Copyright by Robert Willingham
"How beautiful home does look, with the green leaves on the trees and the Cherokee roses in full bloom, flinging their white festoons clear over the top of the big sycamore by the gate! Surely this old home of ours is the choicest spot of all the world." So wrote Eliza Frances Andrews in her journal entry for Friday, 21 April 1865, as she returned to her hometown of Washington, Georgia. We Washingtonians still share her sentiments.
Although today the city of Washington and county of Wilkes can boast only about 11,000 residents, it is the place of home-coming to countless thousands more.
Originally comprising a vast fertile stretch of Piedmont countryside ceded from the Creek and Cherokee Indians in 1773, Wilkes County was truly that first land of opportunity for pioneers who would later journey further westward to fill the state with their independent attitudes and sturdy determination.
The area that is now Wilkes County, bordered on the north by the Salwegee (now Broad) River and on the south by Little River was chiefly used by the Native Americans as a hunting preserve. Also the major trading route to the chief Cherokee town of Tugalo extended directly through this section. Numerous Indian artifacts such as arrowheads, pottery, and weaponry have been uncovered in Wilkes County over the years.
As early as the 1750s white settlers and even some free blacks had begun migrating into the area well before the British crown arranged for the purchase of the land from its Native American caretakers. When the boundary survey team came through in 1773, among the group was the naturalist William Bartram whose "Travels in Georgia and Florida" is a classic of American natural history. Bartram lavishly describes the Wilkes landscape:
crossing which we entered an extensive fertile plain,
bordering on the river, and shaded by trees of vast
growth, which at once spoke its fertility. Continuing
some time through these shady groves, the scene opens
and discloses to view the most magnificent forest I had
ever seen .... The ground is perfectly a level green
plain, thinly planted by nature with the most stately
forest trees, whose mighty trunks, seemingly of an equal
height, appeared like superb columns. To keep within
the bounds of truth and reality, in describing the
magnitude and grandeur of these trees, would, I fear,
fail of credibility.
Into this seeming Eden--and it was marketed so to prospective settlers--came those seeking economic opportunities, fresh lands, and deeply desired freedom. Most came from the Carolinas, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, from along what would become known as the "Valley Road"--the way westward. Ironically, this is virtually the same route Jefferson Davis and his entourage of Confederates would take on their flight south from Richmond at the close of the War Between the States.
Wilkes County's earliest white settlers were a relatively homogeneous group with English or Scotch-Irish ancestry who made their homes along the numerous creeks that criss-crossed the county or along the Broad or Little Rivers. Early in January 1774, a band of Creek Indians attacked a small fort built on Little River by David and William Sherrill. Seven settlers were massacred. Several other depredations occurred closely afterward and it was not until October of that year that a treaty of amity was signed.
It was a raucous era with no government, no towns, and little communication in this Wilderness.
Strong undercurrents of independence were stirring and Wilkes County, formed officially by state decree on 5 February 1777, was a hotbed of revolutionary sentiment. These hardy backwoodsmen rarely shied away from a fight and they were eager for this fray. The War brought substantial dislocation to the settlers already in Wilkes and the vast number of men joined up. Led by Elijah Clarke, John Dooly and others, Wilkes County soldiers fought all over the Southern theatre of operations, from Cowpens and Camden to the sieges of Augusta. British-led loyalist activity was particularly heavy in the back country of Georgia and violence was commonplace sometimes within communities and even families.
On 14 February 1779, an American force of about 400 men under the command of Colonel Andrew Pickens with Clarke and Dooly accompanying attacked an encamped group of 700 Tories led by British Colonel Boyd at Kettle Creek in south Wilkes County. The utter surprise gave the Americans a huge advantage which allowed them to rout the invaders inflicting heavy casualties. The Battle of Kettle Creek proved an important and significant advance for the American cause. It protected the settlers of the upcountry from the continued ravages of militant Tory bands and led to an increased amount of pride and patriotism. From an economic standpoint it enabled the Americans to secure almost 600 horses and a large quantity of arms and supplies necessary for the continental storehouses. The victory at Kettle Creek also firmly prevented the British from wholly occupying the State of Georgia.
