Haralson County as seen through local historic masterpieces

Haralson County
as seen through
local historic masterpieces

On permanent exhibit on the second story of the restored Historic Courthouse in Buchanan are reproductions of two pictorial works executed in Haralson County during its construction over 1891-2. Immediately below, we show limited-detail versions of these two artworks, following which we publish the text of the plaque which describes how they reflect the history of Haralson County.


The American Civil War devasted this country, and the State of Georgia in particular, in a way unknown before or since. But that is not to say there was not a lot of violence before or since to shatter the impression given by a placid and reassuring word like "peace".

It is now accepted that human societies lacking large-scale organization tend to be remarkably violent in comparison to other ones. The "King's Peace" can be oppressive or worse, but peace it is. Haralson County was largely free of the King's Peace in the 19th century, when it was wild, thinly-settled frontier country.

The county was created by the State of Georgia in 1856 from land which only a generation before had been held and occupied by Amerindian peoples who were forcibly removed. Since then, it has been served by three successively active county courthouses. You are now standing in the second of these, and the second to be built on this site.

Hung respectively on two different walls of this story of the building are reproductions of two works of pictorial art created at the dawn of the 1890s, when this courthouse was constructed. They were executed near the then-booming city of Tallapoosa, less than ten miles by roadway to the southwest of us. They are the climax of the story we shall now tell.

The original of the work which is an oil on canvas painting, whose copy we hang on the wall at the immediate right, is in the permanent collection of the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta. The museum titles the work "Opposum Snout, Haralson County, Georgia" and offers the following idylic description of it on its Web site:

...by using the former name of the once quiet community of Opossum Snout as the image's title, Carr recalls a time in the South before the turbulent period of the Civil War.

The museum's home in Augusta was once the US Army post of a recent West Point graduate named William Tecumseh Sherman, and later a backbone of Confederate military might, hosting both an arsenal and giant gun powder works. Yet both it and Haralson County were spared direct physical devastation by the Civil War, which seems to make the painting commentary imaginative - rather than descriptive.

What was Haralson County really like during the "peaceful" years of the 19th century? Our knowledge is limited by the paucity of local written records, especially before the first county newspaper began publishing here in 1884. But even before then, this obscure county of only a few thousand souls was the subject of both national and international notoriety.

By 1871, considerable effort had been made by the United States to suppress the terrorist acts of the Ku Klux Klan. But late that year, Congressional hearings held in Atlanta still featured extensive testimony recounting the horror of terror by and against the residents of Haralson County.

And in early 1877, after the last federal occupation troops had departed the South with the close of Reconstruction, at least five newspapers on the other side of the world, in Australia and New Zealand, ran the following copy:

The 'whisky raids' in the United States still continue, and have lately led to fighting, with fatal results. The illicit distillers in the mountain regions of North and South Carolina and Georgia are, according to information received at the Internal Revenue Office, Washington, determined to resist by force of arms the attempts to break up their unlawful business. In a recent raid made in Haralson County, North Georgia, the revenue officers succeeded in capturing a great number of men and destroying numerous distilleries, with their contents. Among others captured was a Baptist minister and the County Sheriff, both accused of defrauding the Government by illicit distillation...

During the next year the Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture reported that only 27 percent of Haralson County's tillable land had been cleared to date. The 1880 US census counted a total of 5,974 persons in the county, but virtually all of them lived in the countryside. The largest settlement was Buchanan, the town in which you now stand, which then had only 158 residents. Smaller still was the former Amerindian meeting place of Tallapoosa, called by some "Possum Snout," which numbered only 52 calling it home. In those days, the original Haralson County courthouse stood at this site, a building only "thirty-five feet square, the walls... of good brick two stories high." No photograph, drawing or other pictorial rendering of it is known to have ever been made.

The decade of the 1880s would be a time of dramatic change in the life of Haralson County, for at long last the high-tech wonder of steam-powered railroading would be deployed here. County population would nearly double, and more significantly, the number of town dwellers would grow explosively.

But on the eve of these changes, frightening violence still remained a hallmark of life. In June 1884, The New York Times ran an article titled Why the Court Adjourned recounting dramatic events in the first county courthouse located on this very spot. It wrote:

In Buchanan, the county seat of Haralson County, the court proceedings were to-day enlivened by an altercation which arose between J. M. McBride and W. J. Head, Sr., two leading citizens. M. J. Head, son of one of the participants, joined in the dispute by drawing out his pistol and firing three shots, one of them striking Dr. Smith in the hand, and another lodging in the head of Officer Woolley. The court adjourned until the trouble was settled.

