TAMING THE WILD CHILD
CALLED HARALSON COUNTY
The American Civil War devasted this country,
and the State of Georgia in particular, in a
way unknown before or since. But that is not
to say there was not a lot of violence before
or since to shatter the impression given by a
placid and reassuring word like "peace".
It is now accepted that human societies lacking
large-scale organization tend to be remarkably
violent in comparison to other ones. The
"King's Peace" can be oppressive or worse,
but peace it is. Haralson County was largely
free of the King's Peace in the 19th century,
when it was wild, thinly-settled frontier country.
The county was created by the State of Georgia
in 1856 from land which only a generation before
had been held and occupied by Amerindian peoples
who were forcibly removed. Since then, it has
been served by three successively active county
courthouses. You are now standing in the second
of these, and the second to be built on this site.
Hung respectively on two different walls of
this story of the building are reproductions
of two works of pictorial art created at the dawn of
the 1890s, when this courthouse was constructed. They
were executed near the then-booming city of Tallapoosa,
less than ten miles by roadway to the southwest of us.
They are the climax of the story we shall now tell.
The original of the work which is an oil on canvas
painting, whose copy we hang on the wall at the immediate
right, is in the permanent collection of the
Morris Museum of Art in Augusta. The museum titles the
work "Opposum Snout, Haralson County, Georgia" and offers
the following idylic description of it on its Web site:
...by using the former name of the once quiet community
of Opossum Snout as the image's title, Carr recalls a
time in the South before the turbulent period of the
The museum's home in Augusta was once the US Army post
of a recent West Point graduate named William Tecumseh
Sherman, and later a backbone of Confederate military
might, hosting both an arsenal and giant gun powder works.
Yet both it and Haralson County were spared direct
physical devastation by the Civil War, which seems to
make the painting commentary imaginative - rather than
What was Haralson County really like during the "peaceful"
years of the 19th century? Our knowledge is limited by
the paucity of local written records, especially before
the first county newspaper began publishing here in 1884.
But even before then, this obscure county of only a few
thousand souls was the subject of both national
and international notoriety.
By 1871, considerable effort had been made by the United
States to suppress the terrorist acts of the Ku Klux Klan.
But late that year, Congressional hearings held in Atlanta
still featured extensive testimony recounting the horror
of terror by and against the residents of Haralson County.
And in early 1877, after the last federal occupation troops
had departed the South with the close of Reconstruction, at
least five newspapers on the other side of the world, in
Australia and New Zealand, ran the following copy:
The 'whisky raids' in the United States still continue, and
have lately led to fighting, with fatal results. The illicit
distillers in the mountain regions of North and South
Carolina and Georgia are, according to information received
at the Internal Revenue Office, Washington, determined to
resist by force of arms the attempts to break up their
unlawful business. In a recent raid made in Haralson County,
North Georgia, the revenue officers succeeded in capturing a
great number of men and destroying numerous distilleries,
with their contents. Among others captured was a Baptist
minister and the County Sheriff, both accused of defrauding
the Government by illicit distillation...
During the next year the Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture
reported that only 27 percent of Haralson County's tillable
land had been cleared to date. The 1880 US census counted a
total of 5,974 persons in the county, but virtually all of
them lived in the countryside. The largest settlement was
Buchanan, the town in which you now stand, which then had
only 158 residents. Smaller still was the former Amerindian
meeting place of Tallapoosa, called by some "Possum Snout,"
which numbered only 52 calling it home. In those days, the
original Haralson County courthouse stood at this site, a
building only "thirty-five feet square, the walls... of good
brick two stories high." No photograph, drawing or other
pictorial rendering of it is known to have ever been made.
The decade of the 1880s would be a time of dramatic change
in the life of Haralson County, for at long last the
high-tech wonder of steam-powered railroading would be
deployed here. County population would nearly double,
and more significantly, the number of town dwellers
would grow explosively.
But on the eve of these changes, frightening violence
still remained a hallmark of life. In June 1884, The New
York Times ran an article titled Why the Court Adjourned
recounting dramatic events in the first county courthouse
located on this very spot. It wrote:
In Buchanan, the county seat of Haralson County, the court
proceedings were to-day enlivened by an altercation which
arose between J. M. McBride and W. J. Head, Sr., two leading
citizens. M. J. Head, son of one of the participants, joined
in the dispute by drawing out his pistol and firing three
shots, one of them striking Dr. Smith in the hand, and
another lodging in the head of Officer Woolley. The court
adjourned until the trouble was settled.
