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Oglethorpe County History
The information on these pages was compiled by the
Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center

County Development Towns/Communities Education Religion
Agriculture Transportation Historic Sites Architecture


Towns & Communities

Arnoldsville Crawford Lexington
Maxeys Smithonia Woodstock/Philomath


~ ARNOLDSVILLE ~

The history of Arnoldsville is closely interwoven with the history of Cherokee Corner. The original settlement was centered at Cherokee Corner;   however, the railroad's arrival shifted the community in the direction of Arnoldsville.

The town's first settlers were wealthy slave owners from Virginia. These settlers arrived in the late 1700s to early 1800s. Families such as the Crowders, Dillards, Strongs, Mosses, Popes, Smiths, Johnsons, and Baldwins made Arnoldsville their home. Many of their original houses still remain.

In 1811, a sawmill, gin, and general store operated in Arnoldsville.

General Burwell Pope
, a plantation owner and member of the General Assembly, helped establish a railroad route through Arnoldsville. Although the station was located on his plantation, it served the whole community.

The earliest schools were founded by wealthy planters for their children's education. One of these schools existed on the Richard Dillard's farm. The Cherokee Corner Academy was another early school, taught by a Presbyterian minister named Reverend Safford.  Safford and his family grew silkworm cocoons -- an operation that continued through the 1840s.  Imported white mulberry trees provided food for the silk worms. The original Cherokee Corner Academy was built in 1883.  A two-story school building containing two classrooms and an auditorium eventually replaced the first academy. This building burned in 1916 and another building was subsequently erected.

Mr. Edwin Shaw owned the town store and placed a post office in the town in 1894. In honor of Mr. Shaw's civic achievement, the town was named Edwin.  In 1896, Mr. N.O. Arnold bought the store and changed the town's name to Arnoldsville. 

As the plantation system began to wane, Mr. Arnold sold 5,000 acres of land to individual farmers. With the sudden availability of land, new people came to Arnoldsville.  As the town began to grow, the new residents improved the schools and established new businesses, such as a gin, saw mill, bank, and a bonded warehouse.

Around 1900, the railroad track was moved from General Pope's plantation to town and a new depot was built. A local legend claims that the first court ever held in the county was under a great oak 2 miles below Arnoldsville. Known as "Courtney's Oak," a windstorm felled the tree in 1913. However, the tree's stump still exists and evidences this historic site.

~ CRAWFORD ~

Crawford, the town with the highest elevation in the county, was established only a few years before the Civil War.  For many years, Crawford was known as the "Lexington Depot" because Oglethorpe County residents would travel there to catch the train.  The first "Lexington Depot" was constructed of wood. The present-day depot is constructed of Lithonia granite. During the first five years of the railroad, teams of horses pulling the trains changed every ten miles. Crawford served as one of the relay stations for these changes.

After the post office was established, the town's name was changed to Crawford in honor of William H. Crawford (1772-1834). A Georgian of high moral and social standing, Crawford was considered to be "the greatest son of Oglethorpe County." He ran unsuccessfully for president of the United States and was greatly admired by the French dictator, Napoleon. Crawford also owned the land that encompassed the town of Crawford.

The William Harris cemetery is located in Crawford (see map 5-4) and identified by a Georgia Historical marker.

Until 1857, only two buildings existed in Crawford besides the depot.  During the Civil War, Crawford served as refuge for Confederate sympathizers and the homeless. Threatened by Sherman's attacks, refugees came to Crawford in boxcars. The town was well stocked with provisions and avoided an invasion by Federal troups.

At the end of the war, there were only three families residing in Crawford: Anderson Little (the depot manager) and his family, Dr. Stanford, and Jack Hubbard, who ran a hotel in town.

Following the war, a Sunday school was established despite the absence of a church. After the success of the Sunday school, a church was constructed near the cemetery. The land was given to the church by Stephen Stokely, a new resident in Crawford. Each of the founding members represented a different denomination, making it difficult to decide on a church affiliation. Finally, the residents decided to establish a Baptist church, since Mr. and Mrs. Little were Baptist and they represented the majority. The first church in Crawford was called Missionary Baptist Church.

During this time, the first schoolhouse was built near a spring. The town soon outgrew this building and Mrs. Willingham donated land for a new school. She stipulated that if the school was ever moved, the land would go back to her estate. The school remained here until 1911, when another school building was constructed.

The Oglethorpe Echo was the county's newspaper and it was established in 1874.

Crawford was incorporated in 1878 with the town limits extending 600 yards from the depot in all directions. The town limits have been extended several times since then. In the first half of the 1900s, the town could boast an oil mill, cotton mill, and a bottling works. A waterworks system was installed in 1922 and Georgia Power installed lights throughout Crawford in February of 1927.

