Now… more than one hundred and seventy years ago, south of Watkinsville, Georgia, was the small but thriving antebellum town of Salem with a church, shops, offices, hotels, a tannery, and a boarding school. But, it vanished. Celestea Sharp set out find out about it…This article, which first appeared in Athens Magazine, August 1990, continues below with exclusive permission to the Thrasher Family Association…somewhat edited, abbreviated and updated for our website. Thank you, Celestea for your family detective work!
I had moved from New York City and was new to Athens. I barely knew of Watkinsville, and I’d never heard of Farmington, much less Salem. In the mood for exploring one day, I drove to Watkinsville and followed some of the roads around it. Along the way, I began to notice some unexpectedly familiar names on street signs: Thrasher Street, Elder Covered Bridge, and the town of Bishop.
“Hmm…” I thought. “My grandmother’s mother was named Thrasher. And her mother, for whom I was named – an improbable, old-fashioned name – was an Elder before she married, wasn’t she? And weren’t my third cousins in Atlanta named Bishop?”
Later, I asked my father where his grandmother came from, and it made a lot of sense when he told me, “Watkinsville.”
Over the next few months, I wandered down roads in and around Watkinsville, thinking how interesting it would be to find the grave of that other “Mary Celestia Bird” four generations back. When visits to Watkinsville cemeteries turned up nothing, I drifted south down Highway 441 to Farmington. An older Farmington resident, sitting in his yard swing across from the town’s post office, responded to my questions by sending me down Salem Road to ask the last surviving Thrasher in the area.
Meeting this distant relative was the breakthrough I had been looking for. Having lived in the area for 70 years, my newfound cousin knew immediately where I needed to go, and he took me there. Thus, my nonchalant rambling ended up bringing me face-to-face with my great-great-grandmother’s tumbled-down gravestone, in a small cemetery lost in the brambles and pines off a country road.
When we lifted the heavy marker from the ground, and I read what was carved on it, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of connectedness. A feeling of legitimate belonging which my growing up in Atlanta, among other transplants, had never given me. And having found this first tangible trace of the family roots I’d never known, I was hooked, and had to learn more.
Gradually I discovered that my family, beginning almost 200 years ago, had been residents of a thriving town called Salem, Georgia. In antebellum days Salem had been one of the three most important settlements in what was then Clarke County – the other two were Athens and Watkinsville. But in the decades after the Civil War, the town died and very little remains of it today.
My Thrasher cousin drove me to the site of the old town. There on each side of Salem Road, 11 miles south of Watkinsville in lower Oconee County, stand only two buildings from a bygone era marking the location. One, across a wide field, a small clapboard church sits alone, starkly white against a background of dense forest. Its simple, clean lines and sharply pitched roof are reminiscent of a New England Shaker church or a Quaker meetinghouse. Tightly closed, dark green shutters on the windows give it an abandoned feeling even though its well-maintained appearance indicates attention by someone. To the left of the church lies its cemetery, and behind the church, three long granite-slab tables, probably used for church suppers under an ancient oak.
On the other side of the road but like the church, not quite facing the road is a structure known as the “Brown House.” Its sprawling wood frame is unpainted, and the tin roof, which shelters the porch across the front of the house, has rusted to a red clay color. A small, dilapidated wood-frame building next to the road in its front yard is overgrown with vines.
Although no professional historian has written in-depth about Salem, Georgia, I found several helpful sources of information as I began my quest in earnest. At the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center in Athens, I found historic preservation planner William Moffat, who gave me an overview of possible historical sources and the important news that an historic plat map of the one-time town could be obtained from the State Archives in Atlanta.
A book by University of Georgia professor Ernest C. Hynds, Antebellum Athens and Clarke County, Georgia, offered the best published collection of data about Salem. In addition to consulting three volumes written on the Thrasher family in Georgia, which I found at the University of Georgia Library’s “Georgia Room,” I also searched through back issues of Watkinsville’s weekly newspaper, The Oconee Enterprise. Here, I came up with histories of Salem written by local amateur historians, Robert Ashford in 1931 and Jerry Pope in 1974. In the newspaper, too, I found a 1951 history of Oconee County’s Salem Methodist Church by a member of the congregation, Mrs. Albert Hale. Finally, a dip into US Census records at the UGA library and into the 19th century deed books in the Clarke and Oconee County courthouses yielded some interesting facts.
