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History of Peach County and Its Cities

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Peach County History

The Georgia General Assembly approved a constitutional amendment to create Peach County from parts of Houston and Macon counties on July 18, 1924. Georgia voters ratified the proposed amendment on Nov. 4, 1924, creating Georgia's 161st and last new county and ending a long struggle between neighboring communities.

A state historical marker on the courthouse grounds incorrectly cites the county's creation as the day the legislative act proposing the constitutional amendment was approved, but the county was officially born when Georgia voters approved the amendment 77,052 to 31,211. Peach County opened for business on Jan. 1, 1925, and the first commissioners were elected on Jan. 7, 1925.

Fort Valley was established as a trading post by James Abbington Everett in the early 1820s and incorporated as a city in 1856. Not long after its incorporation, the idea of carving a new county out of the north end of Houston County was being discussed.

While nothing happened then, talk of a new county continued through the years and was said to have gained momentum again in the 1880s. Although the source of the statement has never been verified, reportedly there was a rule of thumb in Georgia in the 1800s that every citizen should be within a one-day round trip by horse or wagon from the seat of county government.

In reality, however, other factors were more commonly behind the push to create new counties. Personal disputes and political controversies frequently led to the division of an existing county. Fort Valley residents found it hard to get to the courthouse in Perry and the Flint River created a natural barrier between residents in the north part of Macon County and their county courthouse in Oglethorpe.

Historians say the final and successful effort to create Peach County started in 1914 at a meeting at the home of A.B. Greene on Everett Square attended by community leaders from both Fort Valley and Byron. The movement gained momentum in the years between 1914 and 1922 when the effort erupted into a full scale political war between the communities of Perry and Fort Valley.

With community pride and normal territorial feelings at the center of the debate, the arguments raged over the final population of the affected counties, distribution of land and the actual need for another county.

Even the proposed name sparked arguments. Some residents of the area were apparently outraged that the proponents of the new county would consider naming it for a fruit. How could Georgia possibly start naming counties after agricultural crops? If voters approved another new county, would it be called "Watermelon County?"

Fiercely protective of their power, Houston County leaders transferred ownership of 40,000 acres to Macon County in an effort to persuade Macon County voters to oppose the Peach County amendment. Civic clubs, businesses and local politicians in both counties got involved and vicious letters were circulated debating the issue. A Marshallville merchant who supported the new county was reportedly sent a letter to advising him to "get out of town."

At the state level, the big debate centered on whether or not there was a need for more counties in Georgia. Georgia voters had approved a constitutional amendment in 1904 limiting the number of counties to 145. The next year, the General Assembly created eight new counties, bringing the total number to 145 -- the constitutional limit. Nevertheless, there was continuing pressure to create more counties.

Because an act of the legislature cannot conflict with the state constitution, the only option was to amend the state constitution. Beginning in 1906, lawmakers got around the 145-county limitation by creating new counties through constitutional amendments that were not subject to the limitation. By 1922 there were 160 counties and voters were beginning to question the need for more government.

Nevertheless, the constitutional amendment to create Peach County passed the legislature in 1922 and went on the ballot that fall only to be defeated at the polls. But the supporters of Peach County were undaunted and the battles raged on.

While the history of the effort between 1922 and 1924 is sketchy, Sen. J.E. Davison, Emmet House, Charles Jackson, H.C. Neil, C.L. Shepard and A.J. Evans are credited with helping resolve the differences with voters in Macon and Houston Counties, thus ending the war of words. The legislature approved the amendment in voters went to the polls in November and approved the creation of Peach County with Fort Valley as the county seat.

A Year After Founding, County Hosted 5th Peach Festival

Georgia's 161st -- and last -- new county was named for the peaches so proudly grown in the area.

Interestingly, the origin of the county seat's name is unclear. One story claims that Everett named it "Fox Valley" but that his writing was misread by officials in Washington, D.C., as "Fort Valley." Another story claims that Everett named the town after his friend Arthur Fort, a Revolutionary War hero from nearby Milledgeville. In any case, it seems that there was never a military fort in the new county.

With the creation of Peach County, Georgia had 16 counties created by constitutional amendment after the limit of 145 counties was set in 1904, but Peach County proved to be the last. Milton and Campbell counties merged with Fulton in 1932, leaving 159 counties. Georgia voters ratified a new constitution in 1945 which set an absolute limit of 159 counties, with an additional provision that no new country could be created except through consolidation of existing counties.

