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The Story of Washington-Wilkes - part VI - Close of the Century

CLOSE OF THE CENTURY

During the years that followed Reconstruction, when many Southern towns were becoming industrialized to meet new conditions, Washington definitely aligned itself with the old order.

The planters, unable to maintain their large holdings without slaves, were forced to break them up into small units, leased to white and Negro tenants who generally could not pay a cash rental or meet the cost of production. Some of these planters consequently established business enterprises in order to trade with and help finance these farmers until the time of harvest. Thus the growth that followed was not along new lines but along those formerly laid down; the town remained a market for the farmers of the surrounding region, and its prosperity was largely dependent upon the prices of farm products.

Agricultural reverses in 1881 elicited the comment that in Georgia native "corn (was) scarce, meat scarcer, and money scarcest," for farmers were buying Western corn and Northern hay and planting cotton to the exclusion of food crops. In order to help correct the evils of the one-crop system, twenty-four Wilkes County farmers organized the East Wilkes Club in 1884. The original number of members has been retained and, since it is considered an honor to be on the roll, there is always a long waiting list. Throughout the spring and summer for many years this

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organization has held all-day meetings at the homes of the members, the host usually serving barbecue. At this time the Farmers' Alliance promoted interest in cattle raising, and several Wilkes County farmers marketed beef cattle in Augusta. A few years afterward a group of Illinois farmers established a colony on the Little River, six miles south of Washington, where improved farming methods and crop-diversification practices were introduced. Although the settlement was short-lived, the methods of these mid-westerners interested some of the local farmers, who accordingly revised their own farming practices.

Although the average price of cotton had a downward trend for the following two decades, farmers continued to increase their acreage, and Washington grew in importance as a cotton market. Only ten cents a pound in 1880, cotton declined in value until 1894, when it brought only five cents. Despite all efforts to convince farmers of the value of crop diversification, the cotton production for Wilkes County in 1896 reached the unheard of total of twenty-three thousand bales, and for the next few years it ran between twenty-five and thirty-five thousand bales. Farmers drove their wagons piled high with bales to the public square. If they were not satisfied with the price obtained at auction there, they took their cotton on to Augusta or back home to wait for another day.

Prosperity was only moderate throughout this period, for the success of business ventures depended greatly on the buying power of farmers, which in turn depended on the price of cotton. Yet there was a considerable if not spectacular expansion in commercial affairs. Citizens, impoverished by the War between the States, had scarcely any money to put into new enterprises, but they gathered fresh courage after the overthrow of carpetbag rule and the restoration of self-government. Extending credit to one another, they established small stores and offices, so that business soon began to stir. Two of the most important enterprises were a wire fence plant and a guano factory established in 1886. This

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guano plant had long been needed, for as early as 1869 it had been estimated that the farmers of Wilkes County were spending $42,525 annually for imported fertilizer. In addition to these two, the number of business establishments in 1886 had increased to nine general merchandise stores; two drug stores; two millinery shops; two newspapers, the Gazette and the Chronicle; two banks; two carriage, wagon and harness factories; a grist and flour mill; a chair factory; and an "opera house." Two hotels, providing good food, upheld Washington's reputation for showing cordial southern hospitality. The following year MARK COOPER POPE constructed a canning factory, and W. W. SIMPSON built a mercantile house facing the public square.

By 1889 applications for new enterprises were so numerous that a special session of the Wilkes County Superior Court was called to charter the proposed industries, and a newspaper article reported that Washington was as "solid as a rock bed and pushing ahead in all industries." In that year twelve thousand dollars was subscribed for the establishment of a cotton compress, and a cottonseed oil plant was constructed at a cost of fifty thousand dollars. It was not long before this latter industry was shipping each week a tank car of seven thousand gallons, valued at twelve hundred dollars. Some of the older enterprises were reorganized during this period. The Washington Foundry and Manufacturing Company, the largest of the industrial plants, was put on a sound financial basis.