This proved to be even more significant the following year when the British threat to Augusta forced the Georgia State Capitol to be removed to Heard's Fort on Fishing Creek in Wilkes County. Governor Richard Howley had left office to take a seat in the Continental Congress. President of Council George Wells was killed in a duel and on 18 February 1780, the reins of government fell into the hands of Wilkes Countian Stephen Heard. It was Heard and others of this county who kept the state operating in its direst hour.
Only a month before, the state legislature had authorized a board of commissioners appointed to oversee the "Town at the Court house in Wilkes County which shall be called Washington." This act officially chartered the settlement which had previously been known as Fort Heard and Fort Washington. Little progress on the town would be made, however, until hostilities had ceased and peace had been made.
On 31 July 1783, Washington was re-chartered by the legislature with its governing body composed of Stephen Beard, Micajah Williamson, Robert Harper, Daniel Coleman, and Zachariah Lamar. As originally laid out, the town consisted of 48 lots and Broad Street (now Robert Toombs Avenue), Market Street (now Court Street), and Middle Street (now Spring Street). Other streets were unnamed but included the present Liberty, Allison, Pope, and Jefferson Streets and Alexander Avenue. The east and west limits of town (Alexander and Pope) were "beautified" by plantings of China trees. The town was designed in a grid pattern with a central plot reserved for a public square all surrounded by a town common. This plan remains intact and the primary historic districts of the city are part of this pattern. The streets of the old town are narrow and tree-lined with homes generally close to the street. The court had moved from McLendon's on Fishing Creek to Washington for the April term in 1780 and met initially at Micajah Williamson's tavern. By 1786, a log court house had been erected.
Wilkes County after the Revolution was a popular area of settlement as the land was inexpensive and of good quality. The population increased rapidly and, although pioneers still came from the Carolinas as did most of the earlier settlers, a much larger percentage were now progressing southward from Virginia. Many of these Virginians established themselves in a closely knit settlement along Broad River and also in Washington itself.
Wilkes was Georgia's first "mother of counties" as Elbert, Lincoln, Greene, Oglethorpe, Warren, and Taliaferro were all cut from the original bounds of Wilkes County.
The 1790 census for Georgia recorded only 82,548 persons in the state, but of that number 31,268 were resident in Wilkes County. Due to these numbers and the powerful personalities the county produced, Washington and Wilkes was a major force in the political development of Georgia and the South. Of Georgia's antebellum governors, ten were from Wilkes.
The 1790s also saw the town of Washington becoming a more cosmopolitan place in the backwoods of Georgia. Uprisings on the West Indian island of Santo Domingo had displaced many of its French settlers and a surprisingly large number of them found their way from Charleston upcountry to Washington. Foremost among them was Louis Prudhomme whose slave market on West Square was a notable site for over a decade. At one point in the early 1800s there were so many French-speaking residents that the local newspaper considered a bilingual edition.
In its earliest years there was little concern for either religion or education among the county's settlers, but once the Revolutionary War ended both Methodists and Baptists began to gain converts in large numbers. Through the influence of traveling preachers such as Francis Asbury, the Methodists made strong spiritual inroads among the transplanted Virginians and Grant's Meeting House not far from Washington became the "mother church" for Georgia's Methodists. Even more Baptists were scattered around the county. And it was in Washington in 1790 under a large poplar tree that the Rev. John Springer became the first Presbyterian minister ordained in Georgia.
Washington's first educational institution was a modest school for small children in 1784, but three years later the town was described as having "a good Latin and grammar school." In 1788, Rev. Springer began an academy at Walnut Hill four miles north of Washington which developed into a well-respected institution. By the early 1790s, the Wilkes County Academy had been established, first on Liberty Street and shortly afterward moved to the west extent of town. Sale of lands from the town common benefited the academy as did a lottery specifically designated for educational purposes.
An event that occurred in 1793 profoundly influenced the development of Washington and Wilkes County. In that year Eli Whitney received a patent for his cotton gin. Whitney had spent some time perfecting his gin and tutoring children a few miles east of Washington at John Talbot's plantation, Mount Pleasant. The acreage of Wilkes County which had seen fields of tobacco so like the lands from which the pioneers had come would soon be transformed into clay hills covered with row after row of cotton plants. Forest land was denuded to provide the open spaces needed for the money crop. The strong movement of the 1790s to abandon slavery was quickly forgotten as the need for manpower to operate cotton plantations began to far outweigh social consciousness. It became a simple matter of economics. Slave labor was considered a necessity. The black-white ratio in Wilkes County was transformed between 1790 and 1810 from over 76% white to approximately 50-50.
