History of Thomas County
Thomas County, located in the southwest quadrant of Georgia, was founded as an act of the Georgia Assembly in December, 1825. The legislation creating the County of Thomas from portions of Early and Decatur Counties was sponsored by Thomas Jefferson Johnson, owner of Pebble Hill Plantation in the southern portion of the County. Thomasville was named the county seat a year later, and was awarded a governing charter in 1831.
The first occupants of the land that would become Thomas County were Native Americans from the Creek and Apalachee people. It is believed that occupancy of the area was seasonal at this time, based around the hunting seasons. Frequent discoveries of bone fragments, pottery shards, stone projectiles, handsaws, and other tools indicate a long-standing presence of people prior to European colonization.
Hernando De Soto and his crew of exploring conquistadors, under the employ of Spain, are believed to be the first Europeans to come through the future Thomas County. Spain and the Catholic Church established a mission and village in what they called San Luis, later Tallahassee. While that is near Thomas County, evidence of European settlement in the actual land that Thomas County has claimed through its history is scant until the early nineteenth century.
While James Oglethorpe’s settlement of Savannah in 1733 was England’s first in the land that simultaneously became the colony of Georgia, it was the 1763 Treaty of Paris at the conclusion of the French and Indian War that ceded the southwest portion of the state to England. However, the colonies of Georgia and South Carolina both claimed the region Thomas County would be created in as their own, based on the vague wording in the Charter of the Colony of South Carolina. The land dispute was only settled in 1787, and the southwest portion of Georgia became part of the state.
A land lottery was held in Georgia’s antebellum capital, Milledgeville, in 1820, to disperse land in the southwest portion of Georgia, in return for a small fee to be paid at a future date. This brought the first significant movement of settlers to the region, but they were still few in comparison to the coastal plains. Conflict with Native Americans, including the Creek and Seminole Wars during the 1830s discouraged potential homesteaders. Nonetheless, a slow-but-steady trickle of Europeans and their descendants, particularly those of Scottish ethnicity, purchased the cheap and fertile land in the nascent Thomas County.
Between 1830 and 1850, Thomas County’s population tripled to more than 10,000 people. It was a pre-industrial agrarian economy, based on the labor of enslaved Africans, most of who worked in the vast cotton fields in the County. In 1830, there were about 2,000 free Europeans to 1,000 enslaved Africans; by 1850, there were about 5,000 Europeans and 5,000 Africans. While there were restrictive laws by which enslaved Africans could be “free,” only four of the 5,000 people of African descent in Thomas County were not enslaved. However, the rights of American citizenship were severely restricted by state law for these four individuals: voting, gun ownership, and simple travel were all prohibited.
The railroad first reached Thomas County in 1861, and was shortly followed by the outbreak of the Civil War. Although fighting never came near to Thomas County, many residents participated in the War effort in some way. Thomas County produced twelve units consisting of more than 2,000 soldiers. For those who did not participate in fighting, some type of contribution was expected.
The closest battle was in Natural Bridge, Florida. For a ten-day period in 1864, however, 5,000 Union prisoners-of-war were transferred from the Andersonville prison camp to Thomasville. A makeshift prison camp was established on a five-acre plot, where as many as five hundred Union prisoners died. After ten days, the prisoners were transferred back to Andersonville. The memories and legends of Thomasville’s prisoner-of-war camp persist, as does a one-acre plot from the camp which has been designated a historic site in Thomasville.
The War ended, and people returned to Thomas County. Reconstruction in Thomas County was inconsistently administered, with several vacillations between local and military control. No matter the state of governance, life returned to a certain amount of normalcy one might find in peacetime anywhere. Chaos never gripped Thomas County as it did in other parts. By the time Reconstruction officially ended in 1877, both the city of Thomasville and the county had well-established the elements of a modern society, including public safety organizations and council-commission style governments.
The decades following Reconstruction were very favorable to Thomasville and Thomas County in general, for reasons impossible to enumerate but including everything from serendipity to medicine to marketing. The period beginning in the mid 1870s and ending around 1905 is frequently referred to as Thomasville’s “Resort Era,” a time when the city became a popular winter vacation destination for Northeasterners and Midwesterners. Dozens of hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, and all the other accoutrements of a tourist economy were built during this time, and established Thomasville as a regional economic and cultural hub.
Lacking any of the natural features resort towns usually do – beaches or mountains – numerous theories have developed to explain why Thomasville became known as the “Winter Resort of the South” and attracted tens-of-thousands of visitors each fall and winter. Thomasville’s good luck to be the last stop on the railroad line from Savannah is frequently cited, which might have been an influence, but the railroad line was extended to Bainbridge and beyond by the early 1870s and can hardly explain success past that period. Another frequent citation is Thomasville’s billing as a sanitarium for those suffering from the multitude of lung diseases known collectively as consumption, after a local doctor penned an article for the New England Journal of Medicine claiming the pine-resin air in the pine barrens of southwest Georgia was recuperative. While the medical claim itself is dubious, health asylum seekers found the climate and people pleasant enough to return anyway. There was always the very real medical fear of malaria, which stifled development in Florida for many years and Thomasville was above the latitude where mosquitoes were consistently malarial. Still another claims the relatively pleasant experiences of Union prisoners spread the word of Thomasville’s good citizens and climate.