The senior Mr. Head was one of the two county delegates who had voted for Georgia to secede from the Union at the start of the Civil War. Remarkably, before their lives were spent, both he and Mr. McBride would represent the county in the Georgia legislature, each in both the assembly and senate.

A few years later, another article in the same national newspaper would write the following about this year of 1884:

...Tallapoosa was an isolated village, hardly known to the people of Atlanta, in one of the least populated and most lawless counties of Georgia, the abode of moonshiners and shotgun gangs. The village then contained about 100 persons, and no man was ever sure of his life there.

The previous year, 1883, the Georgia Pacific Railroad had started laying track westward near the southern border of Haralson County. By year-end, a new settlement on that line named Bremen had been incorporated. As the new year dawned, the county's first newspaper, the weekly Haralson County Banner, started publication. 1884 also saw the railroad laying track three-quarters of a mile south of the old Tallapoosa, which a local source claims was then home to a mere 56 souls, creating a new Tallapoosa athwart the tracks.

By the time 1887 arrived, the new Tallapoosa was booming and The New York Times would write this about it:

But what a wonderful transformation was effected by the building of a railway through the place, and no more peaceful community than that of Tallapoosa can be found to-day... The present population... exceeds 1,000.

The same year saw the Chattanooga, Rome and Columbus Railroad laying track through Buchanan, connecting it with Bremen to its south, and points far beyond. It had been 17 years since the first hope of railroad service for Buchanan was raised. The resulting railroad junction in Bremen would eventually help it become the county's largest community during the twentieth century, today home to nearly 6,000. But would the new railroad serving Buchanan help that town keep up with the population boom already manifest in Tallapoosa?

The next year, 1888, a fire may have played a critical role in determining what the future held for Buchanan. That fire destroyed the original wood-frame Buchanan Methodist Church, which was located just to the southwest of this courthouse site. Evidently, the same blaze damaged the old courthouse which then still stood here. While the burnt church was rebuilt as a new wood-frame building to the immediate west of the courthouse, the question arose what the fate of the damaged courthouse would be.

For the boom in Tallapoosa was on, and resulted in its reincorporation as a city by the end of the year. Why mend a hurt courthouse in remote Buchanan when it seemed that the swelling county population was destined to straddle the east-west railroad line many miles to its south, perhaps in a string of cities, and relocation of the county seat there might be much more sensible?

By the end of the next year, 1889, Buchanan readied itself for a new chapter in its history by reforming its charter to provide for a Mayor and Council. M.J. Head was appointed Mayor - the very same man who had drawn his pistol in court at this very site five years earlier, firing three shots which had struck two victims! Could Mayor Head "gun down" the growing political and economic challenge which the exploding population of once-sleepy Tallapoosa presented?

Things were becoming very dicey for Buchanan as 1890 rolled around. While its population was a mere 324, the new town of Bremen almost matched it with 312 residents, and booming Tallapoosa had reached an astounding count of 1,699 citizens, a large fraction of the total county population of 11,316. A letter published in The Haralson Banner admonished that:

...steps should be taken at once to build a commodious courthouse instead of the dilapidated structure that now occupies the public square. It is whispered now that Buchanan is dead and that we (Tallapoosa and Bremen) will draw straws for the county seat.

If doubt remained about the growth potential of Tallapoosa to emerge as the new Birmingham, it was shattered in April 1891, when the sitting President of the United States, Benjamin Harrison, made a "whistle-stop" speech from the back of his railroad train, during its brief stay in town. The very next month, construction began on the new county courthouse in Buchanan - the building in which you are now standing. The contractor was C.W. Goldin and his price was $19,000. When Goldin later demanded more money to finish the job, the county executive, Ordinary Davenport, wrote out a warrant for an additional $1,000 - and went down to defeat in the next election.

