Our History

WASHINGTON COUNTY

COMBINING HISTORY WITH NATURE, INDUSTRY & BUSINESS

Washington County, the first county in our nation to be named after General George Washington, was formed in 1784. It became the 9th county in Georgia. The Creek Indians had ceded the vast, unsettled territory the previous year. Revolutionary War soldiers came to Washington County after receiving land grants from the General Assembly.

george-washington

When formed, the county was located in the territory between the Ogeechee and Oconee Rivers. To the north, Washington County extended to present day Franklin County and its southern boundary was the Altamaha River. Over time, ten other counties were carved from the original county. Today, Washington County contains 684 square miles and is still one of the largest counties in Georgia. The northern part is known as the Red Hills, referring to the red dirt in this area of the county. In the south, the land is characterized by rolling hills and gullies. The Oconee River still bounds the county to the west and the Ogeechee River forms most of the eastern boundary.

The first settlements were in the northern part of the county in and around Warthen. Many of the early settlers were of Scotch-Irish descent arriving mainly from North Carolina. A smaller number of settlers came from Virginia. Others migrated from other Georgia counties including Burke, Wilkes and Effingham. These settlers were in search of fertile land, timber, a milder climate, and new beginnings. By 1787, the population in Washington County had grown to 4,552.

With the arrival of more settlers the population quickly swelled. During this agrarian era, Washington County farmers raised a variety of crops. When the cotton gin was invented in 1793, cotton was on its way to becoming the major crop in the county.

In 1796, Sandersville, originally Saunders Crossroads, was named by the Georgia Legislature as the county seat of Washington County. It was situated at the crossing of two Indian Trails. Today, Sandersville is the largest town in Washington County.

Among the first structures built was a hand hewn log jail which still can be visited in Warthen. It once housed Aaron Burr, the notorious third Vice President of the United States. In 1804, Burr was housed there overnight while in route to Richmond, Virginia to stand charges of treason following his famous duel with Alexander Hamilton.

old-jail

In the northern part of the county, deposits of clays suitable for making stoneware attracted communities of potters. Potters introduced their goods that served the cooking and storage needs of early settlers. In some cases the pottery served as grave markers. Examples of their work can still be seen at the Brown House Museum in Sandersville, an ante-bellum house better known as William T. Sherman’s headquarters during his Civil War stay in Washington County.

brown-house
pottery

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the agrarian economy of Washington County also supported potters, cobblers, tailors, blacksmiths, gunsmiths, general store merchants, and carpenters. A water-driven sawmill, a woolen mill, cotton gins, and grist mills played a vital role in the early economic growth of Washington County. The rivers in the county were navigable, allowing barges to transport goods from the coast of Georgia up to the Fall Line where the Piedmont Plateau gives way to the Coastal Plain. At this point, the rivers become narrower and rocky thus many early Georgia settlements were located along this geologic area. Timber was also transported on these rivers.

The nineteenth century was a progressive era for the county. By early 1816, a stagecoach line ran between Milledgeville and Savannah through Washington County. A railroad provided a faster and less expensive means of transporting crops. This provided new opportunities for business establishments. Wealth increased as businesses and industries expanded and also the demand for services and merchandise grew due to increased population in the area.

Washington County flourished with the continued establishment of additional schools, churches, post offices, a courthouse, and a newspaper. Agriculture continued and when the price of cotton plummeted, the farmers turned to the agricultural discovery of soy beans. These were planted as an additional crop to boost economics. Crops of corn, wheat and grain, cotton, and soy beans grew well and continue to be cultivated today. The majority of the field workers were slaves and most of the county’s planters and other business and industry owners had one or more, depending on their wealth. Regrettably, slavery was an accepted way of life during this era of Washington County’s history.

By the mid-nineteenth century many of the citizens of the county were enjoying prosperity. Even with the unsettled country heading toward war. Crops were good, businesses and industries flourished and it was quoted that the stories of the North “starving us out” was “a crazy idea.” It would not be long before the county and her citizens would feel the ravishes of war.