Although the early years of the 1890's were characterized principally by the slow growth of industries established since Reconstruction, the later years showed some commercial expansion in new enterprises. In 1897 R. A. ALMAND erected a livery stable at the corner of Main and Jefferson Streets and JOHN W. WOOD built another at the corner of Main and Allison Streets. These, with the two older establishments, gave Washington four livery stables that not only kept horses for hire but also sold them. The town thus became a good horse and mule market for the eastern sec-

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tion of the state. Two years later, O. S. BARNETT, a prominent brick manufacturer, handled a single order for a million brick, the largest yet made here. The Excelsior Manufacturing Company installed a round bale cotton press, and J. R. DOVER and M. M. SIMS offered competition by setting up a similar press.

"With the new business enterprises, Washington's population, which was 2,199 in 1880, gradually increased, and a need developed for additional residential sections and recreational areas. The town's first real estate development began in June, 1887, when MARK COOPER POPE divided a hundred acres into building lots to be sold at prices ranging from $40 to $260. Pope also presented a near-by grove to the city government; the land immediately was converted into a public recreation area and named the EFFIE POPE PARK in compliment to the donor's sister. Through this area the West End Driving Association directed the construction of a driving course.

If Washington took little part in the industrialization that was sweeping many sections of the South, it developed its full share of improvements in public utilities. In 1889 a local telephone system was installed and long-distance connections were made with Elberton and Lincolnton. A mule-drawn streetcar line began operation from the depot to the business section. Oil street lamps had only recently been installed, but citizens began to feel the need of electric light service for their homes and offices. When DR. F. T. WILLIS, donor of Washington's public library, died early in 1898, he bequeathed not only an additional sum of $1,200 to the library but also $10,000 to the city. The latter bequest, augmented in 1899 by 30,000 received from a local bond issue, was immediately appropriated for the construction of a municipal light plant in Washington and a water plant at Beaverdam Creek two miles from town. Citizens eagerly welcomed the new improvements and were quick to install electric lights and running water in their houses but were unwilling to give up the cool drinking water they were accustomed to drawing from their deep wells. Although

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the municipal water has always been pronounced pure, there are some who still prefer their well water to "Beaverdam Creek water."

The unprecedented commercial and civic activity aroused such hope for rapid growth that the citizens in 1899 applied for and received a new charter from the state legislature incorporating Washington as a city. The county commissioners, also feeling the spirit of enterprise, began a drive for a new courthouse to replace the old structure erected in 1817. For $3,000 they purchased a lot on the north side of the square from MRS. A. E. MULLIGAN, who had inherited it from her father, B. W. HEARD, and prepared to tear down the old bank building where JEFFERSON DAVIS had held his last cabinet meeting. Despite continued protests from the members of the newly organized Last Cabinet Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the structure was eventually razed to make way for the new courthouse.

This general expansion of Washington was seriously impaired by several conflagrations, especially those of 1882, 1895, and 1898. Perhaps the most serious fire the town had known started at 9 P.M. on June 11, 1895, and completely demolished five frame stores, an office building, a wagon and machine shop, and also a residence, all in mid-town. The Episcopal Church and two old dwellings were seriously damaged.

As a result of this disaster citizens immediately petitioned the city government for fire protection. A new fire company, the E. Y. Hill Hook and Ladder Company, was consequently organized with CAPTAIN CHARLES E. IRVIN as chief. Members included some of the town's most prominent citizens, who in the excitement of organization considered not only their duty as citizens but also the sport of future fire fighting. They bought a new fire engine the following year after a dramatic demonstration in which a fire was extinguished in eighteen seconds.

As in all small Georgia towns, a fire in Washington was an exciting occasion. At the sound of the alarm, almost every man,

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helped the volunteer firemen put out the blaze or saved articles from the burning building. Citizens not only liked to see their own company in action but also enjoyed watching the exhibitions of visiting firemen. They had a good opportunity in the hot, dusty days of July, 1888, when fifteen Negro fire companies and six brass bands came upon invitation to contend for prizes. In addition to the white onlookers there were many Negroes who came from within a radius of twenty miles to yell for their contestants.