From all these sources, I pieced together a picture of Salem as a pioneer town, built around a natural spring and established on land purchased from the Cherokees by a family named Hester. Although Salem was not incorporated until November 1818, settlers had been streaming into the area since the end of the Revolutionary War. Indeed, quite a few of them were veterans of that war, responding to offers of free land from the new government. Several sources relate that most of the arriving people were of Scotch-Irish stock, descendants of those who settled and farmed the valleys along the Appalachian mountain chain from Pennsylvania south to Georgia. The largest numbers of them seem, like my family, to have come directly from North Carolina and Virginia.
The prominent citizens who had Salem incorporated in 1818 approached its development like true sons of the Enlightenment: in an orderly, rational and democratic way. Salem’s act of incorporation called for governance by three commissioners to be elected annually. The commissioners passed an act in May 1821 to define the town limits, which extended from the town center one-half mile in all directions. From the plat map, drawn on July 4, 1820, one can see how a little less than half of the town was laid out in square blocks, each numbered and bearing the name of its owner. On one corner of the town sits a six-acre lot, inscribed “Colledge (sic) Square” along the southern edge, another two and one-half acre lot reads “Spring” and jutting out from the southern border sits a lot called “Meetinghouse Square.”
From the town’s beginning, Salem residents made their living almost exclusively from agriculture. And while they raised livestock and grew foodstuffs for personal consumption, the crop they planted in increasingly larger amounts from the 1820’s until the Civil War was cotton.
With the dramatic increase in cotton cultivation came an equally dramatic rise in the number of slaves brought into Salem and into Clarke County as a whole. Hynds states in his book that five-sixths of the 1400-person increase in the county’s population between 1820 and 1830 were slaves. And I noticed that in the 1850 census figures for Salem, the town’s 22 free, white households owned 183 slaves.
Business interests developed to service the citizens of Salem. A large tannery was perhaps the most well-known enterprise, reported to have supplied a large surrounding area with leather. In both the 1827 and 1837 editions of Adiel Sherwood’s A Gazetteer of the State of Georgia, Salem was mentioned as having two stores, three offices, and seven shops. A statement in Robert Ashford’s history advises a traveler that in Old Salem he would “find an establishment where his measures could be taken and a fine cloth suit could be made for him by an expert tailor, according to the prevailing style.”
Ashford also reports that there were “two hotels in town, and several boarding houses” as well as “seven bar rooms conveniently located on the principal street.” He goes on to talk about the stagecoach coming from Madison, Georgia, which stopped at Salem to allow the horses to feed and rest themselves before continuing to Watkinsville, Athens and other towns on the route.
According to George G. Smith, writing in 1900 in the Story of Georgia and the Georgia People, Clarke County in the early 1800’s “has in it many stills and made much brandy and whiskey…and the records of the county show that the inhabitants were by no means total abstainers…” Thus, if Salem was typical of the rest of Clarke County at the time, its seven bar rooms, with local trade bolstered by the patronage of stagecoach passengers, probably did a lively business.
Perhaps the most interesting of Salem’s enterprises was the Salem Academy, established under the auspices of the Methodist Church in 1820 and incorporated in 1821. A boarding school for boys and girls, the academy probably offered courses such as English, a modern foreign language, Latin and Greek, arithmetic, science, history and geography. Painting and music were, we know, offered for a small additional fee. Hynds notes that in 1838 Salem Academy had an enrollment of 54 students, 30 males and 24 females. He also reports that a Farmer’s Academy was incorporated in 1837 and had an enrollment of 63 students in 1838.
The great importance for Salem of its private schools is summed up in Sherwood’s 1837 Gazetteer: “The schools have been kept in constant operation for several years. Indeed they may be said to have created the village.”
The only living link with Salem’s early history is the Salem Methodist Church. Mrs. Albert Hale’s 1951 history of the church states that in 1820, “A group of people in this town realizing the need for a place of worship organized a Methodist church. Samuel Hester and Elizabeth deeded the land consisting of nine-tenths of an acre for the sum of $1.00 to the trustees…” In 1822 the Hesters also deeded a parsonage to the church, but the parsonage had disappeared by 1850. From the outset, the preachers were Methodist circuit riders on the Watkinsville circuit.
