Learning About Jeff Davis County

By
MARY ANN ANDERSON
When Dr. Annette Laing wrote “Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When,” the first of four books in her time-travel adventure series entitled “The Snipesville Chronicles,” the former Georgia Southern University professor had no idea that the community of Snipesville actually existed.
“I made up the name ‘Snipesville,’” she wrote in an email interview. “No, really, I did! I wanted a fictitious name for my fictitious college town and realized that ‘Snipe’ – as in snipe hunt – fit perfectly.”
She said she considered “Snipesboro,” for the series, but realized it sounded too much like Statesboro, where she was living at the time.
“I only discovered as we were about to go to press that Snipesville, Georgia, actually exists, and I didn’t want to change the name,” Laing further explains, “so I simply apologize in the back of the book to all the good folks of the real Snipesville.”
But as we all know, there is indeed a “real” Snipesville, which, points out Jeff Davis and Coffee County historian Dale Kirkland, was once known as Excelsior and named for Excelsior School, probably the first school in the community.
“Later on, the Snipes family came to town, and it became known as Snipesville,” Kirkland adds.
With more on Snipesville momentarily, it’s pop quiz time. Do you know for whom Jeff Davis County is named and why? What about Hazlehurst? Its close neighbor of Denton?
No? Well, then, following here is a brief description of each community and how it was named but, it must be pointed out, is in no way to be considered a comprehensive source of history. It’s just a fun open window to the past for those who don’t know it.
Great journeys often begin innocently enough, with not much more than hopes and dreams. Therein lies the beginnings of Hazlehurst with the Hand family. The 1820 U.S. Census lists William Hand as the first settler in present-day Jeff Davis County; thus, Hazlehurst was originally known as Handtown because of the Hands. If you think about it, the band of Hands must have been intrepid souls to explore and establish this jigsaw puzzle land of tall pines, hard red clay soil inlaid with rocks and stones, and tangled ribbons of creeks and streams. If they came in summer, they had to fight clouds of mosquitoes and gnats in the fricassee-hot heat and humidity.
But stay, they did, making way for the stagecoach line that sliced through here in 1831. The line led from Savannah on the coast and crossed the wide, crazy waters of Altamaha River before it meandered on to Tallahassee in the still wild frontier of Florida. Handtown was considered the crossroads of the stage line, which was also a public road, and the Holmesville and Burkett’s Ferry Road, which connected Appling County and the Ocmulgee River.
Now, before anyone of Native American heritage cries foul, it must be noted that before the Hands moved here, this part of Southeast Georgia was the happy hunting grounds of primarily the Creek and perhaps a few Cherokee, especially with the area’s ancient, rich river system where the Ocmulgee and Oconee ceremoniously collide to form the Altamaha. Anyone who has stumbled upon arrowheads along the edges of the rivers can attest to that fact. A few Spanish explorers probably passed through here, too, but if they did they left precious little behind and their presence simply succumbed to the powers of Mother Nature.
But it remains a fact that the Hands were predominant here until Hazlehurst was established as a rail line after the Civil War. Long story short, under the direction of Colonel George Hall Hazlehurst, the men of the Macon and Brunswick Railroad — it was also called the Central of Georgia Railroad — began notching a rail line southward from Macon, while at the same time workers from Brunswick carved the line northward. At the point where the two rails met, almost exactly halfway between the two cities, a depot sprang up and was first christened Mile Post 8-1/2. The only thing Colonel Hazlehurst requested was that the town be named for him. Voila! Handtown then became Hazlehurst, with the first of the Odoms moving in to join the Hands, followed by an amalgamation of Paces, Middletons, Hinsons, Ellises, Moodys, Lotts, Latimers, Meddocks, Cooks, Cromarties, Girtmans, Weatherlys, Clarks, Crosbys, and other founding families.
By the way, Hazlehurst’s sister city is Hazlehurst, Mississippi, and it’s also named after Colonel Hazlehurst.
So, then, while Hazlehurst has been around in one form or another since the 1820s (it was formally established in 1870 and incorporated in 1891), Jeff Davis County didn’t come into existence until 1905.
The story begins in 1902 when now-Jeff Davis County was then-Appling County (and Coffee County). That’s when John A. Cromartie, a one-time naval stores superintendent, turpentine entrepreneur, general merchandiser, real estate tycoon, and mayor of Hazlehurst for six years, was elected to the Georgia Legislature as a representative from Appling County.
Another interjection is necessary here. In the chronicles of Jeff Davis County history, the term “naval stores” pops up time and again. According to Buddy Sullivan, author of countless books and articles on Georgia history, Georgia was the world’s leading producer of naval stores, a broad term that includes materials that are extracted from Southern pine forests and then used in the construction and repair of sailing vessels. Typical naval stores include lumber, railroad ties, rosin, and turpentine.
Anyway, Cromartie, an “uncompromising adherent of the Democratic party,” according to the 1906 Cyclopedia of Georgia, introduced a bill to amend the state constitution to permit eight new counties. It passed the General Assembly in 1904, with Jeff Davis one of those counties. Cromartie, as a legislator, remained in Atlanta “to protect and urge the interests of the people of the proposed new county.”