With increased economic opportunities and a less transient population, Wilkes County gradually was gaining in society and sophistication. The words penned in 1787 by New Englander Sarah Porter Hillhouse who had come to Washington with her husband, "It's a good place for business and unless some misfortunes happen to Mr. Hillhouse, he will make money here, but...all the State of Georgia would be no inducement to me to bring my dear little lambs in this flock of wolves, as I may properly call many of the inhabitants of this State!" were now being revised even by Sarah herself. She had been thrust into the rude frontier from a more genteel New England. But as she toughened this "frontier" settlement gained a more civilized. appearance as well. After the death of her husband in March of 1803, she assumed management of the town's newspaper, the Monitor, and by 1805 had contracted with the Georgia legislature to do some state printing also.
Washington continued to be a political center, not just for Wilkes County but for Georgia. Factional arguing between John Clark and William H. Crawford and their followers sowed the seeds for two party politics in the state, even leading to duels and death.
A sensational murder trial also captivated the population in 1806. The previous autumn Polly Barclay's husband had been murdered in Wilkes County. The beautiful widow was then charged as conspirator in the crime, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged. On Friday the 13th of May, 1806, she was placed on a gallows just west of downtown Washington where she gave her life, the first white woman hanged in Georgia.
As Washington grew so too did much of the housing for the community. It must be remembered that the town was a thriving bustling place well before Eli Whitney had perfected his gin. Its landscape was dotted with clapboard dwellings long in advance of the planters' penchant for towering colonnades. Its charm and its distinction come from the fact that it remarkably documents architecturally the growth of a Southern community from Federal beginnings through planter era affluence, from Victorian ebullience through beaux arts classical revival.
Positioned on the main road westward, Washington was in a significant spot in relation to Augusta and a growing Athens which now held the state university. Washington had been strongly considered for that institution before Athens was selected and later seemed a likely spot for Mercer University before it became situated at Penfield. Washington was home to Mrs. Dugas' Select School for Girls in the early 1800s, a fine school run by French immigrants whose family also helped establish The Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. The Female Seminary, begun by New Englanders in the 1830s, thrived until the public school system was developed in the mid-1890s, as did the Washington Male Academy which at various times even offered military instruction.
Although bypassed by the Georgia Railroad when its route was laid in the 1830s and 1840s, Wilkes County did manage a spur line to be built from Barnett to Washington in 1853. Washington's "town fathers" had discouraged the railroad for a number of years as being unnecessary, dirty, and "faddish." The irony of this is that Washingtonian William Dearing is considered the founder of the Georgia Railroad. In the early years of this century, though, Wilkes County did catch railroad fever as lines of the Elberton and Eastern Railroad and Washington and Lincolnton Railroad operated successfully for several years before the popularity of the automobile made such lines obsolete.
In antebellum days Washington was renowned for its hospitality and sociability. As early as 1811 a library society was organized and by 1815 a local theatre was thriving. Dances and musicals were frequent entertainments. It was often commented upon that Washington society was every bit as refined as that in Charleston or Baltimore. Senator Robert, Toombs, Washington's noted native son, remarked that the town needed no hotel for any "gentleman" could stay at his gracious home. This offer notwithstanding, Washington did possess several hotels in the years before the War Between the States, notable among them being the Planters Hotel and, the Arnold House. Fraternal orders were popular and, well-attended. The Washington Jockey Club had a race track in the southern end of town. Taverns and inns, as well, dotted the scape of the town.
One thing missing from the town until 1819, however, was a church.. It was in that year, almost forty years after Washington's founding, that a denominational house of worship was erected. The Methodists built that first church near the site of the present Masonic Lodge. The Presbyterians were next in 1825 and that structure is still in use by the denomination. On 29 December 1827, the Washington Baptist Church was organized as an arm of Phillips Mill Church. St. Patrick's Catholic Church was built in 1841 adjacent to the present Catholic Cemetery on North Alexander Avenue. This church saw rapid growth during the railroad era with a substantial influx of Irish immigrants who made their mark on Washington. The settlement of "Dublin" near the depot was home to many of them. After the War Between the States St. Joseph's Orphanage was begun through the Savannah Diocese at the old Mercer estate on Academy Hill. It remained into the 1960s. Episcopal services were first held at Judge Garnett Andrews' home in the 1850s, but it was 1879 before a church was erected. This church burned down in the devastating fire in 1895 that destroyed much of downtown Washington.
