By Nick Nunn, Staff Writer
Down there near the southern extremes of Morgan County near the Jasper County border, there’s a secret that remained hidden in the woods for generations. It wasn’t murder, and it wasn’t scandal.
In fact, it was the beginning of Georgia’s industrial revolution, manifested in a single cotton mill – which is pretty cool, nonetheless.
During a 10-week project led by Madison-Morgan Conservancy intern, Laura Duvekot, the remains of industrial activity going back all the way to the 1810s were uncovered on the 810-acrea area of land split by the Little River, known colloquially as the Walton Mill Tract.
The document produced by the study outlines the history of the Walton Mill Tract, its current condition, and possibilities for future research on the area. Sources for the study ranged from deeds, maps, historic aerial views, newspaper articles, and oral interviews.
The history of the Walton Mill Tract is carefully detailed, beginning with the 1807 Land Lotteries, when the land that now makes up part of Morgan County was cleared and sold off at approximately six cents per acre.
The cotton mill that was built by William Gregg in 1809 on the Little River is considered to be the first in the state of Georgia, and a community began growing around it known as “Antioch.”
The Antioch Baptist Church was established in 1809 as well, and, by 1811, there was a post office in the community.
Following the War of 1812, the need for domestically produced textiles decreased, and the cotton milling business around the Little River suffered. Gregg went bankrupt in 1816 and the Whatleys, the most prominent family of the time in the area, completely left the area by the mid-1820s.
During the 1820s, however, P.W. Walton purchased land in the area and built a booming plantation, covering 4,500 acres in the 1850s. Walton also owned 156 slaves during this time.
The Waltons moved to Madison in the 1850s, and P.W. Walton’s land was eventually split between his heirs.
Multiple mills were still operating near the turn of the century, but fires destroyed older mills and newer, rebuilt mills until 1950, when a reconstructed mill and the Walton’s 1820s-era homestead burned and neither were rebuilt.
Tenant farmers and sharecroppers occupied the land during the early to mid-20th century, and Bill Killmer bought the Walton Mill Tract property to the west of the Little River in 2001. The land on the east of the Little River is still owned by a direct descendant of P.W. Walton, Wayne Vason.
During a tour of the Killmer property accompanied by Killmer and Christine McCauley, executive director of the Madison-Morgan Conservancy, Killmer expressed his astonishment at the amount of history and the sheer number of personal stories that are waiting to be discovered on his property.
Killmer stood in awe of P.W. Walton, who, after suffering the death of his wife and three children at the Walton homestead, which previously stood mere meters from his current house, managed to carry on and build another family on the shores of the Little River.
The foundation columns of a mill, long since gone from the landscape, sit 30 or so feet from the Little River, but one can still see where water was diverted from the river in order to drive the mill into action.
The frame of an iron bridge, connecting the two sides of the Little River, hangs perilously and appears to remain upright only by sheer force of history and habit.
And, perhaps most chilling of all, a slave burial ground extends throughout a section of the wooded forest, marked only by rustic headstones, footstones, and the ever-extending lines of indention after indention where bodies laid to rest have decomposed under the earth.
With only 10 weeks to dedicate to the project, the study document acknowledges that there is much that has been left undone regarding the history of the Walton Mill Tract.
Areas of potential future research include: tracking the history of the Whatley and Walton families before and after their involvement with the Walton Mill Tract, pinning down the original location of the Antioch Baptist Church, using ground-penetrating radar to determine the number, age, and location of the burials in the slave cemetery, and fully documenting the cotton foreman’s house, which is located on the property.
The complete study, “Walton Mill’s Hidden Past,” which can be found at the Madison-Morgan Conservancy’s website – http://www.mmcgeorgia.org/stories-and-photos/ – is a 139-page document, including a more complete version of the area’s history, photographs of the current conditions, and appendices with historical source documents and transcriptions of oral interviews with people who remember the mills near Little River during their last phases of operation in the 1900s.
Learn More The complete study, “Walton Mill’s Hidden Past,” which can be found at the Madison-Morgan Conservancy’s website – http://www.mmcgeorgia.org/stories-and-photos/ – is a 139-page document, including a more complete version of the area’s history, photographs of the current conditions, and appendices with historical source documents and transcriptions of oral interviews with people who remember the mills near Little River during their last phases of operation in the 1900s.