THE CIVIL WAR

It is believed that Washington County furnished more soldiers to the Confederacy than any other county in Georgia. Fifteen military companies were organized here.

On November 16, 1864 General William T. Sherman left Atlanta, Georgia on his famous “March to the Sea”. His army was grouped into two wings, Left and Right. One wing approached Washington County from Milledgeville, the other from Irwinton. Over 62,000 Union Soldiers converged in Washington County. Sherman and his army met their first resistance just inside the county at Buffalo Creek, near present day Deepstep, Georgia an act which enraged the general. The army also found resistance when the Confederate troops defended the crossing at the Oconee River (Balls Ferry and the Oconee River Railroad Bridge.) Sherman’s army destroyed the railroad track and any building connected to the Central of Georgia Railroad.

The army arrived in Sandersville on the morning of November 26, 1864. The night before, C.S. General Joe Wheeler’s cavalry had galloped into Sandersville.  The next morning, Wheeler’s cavalry briefly skirmished with the Union troops as they approached town before saddling up and heading out in the opposite direction. The Union army camped overnight in Sandersville on November 26, 1864.  Sherman used the Brown House as his Union headquarters. He slept in the house, ate a meal with the family and left town. As he left, Sherman’s army burned the courthouse and any other building which was felt to be any support to the South’s war efforts. The Courthouse in Sandersville was one of the few Courthouses burned during the March to the Sea campaign.

Six months later in May of 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his escort party crossed through Washington County. He was attempting to escape to reach Texas and safety in an effort to continue the Confederate cause. His wife and her party left a few days prior to President Davis. It is believed that the last official act of the Confederacy was carried out in Washington County.

Washington County is the only place where both the “March to the Sea” and the “Escape of Jefferson Davis” cross.

After the Civil War the county’s outlook was bleak, but, according to From Cotton to Kaolin “there was a sustaining faith that prosperity would return. With the combined leadership of the county’s representatives and her citizens, the period of reconstruction began. The roads were impassable; widows, orphans and the disabled needed immediate assistance. The need for public education and the rebuilding of the courthouse were assessed as immediate needs. However, with southern determination and will power the leaders of the county led the citizens in the rebuilding of their town, homes and lives”.


FROM RECONSTRUCTION TO “THE MAN WHO MADE ARMIES MARCH”

The citizen rebuilt the Courthouse by 1869. This new building burned again and the current structure was completed in 1899. This historic structure of High Victorian style still stands in downtown Sandersville today.

courthouse

Stable cotton prices from about 1890 to about 1920 brought prosperity to Washington County. However, in 1915 the boll weevil entered Georgia and with it, cotton production plummeted.

During WWI, eight of its citizen fell in battle. During WWII over 1,400 of its citizens served in the armed forces and unfortunately again another 45 did not return home. Monuments honoring these Washington County’s servicemen as well as those killed in the Korean War and Vietnam War can be seen on the lawn next to the Courthouse. Another monument at the Courthouse honors Washington County native Willie Duckworth who created the official United States Army chant “Sound Off”. Mr. Duckworth is known as “The Man Who Made Armies March”.


THE KAOLIN CAPITAL OF THE WORLD

Fortunately for Washington County a new industry emerged just as cotton was declining. Mining for kaolin, a white clay used in hundreds of productsincluding paper, paint, plastics, ceramics, food and medicines, began in Middle Georgia in the early 1900s.

The origin of kaolin can be traced to the Cretaceous geologic period, about 70 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth and much of the southern half of Georgia was covered by a great sea. During that period the climate was more tropical than now. The seacoast stretched across Georgia from Columbus to Macon to Augusta along a line that we now call the “Fall Line. About 50-56 million years ago the weathering of the rocks of the Piedmont generated large volumes of kaolinitic clays, quartz sand and mica, as well as minor amounts of other minerals, especially iron and titanium oxides, such as limonite and anastase. Feldspar, a major component of granitic rocks such as those at Stone Mountain near Atlanta, is considered the parent material for most of Georgia’s sedimentary kaolin.