After Peach County's creation in November 1924, supporters worked diligently to open for business in January 1925. The second floor of Slappey's Opera House (later renamed the Austin Theater and then the Peach Theatre) on Main Street was used as the county courthouse. County officials later moved the courthouse around the corner to a former Star and Durant auto dealership on South Macon St. The current courthouse was built in 1936. After a fire in 1969, the courthouse was restored and expanded in the early 1970s. Another addition was built in the 1990s.

For additional information about the history of Peach County, click here to visit the Peach County Historical Society website.

For more information on Peach County, visit www.peachcounty.net.

Fort Valley History

Fort Valley was founded in the 1820s as a Native American trading post at the intersection of two early Indian trails. That crossing of trails made it a natural place for North Carolinian James Abbington Everett to set up a trading post. Everett was joined by Mathew Dorsey, Peter Greene and William and Allen Wiggins in settling the new community.

The origin of the town's name is unclear. One story claims that Everett named it "Fox Valley" but that his writing was misread by post office officials in Washington, D.C., as "Fort Valley." Another story claims that Everett named the town after his friend Arthur Fort, a Revolutionary War (1755-1838) hero from nearby Milledgeville. In any case, it seems that there was never a military fort on the site.

According to United States Post office for the period 1789-1930 now kept in the National Archives, a post office was established in Fort Valley, Crawford County, Ga., on Dec. 7, 1825, with Everett as postmaster. No other name for this office was found in the archives.

In a letter to the late Thelma Wilson, W.H. Harris wrote many years ago, "The post office of Fort Valley was originally in Crawford County. The county lines didn't move as they later did from Houston to Peach County, but Fort Valley moved. It was originally about two miles out on the Atlanta Highway."

James Everett became a wealthy and influential plantation owner, donating funds for the education of Georgians and using his influence to ensure that the railroad came through his new town, although he died before the first train pulled into the station in Fort Valley. The railroad played a key role in the town's development.

Splitting the city in half north and south, the railroad has played a prominent and important role in the growth of Fort Valley. A large brick freight depot was built on the west side of what is now Main Street in 1871 and a passenger terminal was added in 1900.

At one point, passenger and freight traffic through Fort Valley was so heavy two large hotels, the Winona at Main Street and the Bassett (also known as the Watson House and the Central Hotel) at Hwy. 96, were built to house the many visitors to the city. The Winona was torn down in the mid-1960s and the Bassett was destroyed by fire in 2006.

For many years the primary method of shipping peaches to northern markets was by rail, so trains crowded the multiple tracks in downtown Fort Valley 24 hours a day during the hectic summer days of peach season.

An interesting picture of pioneer days around Fort Valley was preserved in "Reminiscenses of Fort Valley," by Mrs. Osborn Rogers Flournoy.

She wrote, "The early settlers of Fort Valley, men and women of piety, culture and wealth, were attracted from other states by the farming lands. Although the first houses were built of logs, they were afterwards replaced by timbered dwellings in colonial style. These homes had no clothes closets, waterworks nor artificial lights, but they did have spacious rooms with lofty ceilings and huge fireplace.

"Each house had its flower garden, English style, laid out in beds with walks edged in boxwood, the whole surrounded by white picket fence and a close-trimmed hedge. Outside of these grounds were the usual groves of oaks, under which were the plantation out-buildings. All kinds of fruit, vegetables, cattle and poultry were raised to support the family."

City chartered in 1856
Fort Valley was chartered by a legislative act approved on March 3, 1856, with C.D. Anderson, William H. Hollinshead, William I. Greene, A.D. Kendrick and D.N. Austin appointed as commissioners. They were empowered by the legislature to "make laws and regulations for a government in the best interest of the citizens" and were appointed to serve until their successors were elected. Dr. William Mathews, state representative for Houston County in which Fort Valley was then located, introduced the bill for incorporation.

No record of the first elected officials has been found and the first known elected mayor was A.C. Riley who was voted into office on April 9, 1888. He resigned from office on Jan. 7, 1890, and J.L. Fincher served until the next election in April of that year.

The original charter established the town limits as one mile in each direction from the railroad depot. Outside the one-mile radius large plantations grew up, devoted at first to cotton and later to peaches, asparagus and pecans. The development of the Elberta peach and excellent rail connections taking the fresh fruit great distances combined to make Fort Valley the peach-growing center of Georgia.

