Hazlehurst and Jeff Davis County:
A Historical Treasure at "Mile Post 8-1/2"
Jeff Davis County's first citizens were the tribes of Cherokee or Creek who settled on these rich lands teeming with wildlife and natural beauty. The pioneers came in the early part of the 19th century. Hazlehurst was first known as Handtown because the first settlers in the area were the Hand family. The small community was established in what was then Appling County. As best as can be determined, only the Hand family and relatives lived in the area until about 1869, when the J.M. Odom family moved to the area. The coming of the railroad changed the structure of that portion of Appling County and would pave the way for the creation of Jeff Davis County.
Railroad engineer and Civil War veteran George H. Hazlehurst was instrumental in building rail systems throughout the South. Georgia, his home state, was no exception. Colonel Hazlehurst, as he was known, became president of the Macon & Brunswick Railroad in 1865. From Macon, Colonel Hazlehurst and his crew began construction of a line southeastward toward Brunswick. From Brunswick, another of Colonel Hazlehurst's crews began carving a line northwestward. On September 23, 1869, the two crews met and connected the rails halfway between the two cites. The crews celebrated the completion of the rail and christened the spot where the lines met as Mile Post 8-1/2. This would later become Hazlehurst. A depot soon arose, and regularly scheduled train service on the new tracks was placed into operation in 1870. Hazlehurst thus had its very early origins as a rail town.
During this time, only two public roads ran through Hazlehurst: the Tallahassee Road, leading from Savannah to Tallahassee, Florida; and the old Holmesville and Burkett's Ferry Road. The Tallahassee Road was used for the stagecoach line through the tall pine woods of South Georgia. Locally, the stage crossed the Altamaha River at Nail's Ferry, and then continued to Tallahassee by way of Burkett's Ferry on the Ocmulgee River. Stagecoaches, along with steamboats that traveled up the Altamaha from the coast, were the primary means of transportation during this time.
"The coming of the railroad sounded a death knell to the stagecoach and the passenger service of the steamship lines, since travel by railroad was much easier and more direct in many instances," noted one local historian. "Very fittingly, the relay station used by the stagecoach, which was just a shed at the time, was later used for the railroad depot, which became the center of town activities. The people often met the train to pick up freight or to see who was leaving or arriving in the little town."
The town flourished, and Hazlehurst, named for Colonel Hazlehurst at his request, was incorporated by the Appling County Superior Court in the March term of 1877. The act reads, "A certificate under oath of J.W. Barber, James H. Latimer, and Daniel Miles that a majority of the lawful voters ... in favor of incorporation of the town of Hazlehurst" Judge John L. Harris signed the act.
Hazlehurst grew steadily, boasting a population of 793 in 1900. John A. Cromartie, the Appling County representative in the Georgia Legislature, introduced a bill to create Jeff Davis County from portions of Appling and Coffee Counties. The bill was was approved on August 18, 1905. Georgia's 142nd county would have been named Cromartie County if not for a custom to name counties only after deceased citizens. Instead it was decided to name it Jeff Davis County for Jefferson Davis, who had served as president of the Confederacy. The county began operating as an entity on January 1, 1906. A courthouse had to be built and county officials elected. Representative Cromartie donated the land for the courthouse and J.M. Odom and others hauled in the heavy timbers for the foundation. Until the courthouse was completed, court was held in the upstairs of the old wooden schoolhouse. In 1907, charters were amended and the town of Hazlehurst officially became the "City of Hazlehurst."
The county's economy centered on agriculture during the early years. The Hazlehurst Tobacco Market was historically one of Georgia's strongest. Agricultural products and services, including timber and timber products, continue to be a major part of Jeff Davis County's economic base. Throughout the first part of the Twentieth Century, however, Jeff Davis County's citizens felt that something else was needed to spur economic development.
After World War II, the community formed a Chamber of Commerce and organized Balance Agriculture with Industry (BAWI) to bring industry into the community. The efforts of one man in particular, Claude P. Cook, brought a great deal of industry to the area as early as the 1940s. Mr Cook used his extensive contacts to invite and entertain visiting industrialists into Jeff Davis County. As a result of Cook's efforts, Emerson Electric's Alco Controls and other manufacturing companies soon opened their doors. Because of Cook's strong determination that Hazlehurst and Jeff Davis County thrive, he was often referred to as a "One Man Chamber of Commerce". Jeff Davis County became one of the state's leaders in manufacturing and commerce, attracting industry giants like Amoco Fabrics, Otis Elevator, and ERO Industries.
In the late 1960s, Georgia Power Company entered the nuclear power era by constructing its first nuclear powered electric generating plant on a site about fifteen miles northeast of Hazlehurst on the Altamaha River in Appling County, just below the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers. Thousands of skilled workers flocked to the area to construct the huge Edwin I. Hatch Nuclear Power Plant over 10 year period. Many stayed to take permanant jobs in the area, greatly increasing the labor market. The project helped Jeff Davis County grow over the next decades. Today, Hazlehurst and Jeff Davis County remains a quiet, yet vibrant community whose foundations are based on solid, old-fashioned values maintaining a firm commitment to the past but always with an eye trained toward the future.