Villanow is a remote but tight-knit community located 20 minutes east of LaFayette near the county border with Whitfield County.
The area is fortunate to have numerous builders and skilled trades persons, among the 880 households in the area, willing to invest sweat equity to provide for their children.
The East Armuchee Community Club is a non-profit group that currently has nearly 60 members, which operates in a similar fashion to a downtown development authority to benefit local projects.
In 2010, the multi-use Armuchee Valley Community Center opened, featuring a gymnasium that can serve as an event facility or storm shelter in time of crisis.
A local community member, Jim Pope, purchased a five-acre portion of the property in December 2006 for $27,000 and donated it to Walker County, which also purchased a five-acre tract to contribute to the community center and fire station.
“We don’t have a recreation budget,” county coordinator David Ashburn said, as no general tax funds are allocated toward recreation programs. “We do the support for the facilities through the special-purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST).”
Similar projects with community volunteers have been completed in Rock Spring and Chattanooga Valley during previous years, according to Ashburn.
Pope was the first president of the East Armuchee Community Club, from 2007-10, which was formally registered as a non-profit in 2009.
The concept of a community center began with a discussion during an old-timers softball game at a school reunion in 2006, according to Pope.
The East Armuchee Farm Bureau donated (in 2007) a six-acre plot where the ball diamond is currently being built.
The facility (a SPLOST project suggested by citizens) also has a small kitchen and bathrooms with showers and a double-bay garage for Walker County fire station No. 14 and a proposed satellite sheriff’s station. A similar community facility, a remodeled existing county building, has also been furnished in the Center Post community.
‘We’ve got these (facilities) worked out all over the county,” Ashburn said. “We’ve put in recreation areas with playgrounds and picnic shelters, and then the community takes care of it. We’ve got one in Dewberry, we’ve got one down off Prospect … in Hinkle ... and in High Point.”
County officials have even provided equipment to city programs, including tractors in Rossville, along with paying the electricity for their recreation facility.
The group in Villanow raised $5,000 for a much-needed sound system in the gymnasium, which was installed more recently, according to Phillip Cantrell, a local resident and one of the project coordinators.
“Everything being done here is free-of-hand and free-of-heart,” Cantrell said.
The two primary items that community members wanted to accompany the new facility were to revitalize the baseball fields that were formerly at the site and to create an open-air outdoor pavilion, to include bathrooms.
Their primary motivation is to provide activities for the estimated 280 children that live in the Villanow area.
Originally the county plans for the site included a baseball field, but it did not happen as planned.
“I understand (county officials) couldn’t make that commitment,” Cantrell said. “That’s why we’re trying to do what we are doing. We take care of this facility here. The county doesn’t do a thing here. We mop these floors, clean the bathrooms. We buy paper towels. We do everything here. The county pays the power bill for us.
“The recession hit and everything went to pot,” he said. “We kept raising money and we kept trying to work out something with the county.”
He has built homes for a career (a few for Habitat for Humanity) and was the president of the Dalton Home Builders Association.
The group presented a $10,000 check to county officials in 2012 for materials in their project.
“They wanted to move forward with this (baseball) project before the next SPLOST cycle went into effect,” Ashburn said. “Other than fuel (costs), the county has nothing in the (baseball) project, but it is improving the county’s property.”
Cantrell, who was born and raised in Villanow, joined other community leaders offering to do the labor for their projects, when he returned to the area in 2009, after the project had been initiated.
The pavilion will be built in a single day this spring, once the materials are on site, with a skilled crew of at least two dozen volunteers synchronized in completing the task like an old-fashioned barn raising. County officials will provide a crane operator to maneuver the trussing for the building.
The materials are being purchased with community contributions through county officials, as the items (like the facility) will also become county property, according to Ashburn.
Build it and they will come
Villanow’s own version of “Field of Dreams” began during the summer of 2012, as a logging company cleared (for free) the area for a ball diamond in exchange for the harvested logs.
The community collaboration and the amount of contributions impressed county officials, which offered to help, as they were able.
“At the time, the county couldn’t give us any equipment. They were working on the library and three or four other projects going,” Cantrell said.
Finally, in January 2013, three pieces of earth-moving equipment were sent to the Villanow project.
“They’re covered by our insurance as a volunteer (much like a firefighter) for the county,” Ashburn said. “We have not been using that (equipment) at this time. That’s why it’s out there. If we needed it for something else, it would be taken for that project.”
The items were loaned from the county road department, after waiting several months, due to lower demand for the equipment in winter.
The county also provided diesel fuel for the equipment, while the community provides certified operators Rodney Edwards and Gene Carnes.
Edwards has significant experience with building baseball fields and will be donating the sod for the field from his nearby sod farm, with a value of nearly $25,000.
The equipment has been on site for nearly three weeks, but weather has only allowed for nine days worth of grading the field, as repeated rainstorms have hampered progress.
The field is being built under major league baseball regulations, but will be adjustable for all levels, including tee-ball.
Cantrell hopes the LaFayette High School baseball team would consider playing one of its home games at the facility. A home run to centerfield must travel 346 feet, with left field set at 311 feet and right field at 307 feet.
Cantrell estimates that the project could have cost the county a minimum of $150,000, for the first phase that is currently underway at a fraction of the actual cost.
“Right now, Whitfield County is building a cloverleaf (quad) set of ball diamonds, at a cost of $2 million dollars,” Cantrell said.
“It’s all up to us. One reason, I think, that people don’t get things done is because they don’t do anything,” he said regarding community’s that want similar facilities despite lacking a coordinated volunteer effort, “You’ve got to work for it. You can’t expect everybody to give you something.”
Future plans for the site will add two more smaller baseball fields, a soccer/football field, tennis court and a walking track.
Cantrell anticipates that it will take many years to complete the entire project.
The community center has already held numerous events during the past two years, including barbecue fundraiser dinners, yard sales and Girl Scout meetings. The facility is also rented for birthdays, wedding celebrations, and fall festivals.
The club will hold an Easter egg hunt on March 23, which usually attracts 70-80 kids.
A $5 barbecue plate fundraiser on March 9 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. will support the egg hunt.
The EACC group is also organizing a Washington, D.C., trip for local veterans in April, according to their Facebook page.
If the baseball diamond remains on schedule, Cantrell plans a grand opening with a homerun derby this summer.
The property was originally owned by the East Armuchee chapter of the Georgia Farmers Association, established in 1920.
The site had a community baseball field for several decades, with a few successful team, one ironically named “The Yankees.”
“They had two or three real good ball teams back in the early thirties and forties,” Cantrell said.