The first school, Fort Valley Academy, was chartered on Dec. 24, 1836, with Everett as one of its trustees. Organized in 1840 as the Old Pond Church, the current Fort Valley United Methodist Church was the first church in Fort Valley. The First Baptist Church was organized in 1852 and Ushers Temple C.M.E. Church, the first free African-American church, was established in 1866. The first newspaper, The 19th Century, was published in the 1850s.

Peaches made city famous
Peaches were introduced into Georgia in the 18th century, but commercial production did not occur until the mid-19th century. Georgia peaches were first shipped to the New York market between 1858 and 1860.

In 1870, Samuel H. Rumph, a Marshallville peach grower, perfected a new peach variety, which he named Elberta, for his wife. The Elberta remained the leading peach in Georgia until 1960, but was replaced by newer varieties created for commercial use.

The area's identification with the fruit was so great that in 1924 a new county, Peach, was carved out of sections of Macon and Houston counties, with Fort Valley as its seat.

At one point more than 50 packing sheds ran during peach season in Fort Valley and Peach County providing thousands of jobs for young and old alike. Now, two ultra modern facilities handle the peaches that once took so many sheds to pack. Peaches are generally available mid-May through mid-August. Both sheds offer tours during regular business hours.

Founded in 1908 by John David Duke as Diamond Fruit Farm, Lane Packing Co. farms more than 2,500 acres of peach trees and 2,000 acres of pecans. Located just outside of Fort Valley, the fourth generation family operation now grows more than 30 varieties of peaches. Duke Lane Sr. turned the business over to his four children -- Duke Jr., Bobby, Anne and Steve -- in 1990 and they continue to run it today.

The Pearson family has been growing peaches and pecans for more than 100 years on the same land worked by grandparents of current managing partner Al Pearson. Big 6 Farm is comprised of 1,500 acres of peaches and 2,000 acres of pecans. This family farm produces a bounty of fruit and nuts with the finest being used in Mary Pearson's mail order business, Pearson Farms. The packing house is located about five miles from Fort Valley in the old Zenith school.

Along with the agricultural economy came a demand for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Woolfolk Chemical Works built a plant in 1920 to manufacture agricultural chemicals in what is now downtown Fort Valley to fill the demand. During the following decades the plant changed hands several times. In the 1980s the Environmental Protection Agency discovered that the ground around the plant was contaminated by lead, arsenic, and other chemicals, and steps were taken to correct environmental damage sustained by the area.

The Atlantic Ice and Coal Co. built a new million dollar ice plant in Fort Valley in 1925 which produced 50,000 tons of ice to cool 17,200 railroad cars filled with peaches. At the time it was built, it was the largest ice plant in the world.

According to local peach grower Bill McGeehee (Big 6 Packing Company), and local historian Wallis Hardeman, the 17,200 railroad cars were the equivalent to about 9,000 truckloads of peaches (one railroad car averaged 400 bushels of peaches). Today growers ship approximately 1,500 to 2,000 truck loads of peaches per year.

In the 1950s and '60s, 400 pound blocks of ice were still used to "hydrocool" (cold water wash) peaches before they were washed, graded, packed and loaded on trucks for shipment. Every local packing house ran trucks to and from the ice plant to constantly replenish the huge hydrocoolers. Modern day refrigerated trucks and railroad cars have eliminated the need for ice houses and hydrocoolers.

Most of the ice plant is still in existence today and it is being used for cold storage. At one time the U.S. government was using the facility to store ready to eat meals (modern day C-Rations). Currently the ice house serves as a cold storage warehouse for peanuts.

Blue Bird puts city on international map
Fort Valley also has another historical claim to international fame in addition to its peaches. A company now known around the world was founded in 1927 when a friend asked Albert L. Luce Sr. for a bus to transport his workers. This request gave Luce the opportunity to create the first Blue Bird school bus and spearheaded the beginning of a highly successful corporation. The words "Fort Valley, Ga., USA" have been taken to every corner of the world by the familiar yellow buses with the stylized bird above their windows.

The Luce family played a major role in the history of Fort Valley as Albert Luce's three sons, George, Buddy and Joe, took over Blue Bird and guided it to its position of prominence. Devout and active Methodists, the Luce's treated their employees like family members, offering regular worship services at the plant for those who wanted to participate. When none of their children expressed an interest in continuing to operate the company, the Luce brothers sold the company to an investment firm. It has since been sold and reorganized.

Building on the success of its school bus line, Blue Bird expanded its vision. More than 40 years ago, the company set its sights on the motor coach market and created a product that continues to deliver luxury travel at its best. The first Blue Bird Wanderlodge motor coach was built in Fort Valley in 1963 and the product line continues to set the standard for luxury transportation.