Washington's interest in politics, strong ever since the days of the Whigs and Tories, was kept alive by the presence of ROBERT TOOMBS, who had taken up his law practice after his exile and had become the state's foremost lawyer. Even in his declining years, when poor health and failing eyesight had made him less astute, TOOMBS remained a dominant influence in Georgia politics, and candidates for various offices visited him in Washington to seek his advice and his endorsement. At the Democratic Convention in Atlanta in 1882 he boldly denounced STEPHENS for dallying with the Independents and the New Departure Democrats who were in favor of a closer relation with the North. He declared that his lifelong friend was "either the veriest demagogue in the county or in his old age he has lost his grip," but at the funeral of Stephens in March, 1883, he expressed his admiration in a voice broken by grief. The death of his wife the following fall increased his sorrow. His pessimism in regard to national politics often led him to express caustic opinions of public men, but his attitude was somewhat brightened in 1884 by the election of GROVER CLEVELAND to the Presidency. When a crowd of friends gathered at his home to tell him the good news, he spoke publicly for the last time. He indicated hope in Cleveland's constructive policy and later expressed regret over not taking the Amnesty Oath pledging allegiance to the United States. The distinguished general died at his residence at six o'clock on the morning of

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December 15, 1885. Houses and stores bore the crepe of mourning on the day of his funeral, when special trains brought GOVERNOR HENRY MCDANIEL and other noted statesmen to pay tribute to his memory. He was buried in a small lot at Resthaven, the Washington cemetery, and his grave is marked by a tall marble shaft, simply inscribed "Robert Toombs."

The people of Washington, like TOOMBS, remained conservative in politics. They believed too strongly in the ideals of plantation days to accept the theories of the New Departure Democrats. Considering interest in politics as a part of their heritage, however, they listened to political speeches and took sides on the dominant issues. It was not long before discussions were becoming heated over the rise of a third political party, the Populist Party, advocated by THOMAS E. WATSON, the agrarian rebel from neighboring McDuffie County. WATSON, thinking that the farmers were declining in wealth and authority as the New South became more closely allied with the industrial North, boldly declared himself a Populist in 1892 and advocated an alliance with the agricultural West. He gained many adherents, who were boldly denounced by the conservative Democrats. When a Populist cotton grower wrote a Washington financier for a $200 loan, he received the reply that since the Populist Party seemed bent on raising hell instead of cotton the loan was not advisable. An anonymous letter signed Mob gave a Populist leader a short time either to leave town or to lose his life. General opinion then remained strongly Democratic. Early in May, 1892, the county Democrats listened to J. C. C. BLACK of Augusta at a party meeting and were influenced to organize a strong Democratic Club. The June session of the grand jury called the Populist Party a general nuisance "calculated to disturb the peace, dignity, and health of the people."

On August 25 almost three thousand people assembled in EFFIE POPE PARK for a Democratic rally. Preparation, which had been made throughout the past week, included the barbecueing of 120 hogs for this occasion. Long speeches denouncing the platform of

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the Populists and also the high tariff issues of the Republicans were made by TINSLEY HUCKER of Athens, ALFRED E. COX and W. C. GLENN of Atlanta, and COLONEL THOMAS G. LAWSON, congressman of the eighth district. An unusual feature of the rally was the attendance of about twelve hundred Negroes, who ate apart and also stood apart when they listened to the speeches. In their honor THOMAS GADSDEN, a Negro high school teacher, was allowed to make a speech. Leaving a discussion of tariff and finance to the white speakers, GADSDEN made a speech "full of homely truths" that appealed to the voters of his race to support the Democratic policies.

Citizens were overjoyed to see the Democratic Party again supported in the October elections and afterward settled down to local politics. They were so pleased with their city administration that the following year they did not hold their periodic city election. The incumbent board and mayor (G. E. LYNDON) continued in office.