Many significant ministers have served Washington over the years. Among the Baptists, the Rev. Jesse Mercer whose hymnal and powerful preaching influenced so many, and the Rev. Henry Allen Tupper, Confederate chaplain and leader in the Baptist foreign mission movement, are still revered today. Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Francis Robert Goulding was not only the author of the children's classic, The Young Marooners, but also invented an early sewing machine. Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, father of President Woodrow Wilson, and Rev. J. K. S. Axson, President Wilson's father-in-law, both served the Washington Presbyterian Church. Bishop John Wesley Gaines, a Wilkes County native, rose to the leadership of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. The Rev. E. M. Bounds, Methodist minister, author, and leader of the holiness movement, spent his productive years of retirement at the home of his father-in-law, Samuel Barnett, now the Washington-Wilkes Historical Museum.
Perhaps Washington 's most famous resident and certainly one of its most outspoken was Robert Toombs. Lawyer, politician, Confederate Secretary of State and General, Toombs captured the attention of a nation with his bold speeches defending the institutions of slavery and state rights. Just as Toombs had been a thorn in the side of the national administration so too was he a gadfly nipping at the policies of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Called Georgia's "unreconstructed rebel" for refusing to accept the oath of allegiance to the United States following the War, Toombs maintained strong differences with Davis over political and military decisions.
Washington and Wilkes County was staunch Confederate territory. Local young men enthusiastically joined up filling the Irvin Artillery, Hill's Wilkes Guards, the Delhi Rangers, the Pettus Volunteers, and other units fighting valiantly on the fields of Virginia, Gettysburg, Tennessee, and on home turf in Georgia. Washington was spared the horror of battle on its own soil but few families were left untouched by the sadness and apprehension that the War brought.
In May 1865, as Jefferson Davis and other members of the Confederate Government were fleeing southward, they stopped in Washington for both rest and reconnoitering. Davis, assuredly one of Washington's more distinguished guests, spent the night at J. J. Robertson's apartment in the Bank of the State of Georgia at the north end of the public square. It was in Washington that figuratively the Confederacy died. Here the last acts of the government were signed. Here the Confederate Treasury doled out its funds. And here the artist Frank Vizetelly sketched the poignant scene as Davis, hat-in-hand, bid farewell to the officers of his guard on the Washington square. Confederate Treasurer Micajah Clark confided that although here was "where the bitter end was known to be reached, the welcome, though fearful, was full of love, warmth, and tenderness."
Almost as dramatic were the events occurring shortly thereafter as Union troops occupied the town. Having seized a large quantity of gold and monies from the Confederate Treasury and various Virginia banks, Federal forces placed the treasure under guard in Washington preparatory to its move back northward. The old vault where it was stored can still be seen beneath Scarborough's on the Square. After the entourage left Washington, the troops headed through Danburg toward the Savannah River crossing. At their encampment at Dionysius Chennault's plantation, the Federals were attacked by a group of recently discharged Confederates, local and renegades who successfully made off with large sums of what has become known as the "lost Confederate gold." Little of the treasure was ever reclaimed, and despite threats and tortures, no perpetrators were brought to trial.
Perhaps because of this incident and the fact that Toombs called Washington home, the local area suffered oppressively under Reconstruction. Federal army units remained in Washington on and off for nearly seven years following the close of War.
Many of the newly freed blacks now bought property and built homes on land made available by Nicholas Wylie out the Greensboro Road. This section, originally called Wylieville, became known as Freedomtown, Brazil, Freedman, and more recently, Whitehall. The Jackson Chapel A. M. E. Church, erected in 1867, stands virtually unchanged today, a visible reminder of the deep sense of faith and community held by these who had just come forth from bonds of slavery. Another area black settlement was in the southeastern part of town and became known as Baltimore, honoring the efforts of the Baltimore, Maryland Relief Organization which gave support to the newly emancipated.