50-65 million years ago washed into rivers and streams, the weathered clays and sands of the Piedmont were transported and deposited in swamps, marshes and lagoons near and along the coastline of the ancient sea. Iron and titanium oxides were often deposited along with the kaolin, contaminating and making much of the kaolin unusable for commercial applications.

Changes in the sea level interrupted the sequence of erosion, transportation and deposition of kaolin from the Piedmont, but the process continued for some 30 to 35 million years. The last invasion of the land by the great sea deposited huge amounts of red and brown sands and clays over the kaolin deposits. These later sediments formed the characteristic red hills of Middle Georgia. The commercially mineable kaolin deposits are found in a relatively narrow “belt” along the Fall Line. The kaolin mining industry has located its processing facilities in the communities near the deposits, primarily in the nine rural counties between Macon and Augusta. Highly technical equipment and processes are employed to transform the crude kaolin into high quality products which are marketed around the world for a wide variety of applications.

mine pic2

The industry grew as the North American paper and paint industries grew. Today, the product line has diversified and serves over NNN industries including ceramics, pharmaceuticals, plastics, catalysts, and building materials. During its peak in the mid-1990s, over 4,500 middle Georgians worked in the industry. Washington County provided a friendly business environment, plentiful labor and other natural and business resources that made the industry huge to the county and to Georgia. Many more thousands worked in supporting the industry in trucking, rail service, construction, maintenance and other service and retail businesses. Washington County retail establishments grew and today Washington County is a regional shopping area that attracts customers from nearby counties and a stopover for people traveling through the county.

Kaolin is still the major economic driver in the county today. An annual Kaolin Festival celebrates the importance of the resource. At the end of the twentieth century, kaolin was an $800 million business and Georgia’s largest volume export.

However, the kaolin industry had begun a decline by the end of the 1990s. County leaders worked to aggressively pursue diversify the industrial base, planned improvements to its infrastructure, and sought to improve and expand educational opportunities. Protecting and supporting the kaolin industry and attracting new businesses and visitors to this historically rich and diverse county were now priorities.


THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY – DIVERSIFICATION AND DEVELOPMENT

Today, Washington County provides an environment which is business and industry friendly. Its location halfway between Augusta and Macon as well as Atlanta and Savannah.  This provides unique access to theses four metropolitan cities in Georgia. Washington County is also less than 40 miles to both Interstate 16 and to Interstate 20. The Fall Line Freeway crosses the county and will serve as a connector from Columbus to Augusta upon its completion.

As the Kaolin Industry continues to change in Washington County, a number of other industries and employers continue to emerge locally. In 2002, Washington County opened its Industrial Park adjacent to Deepstep Road with a speculative building. Since this time, Dura-Line and Trojan Battery have occupied space in the Washington County Industrial Park. In 2010, the University System Shared Services Center began operation in the expanded Industrial Park. Other key industries that have located to Washington County in the last decade includes Zorlu, KaMin, and Meltblown Technologies. These industries have been instrumental in increasing a diversified economy that includes the Washington County Regional Medical Center and its numerous medical clinics and facilities, Oconee Fall Line Technical College, numerous trucking companies, a district GDOT office in Tennille, and the local Board of Education which all serve as major employers for Washington County and surrounding counties.


HISTORY OF THE BELL AND CLOCK IN THE COURT HOUSE

In 1899 the Washington County Court House underwent extensive remodeling. The purchasing of a new brass bell and a Seth-Thomas clock for the tower were included in the project.  The clock, run by weights, had to be rewound by hand; it was eventually electrified.  The large brass bell was located on the floor beneath the clock.  The wheel located on the side of the bell was drawn by a rope which dropped several stories below.  The bell served a dual purpose of striking the time and sounding fire alarms.  After one hundred sixteen years, the inscription on the bell is still legible. It reads:

Buck Eye Bell Foundry 1899

Commissioners Roads and Revenues: Wiley Harris, chairman, B.C. Harris, S.G. Taylor.  M. Newman, Ordinary and Secretary to the Commissioners.