The senior Mr. Head was one of the two county delegates who
had voted for Georgia to secede from the Union at the start
of the Civil War. Remarkably, before their lives were spent,
both he and Mr. McBride would represent the county in the
Georgia legislature, each in both the assembly and senate.
A few years later, another article in the same national
newspaper would write the following about this year of 1884:
...Tallapoosa was an isolated village, hardly known to
the people of Atlanta, in one of the least populated and
most lawless counties of Georgia, the abode of moonshiners
and shotgun gangs. The village then contained about 100
persons, and no man was ever sure of his life there.
The previous year, 1883, the Georgia Pacific Railroad had
started laying track westward near the southern border of
Haralson County. By year-end, a new settlement on that
line named Bremen had been incorporated. As the new year
dawned, the county's first newspaper, the weekly Haralson
County Banner, started publication. 1884 also saw the
railroad laying track three-quarters of a mile south of
the old Tallapoosa, which a local source claims was then
home to a mere 56 souls, creating a new Tallapoosa athwart
By the time 1887 arrived, the new Tallapoosa was booming
and The New York Times would write this about it:
But what a wonderful transformation was effected by
the building of a railway through the place, and no more
peaceful community than that of Tallapoosa can be found
to-day... The present population... exceeds 1,000.
The same year saw the Chattanooga, Rome and Columbus Railroad
laying track through Buchanan, connecting it with Bremen to
its south, and points far beyond. It had been 17 years since
the first hope of railroad service for Buchanan was raised.
The resulting railroad junction in Bremen would eventually
help it become the county's largest community during the
twentieth century, today home to nearly 6,000. But would
the new railroad serving Buchanan help that town keep up
with the population boom already manifest in Tallapoosa?
The next year, 1888, a fire may have played a critical role
in determining what the future held for Buchanan. That fire
destroyed the original wood-frame Buchanan Methodist Church,
which was located just to the southwest of this courthouse
site. Evidently, the same blaze damaged the old courthouse
which then still stood here. While the burnt church was
rebuilt as a new wood-frame building to the immediate west
of the courthouse, the question arose what the fate of the
damaged courthouse would be.
For the boom in Tallapoosa was on, and resulted in its
reincorporation as a city by the end of the year. Why mend
a hurt courthouse in remote Buchanan when it seemed that
the swelling county population was destined to straddle
the east-west railroad line many miles to its south, perhaps
in a string of cities, and relocation of the county seat
there might be much more sensible?
By the end of the next year, 1889, Buchanan readied itself
for a new chapter in its history by reforming its charter
to provide for a Mayor and Council. M.J. Head was appointed
Mayor - the very same man who had drawn his pistol in court
at this very site five years earlier, firing three shots
which had struck two victims! Could Mayor Head "gun down"
the growing political and economic challenge which the
exploding population of once-sleepy Tallapoosa presented?
Things were becoming very dicey for Buchanan as 1890 rolled
around. While its population was a mere 324, the new town
of Bremen almost matched it with 312 residents, and booming
Tallapoosa had reached an astounding count of 1,699 citizens,
a large fraction of the total county population of 11,316.
A letter published in The Haralson Banner admonished that:
...steps should be taken at once to build a commodious
courthouse instead of the dilapidated structure that now
occupies the public square. It is whispered now that
Buchanan is dead and that we (Tallapoosa and Bremen)
will draw straws for the county seat.
If doubt remained about the growth potential of Tallapoosa
to emerge as the new Birmingham, it was shattered in April
1891, when the sitting President of the United States,
Benjamin Harrison, made a "whistle-stop" speech from the
back of his railroad train, during its brief stay in town.
The very next month, construction began on the new county
courthouse in Buchanan - the building in which you are now
standing. The contractor was C.W. Goldin and his price
was $19,000. When Goldin later demanded more money to
finish the job, the county executive, Ordinary Davenport,
wrote out a warrant for an additional $1,000 - and went
down to defeat in the next election.
While the sunk cost of a brand-new courthouse seems to
have stalled any idea of moving the county seat down to
Tallapoosa, the latter city continued to grow all the same.