~ LEXINGTON ~

The town of Lexington was established in 1793. When the state legislature created Oglethorpe County, it also selected the county seat's location.  The town's original site was chosen because of its proximity to a settlement of North Carolinians. Because of the lack of good springs, the county seat was moved to its current location, located near approximately twenty springs. The original location lies two miles southeast of Lexington. Thought to have been a small, preexisting village, Lexington was named after the Massachusetts town where the first blood was shed in the Revolutionary War.   Documents indicate that in 1797 John Lumpkin, an early county commissioner, announced the sale of lots close to Lexington's town square. The town was eventually incorporated in 1806.

The first courthouse was constructed of logs and officially began operating on March 23, 1794.   The first commissioners were Matthew Gage, George Phillips, John Gresham, T.W. Cobb, and George Paschal.  During the time of Lexington's creation, the county seat and town planning were based on Virginia county sites. Lexington was arranged in a grid pattern, comprising a central, public square surrounded by rectangular lots. The courthouse was centrally placed in the public square. This original town plan is still evident today. The site of the original courthouse was on the northeast corner of Main and Gilmer Streets, which is across from the current courthouse square.

When the second courthouse was built, the old courthouse was moved one block east and converted into a store. The original courthouse building was demolished in the 1920s. The third and present courthouse was built in 1887. The building cost $30,000 and the clock tower $1,000. It is located where the second courthouse previously existed and rests on a bed of natural granite. All the materials used to construct the courthouse are from Oglethorpe County, except for the caps on the columns that are Oolitic limestone.

The first jail was a two-story building, constructed of double-hewn logs lined with iron sheets and located on Boggs Street. This building was demolished in the 1800s, but not because of its lack of security; no prisoners were ever known to have escaped from the original county jail.

By 1800, Ferdinand Phinizy, an Italian merchant, had acquired a great deal of wealth and land in the Lexington area. He is responsible for opening up the first store in Lexington, which provided residents with goods in exchange for cash, cotton, or tobacco. The town quickly grew and prospered and, in 1810, the population was recorded at two hundred. Lexington was considered a famous trade center and was also known for its educated, cultured, and refined citizens.

In 1810, disaster struck the town of Lexington. A fire, which started in John Rupert's kitchen, burned the doctor's office, two law offices, the tavern and stables, and several dwellings on the south side of the square. When the fire was finally extinguished, seventeen to eighteen buildings were destroyed.

The Meson Academy was established in 1806 as the first privately endowed educational institution in the state of Georgia. The Meson Academy was well known for its educational instruction and its success in preparing students for college. Converted to a public high school in 1917, the academy was abandoned in 1954 and destroyed in 1970.

During the late 1820s, Lexington could boast a courthouse, 38 dwellings, 15 stores, numerous shops, several hotels, male and female academies, a public library, and several churches. Lexington was also located on a stagecoach route. At this time, residents participated in a wide range of occupations, such as large landowners, upper-middle class merchants, tradesmen, lawyers, doctors, politicians, and educators. As one of the largest towns in the area, people traveled from surrounding areas to purchase and acquire goods in Lexington. An unusually large number of noteworthy politicians, judges, and lawyers resided in Lexington. The town was also an arena for many political debates and discussions. Under the trees of Lexington, people would congregate to hear William Harris Crawford, Joseph H. Lumpkin, and Stephen Upson speak.

Lexington was prosperous during the 1830s, but economic conditions declined during the decade of the 1840s.  Although the 1850's witnessed the peak of the plantation system, Lexington was struggling economically. The wealthy planters and citizens shopped in Athens to meet their needs, rather than in Lexington. Lexington's decision to keep the railroad outside town was also damaging to the local economy, since cotton and supplies had to be transported to and from Crawford by wagon. In 1878, the county considered moving the courthouse to Crawford, due to the lack of business opportunities and a railroad line.

To save Lexington from further decline, Hamilton McWhorter and other local businessmen decided to build a new jail in Lexington. With the new jail's construction, taxpayers would be less likely to move the county seat to Crawford.  In 1887, the railroad spur connecting Lexington with Crawford was completed.

At this time, the town took on a new life. Many changes occurred; brick buildings replaced wood buildings, residential construction increased, and local business prospered. O.H. Arnold and William Steward organized the first small bank in Lexington. The bank opened on December 21, 1892 and the Oglethorpe Echo made the first deposit amounting to ten dollars.

Lexington's economy was further stimulated by World War I which caused a real estate boom in the form of farmland sales. There was suddenly a tremendous demand for residential space that eventually caused large town lots and properties to be subdivided. In 1932, the highway running along Church and Dupree Streets changed to follow Main Street and Old Washington Road. These changes included widening and paving the road from Lexington to Athens.

Lexington's lack of growth in later years benefited the town's historic resources. Because there was little pressure to develop, Lexington retained the original town plan and many of its historic buildings. Although Lexington still evidences its 18th-19th century history, the population and business community has significantly decreased; thus leading to the abandonment and deterioration of several buildings. Recently, Lexington has experienced a slight resurgence. The growth of Athens, a renewed interest in small-town living, and the growing popularity for historic buildings have resulted in an increase in Lexington's population.