With War ended and slaves freed, changes--economic, social, and political--were rampart. A black man, Edwin Belcher, represented Wilkes County in the State Senate. One of two state representatives was also black. Lewis Pope. Former Confederate military officers, public office holders, and many soldiers remained disenfranchised . But in virtually all quarters,, the desire for progress was strong. Henry Grady's message for a "New South" was heard louder in Wilkes County than the fear and intimidation of the Ku Klux Klan. There was, however, little concession to race relations and it would he a century after Reconstruction before integration would be achieved.
David G. Cotting, Georgia's Republican Secretary of State during the Reconstruction Period, was a Washingtonian. Originally from Vermont, he had come to Washington in the 1840s as a newspaperman and lived in the present Carlton Norris home. Because of Cotting's connections, Washington perhaps gained some advantages over many other towns during this transitional time.
With the economy moving from slave labor to farm tenancy, most large cotton operations saw little change. There were now many more small farms and businesses, however. Wilkes County's political influence waned and Washington became somewhat indistinguishable from many other Southern towns off the beaten track. Its treasure trove of architecture, though, would continue to set it apart along with strong civic-mindedness, particularly among its women.
Seeds for the preservation movement were early set in place when efforts for a new court house in 1903, caused the demolition of the old 1817 federal brick court house and the 1824 Bank of the State of Georgia building where Jefferson Davis had held the Confederate's last cabinet meeting. Although unsuccessful in saving these structures, the furor aroused awareness of Wilkes County's special historic heritage and caused the leading women of the community to form the Civic League, a betterment organization, which has become today's Washington Woman's Club.
One of Wilkes County's almost literally larger than life characters was big Sheriff John Callaway. His reputation came, however, not from his abilities as a lawman, but because of his prowess as the foremost barbecue cook in the South. The good sheriff traveled as far as New York and Chicago to show our Northern neighbors the true delicacies of Southern cooking. This tradition was passed on to Charlie Garrard, Joe Hester, and now Randall Denard as Wilkes County barbecue and hash (Sheriff Callaway disdained the term Brunswick stew!) is still the epitome of Southern cuisine.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a time of much civic boosterism. The East Wilkes Club, founded in 1884, encouraged agricultural pursuits and resurrected the annual fall county fair which brought city dweller and farmer together to celebrate. In 1888, Dr. Francis T. Willis donated funds for a magnificent library building for the community. The Mary Willis Library became the first free public library in Georgia. A volunteer fire department, the E. Y. Hill Company, comprised entirely of black firefighters, had been established in 1887 and won state awards for excellence. City electric and water plants were begun as was telephone service and even a "rapid transit" line (street cars pulled by mules) which ran from the depot to the town's two elegant new hotels, the Fitzpatrick and the Johnson. Sports, too, was captivating the interest of the masses with baseball reigning as King. In 1920, Washington has its own team in the Northeast Georgia League, called the "Million Dollar League" because of the money poured out to build the franchises.
But it was the automobile that created the most change. With the proliferation or vehicles came the need for better roads and with that came concerted efforts of cooperation among the business persons of the community. Automobile parades went from town to town drumming up support. For this primary reason a Chamber of Commerce was formed about 1912. The need for crop diversification, too, became a rallying cry in the wake of boll weevil threats to the cotton economy. The slogan, "The cow, the hog, the hen — a little cotton now and then," became a guideline for agribusiness in the area. Lumber operations at nearby Lovelace on the Washington and Lincolnton Railroad were the precursor to Wilkes County's current thriving timber business.
Through community involvement a local hospital became a reality shortly after World War I and in the depths of the Depression the city was able to attract Royal Manufacturing Company to locate here, the first successful, sewing plant after several failed attempts of a generation before. As the century advanced so has further industrial diversification. Industry today is present and successful but unobtrusive. The economy is varied, no longer one crop or one product. From fiberglass and dyes to timber and plastics, industrial plants make a strong presence. Agriculture, too, shares a dominant role in the area's economy with dairying, hog farming, and cattle ranching. Tourism also has its place in a quiet, sedate manner befitting the natural charm of the locale.
In antebellum days Washington was in many respects the center of upcountry Georgia culture and gracious living. Such an ambiance still remains. Progressive yet preservation-minded, relaxed yet realistic, Washington blends past, present, and future. Its historical. setting is not one of contrivance but actuality. Washington is not merely a museum of Southern architecture and reminiscences, but a living, growing community that cherishes its heritage and is proud of its people and accomplishments.
Southern Hospitality lives in Wilkes County, Georgia.