The General Emporium gift shop gives train lovers a place for their enthusiasm to gain steam.

June 27, 2024

On April 12, 1862, the General locomotive was stolen from Big Shanty, Georgia, by a group of 21 men history would dub the Raiders. According to the website, the incident — which has become known as the legendary Great Locomotive Chase — unfolded during the early years of the Civil War. It was an “attempt by Union forces and sympathizers to destroy railroad infrastructure north of Atlanta in hopes of eventually capturing the strategic city of Chattanooga, Tennessee.”

Over 87 miles and eight hours, the Western & Atlantic Railroad locomotive chugged down the tracks with the Texas locomotive hot on its heels, according to historians. While a three-man crew worked to regain control of the General, the Raiders worked to stymy the effort, removing railroad ties and sections of track, even hurling boxcars toward the Texas locomotive. They also lit a boxcar on fire with the hope of burning down a crucial bridge. In the end, the Raiders were all captured; some were hanged, some escaped during a prison break and some were paroled.

In Kennesaw, Georgia, the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History has enshrined the General in a 50,000-square-foot facility that pays tribute to the “use of railroads during and after the Civil War,” according to the museum’s website.

After visitors wind their way through the exhibits, the General Emporium gift shop is waiting to tempt enthusiasts with its inventory dedicated to trains.

All aboard for an adventure

Everything from “choo-ing” gum to engineer caps to wooden trains have a home on the shelves in the 900-square-foot store space. While it’s small, it’s a far cry from the trinkets that were sold in 1972 when a former cotton gin was transformed into the museum and gift shop.

Train themes can be found everywhere in the shop from ornaments to T-shirts.
Photos: Camille Wright Felton

“It was basically the train and a tiny little gift shop,” says Michelle Newman, retail manager of the General Emporium gift shop. “You paid your dollar, or a couple dollars to get in, and you had a few items.”

Then in 2003, the museum acquired the Glover Machine Works collection, which included business records, catalogs and other memorabilia from a locomotive manufacturer that operated in the early 1900s in Marietta, Georgia, according to the museum’s website.

Newman says that’s when the gift shop got its due as well.

“The gift shop basically went from just a few things to something much, much bigger,” she explains.

And that wasn’t the only change. In fact, the entire town, which was once known as Big Shanty, became Kennesaw a couple of decades after the chase.

Hands-on approach

Unlike the exhibits and the General locomotive, one of the best things about the gift shop is that you can touch almost everything, Newman says.

“I welcome the kids to come in and play, and most of the time, the parents are looking around going, ‘Oh, wow I didn’t know you had that.’ It’s what gets them in the door,” she notes. “It’s amazing how you can have something that will not sell, but if you open it, and just try it out, it will sell. You’ve got to get it in the hands of the kids.”

Kids can follow the black train track that winds across the store’s floor to find train-related toys from Melissa & Doug, Brio and Hape. Meanwhile, their parents can peruse items such as ornaments, apparel and glassware from Charles Products, Born Rail Products, Americana Souvenirs & Gifts and Channel Craft.

Next stop: an event for children

Older men make up a large demographic of visitors. To appeal to the younger generation, Newman and the museum’s director, Richard Banz, both make a concerted effort to create interactive experiences that appeal to the younger crowd.

“If you go to a traditional train show, a lot of them are ‘don’t touch anything,’ that kind of thing,” Newman explains. “So, Banz wanted to create an event where kids could come and actually touch things and drive the trains and everything.”

Each year in late January, the museum’s Trains, Trains, Trains event rolls into town.

As the train exhibit bumped along over the years, Newman learned another detail about her retail operation — it was out of the loop.

“We used to have vendors that were part of the show selling their used trains and things,” she notes. “And people were coming through there and buying something and then they would get to the gift shop at the end and say, ‘Oh, well we bought something back there.’”

For this reason, Newman says, she phased out those vendors about eight years ago and set up a second shop closer to the action, selling the same merchandise as the gift shop.

A popular namesake

Besides wooden and battery-powered trains, Newman points to magnets and ornaments as top sellers at the General Emporium.

Train themes can be found everywhere in the shop from ornaments to T-shirts.

And since their target audience is comprised of travelers, many are interested in local jams and jellies — particularly peach-flavored products the state is known for. For these items, Newman looks to Braswell’s, which is known for making gourmet sauces, jellies and jams in Statesboro, Georgia. She says the museum adopted the name Lacy House as its house brand that is now recognized across the country.

Lacy House was the name of the hotel the Raiders stopped at the morning of the chase to have breakfast. “We basically took that as our house brand so all jams and jellies have a label on them that say, ‘The Lacy House, Kennesaw, Georgia,’” she explains.

Visitors want more once they take a special sauce or flavor home that they believe they can only get through the General Emporium.

Full of heart and humor

Newman says her favorite part of the job is talking with customers — especially those who have a connection to the Great Locomotive Chase or the movie made popular by Disney, which plays on an endless loop at the General Emporium. Newman jokes that while she probably watches it “four times a day,” while others have not seen it.

“One lady came in and said her dad was in the film when Disney came down to the northeast Georgia mountains and filmed it in 1956,” Newman says, adding that a lot of local people were used for the film. “She told me who her dad played. We cued it up to that section and she just started crying. She said it was the first time she had heard his voice since he died. That was a really, really sweet moment.”

While Newman swears she has no background in history, her knowledge leaves one begging to hear more about the Great Locomotive Chase — a story which likely put Kennesaw on the map and made her curator of the best train store in town.

“I figure if the North didn’t steal the train, I wouldn’t have a job,” she quips.