Wednesday, November 24, 2010

24 November 1871: If Athens Gets a Courthouse, Watkinsville Gets a New County

On this day in 1871, a law was passed by the Georgia legislature that moved all county offices, county transactions, and court hearings to Athens from Watkinsville as of January 1st, 1872. Other provisions in the law were to use the ironwork from the Watkinsville jail to reinforce the Athens jail, and that alterations to the Athens Town Hall should be made immediately and paid for by selling to the highest bidder the public buildings located in Watkinsville.

After many years of grumbling and complaints, the Clarke county grand jury, consisting of mostly Athens residents, recommended in February, 1871, that the state legislature be petitioned to create a new county with Athens as its seat "for the reason that a large proportion of the litigation of our Courts, both civil and criminal, originates in and immediately around Athens, and a large majority of both parties and witnesses have no means of conveyances to and from the Courts at Watkinsville, and for the additional reason that there is no accommodations whatever in Watkinsville for the colored people, who are required to attend court."

At the time, Athens had a population of nearly 6,000 residents, while Watkinsville had only about 350. While Watkinsville had only a few stores, a single church, no newspapers, and a handful of professionals, Athens had 11 churches, 37 stores, 2 newspapers, and many professionals with both their own practices and who taught at the University. The editor of the Southern Banner advocated just moving the courthouse, not breaking up the county, calling the situation an "outrage" and that "it is unjust to a vast majority of those having businesses in our courts that they be forced to go to a remote and isolated county site simply because a few, a very few people at the county site will be injured if the courthouse is removed."

A resistance movement began to grow in Watkinsville, where residents "threatened reprisals" such as a ban on trade in Athens and no political support for any candidate from Athens. When the Georgia legislature convened that year, both cities sent three-man committees to lobby their side of the issue. Upon reaching Atlanta, the Athens committee, consisting of Emory Speer, E. P. Lumpkin, and A. L. Mitchell, decided the best course of action would be to work out a compromise with the Watkinsville committee, consisting of Milledge S. Durham, J. R. Lyle, and W. B. Haygood.

The compromise, signed by all six men, was the Watkinsville men would support the move of the Clarke courthouse to Athens if Mr. Lumpkin, Mr. Speer, and Mr. Mitchell would support and lobby for the creation of a new county with Watkinsville as its seat, and would not sell any public buildings in Watkinsville, since they would be required for the new county.The bill to move the courthouse passed, and though it did include a provision for selling the public buildings, that part of the law was never enacted due to the agreement between the six men.

Creating a new county, however, was not an easy task. The arguments for moving the courthouse from Watkinsville (small population with little capital) were considered arguments against creating a county for the city. The first three tries to pass the bill failed, and Watkinsville residents felt betrayed by Athens, even though the compromise had only promised to advocate for the new county, and did not guarantee the new county.

The Athens delegation did what they could to support the Watkinsville committee's bill for a new county, including the agreed-upon Athens petition of support signed by many residents, and supporting a Watkinsville man to fill the state House seat that opened when local representative Alfred Richardson died of pneumonia in 1872, but feelings ran high on both sides. Not everyone felt Speer,  Mitchell, and Lumpkin had the right to speak for Athens as a whole, that the county should not be divided, and those with political ambition did not want to take sides in such a volitile issue.

It would take another three years, until February 25th, 1875, before the creation of Oconee county became law, with the resulting new county taking more than half the land from Clarke.

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