Jeff Davis County:
A Historical Treasure A Town Called
"Mile Post 8-1/2"
Anyone who has explored the woods and rivers of Jeff Davis County may have stumbled upon a true treasure: an arrowhead or piece of pottery from an old Indian village. Such a find only confirms that Jeff Davis County's first citizens were the Indians, tribes of Cherokee or Creek who once roamed and lived on these rich lands teeming with wildlife, bird life, and natural beauty.
After the Indians, the pioneers came in the early part of the 19th century. Hazlehurst, first known as Handtown because the first settlers in the area were the Hand family, was yet another small community in what was then Appling County, which was created in 1818. William Hand was listed in the 1820 census of Appling County (now Jeff Davis County). As best as can be determined, only the Hands and their relatives lived in the area until about 1869, when the J.M. Odom family moved to the area, about the same time that the railroad came into existence. The coming of the railway changed the structure of then-Appling County and would pave the way for the creation of Jeff Davis County.
Railroad engineer and Civil War veteran George H. Hazlehurst became president of the Macon & Brunswick Railroad in 1865. Colonel Hazlehurst, as he was known, was instrumental in building rail systems throughout the South; and Georgia, his home state, was no exception. One of those systems would become the Macon & Brunswick Railroad, a subsystem of the Central of Georgia Railroad. From Macon, Colonel Hazlehurst and his crew began construction of the line southeastward toward Brunswick. From Brunswick, another of Colonel Hazlehurst's crews began carving the line northwestward. On September 23,1869, the two crews met and connected the rails halfway between the two cites. The crews celebrated the completion of the rail by feasting on an afternoon barbecue, and then christening the spot where the lines met as Mile Post 8-1/2 (sometimes shortened to Mile Post 8). A depot soon arose, and regularlyscheduled train service on the new tracks was placed into operation in 1870. Hazlehurst thus had its very early origins as a rail town.
About this same time, only two public roads ran through Hazlehurst: the Tallahassee Road, leading from Savannah to Tallahassee, Florida; and the old Holmesville and Burkett's Ferry Road. The Tallahassee Road, first called the Tallahassee Trail, was used for the stagecoach line through the tall pine woods of South Georgia. Locally, the stage crossed the Altamaha River at Nail's Ferry, and then continued to Tallahassee by way of Burkett's Ferry on the Ocmulgee River. The stagecoach and steamship lines were the primary means of transportation before the rail came to fruition in the area
"The coming of the railroad sounded a death knell to the stagecoach and the passenger service of the steamship lines, since travel by railroad was much easier and more direct in many instances," noted one local historian. "Very fittingly, the relay station used by the stagecoach, which was just a shed at the time, was later used for the railroad depot, which became the center of town activities. The people often met the train to pick up freight with their oxcart or to see who was leaving or arriving in the little town. They then usually went to the post office to get their mail and to exchange the news and gossip of the day.
"The town flourished, and Hazlehurst, named for Colonel Hazlehurst at his request, was incorporated by the Appling County Superior Court in the March term of 1877. The act reads, "A certificate under oath of J.W. Barber, James H. Latimer, and Daniel Miles that a majority of the lawful voters in the following boundaries to wit, one half mile in each direction from the warehouse in the town of Hazlehurst having been given in due form of law in favor of incorporation of the town of Hazlehurst in the county aforesaid and it appearing to the satisfaction of the court that the Provision of Title VII of Chapter I of the Code of Georgia having been complied with by the applicants of said corporation, the said town is duly authorized within the corporate limits as aforesaid to exercise all the corporate powers conferred by the Legislature of the State of Georgia under the provisions of this Act from the date of the certificate at the Clerk of Court." Judge John L. Harris signed the act.
In addition to the rails, roads were also vital to the survivorship of Hazlehurst In 1878, the County Commissioner's Court in Appling County ordered a road built from Baxley to Hazlehurst to augment the Tallahassee Trail and Burketts Ferry-Holmesville Road. Other roads were built later connecting different towns and communities with Hazlehurst. And in the 1880s and 1890s, business in the community began to hum with electricity and telephone services.
Hazlehurst grew steadily, with a population of 793 in 1900. John A. Cromartie, who moved to Appling County in 1885 and who was the Appling County representative in the Georgia Legislature, introduced a bill approved on August 18,1905, creating Jeff Davis County from portions of Appling and Coffee Counties. The new county, Georgia's 142nd, would have been named Cromartie County, if not for a custom to name counties only after deceased citizens. The decision was then made to name it Jeff Davis County for Jefferson Davis, who had served as president of the Confederacy from 1861 untill865. The county did not begin operating as an entity until January 1,1906, however, as a courthouse had to be built and county officials elected to serve the new county. Representative Cromartie donated the land for the courthouse and J.M. Odom and others hauled some of the heavy timbers in the foundation with his ox team. Until the courthouse was completed, court was held in the upstairs part of an old wooden schoolhouse.
In 1907, charters were amended and the town of Hazlehurst officially became the "City of Hazlehurst."
The county's economy centered on agricultural activity throughout its early history, and the Hazlehurst Tobacco Market was historically one of Georgia's strongest. Agricultural products and services, including timber and timber products, continue to be a major part of Jeff Davis County's economic base. Throughout the first part of the Twentieth Century, however, Jeff Davis County's citizens felt that something else was needed to spur economic development.
After World War II, the community formed a Chamber of Commerce and organized Balance Agriculture with Industry (BAWI) to bring industry into the community. Efforts of one man in particular, Claude Cook, brought a great deal of industry to the area as early as the 1940s. He used his extensive contacts to invite and entertain visiting industrialists into Jeff Davis County. As a result of Cook's efforts to better the community, Emerson Electric's Alco Controls and other manufacturing companies soon opened their doors in Hazlehurst. Because of Cook's strong determination that Hazlehurst and Jeff Davis County should thrive, he was often referred to as a "One Man Chamber of Commerce." From that point forward, Cook and more industrialists helped Jeff Davis County to become a leader in manufacturing and commerce, attracting industry giants like Amoco Fabrics, Otis Elevator, and ERO Industries. The tradition continues today.
In the late 1960s, Georgia Power Company decided to enter the nuclear power era by constructing its first nuclear powered electric generating plant on a site about fifteen miles northeast of Hazlehurst in Appling County, just below the junction where the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers form the Altamaha River. Thousands of skilled workers flocked to the area to construct the huge generating project, which is named the Edwin I. Hatch Nuclear Power Plant, for a period of over ten years. Many of them stayed to take permanent jobs in the area, thus greatly increasing the labor market for both trained and skilled workers. The project helped Jeff Davis County to grow over the last decades and, additionally, has helped Hazlehurst to become a strong retail shopping center and a center for the timber and timber products industry.
Even today in the opening moments of the 21st century, Hazlehurst remains a quiet, yet vibrant community whose foundations are based on solid, old-fashioned values. The city is industrious and thriving with a firm commitment to the past but always with an eye trained toward the future.