Oglethorpe County History
The information on these pages was compiled by the
Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center

County Development Towns/Communities Education Religion
Agriculture Transportation Historic Sites Architecture


Education

When Oglethorpe County was chartered in 1793, the legislature felt it necessary to create a county academy with the money secured from the sale of town lots. The county's first school was established in 1796 on the Broad River. The children were taught by a deserter from the British Navy. His only qualifications as a teacher were his ability to read and 'wield the rod' -- the latter was considered essential for an education.

Other "Old Field Schools" were located throughout the county. These one-room schools usually had log construction, poorly heated rooms, and dimly lit interiors.  At this time, schools operated for only a few months during the year. When boys were old enough to plow the fields, they would attend school only on rainy or cold days. The students' education progressed very slowly because of the scarcity of books and equipment.

Some communities would hire a trained educator or college graduate to teach the children. A generous parent would often provide the teacher's salary. These early schools could be found in the Wolfskin District and also at Thomas Hutchens' House in Cherokee Corner.

The county's wealthy families often established and patronized private academies. Children attending academies were usually taught by men of great learning. Mathematics and Latin were traditional subjects considered important in a child's education.

The Bethlehem Academy was a private school created for girls during the early 1800s. Prominent families in Oglethorpe County and throughout the state of Georgia sent their daughters to this school.

In 1808, Meson Academy was the first privately endowed academy in Georgia. Francis Meson, an Irish businessman, died in 1806 and left the county a large endowment to build an academy. Because he had no heirs, Meson's estate provided the funds for establishing an academy. The money was wisely invested and the land divided into lots and leased for 50 years.  Revenues earned from leases and stocks paid for teachers' salaries. Eventually, this arrangement hindered the town's development since lots were not improved and the property could never be sold or mortgaged.  The academy building was a 2 story building constructed of brick, wood, and stone.

The school was known for its excellent education and the successes it achieved in preparing young men for college. The Meson Academy became a public school in 1917 and later named the Oglethorpe County High School. The community decided to move the high school to a location between Lexington and Crawford in 1954. The abandoned Meson Academy building was destroyed in 1970.

The Genteel Boarding School for Girls opened in 1810. This school continued to operate until the 1920s, when a girls school was added to the Meson Academy.

The Lexington Presbyterian Church established the first Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Georgia and the South in 1828. The Seminary trained men as ministers of the Presbyterian faith. After two years, the Seminary moved to South Carolina. In 1927, the school was moved back to Georgia where it continues to operate in Decatur, Georgia.

The Cherokee Corner Academy was incorporated by the Georgia legislature in 1833 and constructed on a church lot.  Reverend Safford, a Presbyterian minister, taught the students at this institution.

In the Georgia Constitution of 1777, the Georgia legislature had proposed the construction of public schools in every county. The state failed to fulfill its promise and students continued to pay for their own education. Private academies continued to provide quality educations, so wealthy families were reluctant to participate in the public school system.  Eventually, Georgia Poor School Laws allocated tax funds for indigent children to pay for private school tuition, but this assisted only a small portion of the population's poor.

In 1783, the Poor School System was proposed and later went into effect in 1817. This program paid for the education of needy children. The Civil War interfered with the free school system, but it was reestablished in 1869. The modern school system, which dates back to 1869, was designed by Gustave Orr.

Local schools could be established if the community provided a building and petitioned the County Board of Education for a teacher. This relatively straightforward procedure often resulted in second-rate schools.  Eventually, the state required schools with an attendance of less than 12 to consolidate with larger schools in the area. This requirement led to the development of the Oglethorpe County School System that today includes three consolidated schools -- all located near Lexington.

Religion

Despite the area's frontier-like conditions, Oglethorpe County established numerous early churches. As Indian aggression in the latter part of the 18th century continued to threaten Oglethorpe County's residents, many church congregations chose to meet in private homes for protection.

Baptists came to the county during the early years. During the 1830s-1840s, a schism arose over missions, resulting in the creation of the Primitive Baptists and Missionary Baptists denominations. The early Baptist churches in Oglethorpe County were the Sardis, Bethany, Salem, and Cloud's Creek churches.

Scotch-Irish emigrants from North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania brought the Presbyterian faith with them to Oglethorpe County. In 1785, the Reverend John Newton and a group of Pennsylvanians established Beth-Salem Church, the earliest Presbyterian church in the county and the first Presbyterian church in north Georgia. It was located a few miles southwest of Lexington. The church building was burned in 1817 by the Indians. The remaining members rebuilt the church at the same site and named it New Beth-Salem Church. In 1822, the Reverend Thomas Goulding relocated the church to Lexington and renamed it Lexington Presbyterian Church. The Beth-Salem/Lexington Presbyterian Church is the oldest continuously organized Presbyterian congregation in the Synod of Georgia. Some of Oglethorpe County's most prominent residents are buried in the church cemetery.

Dr. Thomas Goulding established the first Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Georgia and the South in 1828. This institution is now located in Decatur, Georgia.

