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Columbia County history deja vu

Posted: January 15, 2014 - 1:01am

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

Willa Cather

As history and human nature reveal, ’tis the nature of decision-making to invite controversy. In Columbia County, for example, those recent “either-ors” have included a plan to incorporate Martinez and Evans into a city and then consolidate the city with the county, as well as zoning regulations and choosing which roadways will be financed with funds from the latest SPLOST. But just for fun, as county leaders consider these and other issues today, it may help to look back and discover how much current residents of Columbia County resemble their forebears.

• Thomas Brown, whose 1774 land grant covered much of present-day Appling, may have been the future Columbia County’s most notorious British Loyalist during the Revolutionary War, but he was far from alone. Historians think one in four colonists remained loyal to the crown throughout the war, but in this part of Georgia, that ratio was one in three.

As the youngest colony, Georgia’s ties to the mother country were stronger than those of the other 12. More of her settlers were new arrivals from England and fewer had put down firm roots in the new world. But those who most opposed severing ties with the crown had a more practical reason for their loyalty: The Indian threat was still very real here, and they felt they needed the British to protect them.

• With exploding cotton production in the 1830s, business and population in and around Columbia County were booming. No longer were crude roads or, because of fluctuating water levels and obstructions, the undependable Savannah River adequate to move people, products or supplies from one place to another. Almost everyone was ready for the railroad. Without funds from the federal or state governments, however, area businessmen pooled their own resources, secured a charter from the Georgia General Assembly and began making plans to build the Georgia Railroad. But first they had to address widespread community objections.

No matter how treacherous the river, it was still cheaper to transport goods by water than by rail, said the planters. Besides, they thought digging canals between the state’s major rivers was the real secret to improved transportation. (This idea fizzled when it was discovered that the sandy soil in much of the state was too porous to hold water.)

Next came concerned citizens of Lexington and Oglethorpe counties, who forbade trains to come within four miles of a town, lest their homes be covered with soot, and their livestock so frightened that cows would give less milk and horses might run away. And churches in Columbia County were adamant that trains not be allowed to run on Sunday.

• Who would have guessed that the Augusta Canal, with its head gates in Columbia County, was also fraught with controversy when the idea was proposed? With an economic recession on their hands, community leaders believed the canal would attract vital, new business to the area. But a disgruntled community wasn’t convinced.

“They’re taking away our land ... rewarding the rich (planters, businessmen) instead of the common people ... making a mess of our landscape. ...” and most important, “We don’t want factories here!” a throwback to the South’s pre-Civil War aversion to the industrial North.

• Reminiscent of the feud over the original county seat, two of the county’s four courthouses, the 1792 building in Cobbham and the current structure on Ronald Reagan Drive, were both controversial because they were not centrally located. (The Appling location met with nearly unanimous approval.)

• And does anyone remember the potpourri of protests against the Savannah Rapids Park and Pavilion 20 years ago? From the loss of trees and the endangered relict trillium flower, to possible Indian graves beneath the bluff and the perennial “noncentral location,” critics beat a steady path to the site for months before the project was approved and work on its construction could begin.

So, current county leaders and citizens alike, take heart. Good decisions usually win out in the end, not because one side is necessarily more powerful or wise than the other, but because any decision is made stronger with input from an informed, concerned and vocal public.

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