It is not implausible to imagine the growing wealth and
splendor of the city made it attractive for famed painter
Lyell E. Carr to make it his home during his mid-30s, when
he executed a series of works based on contemporary
scenes in and around Tallapoosa. These include the oil on
canvas painting whose reproduction hangs on the wall at
your immediate right. Inscripted in its lower left is:
Lyell Carr/opossum snout.Harrolson Co. Ga. 1891 signed
which is probably the basis for the title it is given by
its present owner, the Morris Museum of Art. But our research
has revealed it is evidently the very same work as one titled
A Georgian Peddler, which is represented with a sketch in
The Quarterly Illustrator for 1894. On November 19, 1892,
The New York Times was favorable, but less than ebullient
in its assessment of this painting. In an article titled
Autumn Show at the Academy, the paper wrote the following:
Mr. Lyell Carr continues to send Georgia types, but he
is beginning to paint very hard again. 'A Georgia Peddler'
hardly explains itself; it is to be supposed that the yellow
man with the fowling piece has his eyes on a bird. 'The
Moonshiner's Daughter' is a trifle conventional in pose
and hard in painting. But Mr. Carr is on the right track.
The famous "Old West" artist known to every schoolchild,
Frederic Remington, appreciated Mr. Carr's work somewhat
more, and paid him to depict Remington's studio
Carr's work was featured in many art shows, in both the
New World and the Old World, and in fact The New York Times
found reason to write about him ten to twenty times
during his lifetime.
And now that we know more about the rambunctious history of
Haralson County, we can offer an alternative interpretation
of our displayed painting to both the bucolic pacifism
which the Morris Museum of Art imagines and the avian
sportsmanship The New York Times hypothesizes. Could
it be that this Georgia peddler had been promised payment
"no later than Saturday" for the wares he had delivered -
now three months ago - and is looking to use his trusty firearm
to help remind his wayward customer of this outstanding debt?
If the Carr painting represents the rustic wilderness
which most county residents still called home in 1891,
then another work (hung at the far right corner of the
large courtoom accessed via double doors at your right),
a finely detailed aerial panorama depicting the City of
Tallapoosa in 1892, represents the new urban future which
fostered hopes for great wealth and sophistication. The
latter work bears a legend with a statement dated 18 February
1892 attesting that it depicts no structure which is
neither built nor "in construction."
Some reports claim Tallapoosa's population reached 2,500 to
3,000 in the early 1890s, during the height of the boom.
But whatever the veracity of this drawing from those days,
by the summer of 1892, the dream of a fantastically wealthy
Tallapoosa had turned into a nightmare. The New York Times
ran an article July 15, 1892, whose title tells the sad tale:
INVESTORS COME TO GRIEF; THE GEORGIA-ALABAMA COMPANY'S
BUBBLE BURSTS. FIFTEEN THOUSAND STOCKHOLDERS LEARN A
LESSON IN FINANCIERING -- BIG DIVIDENDS PROMISED, BUT
ONLY A RECEIVER LEFT -- R.L. SPENCER'S BRILLIANT RECORD
Happily for Tallapoosa, the same R.L. Spencer redeemed his
name by fostering a new economy based on viticulture which
eventually rescued the city and nearby countryside. It enjoyed
brilliant commercial success which made Haralson County the
leading wine producer by far in Georgia - before it was
destroyed at the start of 1908 as a result of alcohol
prohibition in the state.
When all the high-flying development schemes had seen their
day, life in Haralson County reverted to what it had been -
although the great improvement in county roads during the
first decade of the twentieth century meant that the prosaic
production of cotton could be much more profitable than it
had been in the primitive pioneer days of the previous century.
What's more, once travel became far less arduous, it became
less critical that the county seat - and the satellite private
economy which grows up around such places - be located so as
to minimize the amount of travel the county population it
served has to endure, thus reducing the pressure to move the
county's capital out of Buchanan and further south. The 1910
census showed a county population of 13,514. Tallapoosa easily
remained the largest community in the county, with 2,117
residents, while Bremen had 890, Buchanan 462, and Waco 326.
All the same, the rivalry between the county's municipalities
remained strong for quite a long time to come! In 1913, the
Rome Tribune-Herald ran a provocative article titled:
County-Site War On In Haralson County. reading as follows:
The people of Bremen have started a movement to have the
county-site of Haralson county moved from Buchanan to
Bremen... Bitter opposition from the people of Buchanan
will no doubt develop, and a war fight is expected.