published Saturday, June 28th, 2014

Civil War scion: Ringgold mayor is living history, for more reasons than one

Ringgold Mayor Joe Barger is one generation removed from the Civil War being the grandson of a North Carolina man who was born in 1833 and fought for the South. Barger is 84 years old and has been mayor since 1975.
Ringgold Mayor Joe Barger is one generation removed from the Civil War being the grandson of a North Carolina man who was born in 1833 and fought for the South. Barger is 84 years old and has been mayor since 1975.
Photo by Dan Henry.

RINGGOLD, Ga. — City Hall here has Civil War history on its walls: framed battle maps, a mural of soldiers fighting, a painting memorializing an unknown Confederate who died defending Ringgold Gap.

Ringgold has some living history, too: A mayor who's one generation removed from the Civil War.

Mayor Joe Barger's grandfather -- that's right, his grandfather -- Jacob A. Barger served as a private for the South in North Carolina's infantry.

"He was born in 1833," Barger said. "So it's 96 years' difference between when he was born, and I was born."

The births were spaced that way because both Barger's grandfather and father married younger women after their first wives died.

Being the grandson of a Civil War soldier is so unusual, the 84-year-old mayor said, that when he tells people about it, "I don't think they believe me."

Barger's photo hangs on City Hall's wall, too. It's one of 16 photos of mayors in office since 1919.

Barger has served the longest. He was elected in 1976, and will mark 40 years in office when his term ends in 2016. Before he became mayor, Barger served eight years as city councilman.

"I'm not going to run again," said Barger, who recently had a pacemaker installed. "I'm not physically able. I've had health problems. I've been in the hospital five times this year."

His roughly 46 years in office make Barger one of the longest-serving public officials in Georgia.

"He's way up there," said Georgia Municipal Association spokeswoman Amy Henderson. "I would say Joe is probably one of a handful of city officials around the state that have been serving that long."

What's the secret?

"I don't know," Barger said. "I try to treat people the way they ought to be treated."

Ringgold keeps its property taxes low, he said. And Barger doesn't like unnecessary spending.

"We've had a lot of good council members, and we've had some, to me, that want to waste money," he said.

"Engineers make good mayors"

Barger, who has a degree in physics, worked for 39 years at Combustion Engineering, a Chattanooga company that supplied the nuclear industry and has morphed into Alstom Power in its present-day incarnation. Barger got 10 U.S. patents as an engineer at Combustion Engineering and traveled the world.

Barger's engineering background came in handy as mayor. For example, he said he figured out how to stop flooding in Ringgold through such means as diverting stormwater that runs off White Oak Mountain away from downtown.

"It is an object lesson to me that it is good to have an engineer in that [mayor's] position," said McCracken Poston, a Ringgold attorney who was a state representative when he set up a meeting so Barger could ask Gov. Zell Miller for money to alleviate Ringgold's flooding.

State finances were tight, Poston said, and he and the governor were ready to cringe at a multimillion-dollar request. Instead, Barger asked for about $3,000 to have state prisoners use chain saws to clear brush and small trees that constricted South Chickamauga Creek as it ran through town.

"I was expecting $3 million or $4 million -- not $3,000," Poston said. "Everybody in the room was flabbergasted."

Barger's idea worked.

"The houses in that area have not flooded in 20 years," Poston said.

"War is plain Hell"

One thing Barger championed as mayor is the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post's project to place U.S. flags mounted on crosses around Ringgold to honor residents who served in the military. A total of 1,146 crosses were displayed on Memorial Day.

"When I started helping, we had just less than 100 flags," said Barger, who's been involved with the effort since the '70s.

Barger served in U.S. Army intelligence in the Philippines during the Korean War. Barger also heard a few of his grandfather's Civil War stories, passed down by Barger's father.

"He said they'd be so tired, they'd lay down by the cannons when they fired and they'd go to sleep," Barger said. "After [grandfather] got out of the Civil War, he never carried a gun the rest of his life. War is just plain hell."

Barger grew up in Salisbury, N.C., about 35 miles north of Charlotte. He wound up in Ringgold because it's his wife, Barbara's, home town. The couple have two children and five grandchildren.

After serving for decades as mayor and on City Council, you'd think Barger would feel right at home. But many Ringgold residents have lived there for generations, he said.

"If you're not born in Ringgold, you're an outsider," he joked. "I'm still an outsider."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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