~ MAXEYS ~

The town of Maxeys is located in the southern portion of the county and 12 miles from Lexington. The town was originally called Shanty and named Salmonville in 1834. Maxeys was eventually named after Jesse Maxey who was a large land and slave owner. Jesse Maxey owned the land that encompassed the original town.

Some of the early settlers were: the Taylors, Baileys, Philips, Bouchelles, Bells, Gillens, and Jacks. Several of their homes still stand and continue to be owned by the original families.

Maxeys was the shipping point for Thomas Poullain's Scull Shoals cotton mill in Greene County.  Like Crawford, Maxeys also served as a relay station for the horse drawn trains. During the years before the Civil War, slave auctions would take place near the Tom Fleming Home.   Confederate soldiers had a drill ground in Maxeys during the war. One of the first commercial fertilizer plants in Georgia was established in 1847 by William B. Brightwell.

Before the organization of a school, children used to walk miles to the "Center Meeting House." Maxey's first school was located one mile west of town, so the children would not be hurt by the passing trains. A second school was built in 1876 closer to the railroad depot.

Two miles east of the town is the largest scuppernong arbor in the state.

~ PHILOMATH ~

Philomath, located in the southeastern part of the county, was settled by Virginians and North Carolinians. Early settlers included the Daniels, Glenns, Milners, and Robinsons.   Philomath was originally named Woodstock. The town acquired the name by an early settler, who had just read one of Sir Walter Scott's novels. 

In the early years of the settlement, the closest post office was at States Rights, a stagecoach stop on the Atlanta-Augusta route. Citizens traveled four miles on horseback to get news from the other states. When the post office was finally established in town, there was much confusion because another town in Georgia was named Woodstock.  

Before the Civil War, community suppers were very popular events. Held in the upper story of the town store, the ladies competed to see who served the 'prettiest dish.'   Woodstock was famous for the John W. Reed Academy, which was a male boarding school. A great deal of activity centered around this academy. Students lived in small cottages located in the back yards of the settlers. The young men ate their meals with these families. Alexander H. Stephens, a frequent visitor to the school, suggested the village be called Philomath -- meaning "love of learning."

Although the post office was then called Philomath, people still referred to the village as Woodstock. People traveled from all over to attend Commencement Week at the academy where they heard band music and speeches by Alexander H. Stephens, Ben Irwin, and Robert Toombs. The large two-story academy building was eventually torn down and replaced by a one-story building that was used as a community school until Oglethorpe County schools were consolidated.

The famous SSS Tonic was invented by a Philomath native, Mr. Rankin.  President Woodrow Wilson was a frequent visitor to Philomath as a child.  His father was often a guest preacher in Philomath and the family would stay at the Globe.  In later years, President Wilson and his mother would spend vacations there.

~ SMITHONIA ~

James Monroe Smith, born in Wilkes County on September 18, 1839, established the town of Smithonia. After serving in the Confederate Army, Smith made money as a peddler. In 1866, he had enough money to buy several acres of land in Oglethorpe County. This purchase represented the beginning of Smithonia, an estate which grew to be over 20,000 acres.

The area was originally called Pleasant Hill, renamed Smithton by Smith after he purchased the land, and later called Smithdom. The more melodic and flowing name of Smithonia was eventually chosen for the town's name.

Through the convict lease program, cheap labor was readily available to Smith, who soon became the richest man in the county. It is documented that Smith cultivated 2,000 bales of cotton a year. On his plantation, Smith operated a cottonseed mill, fertilizer factory, saw mill, gin, and an oil refinery.

Smith built the town around his plantation. Smithonia contained Smith's own personal and business activities. It was built entirely on the property he owned. Smithonia's only residents were Colonel Smith's workmen or people he invited to live there.  At the height of Smithonia's development, there were 1,000 residents and a large concentration of barns, warehouses, and factories. Colonel Smith's plantation home included many luxuries found nowhere else in the county, such as steam-heat radiators, running water, and gas lights.

In 1876, Colonel Smith was elected to the General Assembly from Oglethorpe County and served until 1881. He represented Oglethorpe County in the Senate and also ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1906.

Smithonia achieved a watermark in the year 1889.  Once the post office was erected, the town experienced a boom.  Stores, residences, and a hotel were constructed. News reports from Atlanta said that Smithonia was "the most active business place in Oglethorpe County."

In order to provide for the town's continued growth, the town needed a railway to transport goods and passengers.  Late in 1889, Colonel Smith completed the Georgia Railroad line from Winterville to Smithonia and quickly began expanding the line. Eventually, Smithonia was connected to two major railroads and the Colonel continued to invest in other railway systems in order to make Smithonia a business and agricultural center.

Colonel James Monroe Smith died in 1915 and his estate was subsequently liquidated. His niece, Francis Smith Shehane of Crawford, inherited most of his million-dollar estate. At one time, Smith had one of the largest farms in Georgia. Today, Smith's millions have vanished. His $10,000 mausoleum in the Oconee Hill Cemetery and the buildings at Smithonia are all that remain of Colonel Smith's empire. Entertainer Kenny Rogers currently lives on Colonel Smith's former land holdings.

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