No matter the natural, medical, or other reasons Thomasville became such a popular resort, clever marketing always accompanied the sales point. Regular citizens along with business owners, land owners, and politicians more concerned with financial stability than revenge advertised Thomasville as a pleasant place for northerners to spend their winters. The people of Thomasville greeted the ever-increasing number of vacationers kindly, lending to the good reputation of the city. By 1885, there were two large, luxury hotels – the Mitchell House and the Piney Woods – that catered to upscale industrialists. Orchestras and foods were imported from Europe, and the most popular live entertainment available, including John Philip Sousa and Annie Oakley, brought their shows to Thomasville. Many of those industrialists eventually bought property and built homes in Thomasville.
During the 1890s, many of Thomas County’s plantations, most still in the hands of the antebellum families that owned them for decades, were sold to the northern industrialists who had been visiting Thomasville each winter. Most prolific amongst these buyers was Howard Melville Hanna, part of a contingent of Cleveland-based families who came to love Thomas County. “Mel” Hanna purchased Pebble Hill Plantation as well as other large tracts of land. Other Clevelanders soon joined Hanna, including Western Union heir Jeptha Wade III. They turned the agribusiness plantations into quail hunting reserves, and paid inflated prices for the land that filled both the city’s and county’s coffers with property tax and other revenues.
1905 is viewed in retrospect as the end of Thomasville’s “Resort Era.” This is part symbolic, because the Piney Woods Hotel burned that year, but also quite real, as the numbers of vacationers had been steadily decreasing for several years. Just as the beginning of the Resort Era entertained multiple theories for its existence, so did its end. Some point to the State of Georgia enacting an alcohol prohibition law in 1899 that discouraged pleasure seekers. Others claim the expansion of railroads created more options; some that the discovery that quinine prevents malaria which allowed expanded development in Florida as the reason. There is evidence all of these developments contributed to the end of Thomasville’s heyday as a winter resort. But Thomas County’s plantations remained popular with America’s elite.
Rather than fall in to an economic malaise that often accompanies sudden economy-based shifts, Thomasville remained vibrant by attracting industry. The influx of government revenues had allowed the city to provide electricity by 1889; a modern, public education system by 1901; and paved roads by 1908. These modernizations created an attractive locale for industrialists, who were already familiar with Thomasville through either their own or their friends’ travels. By 1920, more than forty factories, works, and mills were operating throughout Thomas County.
Outside of Thomasville in the county towns, remarkable growth occurred in this time period. The antebellum cities of Boston and Ochlocknee managed to survive the railroad boom by attracting stops. While some cities and towns that had previously been along wagon lines died, several new railroad “boom towns” appeared between 1890 and 1910. To the southeast of Thomasville is Metcalfe, named in honor of a prominent winter vacationer. Timber and watermelons were the main items shipped from this town on the Florida border. In the northeast corner of the county is Coolidge, an agricultural community that became well-known for cabbage and later in the century became home to the Hurst Boiler Company. In the northwest section of the county is Meigs, another railroad community with a timber-based economy. Along the border between Thomas and Brooks Counties, the cities of Pavo and Barwick were founded as railroad stops to pick up a variety of agricultural goods.
Through the Great Depression and World War II, Thomasville and Thomas County continued to modernize. The Rural Electrification Association brought electricity to the rest of Thomas County, while each of the county towns established modern school systems. The emergence of the Flowers Baking Company, Coats and Clark Thread Company, and Davis Water and Waste provided middle-class jobs, as did the hunting plantations that surround Thomasville.
Perhaps the greatest impact came from John D. Archbold Memorial Hospital. John F. Archbold, the son of John D., owned Chinquapin Plantation on the border with Grady County. When his father, the second-in-command at Standard Oil passed away, he decided to build a large hospital in his memory. The outsized building made Thomasville a regional medical hub and created hundreds of jobs. On the south side of Thomasville, Finney General Hospital was built during World War II for wounded and ill soldiers. After the war, it was transformed into a domiciliary for aged veterans, before becoming Southwestern State Hospital, which it remains today.
Thomasville gained national attention during the presidency of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1952-1960. During his presidency, “Ike” visited Thomasville six times, usually staying at Milestone Plantation, owned by his Treasury Secretary George Humphrey. Ike, Humphrey, and a cadre of other powerful men spent their early Februaries hunting quail, playing bridge, and shooting rounds of golf. The first round of golf played by Eisenhower at Glen Arven Country Club following his 1955 heart attack was followed closely by the national media. Eisenhower at times had to deal with important domestic and international affairs while on vacation in Thomasville, including the Suez Crises.
Through the 1950s and into the 1960s, Thomas County, by both culture and state law was strictly segregated. Douglass and Magnolia High Schools were the education centers for African-American students in the city and county, with Thomasville High School and Central High School for white students. Public venues like theaters and stadiums maintained separate seating, and all accommodations from restrooms to listening booths at music stores were built in pairs to avoid race mixing.
Following a series of Supreme Court losses and new Civil Rights laws during this period, it became evident to even the most ardent segregationists the era of Jim Crow and segregation was over. While not a simple or always smooth transition, Thomasville and Thomas County managed to avoid the violence and tumult that afflicted some nearby communities. By the late 1960s, both the city and county schools began to integrate their respective student bodies. Complete desegregation was finally implemented during the 1970-1971 school year, with the transformation of all-black Douglass and Magnolia High Schools into the integrated city and county middle schools.
As Thomasville and Thomas County approached the twenty-first century, it continued to find a means towards modernization without destroying its Victorian vibe. This is partially achieved through the establishment of historic districts which maintain guidelines that help maintain the look of neighborhoods. Organizations like Thomasville Landmarks, Jack Hadley’s Black History Museum, the Thomasville Genealogical, Fine Arts and History Library, and the Thomas County Historical Society work to maintain the architectural, documentary, material, ethnic, and genealogical histories and features of Thomasville and Thomas County intact.