In August of 1905, the county was organized with Hazlehurst as the county seat. Talk around town was to name the new county Cromartie in honor of him, but that was speedily nixed because of the policy to not name counties after a living person. After more talk, the name was changed to Jeff Davis to honor Jefferson Davis, who had served as president of the Confederacy.
Ironically, Davis never even set foot in Hazlehurst or Jeff Davis County, according to Hazlehurst attorney and historian Ken W. Smith.
“He never visited,” said Smith, “but part of his cabinet did after separating from his party in their flight from Richmond during the collapse of the Confederacy.”
Davis died in 1889 in New Orleans, and Cromartie died in 1935 in Hazlehurst, but Jeff Davis County lives on with the Jeff Davis County Courthouse as its heart. The courthouse, built in 1906, sits on land donated to the county by Cromartie. It was constructed by Walter Chamberlain, a renowned architect of the time who also built courthouses at Warrenton and Nashville, and it was the first court building in all of Georgia to be built of stucco over concrete for better fireproofing.
Now, as promised, back to Snipesville, the one in Jeff Davis County and not Laing’s books.
Snipesville is the namesake of the Snipes family who first moved there in the 1890s, says Jimmy Snipes, a direct descendant of the original Snipeses and who still lives there today with his wife, Gwen.
“The Snipes family weren’t the first ones here,” he explains. “There were other folks, too. There were several families scattered all around.”
Jimmy Snipes says that of his ancestors, the one who “mattered the most” and the starting point for Snipesville to spring forth from the red clay soil was his grandfather, the late John Austin Snipes.
John Austin Snipes was born in 1837 in Hancock County, the son of William P. Snipes and Sarah Jane Sheffield Snipes. He would serve in the Civil War. The family moved to the small community from Hancock County in the 1890s, and then John Austin Snipes bought land from his father in 1896 and built the store known as Snipes Grocery. In addition to owning the store, he also was a justice of the peace and performed myriad weddings in and around Snipesville.
“The reason Snipesville was named after my grandparents is that they owned the store,” Jimmy Snipes says. “Everybody just started calling it Snipesville on account of the store. Everybody back then was good to each other and helped each other. Back in those days, people would leave their doors unlocked. The people were kind, goodhearted Christians who were good to each other.”
Kirkland and Murrell Wooten of Wooten’s Grocery of Snipesville also point out that the location of the original Snipes store was very close to but not on the same location as today’s Wooten’s Grocery. Kirkland laughs that Wooten is Snipesville’s unofficial mayor, adding, “He’s the closest thing to a mayor that we’ve got.”
The only other incorporated community in Jeff Davis County besides Hazlehurst is Denton, and its story begins with Samuel and Priscilla Denton. Samuel Denton, born in 1806, moved to Georgia from South Carolina in 1815 and was a farmer. Samuel and Priscilla had five children, Mary, John, William, James, and Thomas. Thomas died in 1863 while serving with the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Both Samuel and Priscilla died in 1846 when, James, who was born in 1845 in Ware County, was but a baby. In adulthood, James became a cattle and sheep farmer who owned upwards of 20,000 acres in Coffee County that is Jeff Davis County today. Remember, Jeff Davis County was carved from portions of Appling and Coffee counties. James Denton was also a producer of naval stores – there’s that term again – a sawmill proprietor, and a lawyer who was admitted to the bar in 1874.
In 1867, James married Penelope Douglass, daughter of Alexander and Dicie Douglass of Appling County. James and Penelope had 10 children whose names are Mary, Elmira, Katie, Nicholas, Ella, James, Amanda, Thomas, and Missouri. Another child died as an infant.
According to the Heart of Georgia Regional Development Commission, James Denton organized the Denton Land and Investment Company to develop the town.
Denton was formally incorporated in 1911, with the Georgia and Florida Railway an integral cog in its early 20th century growth. There was a time when, mostly in the 1920s and 1930s, Denton was a busy-as-a-beehive industrious town with a tapestry of businesses, among them several stores, three hotels, a pharmacy, a doctor’s office, a blacksmith shop, a telephone office, and two each of turpentine stills, cotton gins, and grist mills. The Denton Bank provided financial services for the community. Denton even had its own school, which later merged with Brooker to become the Brooker-Denton School. Sadly, most of the town burned in a cataclysmic fire in the 1930s and was never rebuilt to its former glory.
The Historical Atlas of Georgia Counties lists a freckling of other communities other than Hazlehurst, Denton, and Snipesville in Jeff Davis County in its 1910 and 1915 editions. That list includes Bingham, Brooker, Clayville, Ellis, Goldsmith, Halls, Johnsonville, Kirkland, Lehigh, Maysie, McDew, Ocmulgee, Orico, Paceville, Quinn, Roper, Spencer, Whitehead, and Winnie. McDew and Winnie, and possibly others, had their own post offices. But as the years wore on, most places like these surrendered to the sheer dynamic force of change and their names faded away.
While most of these communities are but remnants of what they were when wave after wave of pioneers once crossed the Altamaha and Ocmulgee to settle here, Hazlehurst has enjoyed a spectacular ride and is saturated in history. It has grown from a tiny farming community of those with hard-fought – and hard-won – dreams to an energetic town that some might even call a small city. Even Colonel Hazlehurst probably didn’t see that coming when his crew drove the last spike into the ground at Mile Post 8-1/2.

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