Although Washington with its county academies and private schools had long been well known for its educational facilities, its schooling was mostly for those who could afford to pay tuition. As late as 1887 there were no schools in Washington supported by public taxation. The Male Academy under HYLAMON WILSON and the Female Academy under IDA A. YOUNG still taught their classical and mathematical courses along with a few scientific subjects, and there were also two Catholic academies administered by FATHER J. M. O'BRIEN. In this year, however, the enrollment of the academics was so small that citizens petitioned the state committee on education and the state legislature to establish a public school. Although a charter was granted, the school did not function until 1892 and several years elapsed before it was properly housed. Presaging educational advance, WILLIAM WYNNE introduced a bill in the state legislature to amend the city charter so that the mayor and council could issue bonds for public school buildings. In July, 1896, bonds were voted and the city offered

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for sale 30 bonds of $500, easily sold since this was the town's only bonded indebtedness. The new public school building, finished in April, 1897, at a cost of $17,000, was equipped with sanitary plumbing, central heating, and electric lights.

In 1897 also a school for the children of Christian Scientists was opened at the Armstrong House on the Washington and Elberton Road by MRS. CAROLYN ARMSTRONG, who for many years had been teaching her neighbor's children along with her own. The institution, opened by chance when a Scientist friend came to live with her, was one of the first schools to be conducted along Christian Science principles. It was so successful that pupils came from many states, and an announcement in a church paper resulted in so many applications that a large number had to be rejected. MRS, ARMSTRONG, a Scientist reader and leader, soon found her limited facilities were not sufficient to accommodate all she wished to take. The school was consequently closed after seven years, to the dismay of the pupils who had come to love the old plantation house.

Throughout the last two decades of the century, Washington citizens, as always, were busy with religious activities. The Methodists in 1882 completed and dedicated a new brick structure, which was the setting for a moving occasion in October of that year. ROBERT TOOMBS, then seventy-four years old, affiliated himself with their congregation and was baptized by his devoted friend, BISHOP GEORGE FOSTER PIERCE. The Baptists finished a new church two years later, and the Episcopalians replaced the building destroyed in the fire of 1895 with a new church adjacent to the Toombs House. At the same time the Episcopal congregation built a rectory in order that members might have the services of a full-time pastor.

The Baptists and Methodists were especially active, holding revival meetings and entertaining their religious associations. The annual revivals were not only well but frequently attended, for services were held four or five times daily. During the two-week

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periods merchants closed their shops at 5 P.M. instead of the customary 7 P.M. in order that employees might attend. Washington Baptists were honored in 1884 not only to entertain the Georgia Baptist Convention but at the same time to celebrate the centennial of the Georgia Association. They were especially interested in the latter organization because it was the first religious association formed in the state and because Wilkes County men were influential in its organization, thirty-eight years before it joined younger Baptist associations to form the Georgia Baptist Convention. Before the Georgia Methodist Conference grew too large, Washington had been selected several times as a site for its annual convention. When the organization was divided into the North Georgia and South Georgia Conferences in 1886, Washington Methodists felt they could again offer to entertain their conference. Consequently in December, 1890, two hundred and seventy-eight delegates of the North Georgia Conference met in Washington.

Closely allied with religious affairs was the increasingly widespread demand for prohibition. In 1882 the Rehoboth Precinct of Wilkes County exercised its local option privilege and voted to go "bone dry," and three years later, after much agitation, the matter was brought to a vote by Washington citizens. The town, however remained "wet." The government derived good revenue from selling retail licenses for $300 and wholesale licenses for $150. In order to forestall an appeal to the state legislature for another local vote, the city council in 1889 passed more stringent laws for the regulation of saloons. Each patron was permitted to buy only a quart at a time, screens were forbidden in barrooms, and measures were taken to keep out minors. Because the license fee was raised to $500, the town's revenue from liquor sales was increased from $1,600 to $2,000.

The recurrent struggle for prohibition was again of primary interest in 1898, when there was a movement to establish a dispensary system. Negro ministers united with white prohibition

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leaders against the saloon keepers. Because of their combined efforts, Washington became dry with a majority of 351 votes ten years before Georgia became a prohibition state.