Now, nearly 80 years later, Blue Bird has grown to nearly 3,000 employees working at three facilities in two countries.

American Camellia Society brings more fame
One of the world's finest collections of camellias fills a nine-acre area at Massee Lane, the home of the American Camellia Society just outside Fort Valley.

The formal camellia garden at Massee Lane had its beginnings in the 1930s as the private garden of peach grower and farmer David C. Strother. He surrounded his farmhouse with camellias. Year by year, he moved out the garden borders to accommodate the camellias he wanted to plant. It is said he never included a camellia he didn't like, even if it were given to him. Mr. Strother donated this land to the American Camellia Society for its headquarters in 1966.

The Georgian style headquarters building was completed in 1968 and is named for Mr. Strother. The following year the T.J. Smith Memorial Greenhouse was built to house the present collection of some 200 camellia plants grown under glass in an attractive landscaped setting.

More than a thousand varieties of camellias are grown at Massee Lane along with sasanquas, fragrant tea olives, Lady Banksia roses, and delightfully scented daphnes.

Fort Valley State University a key to future
The Fort Valley High and Industrial School, chartered in 1895, and the State Teachers and Agricultural College of Forsyth, founded in 1902, were consolidated in 1939 to form Fort Valley State College. It became Fort Valley State University in June 1996 and has played a great role in Fort Valley's resurgence.

The only 1890 land grant school in Georgia, Fort Valley State University is a comprehensive institution providing an educational experience of exceptional quality. Its 1,365-acre campus is the second largest (in acreage) public university in the state.

The university's 3,000 plus students represent 130 of Georgia's 159 counties, more than 30 states and about 10 international countries. Ninety-four percent of the student body is African American. The average age is 24 for undergraduates and 33 for graduate students. About one-third of students live on campus, and 85 percent attend college full-time.

The University offers bachelor's degrees in more than 50 majors - education, business administration and agriculture are particularly popular - as well as master's degrees in education and counseling. An education specialist degree also is available. In an effort to accommodate our graduate and non-traditional students, external degree program courses are also being offered at off-campus sites in Macon, Cochran and Dublin.

Fort Valley State's Cooperative Developmental Energy Program (CDEP) is the only one of its kind in the nation, preparing students for energy-industry careers in science and geology.

Outreach services include Fort Valley's Cooperative Extension Program, where extension specialists operate in 42 counties, and the Pettigrew Conference Center, which hosts more than 500 courses and events for 51,000 patrons each year.

Peach festivals add to colorful history
Toward the final stages of efforts to bring about the creation of a new county, the idea of the Peach Blossom Festival was conceived. Between 1922-26, Fort Valley greeted the first peach blossoms in annual festivals of dance, song, elaborate pageants and delicious barbecue. Soon thousands from all over the world would make their way to Fort Valley each March. It has been reported that as many as 40,000 people descended on the town during the festival, which was ended in 1926 because it was too successful.

Sixty years later, in 1986, Fort Valley staged the first Georgia Peach Festival. This revived festival, now in its 20th year, resulted from a suggestion by Harold Peavy to promote Peach County and the peach industry that has contributed so much to the livelihood of the middle Georgia area.

The festival officially incorporated in 1988 under the direction of the Peach County Chamber of Commerce. Today, a volunteer board of directors plans and executes the complex job of organizing the festival in Fort Valley and Byron. With many residents joining the effort to make the festival bigger and better each year, attendance from outside the area is growing yearly.

Tornado changes face of city in 1975
While Fort Valley has survived its share of fires and other catastrophes, one of the worst had to be the 1975 tornado. The Category 3 storm with maximum winds in the 158-206 mph range entered the city from the west and left a path of destruction through the heart of Main St., ripping the fronts off nearly every building on both sides of the street. Two people were killed by the storm, 50 were injured and damages were estimated at between $5 million and $50 million.

Beginning with the recovery from that devastating storm, Fort Valley has worked diligently to improve its downtown business district and to position itself to grow in the new century.

As with many other American agricultural communities, Fort Valley has been through a period of economic retrenchment. As the economy has moved away from heavy dependence on agriculture, Fort Valley residents have found employment at Blue Bird as well several newer industries. Fort Valley State University is one of the city's largest employers and other residents are finding work in a budding tourist economy.