She describes how the church came to be built in 1896 with the congregation’s communal spirit and sense of shared purpose: “The materials were donated. Needing long sills, rafters and the like, the trees were given and the people came together, cut the logs, hauled them to the saw mill, had them cut, then carried them to the church ground for the building. A foreman was hired, but the rest of the labor was given.”
Because so little has been written about Salem, I decided to speak with a number of the older residents who still live near Salem today. What they told me helped link the scant historical accounts I had found with the few landmarks that remain. And it helped me understand why Salem lost its vitality after the Civil War and died by the time of the Great Depression.
Beryl Graves, a longtime member of Salem Methodist Church who recently passed away, did the most to paint a picture of the town as it used to be. She described how her father’s house and a small store had sat on the corner of Salem Road and Old Salem Road, which turns off to the right just past the Methodist Church and the “” House.” “Our house was a very old log house, and the logs in it were twelve inches square.”
Her niece, University of Georgia Instructor Mary Ruth Moore, added: “The house wasn’t very big, but it had a loft up above, and there were portholes in the walls. Downstairs, there was wainscoting half way up the wall, with plaster the rest of the way to the ceiling. An old man in the community once told Aunt Beat that the house dated from the 1700’s.”
Beryl Graves continued her description of the Salem of her youth from the 1910’s through the 1920’s by telling about the Jackson family’s house across Old Salem Road. “When I was very small, Mrs. Jackson, the matriarch of that family, used to tell us that when they bought the land from the Cherokees, they went so many days’ journey with them as a sign of goodwill.”
She also told me that she remembers the remains of the stagecoach station near the “Brown House.” “The old stables were tumbly, but they were still used for mules when I was a child.” And her father had taken her to see the remains of the tannery, which had ceased operating before she was born.
Other residents of the area supplied interesting details about the site of Salem. Since her parents lived in the “Brown House” for years, Viola Carson was able to describe how her father, Jasper Harvey, had allowed the road builders to cut off a section of his front yard to straighten out a meander in the road – which explains why neither the “Brown House” nor the Methodist Church faces Salem Road exactly.
“People have called my father’s house the ‘Brown House’ because of the color it was painted, the ‘Hester House’ because of the Dr. Hester who lived in it so long ago, and the ‘Inn’ because that place was a stagecoach stop,” Carson told me. She is uncertain of the house’s age, but Moffat estimates that it dates from the 1860s.
My question about why Salem vanished was answered in two ways by Grace Collier, a knowledgeable Oconee County resident, and by Beryl Graves. “Salem was bypassed twice by the railroad,” stated Collier (first about 1840 and later around 1890, I discovered from other sources).
Beryl Graves described Salem’s demise in this way: “That country was cotton country, and when the bottom fell out when the boll weevil hit and during the Great Depression, everyone left because they had to find somewhere to make a living…a typhoid epidemic killed a lot of people, but it was before the 1920’s, when my sister and I were small children.”
A clue from a 15-year-old Thrasher family history – that a Florine Thrasher owned the Salem Academy bell because her family had acquired the Academy lot – had put me on alert for this name in my conversations with Salem area residents. When one of them mentioned that Ray Middlebrooks, her longtime neighbor, was Florine Thrasher’s son, I knew there was a good chance that I had found the bell.
Until this discovery, I felt I had probably learned everything about the world of my ancestors that my time and energy would allow me to uncover. All the details I had unearthed about my family had left me with a satisfied feeling, a feeling that I knew myself better because I knew who they were. But the thrill of seeing the bell, like the thrill of seeing my great-great-grandmother’s grave, may keep me on the trail of Old Salem for some time to come.
In April 2013 the Thrasher Family Association held its annual reunion in Athens, Georgia, and a large group went to visit the site of Old Salem and the Salem Methodist Church in Watkinsville. Mr. Albert Hale, who remembers many members of the church, lovingly takes care of it today.
The pews were freshly polished and the grounds were well-kept. Friends and members of the Thrasher Family Association are invited make a donation to the “Salem Perpetual Care Fund” and mail it c/o Stephanie Wright, 2511 Watson Springs Road, Watkinsville, Georgia 30677.