Many social activities were closely connected with church life, for the ladies at the town gave many programs and bazaars to raise money for charitable purposes. Accounts not only of these but also the more cultural and sporting events were printed in J. W. CHAPMAN's Washington Gazette. In the 1880's the young ladies of the Methodist Church gave benefit concerts under the direction of PROFESSOR LEO MEHRTENS. At FATHER O'BRIEN's house the Roman Catholics held "Irish Fairs," bazaars to raise money for their orphans, and the Baptists conducted like enterprises for their organization. Members of the Round Table Literary Club, formed in 1882 for its "social and mental advantages," met to read and discuss the classics. Horse racing was being replaced rapidly by baseball as a spectator sport. In the fall of 1885 the townspeople gave a noisy demonstration for their team, the Cozarts, who had come through the season unbeaten. A professional battery had been hired from Chicago and Philadelphia for the season.

Until 1882 the benefit musicales and violin or piano concerts were held in church and school auditoriums, but in that year JOHN D. FLOYD moved the old Methodist Church and converted it into the Floyd Opera House, which seated four hundred patrons. This auditorium was popular for lectures, for concerts and plays by local performers, and for more professional entertainment by traveling troupes. It was used until 1896, when Floyd again moved the building, this time to the rear of the lot, and built a more modern brick structure on the former site. Amateur and professional entertainments were held in the new building until it was burned in 1912. The L'Allegro Club, a local musical and theatrical organization, often gave programs in this auditorium. Early in August, 1899, the repertory of this club was presented in Lexington, Elberton, and other towns as a means of making money to purchase new musical instruments.

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For entertainment during this period most older women relied on receptions and teas, attendance at their club meetings, and occasional visits with their friends to summer resorts. There were so many whose ancestors had fought in the Revolutionary War that in 1895 they organized the Kettle Creek Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. During the summer they met their friends from neighboring cities at Hillman, a near-by resort, to gossip and drink medicinal spring water. This village was so popular during the summer of 1897, that the Georgia Railroad was requested to run its short train, the Picayune, from Washington to Hillman on Saturdays. The business men were thereby enabled to join their families for the week-end. On hot summer evenings ladies of the Claudale Driving Club, then in its second year, drove out to swim in a "beautiful soft water pond" fed by springs. It was not until the closing years of the century that card playing and dancing were introduced by the young ladies and young men, who occasionally hired a band from Augusta to play for dances at King's Hall.

During the 1890's the IRVIN GUARDS in their bright uniforms attracted much attention when they paraded in EFFIE POPE PARK or made an encampment there, and invitations to their military balls were much prized by the young ladies of Washington and neighboring towns. The guards, organized in 1889 as a unit of the state militia, adopted the name of the distinguished company that bravely fought during the War between the States. When they first received their uniforms, they went to Atlanta and marched in a spectacular parade at the opening of the annual Atlanta Exposition. On July 23,1890, they met the First Georgia Battalion from Atlanta at the Washington railroad station and with the visitor's Zouave band paraded throughout the business section. A midday barbecue was followed by a dress parade, watched by "the famous belles and beauties of this charming place," and in the evening all attended a banquet at the Good Templar's Hall. In 1897 twenty-seven members paraded before GOVERNOR A. D. CANDLER on Mili-

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tary Day at the Augusta Merrymakers Fair. When Colonel W. B. O'BEAR, inspector general of the state militia, came to inspect the IRVIN GUARDS in late summer, the company made so good an impression that new uniforms, guns, and accoutrements were immediately supplied by the state.

The IRVIN GUARDS closely watched the development of the approaching Spanish-American War. In February, 1898, CAPTAIN R. O. BARKSDALE received word from MAJOR N. A. TEAGUE to be in readiness to move the IRVIN GUARDS at a moment's notice, and in May LIEUTENANT A. L. KING and a corps of sixteen men were assigned to a company with headquarters at Barnesville, Georgia. Other Washington men were accepted as members of regiments throughout the state. After their return from war duties the guards remained an active organization until their disbandment in 1906.

 

Workers of the Writers' Program of the WPA of GA, The Story of Washington-Wilkes
(Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1941) pgs. 66-78

Transcribed by Keith Giddeon. All text is as found in the book, except the deletion of most hyphens
on line breaks, and several instances of italics being deleted.

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