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Garrard Park has colorful history tied to aviation

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Pop singer Cher had a huge hit in 1989 with “If I Could Turn Back Time.” It’s something 88-year-old Bobby Garrard has been doing a lot in recent months.

When the city of Rome decided to name its newest property at the intersection of Redmond Circle and Lavender Drive Garrard Park, it brought back flashes of an idyllic barnstorming era for Garrard, the lone surviving child of Dr. John Lucious Garrard, who owned the former General Electric property nearly a century ago.

The property was a farm way back and home to Rome’s first airport. Bobby remembers the primary runway was laid out on an east-west axis, a secondary runway ran north-south. His father bought an old de Havilland double-wing plane and Robert Stroop, from Maryland, flew it to Rome and ended up staying, marrying one of Bobby’s sisters.

Bobby recalls Stroop and his father barnstorming on weekends, taking people up for Saturday flights for $1 or $2.

“I used to sell tickets when I was a little boy,” Bobby said. They even made night flights where people would line the runway with their cars and turn on the lights to provide lighting of the runway for the aircraft to return safely.

Back in those days, Stroop would fly his father-in-law and others to Athens to see University of Georgia football games.

When the Works Progress Administration came along in the 1930s, the federal agency agreed to put chert down on the dirt runway. But the WPA crews could not work on private property, so his father deeded the land to the city of Rome for $1. The deal contained one caveat, if it ever ceased to be used as an airport, the property would revert back to the family.

Bobby recalls that his only brother, John Garrard, may have been the youngest person in Georgia to get a pilot’s license, at the age of 16.

“John was quite a flier,” Bobby said.

Many of the Stroop descendants still live in the Rome area as well. Much of the family, both the Garrard side and the Stroop side actually spent much of their childhood on the south side of the West Rome site, closer to the old Central of Georgia railroad tracks. Mary Sue Stroop Gilleland recalls walking from her home on the side of Old Airport Road up to the hangar to watch her dad work on plans.

“I flew with him,” she said. “He could do anything with an airplane.”

Gilleland said she would give anything if the family could locate her father’s pilot’s license, which was approved and signed by Orville Wright.

“I heard they (the family) may have given it to a museum but we haven’t been able to find any trace of it,” she said.

The GE deal

“The GE negotiations were real secretive,” Bobby recalls.

He was 25 when the deal was done and said GE initially took an option on 20 acres at $1,000 an acre. Sometime later they came back and said they wanted the entire tract, approximately 157 acres, but wanted to pay $750 an acre.

“I told dad that was a pretty big cut, but things in Rome was kind of tough back then and he said people needed jobs, so he agreed to the sale,” Bobby said.

The deal was closed for $118,350.

As things turned out, both Bobby and his older brother went to work for GE and retired from the Rome plant.

The Garrard family has an even more contemporary link to the property. One of Dr. Garrard’s daughters, Dorothy, married Russell Flewellyn Mitchell and that union produced Martin H. “Buddy” Mitchell, who served on the Rome City Commission for 17 years, from 1974-1991, the last eight of those as chairman.

After the GE plant closed, negotiations started almost immediately to return a portion of the acreage to the city. When the deal was finally completed, TRED — Trails for Recreation and Economic Development — took the lead in developing a network of trails on close to 60 acres closest to the intersection of Redmond Circle and Lavender Drive.

Gilleland called Dr. Garrard “Big Daddy” and said her side of the Garrard family was thrilled to learn the park would be named after him.

“It means the world to me and all of my siblings,” she said.

“When they said they were going to build a park, I said it would be nice if they named it after the doctor, we always referred to him as ‘the doctor,’” Bobby said. “When they decided to name it after my daddy it was wonderful because the property was mostly still intact and it’s going to preserve a lot of memories from here on out.”