WE WANT A NEW COUNTY!
The New County Movement in East Central Georgia
She was born with eight children. Over the next one hundred and forty-seven years, Georgia added at least one more per year until Peach County became the last Georgia county eighty five years ago this week. When the 20th Century turned, more and more Georgians felt the need to create even more counties to give rural citizens more of a voice in their day to day lives. People in the outlying areas wanted to have the right to determine the governing of schools, maintenance of roads and most of all, the way their county officials spent their tax dollars. In truth, the primary reason for the new county movement was the growing rivalries between small towns throughout the Wiregrass region of South and Central Georgia.
In 1905 and 1906, after a thirty-year respite with no new counties, Georgia added ten more. Fifteen more were added in the next two decades until the total swelled to 159, the second highest in the nation, only behind Texas, the largest state in the continental United States. In our area, Bleckley, Treutlen and Wheeler counties were part of the "new counties" to be created in the first decades of the 20th century. But, more were dreamed of, many more.
The first movement to split off a portion of Laurens County came in 1904, when the citizens of the infant town of Adrian wanted to form a new county. First among them was the extremely influential Capt. T. J. James. James, the founder of the town, was a railroad baron and Agra-businessman. In his effort, James was aided by Captain W.B. Rice of Laurens County, who held extensive farming interests in the area, along with T.A. Cheatam, the town's leading merchant. The new county was to be named for ol' Capt. James himself.
In the winter of 1905, the Laurens County grand jury adopted a presentment calling for an all out effort to kill any bills calling for the taking of any portion of the county to create a new county. The James County plan called for the annexation of both the Carter and Oconee districts of eastern Laurens County into James County.
Meanwhile, the folks down in Alamo were also seeking to have a new county, one without a name, but nevertheless, one that the people of northwestern Montgomery County could control. The initial new county plan called for taking both Burch's and Lowery's District, two of the county's finest agricultural and timber producers, into the new county, since both were somewhat closer to Alamo than Dublin was anyway you traveled.
The effort to establish James County gained momentum at first, but after three or four years, it stalled for lack of support, only some fifty Laurens Countians were in favor of being cut off into a new county. The powerful representatives of Laurens County, one of the top ten largest counties in the state at the time, were able to end all hopes of creating a new county with Adrian at its center.
That is until 1908. Somewhere between one hundred and two hundred white male voters gathered in the summer of 1908 to discuss three new plans to replace the proposed James County. The first idea was to again place Adrian as the county seat, but under the new name of Milledge, in honor of John Milledge, a former U.S. Senator from Georgia and the founder of Athens. This plan had some appeal since the new county wasn't being named for any living individual. The second proposal, and one which drew the most support, was to take portions of Emanuel, Johnson, Laurens and Montgomery counties as Milledge County, but instead making Soperton the county seat, a plan which pleased the leading families and proponents of northern Montgomery County, but one which drew the consternation of the governing bodies of the other three counties. The proponents wanted to honor President Grover Cleveland, the only Democrat to serve as president since the beginning of the Civil War. The third, and least popular, submission was to take even more of Laurens County and place the small village of Scott on the Brewton & Pineora Railroad as the county seat. The backers of the third choice asked that their county be named Blackshear, possibly in an effort to pacify the residents of the Buckeye District of Laurens County, where the venerable War of 1812 hero General David Blackshear hailed from. All three plans failed to get legislative approval before submission to the state's voters for adoption.
Meanwhile, the folks around Soperton, Alamo, and Cochran kept plugging along. Their efforts climaxed in 1912, when J.T. Deese, representing Pulaski County in the Georgia House, was able on June 30, 1912 to create Bleckley County, the first new county in six years, and the first to be carved from a single whole county in many years, mainly because Cochran had grown into a vital commercial and agricultural center and was quite a distance and across the Ocmulgee River from the county seat at Hawkinsville.
Rep. W.B. Kent of Montgomery County proposed that all of Montgomery County west of the Oconee River be carved into a new county, one coincidentally named for himself. Though his plan had some merit, since there were no bridges spanning the river which divided the eastern and western sides of the county, many disliked the notion of naming any county for a sitting politician. A compromise was reached and in August 1912 , the new county was created and named for Confederate cavalry general Joseph Wheeler.
The new counties seemed to put an end to the dream of the Soperton crowd for a county of their own. The proposed Cleveland County failed one hundred years ago this week, primarily from the strong opposition from Laurens and Montgomery counties, which in addition to their own protection saw little need to create more counties when the state led the nation in the number of them and the burden to the state's tax payers for additional services.
In 1914, former proponents of Cleveland County shifted gears and sought approval of a new county named for Colonial Georgia governor, John Treutlen. The measure failed in 1914. Old Adrian supporters resurrected the James County movement, which failed again in 1915. The Soperton congregation persevered and on August 21, 1917, Georgia's 152nd county, Treutlen County was formally established.
The creation of Bleckley and Wheeler County seemed to have quieted all talk of creating a new county out of Southwestern Laurens County. But, hold it right there. Just one year later, enthusiastic citizens of the Dexter community, led by Mayor Jerome Kennedy called for a new county with his rapidly booming and successful agricultural center being the county seat. The new county of Northern,named for Gov. William J. Northern, would have included Cadwell, Rentz and Chester and would have included 200,000 of the finest farm land in Georgia. With vigorous opposition from Dublin and other towns in Laurens County the plan never got the ground. Neither did the proposal to create Hughes County centered in Montrose and named for the founder of the M.D. & S. Railroad, Col. Dudley M.Hughes of Danville.
Although Peach County was the last county created in Georgia in 1924, W.B. Kent, of Wheeler County, and Earnest Clark, of Laurens County, believed it was best to whittle down a portion of one of the state's largest counties by either reviving the Northern County proposal or in the alternative giving the southern part of Laurens to Wheeler County which could use the extra tax revenue ending the mass and nearly hysterical movement to create new counties in the state.