The Ghost Town of Laurens
Two centuries ago, Sumpterville became our first ghost town. Laurens County, Georgia was established by the Georgia Legislature on December 10, 1807. It was a county without a county seat. The first court sessions were held in 1808 in the home of Major Peter Thomas on the Lower Uchee Trail in northwestern Laurens County. As the county government began to organize, a more central location for the county seat became a prime goal. A committee chose a site, well centered in the county, but a site which, within two years, would be mostly abandoned and forgotten.
When Laurens County was created, it stretched from its present location on the west side of the Oconee River southwest to Hartford on the Ocmulgee River, and included parts of present day Dodge, Bleckley, Pulaski and Wheeler counties.
The justices of the Inferior Court, analogous to a mixture of today’s Probate Court and the County Commissioners, appointed a committee, which included John Fullwood, to seek out and find a suitable location for the county courthouse. The main goal of the committee was to choose a location on level ground near an abundant water source. It was imperative that the site be situated near the center of the county and on an existing thoroughfare.
The committee settled on a flat area along or near what later became “The Chicken Road.” This road was actually a major trail leading from Hartford on the Ocmulgee in a more or less direct line to present day Dublin. The other dominant trail, the Lower Uchee Trail, traversed the western and northwestern limits of the county crossing the river at Blackshear’s Ferry. The chosen site was not far from the old Indian trading path which ran from Indian Springs through Macon and onto Savannah. (Left photo by Don Johnston).
The spot chosen was Land Lot 39 of the First Land District of Laurens County. Interestingly the 202.5 acre land lot had just been purchased by John Fullwood in November 1808 for the sum of $1000.00 or approximately $5.00 per acre. The fertile oak and pine lands along Turkey and Rocky Creeks were highly coveted by early settlers who swarmed to the western part of Laurens County.
Following the tradition of the day, the new county seat was named in honor of a hero of the American Revolution. Laurens County was named for Col. John Laurens, a top aide to Gen. George Washington and a native of South Carolina. General Thomas Sumter (LEFT) was the chosen honoree for the name of the first county seat. Sumter preferred to leave the “p” out of his name. The justices chose to leave the letter in. And, the town of Sumpterville, Georgia was born. Gen. Sumter, known as “The Carolina Gamecock,” was admired for his fierceness in the battles in upstate South Carolina. Described by Gen. Cornwallis as his “greatest plague,” Sumter was one of the models for Benjamin Martin, the protagonist of the movie, “The Patriot.”
For a year or so, public sales and court sessions were held at Sumpterville, possibly in the home of John Fullwood. Presiding over the court during that time was Judge Peter Early, who would later become Governor of Georgia. Bids were taken in the spring for the building of a courthouse and a jail. Lots were sold to the public on May 26, 1811, but no deeds were delivered to the purchasers. When plans changed, those who bought lots were issued refunds. Fullwood, himself a justice of the Inferior Court, was finally paid $36.00 for building the courthouse on his own land by the Court in August 1811.
After losing a good part of their county in 1808 to Pulaski County, many Laurens Countians fixed their eyes on acquiring replacement lands on the east side of the Oconee River. In 1811, a bill was finally passed annexing portions of Washington and Montgomery counties. At that point, Sumpterville was no longer in the center of the county. In anticipation of acquiring new lands for a new county seat, county officials had already focused their sights on a broad ridge overlooking the Oconee River at a place formerly called Sand Bar and called Dublin by its founder, Jonathan Sawyer, who operated a store and post office there. The courthouse in Sumpterville was abandoned.
The town of Sumpterville became an abysmal failure. By Christmas 1811, public sales were being held in Dublin. In 1824, Fullwood was reimbursed for building another courthouse in Dublin. Fullwood, Laurens County’s state seantor from 1812-1814, never transferred the lots at Sumpterville to the county, but he did hedge his bets by investing in several hundred acres of land just north of Dublin, where he erected a large and successful grist mill on the waters of Hunger and Hardship Creek.
John Fullwood, a teen-age soldier of the American Revolution, erected his plantation plain home at Sumpterville along a road lined with live oaks, reminiscent of the coastal regions of Georgia. Eventually, Fullwood’s home would become a stage coach stop when stages were the predominate method of long range transportation from the 1820s to the Civil War.
In the 1820 Census, there were thirty persons in the Fullwood household engaged in agriculture on the two-thousand acre plus plantation. Forty-nine of the fifty- six persons living at Sumpterville were slaves. By 1850, more than seventy slaves called Sumpterville home. Fullwood, one of the founders of the Laurens County Academy, the county’s first school, died at sixty-four in 1828. He is buried in the cemetery to the rear of his home. His estate went to his widow Mary, who married Andrew Hampton, a wealthy landowner who lived a short distance to the west. After Andrew Hampton died, Mary married the super wealthy Henry P. Jones, of Burke County.
All the while, both Mary Fullwood Hampton Jones and her third husband Henry Jones continued to buy more and more land, amassing a plantation of more than five thousand acres. When Mary and Henry died, the Sumpterville plantation passed to the Shewmake family, including John T. Shemake, of Augusta, who was serving as Attorney General of Georgia. Although the Shewmake family established a factory on their plantation which they called the Sumpterville Factory, the area became more popularly dubbed “Shewmake,” When the Macon, Dublin, and Savannah Railroad was cut through the area in the early 1890s, a depot was established on the road at the point where it crosses the present I-16 highway.
In 1894, the Sumpterville site was acquired by J.B. Tyre, one of Laurens County’s first farm agents. It is believed that Tyre added the western wing of the Fullwood house, which still stands today. Tyre also established an inn in his house about a century ago. Wallace W. Walke acquired the farm in 1930 and established Walke’s Dairy, giving the adjoining road its current name.
Today, the Fullwood home and some of the magnificent live oaks which lined the old stage road still remains. Just west of a historical marker placed on the site by the John Laurens Chapter of the N.S.D.A.R. is a small wooden building which has fallen to the hallowed ground and thought by some to have been the first Laurens County Courthouse. To this point, no one has come forward with any definitive proof that this decaying structure was our first courthouse. Nor have they completed discounted that it was not. For now I’ll print the legend.
PHOTO BY DON JOHNSTON
PHOTO BY DON JOHNSTON
PHOTOS BY IRENE R. CLAXTON