Habersham County History
INTERESTING BITS OF HABERSHAM COUNTY
SKETCH OF CORNELIA'S PIONEER DAYS AND ITS STEADY GROWTH
by: Byron Bean - Piedmont College Student
At the close of the Civil War in 1865, the section where now is located the beautiful and thriving little city of Cornelia, was a typical mountain forest. There was no residences close about the present business center of the town; for it is stated on good authority that the spot was so well secluded that a "moonshiner" located the Southern Railway Company's pumping station. But about the year 1872, the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line Railroad was graded through this section and the owner of that "moonshine" still remarked that he believed that the contractors would cover up his still if he did not move it away. Progress won out and the still was moved.
In 1873 the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line Railroad began operating trains over its line and for nine more years the sound of the locomotive's whistle echoed over the forest-clad hills which today constitute the site of Cornelia. In 1881 the Richmond and Danville Railroad Company leased and took over the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line Railroad, and the entire line was operated between Atlanta and Washington under the name of the Richmond and Danville Railroad until the banking house of J. P. Morgan and Company came upon the scene and reorganized and welded together a large number of short lines in the south, and thus created the present Southern Railway System.
In 1882 the Blue Ridge and Atlantic Railway Company opened up its line extending from a point on the Richmond and Danville northeastward toward that break in the mountains famous in history as Rabun Gap. The point of contract of the Blue Ridge and Atlantic Railway with the Richmond and Danville Railroad was called Rabun Gap Junction, which is the present site of Cornelia, and the railroads are now the Southern and Tallulah Falls. From the day the Blue Ridge and Atlantic Railroad began operations, there were signs of building activities in and around Rabun Gap Junction. Thomas Capps and Thomas Payne established the first business house of any importance in the struggling village. It grew and prospered until the year 1884, when Peter King and I. T. Sellers bought the business and operated it for more than twenty years as King & Sellars, this strong firm later selling out to L. Y. Irvin, who is today operating the business as the largest department store in this section of the state.
For several years after Rabun Gap Junction came into existence the Richmond and Danville Railroad had no depot facilities at this point. The citizens of the town finally enlisted the aid of Judge Pope Barrow, who was an attorney for the railroad, and he secured for the town a depot. In appreciation of his efforts it was decided to change the name of the town from Rabun Gap Junction to Cornelia in honor of Mrs. Cornelia Barrow, the wife of Judge Barrow.
Among the men prominent in the early history of the town were Thos. Kimsey, Perry Blackburn, J. A. Walker, J. L. Maxwell, I. T. Sellars, J. M. Biggers, Peter King, Henry L. Smith, B. W. Grant, Sr., and C. H. Sellars. A number of small businesses began to spring up about the junction and there was steady growth but no boom. In the early nineties, Henry L. Smith conceived the idea of encouraging the growth of the town, and, having come into possession of a large tract of land on the south side of the railroad, he sub-divided a large portion of it and deeded "every other lot" to the railroad company in order to secure the help and influence of the railroad officials in stimulating the growth of the town. Mr. Smith also donated to the town the tract, or site, on which is now located the present school building and auditorium.
About the year 1903 a disastrous fire occurred in the block now known as the Stovall Block and practically cleaned out all frame structures. Martin and Oakes came upon the scene and purchased the lots made vacant by the fire, and in 1904 erected the (?) gentlemen finally disposed of their interests to Mr. W. I. Stovall, who continued to develop this block until it is by many odds the largest individual holding in the town. In fact, it is stated on every side that Mr. Stovall has contributed more to the development and growth of the town than any other individual.
In 1939 the First National Bank was organized and opened for business with a paid in capital of $30,000 by C. J. Hood, C. W. Grant, G. B. Irvin, P. Y. Duckett and others. About the years 1910-12, bonds were issued and a system of waterworks and sewerage was installed. Business has increased in the town until there are at present two banks, two wholesale house, two modern hotels, and about fifty other business houses and places. The population of the town has grown from nothing in 1873 to about 2,000 souls in 1927.