Building Committee: M. Newman, Chairman, B.C. Harris, C.D. Thigpen. Architect: Lewis F. Goodrich, Augusta, Ga.

Contractors: John H. McKenzie and Son.    AD 1899

Additional information of interest:

The clock underwent a cleaning and restoration in 1975.  One hundred bolts in the hands of the clock and gear time shaft mechanism were replaced. The bolts were made of wood.

The clock was installed in August 1899 and a Dublin, Ga . Jeweler, Mr. W.J. Wright, was employed to install the clock (“put up”- stated in Progress) and to regulate it.

The eagle was put on the tallest dome of the courthouse.  The Progress stated “the eagle has been perched upon the tallest dome of the courthouse”.

Description of the clock:  The dials were white and the figures and hands were gilt..  The dials were supposed to have been black. The writer of the article in the   Progress in 1899 stated: “the contrast is not sufficiently great to make a difference, but as it conforms to the specifications of Architect Goodrich, it will not be changed at the present at least.”  The writer stated the clock had a musical sound and it was said the strikes on the bell could be heard a distance of 3 miles.

  Research by :

Mary Murphy, 2015 


  1. LEWIS COHEN                                             Researched by Mary Murphy April 2015

A prominent citizen of Washington County, Mr. Lewis Cohen was born in Germany in 1849 and came to America at the age of three. He grew up in Americus, GA and moved to Tennille ca 1877. After a short time in Tennille he moved to Sandersville and was associated with the firm of Pinkus Happ and Company. He was described as an enthusiastic businessman and was determined to see the town he had adopted grow. He worked diligently for Sandersville’s advancements and was one of the town’s most aggressive business leaders with numerous and varied profitable interest.

Mr. Cohen began the first banking system in Sandersville in 1885; it being the first banking system between Macon and Savannah. He continued to be involved in the banking business for approximately twenty-nine years. He was responsible for the first cotton warehouse being built in Sandersville. He also sold wagons and buggies and when the Birmingham Guano Company located in Sandersville, he served as President of the company. He built the first ginnery and flour mills, which afterwards he sold to Wiley Harris and Sons.

Lewis Cohen built the short line railroad between Sandersville and Tennille after the first railroad had been purchased by the Augusta Southern; worked effortless to cause the Sandersville and Tennille Telephone Exchange to be established; promoted the telegraph line from Sandersville to Dublin; installed the first electric light system in the town; worked actively in obtaining the municipal-owned electric light, waterworks and sewerage system in Sandersville.

Mr. Cohen served on the city council as well as serving as Mayor. For thirty years he was a member of the City Board of Education and for eleven of these years he served as president. He was also owner of Cohen’s Jewelry Store.

Mr. Louis Cohen died at his home in Sandersville 10 February 1937 at the age of 88 years. He was buried in Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, GA.


LEWIS COHEN STONE STEP

THE STONE STEP WITH THE NAME LEWIS COHEN INSCRIBED CAME FROM THE FRONT YARD OF MR. COHEN’S HOME ON NORTH HARRIS STREET IN SANDERSVILE. THE STONE WAS USED IN HIS ERA TO ASSIST LADIES AS THEY STEPPED IN AND OUT OF CARRIAGES. THE HOME WAS DEMOLISHED A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO TO ALLOW FOR THE EXPANSION OF THE GEORGE D. WARTHEN BANK. WHEN THE STONE STEP WAS REMOVED IT WAS ONLY BEFITTING THAT IT BE PLACED BESIDE THE GAZEBO ON THE COURTHOUSE SQUARE. IN 1898 MR. COHEN HAD THE GAZEBO BUILT FOR HIS DAUGHTER FLORENCE SO CONCERTS COULD BE HELD THERE FOR HER ENJOYMENT AND THE ENJOYMENT OF THE TOWN.            


JARED IRWIN MONUMENT

The monument in memory of Governor Jared Irwin (1750-1818) was erected on the town square in 1856 by an act of the State of Georgia Legislature. It was later moved to the present location after the construction of a new courthouse in 1869.

