed and breakfast, a cool little place that contains nothing but old jukeboxes, an excellent Italian restaurant and a quaint antiquarian bookstore.

The proprietor of the latter says that his book selling is a hobby. His wife was paralyzed in a bicycling accident a few years ago. So they came home to settle down.

He stored books in his home for years and sold them on the Internet. But, he needed to free up some room and says he likes having a brick-and-mortar store.

Because, he says with a smile, "I can go right to the book I need. Plus, people stop in with books to sale or trade. You don't get that much on the Internet." His dream is to help Cowan become the antiquarian book capital of the South.

I found an autographed first edition of a collection of short stories by Macon, Ga., writer Ferrol Sams. Five bucks. Can't beat that.

Earlier in the day my friends Stephanie and Daniel, both faculty members at the University of the South, gave me a tour of the campus. I will tell you more about that tomorrow, but for now will say that this quaint university, with its faux Gothic architecture and Episcopalian dignity, would be a lovely place at which to make a life.

When we finished our walk around Cowan, somebody lamented the fact that this town of 1,770 is struggling just to keep a restaurant.

"Maybe it will come back," I said, knowing in my heart that I hope the same for all the Cowans of the world.

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