The hotel interests of the town have contributed a large share to the growth and development of Cornelia. The first hotel in the town was operated by Oliver Wyley and stood on the present site of the Jackson Hotel. Soon after the opening of this hotel, B. W. Grant, Sr., came to Cornelia and opened the Grant Hotel on the site of the present Stovall Hotel. He operated this hotel most successfully until the Wyley Hotel burned, when he purchased the lot made vacant by the fire and build a large, modern hotel and ran it for a number of years as the Grant Hotel and made it famous by advertising it as serving chicken pie 365 days of the year. Mr. Grant made this hotel one of the most popular between Atlanta and Charlotte. He enjoyed an overflow patronage, and he and his most estimable wife broke themselves down in their efforts to take care of the traveling public that called on them continuously; and about the year 1912 he sold out to Mr. Jos. W. Jackson, who operated the place as the Commercial Hotel until the disastrous fire of 1925, when he rebuilt on a larger scale than ever, and it has since been operated under the name of the Jackson Hotel. About the year 1912, the Stovall Hotel was erected on the site of the first Grant Hotel and has been operated very successfully.
The town of Cornelia was incorporated by an act of the legislature October 22, 1887, and the commission-form of government was provided for. Jas. H. Biggers, C. H. Sellars, J. C. Edwards, L. W. Grant, Sr., and I. T. Sellars were named in the act as the first commissioners. This form of government remained for about four years, when it was changed to a form which provided for a mayor and councilmen. Under the last act, Major Scott was the first mayor of the town. All the administrations of the city's affairs have been progressive and its strides have been notable.
In fact, the town has been built by progressives in its government and it will continue to make progress so long as it selects its best man to handle its public affairs. Among those who have served the town in the capacity of mayor are: Major Scott, C. W. Grant, J. L. Perkins, J. W. Peyton, Wm. Eberhart, Dr. Shirley, W. B. Ellard, L. Y. Irvin, C. R. Brown, and W. E. Fort. There are a score or more of able men who have served on the city council and who have contributed their share to the growth and development of the town. And the Board of Education has had the best brains of the city to direct its affairs and it has earned its honors.
A great stimulus to the growth and development of Cornelia has been its good schools. The first school of any importance was taught in a frame building in the block and on the site of the present homes of Ope Ellard and S. M. Benton. Prof. C. W. Grant taught in this building in the early nineties and also served one term as mayor of the town while teaching. It was through the untiring efforts of Mr. Grant that the foundation was laid for the magnificent school system Cornelia now has. About the year 1897 the attendance had outgrown the facilities of this frame building and the present commodious school building was erected. Prof. Grant was offered the principalship of the school again, but he declined the offer and Prof. A. E. Booth was elected and served as present or principal of the school for about five years. In addition to the regular literary course, Prof. Booth added a training course for teachers, and students were attracted to this school from all sections of northeast Georgia.
Among the outstanding teachers who have served the Cornelia Schools are: C. W. Grant, J. H. Ayers, A. E. Booth, W. C. Marion, Prof. Powell, and N. V. Dyer, the present superintendant. The buildings have been enlarged until approximately 500 pupils can be accommodated, and the school has the largest and best equipped auditorium in northeast Georgia.
And while the town has been busy building a magnificent school system, the moral and religious welfare of the people has not been neglected. Before there were any church buildings the various denominations held their services in the old frame school building. About the year 1896 the Methodists built a church and rendered its use to the Baptist church organization. The Baptist worshipped in the Methodist building until about 1898 when, under the leadership of Prof. A. E. Booth, their pastor, they erected their own church building which served them until about 1914, when the sold the building to the city and moved into their present commodious home of worship. The first Methodist church as later moved to its present site. Among the early Baptist ministers serving the Baptist church were Rev. Norton, Rev. Goode, Prof. J. T. Wise, and Rev. J. H. Ayers. The Presbyterian church was erected about the year 1908.
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