Jared Irwin was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina and moved with his family to Burke County, Georgia, later to Washington County. He fought in the American Revolution and his political career spanned several decades with varied notoriety. The monument to this twice governor of Georgia (1796-1798) and (1806-1809) has withstood the test of time; surviving the Civil War with only one bullet leaving its ‘mark.

Entering Sandersville during the occupation a Union Soldier described the monument as: “a splendid structure erected by the State and if the epitaph upon the same is all it reads, he (Irwin) never halted short of the 3rd heaven for the same covers the four entire sides.”

The inscription reads:

Erected by the State of Georgia to the memory of Governor Jared Irwin, who died at his residence, Union Hill, Washington, Co., on the first day of March 1818 in the 68th year of his age.

A true patriot, he entered the service of his country as a Captain as soon rose to the rank of colonel in the Revolutionary War. As a soldier, he was brave and gallant. He distinguished himself at the sieges of Savannah and Augusta and in the battles of Camden, Brier Creek, Black Swamp, and several other engagements, he was at all times foremost leading his gallant band to victory. And not with his work, and in his person only did he do service for his country. From his private means he erected a fortress in Burke County for protection of the people of the surrounding districts.

His pure devotion to the cause of liberty marked him in the eyes of the enemy, and on more than one occasion was he plundered of his property, and his promises reduced to ashes.

As the close of the War of the Revolution, with the rank of General, he was actively engaged in the service of the state, in repelling the attacks and invasions of the hostile Indians; and here, again, was his liberality called into activity. He, at his own expense, built a for at White Bluff, for the security and protection of the frontier inhabitants against the savage attacks of the merciless foes.

General Irwin was one of the convention which met at Augusta 1788, and ratified the constitution of the United States. He was a member of the convention in 1789, which formed the constitution of the State of Georgia. In 1798, he was president of the convention which revised the constitution of the State of Georgia. He rendered distinguished to his country as a commissioner, in concluding several treaties with the Indians.

At the close of the war of Independence he was a member of the first legislature under our present form of government; a position which he occupied for several years. He was elected president of the senate frequently, at various periods from 1790 until the time of his death.

He was governor of Georgia from January 17, 1796 to the 11th of January, 1798. And again from the 23rd of September, 1806, to the 7th of November, 1809. His administration was distinguished for his justice and impartiality; and his was the honor, after several years’ labor in the behalf, of signing the act rescinding the Yazoo Act.

In his private relations Governor Irwin was beloved by all who knew him. The spotless purity of his Character, his benign and affable disposition, his widespread benevolence and hospitality, made him the object of general affection. To the poor and distressed he was ever a benefactor and friend.

In every position of public life, as a soldier, a statesman, and a patriot, the public good was the object and the end of his ambition; and his death was lamented as a national calamity.

But his memory will ever be embalmed in the hearts of his countrymen; and the historian will award him a brilliant page in the records of the country.

Peace to his ashes! Honor to his name.

Mary Murphy

January 2016


THE OLD JAIL

This Victorian Era conjoined jail and sheriffs’ home was built in 1891 and is one of a few known to exist today. Very little has changed in the building since 1975 when it was last used as a jail. It was built of brick and stone with the intention of the appearance of a well appointed dwelling. The sheriff storied, was in the back part. The jail section still houses the original cells and locking mechanism. The Washington County Historical Society now houses the Old Jail Museum and Genealogy Research Center in the building.

Mary Murphy

December 2015


GAZEBO

The gazebo was built in 1898 on the courthouse grounds by Louis Cohen for his daughter Florence. The gazebo was used as a grandstand for the benefit of having outside symphonies. Florence was an avid music loves and sought a place for outside entertainment. In ca 1900 a local band was formed and in honor of her, named the Florence Symphony. Many outside musical symphonies were held from the gazebo. In later years the gazebo was moved to its present location on the courthouse square and extensive renovations were made. The gazebo is still in use today.

Mary Murphy

January 2016