It’s early Friday evening at Rooster’s in Mansfield. All the seats are taken and the packed parking lot is testimony to the Ford and Dodge truck marketing departments. Many patrons having come straight from work, and families arrive later, young kids ricocheting like summer fireflies until their fried chicken lands on their table.
A year ago, this scene would have been difficult to imagine in tiny Mansfield. There are more empty storefronts than active ones and folks who remember a time when the town boasted multiple grocery stores, a movie theater and bustling activity are recalling a wistful memory from more than two generations ago.
But somehow, despite the siren’s call of new opportunities elsewhere and the sprouting of big box stores, shops and chain restaurants on every available lot in Covington, Madison and Conyers, Mansfield has hung on without a QT or Waffle House in sight. Perhaps the people stay for the sense of community where you truly can say you know everyone, or maybe they remain out of love of home, or just plain stubbornness. It surely helped that some institutions have not budged, such as the beloved Mansfield Elementary School and Beaver Manufacturing, a global concern which converts specialized yarn to be used in industrial hoses (think gas pump hoses).
And maybe all that patience and stubbornness will actually pay off. All those vacant storefronts are still vacant, but other visions are being molded into reality. Beaver took vacant land and shaped it into an impressive town park, and the Needham family (founders of Beaver) developed the bucolic and meandering Nonie Needham Nature Trail on the edge of town. The state Department of Natural Resources carved a large swatch of Georgia wilderness into the 6,400-acre Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center, an outdoorsman’s paradise where you would exhaust yourself before exhausting the available activities. And the owners at Burge Club transformed a 1,000-acre family owned plantation into a wedding planner’s dream, a premier shooting facility and a certified organic farm all rolled into one.
It was enough for William and Chris Behrndt, who moved here from Portland, Oregon, because, well, it wasn’t Portland. The move enabled him to be near the dental practice he has built in Rutledge while Chris launched a law practice in several nearby communities. Friday night found Behrndt and four of his seven children at Roosters: “We chose Georgia, and then we chose Mansfield,” he says, as if it were the most natural decision in the world.
“It’s laid back, it’s beautiful, it’s where I love coming home to,” says Dean Hayes, who works for BB&T in Conyers by day before coming home to the country.
But to resurrect the downtown business district beyond the scope of nature reserves and hunting plantations will take a new generation of visionaries, different from those who formed the Carmel Land Improvement Company in the 1890s, sold lots and created the 1.1-square-mile town called Mansfield. Nor can the town bank on the legend of Sherrod Malone Smith, who grew up on Mansfield’s dirt streets before becoming a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Brooklyn Dodgers, allowing only two steals in his entire career. It will now take different types of pioneers, women and men for whom an empty storefront is a future hardware store or studio, people who see a bank where now there are just weeds and dirt.
Actually, some of the new pioneers have been here all along. At Blackwell Grocery, a steady stream of customers has convinced Wayne Blackwell that the stream could grow into something stronger and swifter by constructing a much bigger store a couple of minutes away.
And not too long ago, Kenny Anderson, a 60-year-old former truck driver and claims adjuster, with absolutely zero experience in the food business, looked at the same “16 by 24 dumpy brick building” he’d been driving by for most of his life and suddenly saw something different. An instant hit, Roosters now employs 10 people, and on this hot Friday night, Kenny is manning the outside bar, taking orders over the din of Toby Keith’s music while a huge industrial fan swats at the humidity.
Before heading home, a customer leans over the bar and shakes Anderson’s hand to say goodnight. “Thank you, brother,” says Kenny, before returning to the subject of Mansfield. “I didn’t think we’d have anywhere near the business we have, it’s way beyond my expectations,” he says, acknowledging that his learning curve in running a restaurant was straight up. “But we need more. There’s so much potential here.”
His message is clear: If he can do it, at a time when most people are eyeballing retirement, then others can as well.
It’s bound to happen, says patron Tony Hightower, 38, who works in construction. For Hightower, the possibility of a Mansfield rebirth is not crazy talk; it’s a foregone conclusion. “Growth,” he says with the authority of an eternal optimist. “It’s coming.”
Rob Levin is president and editor of a book publishing company in Covington and is a former national feature writer for the Atlanta Constitution.