The restored caretaker's cottage at the headgates of the Augusta Canal opened in a July 2004 ceremony. The facility serves as Columbia County's official welcome center. Weekly tours of the canal are also offered on historical Petersburg boat replicas.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
(Editor's note: Many visitors to the Masters Tournament make their temporary homes in Columbia County. For them - and also for full-time residents who want to brush up on facts about their county - we provide this annual overview, along with a guide to area names in Columbia County.)
Columbia County's symbol depicts a stylized sailboat cruising Clarks Hill Lake (or Thurmond Lake, to some). But a more symbolic vehicle for the county could be a moving van.
As the fastest-growing Georgia community outside the Atlanta area, Columbia County was estimated in 2004 to have surpassed 100,000 in population. County officials expect the population to expand to 103,000 by the end of the year.
Those residents are among the state's more affluent, with a median annual household income of nearly $58,000 - seventh-highest in Georgia, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census.
Those new, affluent residents help drive the county's booming construction industry, with nearly 1,400 new homes built last year at a value of almost $200 million.
Columbia County's residents also helped drive retail sales in neighboring Richmond County, whose sales are three times higher than Columbia County's, though the population is only twice as big.
"This is a reflection of the concentration of retail establishments in Richmond County," says Columbia County Planning Division Director Jeff Browning. "This is changing, however, and fairly rapidly."
This change is most visible along the Washington Road corridor, with small retail strips rising near the county's Government Center in Evans and the major Target/Kohl's center set to open this fall.
Other new major commercial and professional projects are planned for Belair Road near Washington Road, on the site of the current Evans Middle School at those roads' intersection, and the nearby Marshall Square project.
But because all work and no play would make it a dull county, major recreation projects also are under way. Already, Columbia County's Wildwood Park near Pollard's Corner - about 10 miles west of Evans - is drawing major fishing tournaments because of a $1.1 million boat-launch facility, and the Professional Disc Golf Association is setting up its international headquarters at the park.
The county's Savannah Rapids project at the Augusta Canal headgates also is nearing completion, with renovated historic buildings available for use - including the county's official welcome center in the old caretaker's cottage. The canal's historical replica Petersburg boats launch weekly from the site for tours of the canal.
Another park in the design stage is the 150-acre Blanchard Woods Park in Evans, not far from the under-construction Bartram Trail project that will provide the county with its newest public golf course when it opens in July.
The county also is finalizing the purchase of nearly 20 acres in the heart of Evans to create a public square, and acquiring part of the ecologically significant Heggie's Rock near Appling.
How it all began
All these changes in fast-growing Columbia County come more than 200 years after the county was carved away from Richmond County in a dispute over the location of a courthouse. Augusta officials wanted the court building near downtown, but rural residents argued the site was too far away. The Georgia Legislature solved the argument by splitting off Columbia County on Dec. 10, 1790, and a couple of years later William Appling donated five acres to the new county for a courthouse and jail.
The county first established a courthouse in 1793, built a new one in 1812 and rebuilt it in 1856. That facility, one of the county's more important landmarks, is Georgia's oldest courthouse in continual use and currently is undergoing major renovations.
Visitors to Columbia County are more likely, however, to see the county's new Justice Center in Evans, which opened in 2002. Nearby, they'll see construction on the county's $12 million main library and performing arts center, slated to open next year.
Those projects are matched with school construction efforts, as nearly one new school per year opens to keep up with population growth. More than 20,000 pupils attend the county's public schools, where students consistently rank above state and national averages in SAT scores and other standardized tests.
Though the school system is the county's largest single employer, it is the private sector that drives the county's economy. The county is home to golf-car maker Club Car, tractor manufacturer John Deere and printer Quebecor World, among others, with the new Horizon North commercial park available for more industrial prospects.
Visitors and residents alike also might be curious about some of the places in the community. While many have disappeared - places such as Griffin, Darbys, Delph and Waterloo - other Columbia County cities and towns have varied origins:
Evans: Not a city but instead a densely populated geographic area defined by the delivery routes of a post office that originally opened in 1882, Evans shares the eastern tip of Columbia County with Martinez. It is named for one of the area's first settlers, Gen. George W. Evans, and was located along the C&WC Railroad, which had an Evans depot. Early maps of the area frequently misspelled the community as "Evens," and some referred to the area as Jenkins or Maysville Station.
Martinez: This unincorporated area, located mostly south of Evans, is named for Antonio Martinez y Saldivar, a Cuban who moved to the county by way of New York in the late 1800s. Instead of the traditional marTEEnez, locals pronounce the area's name MARTnez - but it originally was called Lulaville, after Sadivar's daughter, until postal officials realized Georgia already had a Lulaville when they built the Martinez post office in 1915.
Harlem: Established in 1870, Columbia County's oldest incorporated city also has a New York link, owing its name to early visitors who thought the fledgling town resembled the Big Apple's artistic center. The smaller of Columbia County's two cities is bisected by railroad tracks that once brought visitors from Augusta for performances at the Columbia Opera House. Long closed as a theater and divided up for other uses, the Opera House is being purchased by the city and once again will become a public facility. Harlem today is best known for its annual Oliver Hardy Festival, celebrating the city's status as the birthplace of the larger half of the famed comedic duo Laurel and Hardy, and in summer 2006 will be the host site for the Oliver Hardy fan club's international convention. The city boasts the county's first museum: the Laurel and Hardy Museum.
Grovetown: Established as a town in 1909 and incorporated as a city in 1959, Grovetown was named for its Grove Baptist Church and is among the county's fastest-growing residential areas. Like Harlem, Grovetown in its early history enjoyed a reputation as a rural refuge from Augusta's sweltering summers, and was accessed via a railroad depot that once stood in the center of town. This history is commemorated with the Grovetown Museum. The city, which some early maps call Forrest, owes much of its modern growth to its proximity to Fort Gordon.
Appling: Originally known only as the village of the Columbia Courthouse, the town of Appling was established in 1792 on five acres of land donated by William Appling. Though there is some dispute over whether the town was ever incorporated, it was chartered in 1816 and lost the charter in 1995 when the state Legislature eliminated nonfunctioning governments. Appling remains the county seat and its courthouse is the oldest operating in Georgia, and the old jail is home to the county's historical society. Early maps also call the area Applington or even Applingville, though the current name finally stuck in the late 1800s.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.