Lorenzo Dow led the state's first Methodists into Oglethorpe County. The first Methodist gathering in the state was held by the Broad River in 1809.  Methodists lived in great numbers in the Broad River area. The Methodists of Oglethorpe County provided missionaries to preach to the slaves. One of the earliest Methodist churches was located near Goose Pond.  It was burned during the Civil War for its nails. The oldest and best known Methodist churches in the area are the Cherokee Corner and Mount Pleasant churches.

In 1849, Reverend George White listed the county's religions groups as Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Swedenborgian. As of 1989, the principal denominations in Oglethorpe County included Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Christian, Church of God, Holiness, and Presbyterian.

Agriculture


Since the founding of Oglethorpe County in 1793, farming has remained the county's primary source of employment. Similar to the rest of the Piedmont region, Oglethorpe County is an area of rolling hills and many small streams. Throughout the antebellum period, the county was recognized for its fertile soil.

Settled by colonists from the Carolinas and Virginia, Georgia's Piedmont region proved well-suited for tobacco farming. In the early years, farmers practiced agriculture on a subsistence level. Once farmers began to acquire more land and slaves, the plantation system developed rapidly. During the 1780s and 1790s, most farmers in the area were engaged in tobacco cultivation.

By the early 1800s, cotton replaced tobacco as the primary cash crop. With the introduction of the cotton gin, cotton production became more efficient and profitable. The shift from tobacco to cotton production caused an increase in the demand for slaves in Oglethorpe County. The planter class peaked in 1850 at 120 large planters, with the average planter owning 12 slaves.

Although cotton dominated the area's agriculture, farmers used crop diversification as a method to gain total self-sufficiency. Oglethorpe County was considered to be a leader in wheat production. Cereal and grain crops were important throughout the antebellum period. The County's fine bottom land also proved well-suited for the production of corn -- a locally consumed staple. Oats, barley, soybean, rye, and millet were grown in the fields along with tobacco and corn.

Except for temporary disruptions during Civil War and reconstruction years, agriculture changed very slowly in the South over the years.

The boll weevil and rain droughts helped cause the agricultural depression of the 1920s and devastated cotton production. At this time, unfavorable economic and agricultural conditions prevented farmers from making a living.

During the 1930s, the South began improving its agricultural practices. Mechanization increased, soil conservation and fertilization were implemented, and farms were becoming larger and less diversified. Cotton was soon replaced by grain, cattle, dairy, and poultry farming. Because cotton was disappearing, so were the gins and mills. Pulpwood replaced timber production which had been profitable during the Depression.   During the Great Depression, many landowners began to depend on forestry for income. In Oglethorpe County, 75 percent of the land mass is classified as commercially forested land.

More recently, farmers have turned toward poultry, beef, dairy cattle, and specialty crops. Diversification in farming helps insure a more steady income. 

In 1969, Oglethorpe County had 431 farms, averaging in size of 210 acres. By 1974, the number of farms declined to 365, but the average size increased to 227 acres.

The population of farming communities in Oglethorpe County began to decrease as more and more people moved to Athens and commuted to work. However, farming is now becoming a more desirable way of life, due to the greater availability of modern conveniences.

Transportation

Early settlement patterns in Oglethorpe County influenced the location and development of existing transportation systems.  Rivers and coastal waterways allowed for travel and access, so areas surrounding these waterways were the first to be settled. Native-American trading trails running through Oglethorpe County evolved into migration paths, trade routes, and frontier trails. These trails allowed people to move inland. Eventually, these early trails became modern highways and railroad beds. These transportation routes made it much easier to travel throughout the county, especially between farm and town.

By the 1820s, private companies began building stagecoach routes and turnpikes. The government started constructing Federal highways and postal roads at this time as well.

Because of their practicality and efficiency, the railroads rapidly became a popular form of transportation in the early 1830s. When the Athens-Augusta railroad (later known as the Georgia Railroad and Banking Company) surveyed Oglethorpe County, residents resisted the introduction of this new form of transportation into their towns. Oglethorpe County residents felt concerned over noise and smoke and did not allow the railroad's construction within three miles of Lexington (the county seat). Because Lexington's depot was located outside the town, the town of Crawford eventually grew around this depot.

Because of competition from Crawford and the inconveniences of traveling over bad roads, Lexington residents began a movement to build a spur railroad connecting Lexington with the earlier railroad in Crawford. This linkage was completed in 1889 and operated until 1932, when the increased use of cars, trucks, and buses caused the railroad's abandonment.

General Burnwell Pope is credited with establishing the Georgia Railroad line through Arnoldsville. Pope, a representative in the General Assembly, gave the railroad right-of-way across his land and laid the cross-ties in exchange for a station on his plantation. This station was active until 1900, when it was moved to the town of Arnoldsville.

Highway 78 presently extends from Athens, Crawford, and Lexington and is the most heavily traveled highway in Oglethorpe County. Highway 316 may also have an indirect impact on the county, since it makes Atlanta much more accessible to nearby Athens. Bobbie Maxwell Airstrip, a privately owned airfield available to the public, is located five miles southeast of Lexington.

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