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“You want fries with that?” Gene Carter, mayor of Trenton so long he can’t tell you how many terms, displays a 1991 Dade County Sentinel with the headline, “Mayor Reveals Plans For New City Building.” As Carter designed it, City Hall had a drive-through window so citizens could pay their tax bills without leaving the comfort of their cars.

By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter


“Things have just gone crazy,” said Gene Carter. “I get to thinking about it and I get so mad, the way things are, I want to scream. Then I go out and cut grass and try to forget it.”

Remember Gene Carter, former mayor of Trenton? The Sentinel caught up with him at his Case Circle home in August in connection with a story on high gasoline prices. Not having seen him in a couple of decades, and never one to miss an opportunity to multitask, the Sentinel also asked Carter for an interview about his two stints as Trenton’s mayor.

“Oh, I’ve been mayor more than twice,” said Carter. 

So though he hadn’t planned to discuss anything but per-gallon prices, Carter consented to talk a little about the Old Days, if only in the interest of accuracy. Here is what he said:

“When I went in, we had one city policeman and that was it,” said Carter. “I started out in 1972, October of 1972. You had city recorder, which is the same thing as city clerk now. The city recorder did everything as far as city administration and also served as traffic court judge.”

The Trenton city recorder in 1972 was Charlie Gray, who stepped down that fall 41 years ago to run for county probate judge. Carter was appointed to serve out the remaining three months of his term, with the city election to be held in December. Carter ran successfully in that election to keep the recorder job.

For reasons he can no longer remember. “Trenton wasn’t as big as it is now, but still, it was a lot of work,” he said. “The tax digest, you had to go in there and manually type every single property tax. You didn’t have computers back then.”

So Carter would go in at 3:30 or 4 p.m., after he got home from his regular workday, and pound out tax bills until midnight. In addition, there were the traffic court duties. For all that, he made: $200 a month. It was just as well he’d kept the day job. 

That was at the old Scholz Tannery in Chattanooga, a division of the Brown Shoe Company. Carter had started in the plant as his first job and worked his way up, and for the rest of his working life he never really left the industry. The tannery itself closed down in 1985, said Carter, but: “We moved across the street off Broad Street, opened up a big warehouse, and we started importing all our leather from Argentina.”

Carter worked that end of shoe biz for another decade, until the company president closed the place down to retire. Carter retired at that point, too, but three years later allowed a friend who owned a saddlery to persuade him back into action. Together, they ran Sho-Tan Leather, another leather import business, until Carter retired for good.

But back to 1972, when City Recorder Carter was typing out tax bills, not exactly awed by the grandeur of his surroundings. “If you went in City Hall back when I first went in, that first night, it would blow your mind,” he said. “It looked like a big old garage but it said ‘Trenton City Hall’ on front.”

It was a concrete block building, he said, dinky in size but somehow the water company and fire department were also squeezed in. There was paneling on the walls, with maps over every inch of paneling.  

 “The phone sat on the floor,” said Carter. “Their files were boxes stacked on top of each other. The desk was an old desk that Charlie Gray got from a railroad company or something, that they gave him. The commissioners met at an old kitchen table that was sitting in the middle of the floor, that somebody had donated.”

Carter couldn’t stand it. With the permission of then-Mayor Ronnie Moore, he scrubbed down the walls, bought surplus government office furniture in Atlanta and maneuvered the telephone onto the desk. And that was just the inside.

“The next thing, when I was city judge, we had this guy who was a brick mason,” said Carter. “He got charged with DUI. Part of his fine was to brick City Hall.” 

Carter talked the commission into buying the bricks, and the bricklayer worked off his sentence plying his trade. “After he got the front bricked, why, he volunteered, and he did a lot of the rest of it himself,” said Carter. “It didn’t cost the taxpayers anything as far as labor.”

Carter stayed in the city recorder slot for seven years before deciding he might as well run for mayor. He won without incident. “So from 1979 until heaven only knows when, I served as mayor,” he concluded.

Carter waves the how-many-terms question away with, “Oh, I don’t know,” but actually he does know he went out in December of 1991 and Paul Rollings came in that January of ’92. The confusion arises, he says, because in the beginning the city offices were all set up in two-year terms.  

“Another thing I did somewhere along the line is get the charter,” said Carter. “That’s when we came up with the mayor-commission form of government, and it was four-year terms, alternating, and that’s what we’ve got now.” 

Carter wasn’t sure when that happened, but present-day City Clerk Lucretia Houts said the Charter was adopted in 1987.

Just before he left in 1991, said Carter, he’d lined up funding and had plans drawn for what became a reality under Mayor Rollings: a new city hall. But Rollings omitted one of Carter’s design features – a drive-through window, so Trentonians might perform their city business without leaving the comfort of their cars.   

Carter sat out the ‘91 election, then ran again in ‘95 and won, so 1996 –‘99 was his last stretch as mayor.

So far, anyway. Carter swears he’s over it – “I’ve done my part” – but the Sentinel found him, as we say in Dade County, eat up with opinions about the Trenton city government. “They keep screaming for money but they keep doing so many things that, in my opinion, is the reason they have money problems,” he said.

Such as? asked the Sentinel, and Carter replied that the city government pays too much in family health insurance contributions, for one thing, and then there’s the new civic center for another. “I wouldn’t have supported that,” he said. “The only way Trenton can afford a civic center is for Trenton and Dade County to go in jointly and build a real civic center, not something that looks like that. I’m ashamed of that.”

Carter in general approves of the newer Dade County construction, the Administrative and courts buildings, as money well spent, for something taxpayers can be proud of. The county’s government in general is set up more efficiently than the city’s, he says; and in fact the two might benefit from joining forces as that other Dade County did with its own major city, Miami. “It’s a metropolitan government,” he said. “There’s not a thing in the world wrong with it.”

Melding the Trenton and Dade governments would take leadership, said Carter, but it would work better here than in bigger places. Without someone at the stern capable of making and implementing a plan, though: “It ain’t gonna happen,” he said. “The city employees would probably fight it, because they would lose a lot.” 

Whatever happens on that front, though, Carter thinks the Dade Water Authority should take over the Trenton city sewer. “It needs to become a part of the Water Authority so it can expand, go on out into the county,” said Carter. “That was the original idea.”

But again, Carter insists he’s happy to sit on the sidelines shaking his head sadly; his own multitasking days – full-time in Chattanooga, part-time in Trenton, and Army Reserve for three weeks of camp a year plus any number of weekends – are over. “I loved it,” he said. “I have no regrets. I couldn’t do it now if my life depended on it.”

Anyway, Carter’s got his hands full, and not just with mowing the grass at the oft-renovated 1890 Case homeplace he inhabits. (Carter is a step-relation to the Case Hardware Cases. His mother was Nell Case, married to James Case, who ran the store before his death in the 1960s)

Rather, he finds himself in his 70s learning a new skill: parenthood. Carter started by trying to provide stability in the life of a little boy named Justice and ended by becoming his legal guardian. “That’s what I’ve been doing, is raising a kid, and it’s not easy, I’ll tell you,” said Carter.   

Justice, who turns 7 this month, has just started first grade. Carter has had custody for three years now, raising him from toddlerhood through kindergarten. It’s a full-time job, he’s found, though he’s quick to add Justice is a very good boy. 

“I love every minute of it,” he said.  “He keeps me going.” 



Visitor Comments
Submitted By: Jean Thomure Submitted: 1/6/2014
This is a wonderful history article. However, I disagree with his assessment that city and county governments should merge. The city is separate from the county and should remain so in all aspects of government. He is right that the civic center should be supported by city and county to make it more useful.

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