Through the diligent efforts of Fort Valley's Mainstreet program, the city was chosen as one of the Georgia Municipal Association's Cities of Excellence for 2003.

For more information on Fort Valley, visit www.fortvalleyusa.com

This history assembled by Jimmy Bennett with assistance from the Thomas Public Library. Information was taken from the New Georgia Encylopedia, a History of Peach County, Georgia, compiled by the Gov, Truetlen Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and published by the Cherokee Publishing Co. in 1972. Additional information was found on the websites of the Georgia Peach Festival, Main Street Fort Valley, the Peach County Historical Society and Historical Phields on kommish.net.

History of Byron

In the early 1850s, Byron was a flag-stop on the Southwestern Railroad and was known as "Number One and One-Half Station." It had a woodrack for wood-burning engines that was kept by Nimrod Jackson, so later the settlement became known as Jackson Station.

William Hays built a store here in 1860 and a post office was established. In 1867, a second store was built by Dr. C.H. Richardson, who later became Byron's first Mayor. By this time, several handsome homes and pretty cottages had been built. In 1874, the town was incorporated by the Georgia Legislature and named for Dr. Richardson's favorite poet, Lord George Gordon (Noel) Byron.

A large belt of productive farmland owned by industrious people surrounded the infant town. It lay directly on the Southwestern Railroad, which handled all incoming and outgoing freight. Several roads leading from different points penetrated the town. The town began to grow steadily and substantially.

The first school erected within the corporate limits was established in 1885 by Major E.H. Ezell who served as principal and teacher. At that time, owing to his splendid reputation as an educator, boarding students came from various parts of the state to attend the school.

At the turn of the century, Byron was still a quiet rural community but was beginning to show marked growth. Its people were conservative, religious and well-educated. Byron attracted people by its nearness to Macon and excellent passenger train schedules that made it convenient for those in business or those that worked in Macon to commute. Students used monthly ticket books to commute to Wesleyan College, Mercer University and Macon Business College.

Farming was the principle occupation. Mercantile shops, a carriage and buggy factory or two, blacksmith shops, a drug store and general merchandise stores cared for its people. The town was blessed by an abundance of professional people - doctors, lawyers, (six MDs and three lawyers all practicing in late 1800s) druggists, teachers and musicians.

Around 1920, the story of the peach industry marked an era that gave the first quarter of this century such a glamour of prosperity that fact and fiction were hard to distinguish. The peach industry brought bankruptcy as well as wealth. Byron became one of the largest peach growing and shipping areas in the South. During fruit season, Byron was a beehive of activity; often 30 or 40 cars of peaches were shipped in one day by rail; boarding houses provided hospital care for transient fruit packers, crate makers and buyers. In Byron or nearby, there were 11 or 12 locally-owned packing sheds in operation at one time. During this time 14 passenger trains were added to the schedule.

In 1942, our country was at war and often 40 to 50 troop trains or freight cars loaded with war supplies passed through Byron every 24 hours. The same year the United States Government began its installation of Warner Robins Air Force Base. In 1959, the U.S. Naval Forms and Publications Supply Office was built in Byron, it was phased out in 1963 and is now a United States Department of Agriculture Research Station.

In the '70s, people anxious to leave city living and high taxation started migrating migrated to this vicinity which is now one of the most progressive parts of the state. Our area is attractive to new business and industry and it is one of the most highly developed agricultural sections in Georgia.

During the '80s and '90s, Byron enjoyed great growth, with an outlet shopping mall, antique malls, automobile dealers and RV dealerships. Also during this time the North Peach Industrial Park was developed, motels, restaurants and service stations were constructed to accommodate travelers on Interstate 75, which after being opened in the '60s put Byron on the map.

In 1990 local Byron residents raised $70,000 to renovate the Byron Depot, which houses a museum of our history. In 1995, Byron's Downtown and those homes in the immediate area were designated as the Byron Historic District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In recent years, the Byron Area Historical Society has partnered with the City of Byron to renovate the Old Jail, and provided start-up funds for the bandstand in the park which has just been beautified with plantings and the installation of brick walkways imprinted with the names of Byron's earliest citizens as well as with names of current members of the community. Funding provided by the State of Georgia enabled the park project to be completed.

The old drugstore, a favorite gathering place for generations of Byron school children, has been restored to serve as the Convention & Visitors Bureau and Welcome Center and also the Better Hometown office.

Byron, no longer a small town, is a fast-growing city of 3,100 residents and is experiencing great growing pains.

For more information on Byron, visit www.byronga.com