While the sunk cost of a brand-new courthouse seems to have stalled any idea of moving the county seat down to Tallapoosa, the latter city continued to grow all the same. It is not implausible to imagine the growing wealth and splendor of the city made it attractive for famed painter Lyell E. Carr to make it his home during his mid-30s, when he executed a series of works based on contemporary scenes in and around Tallapoosa. These include the oil on canvas painting whose reproduction hangs on the wall at your immediate right. Inscripted in its lower left is:

Lyell Carr/opossum snout.Harrolson Co. Ga. 1891 signed

which is probably the basis for the title it is given by its present owner, the Morris Museum of Art. But our research has revealed it is evidently the very same work as one titled A Georgian Peddler, which is represented with a sketch in The Quarterly Illustrator for 1894. On November 19, 1892, The New York Times was favorable, but less than ebullient in its assessment of this painting. In an article titled Autumn Show at the Academy, the paper wrote the following:

Mr. Lyell Carr continues to send Georgia types, but he is beginning to paint very hard again. 'A Georgia Peddler' hardly explains itself; it is to be supposed that the yellow man with the fowling piece has his eyes on a bird. 'The Moonshiner's Daughter' is a trifle conventional in pose and hard in painting. But Mr. Carr is on the right track.

The famous "Old West" artist known to every schoolchild, Frederic Remington, appreciated Mr. Carr's work somewhat more, and paid him to depict Remington's studio on canvas. Carr's work was featured in many art shows, in both the New World and the Old World, and in fact The New York Times found reason to write about him ten to twenty times during his lifetime.

And now that we know more about the rambunctious history of Haralson County, we can offer an alternative interpretation of our displayed painting to both the bucolic pacifism which the Morris Museum of Art imagines and the avian sportsmanship The New York Times hypothesizes. Could it be that this Georgia peddler had been promised payment "no later than Saturday" for the wares he had delivered - now three months ago - and is looking to use his trusty firearm to help remind his wayward customer of this outstanding debt?

If the Carr painting represents the rustic wilderness which most county residents still called home in 1891, then another work (hung at the far right corner of the large courtoom accessed via double doors at your right), a finely detailed aerial panorama depicting the City of Tallapoosa in 1892, represents the new urban future which fostered hopes for great wealth and sophistication. The latter work bears a legend with a statement dated 18 February 1892 attesting that it depicts no structure which is neither built nor "in construction."

Some reports claim Tallapoosa's population reached 2,500 to 3,000 in the early 1890s, during the height of the boom. But whatever the veracity of this drawing from those days, by the summer of 1892, the dream of a fantastically wealthy Tallapoosa had turned into a nightmare. The New York Times ran an article July 15, 1892, whose title tells the sad tale:


Happily for Tallapoosa, the same R.L. Spencer redeemed his name by fostering a new economy based on viticulture which eventually rescued the city and nearby countryside. It enjoyed brilliant commercial success which made Haralson County the leading wine producer by far in Georgia - before it was destroyed at the start of 1908 as a result of alcohol prohibition in the state.

When all the high-flying development schemes had seen their day, life in Haralson County reverted to what it had been - although the great improvement in county roads during the first decade of the twentieth century meant that the prosaic production of cotton could be much more profitable than it had been in the primitive pioneer days of the previous century. What's more, once travel became far less arduous, it became less critical that the county seat - and the satellite private economy which grows up around such places - be located so as to minimize the amount of travel the county population it served has to endure, thus reducing the pressure to move the county's capital out of Buchanan and further south. The 1910 census showed a county population of 13,514. Tallapoosa easily remained the largest community in the county, with 2,117 residents, while Bremen had 890, Buchanan 462, and Waco 326.

All the same, the rivalry between the county's municipalities remained strong for quite a long time to come! In 1913, the Rome Tribune-Herald ran a provocative article titled: County-Site War On In Haralson County. reading as follows:

The people of Bremen have started a movement to have the county-site of Haralson county moved from Buchanan to Bremen... Bitter opposition from the people of Buchanan will no doubt develop, and a war fight is expected.

( Some small amendments to the text of the deployed plaque were made in creating the transcription above.)
Those still inclined to opine our suggested interpretation of A Georgia Peddler is not generous enough, might like to consider a January 1886 newspaper article, dateline Buchanan, Georgia, which reads in part so:
The murder of J.W. Holland by Bud Hughes has created a great sensation here, where both men were well known. Both were prosperous farmers, and were members of the same Baptist church. Some time ago Hughes contracted a debt with Holland, in satisfaction for which he proposed to give notes to cover the new year. This he failed to do.