Our History: Journey to a Town Center
How the county’s first legal action birthed Douglasville. Every Now and Then is a column featuring a little piece of Douglas County history.
Editor's note: Lisa Cooper's newest work can be found at douglascountyhistory.blogspot.com.
Gather two or more people together in one community and it won’t be long before the disagreements begin.
We are human.
Our great city of Douglasville began under a cloud of disagreement including a major lawsuit that went all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court. Head on over to the Douglas County Courthouse and find the very first court docket book dating back to the 1870s. The first entry will advise the first Defendants in the county happened to be the Douglas County Commissioners, and the lawsuit concerned the location of the county seat.
The Georgia General Assembly issued an act on October 17, 1870 creating Douglas County. Within the language of the act was a stipulation calling for an election to be held the first Monday of November, 1870 to elect an ordinary, sheriff, clerk of superior court and to choose a location for a county seat where all county business would be conducted.
Many thought it was a foregone conclusion that the Chapel Hill community would be considered. In 1870, Chapel Hill contained a general store and a few other businesses. There was both a Baptist and Methodist church and three different schools including a high school. The area was a very prosperous plantation community with several influential citizens.
Many others preferred the area up on the ridge known as Skint Chestnut where W.G. Black and his wife Sarah had located a trading post some years before. It wasn’t just the draw of the ancient Chestnut tree or the trading post that enticed folks. It had a lot to do with the proposed rail site the Georgia Western Railroad (today’s Norfolk Southern) wanted to create. The 1870s was a time when attitudes in Georgia were changing. Many of our town father’s understood the new ‘farm to factory movement’ which would result in business opportunities, more industrialization and an established rail line.
The railroad had actually proposed building a rail line through the county prior to the Civil War, but the war had delayed it. The right-of-way would cross the county for 19 miles and at one point would parallel the old Indian trail where the road passed the ancient Chestnut tree. By 1870, the land had been cleared for the rail line from Atlanta to Skint Chestnut and beyond to Reuben Vansant’s crossroads.
By the time the election rolled around thoughts of Chapel Hill as the county seat had been replaced by a group of folks wanting the center of the county chosen as the location. The geographical center is approximately where Pray's Mill Baptist Church is located today off of Highway 5. The folks who supported this area were known as “center” people and included Moses M. Smith. He argued the railroads could be persuaded to run a line through the area and mentioned the area’s water sources–the Dog River, Bear Creek and Sweetwater Cree –as the fuel to run a million dollars worth of machinery. He did have a few valid points, but many felt it would be too difficult to persuade the railroad to change their plans since much of the land had been cleared.
The ballot listed the “center” location as well as Skint Chestnut as voting choices. White men who were 21 and older showed up on the specified date to vote at designated precincts. The election resulted in William W. Hindmon taking the office of ordinary, T.H. Selman as Sheriff, and A.S. Gorman was the first clerk of Superior Court. The Board of Commissioners consisted of John C. Bowden, W.N. McGouirk, J. H. Winn and Ephraim Pray along Mr. Hindmon since the act passed by the General Assembly provided the ordinary would also be a member of the board. The act required the newly elected Board of Commissioners to purchase a tract of land at the elected county seat site, lay off lots, sell them at outcry, and use the funds to construct a courthouse and jail.
It sounds simple, right?
The center of the county received 300 votes and there were many votes for Skint Chestnut. Events took a murky turn when voters ignored the two choices and wrote in other locations referring to Skint Chestnut, but according to the various histories I’ve read there was more than just one exact location along the rail line known as Skint Chestnut. So, it was unclear once all of the votes had been cast how many votes the Skint Chestnut location intended by the city fathers had received. In her history of Douglas County, Fannie Mae Davis states, “The board of commissioners arbitrarily ruled that voting for other sites other than the center were actually votes for Skint Chestnut.” In other words, they decided all ballots not in favor of the center of the county were in fact votes for the proposed Skint Chestnut location.
Of course, the center folks were upset, and so were many other voters who felt it was wrong for the Board of Commissioners to wield that much power, and what about the folks who had not voted for the center of the county or the intended Skint Chestnut area?
Yes, the election ended up being a debacle.
Moses M. Smith, Ephraim Pray and many others who were “center” people hired Thomas W. Lathem as their attorney and filed a petition of protest against Commissioners Hindmon, Bowden, Winn, and McGouirk giving the Clerk of Superior Court his first case to enter into his brand new docket book.
The court battle went on for four years and went all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court. However, all of the legal wrangling and division didn’t cause that much delay per Davis’ book. County officials continued to organize the government best as they could.
Plans for the county seat at Skint Chestnut really took off once Young Vansant deeded 40 acres for the express purpose of creating the county seat exactly where the downtown Douglasville area sits today. Vansant deeded the property over on Jan. 9, 1871. Soon the elected officials, along with volunteers, helped erect a building east of the store at Skint Chestnut that would serve as a temporary courthouse for the next few years.
The deed where Young Vansant gave land was not recorded until April 9, 1874. It was one of the first recorded and can be found in County Deed Book A, page 235. Vansant gave no provisions or stipulations with the gift of land other than the well on the property which he did not give access to. The well was located in front of the Skint Chestnut store building facing Broad at the corner of Broad and today’s West Courthouse Square. It was being used as late as 1920 when the city finally paved the sidewalk and the well was filled in.
The pending lawsuit against the commissioners finally came to a conclusion when the Georgia Supreme Court sent the legal action back to the Georgia General Assembly for review in 1874. The General Assembly then ordered a second election to be held that would hopefully finalize the location for Douglas County’s seat of government.
Again, there were two choices–both near the railway right-of-way. Skint Chestnut, where the temporary courthouse had been built was a choice, and the second choice was Rueben Vansant Crossroads. Skint Chestnut won with 149 majority votes.
It was finally official and legal. Skint Chestnut would be the county seat for Douglas County and the Skint Chestnut name was replaced with the Douglasville name officially on Feb. 25, 1875 when the Georgia General Assembly approved the act which incorporated the town of Douglasville.
On July 1, 1930, M.M. Smith wrote a letter to a county official where he discussed those days during the time the lawsuit was pending. He was 16 at the time the lawsuit was filed. Smith’s father, Moses M. Smith was one of the original Plaintiffs in the lawsuit and had been a proponent of the center of the county being our county seat. Smith’s letter confirms what I’ve shared with you here. He goes on to state the folks who wanted Skint Chestnut as the county seat were of course elated at the outcome of the second election.
From his letter:
“One thing that I might add, when the election showed that Douglasville was going to be the county site, there was a big celebration at which anvils with powder between them were used as big guns. Mr. Dorsett carried some powder out from his store to the place where it was to be used. This powder was in a paper, and it leaked and fell on some fire on the ground and ignited the powder in the paper which he still had in his hands, burning his eyebrows and hair pretty badly. I was sorry of that, but I must admit that some of the ‘center’ people were not.”
See, sometimes history CAN make you smile!