WATKINSVILLE, Ga. -- It's only seven miles from Watkinsville to Athens, but the short distance fueled a big controversy in the 1870s when Athens residents argued that the Clarke County seat should be moved to the growing town.
In 1875, the Legislature approved moving the county seat from Watkinsville to Athens, home of the University of Georgia and a growing cotton distribution center.
In Watkinsville, "indignant local citizens" -- according to the marker in front of the courthouse -- called for the Legislature to create a new county. The Legislature agreed, making Watkinsville the seat of the new Oconee County, and making Clarke the smallest county in the state at 121.3 square miles.
Such a split is common in Georgia history. Power-hungry politicians, business leaders and farmers who resented long trips to the county seat, all pushed for the formation of new counties during the 1800s.
"The situation is they wanted all county residents within a wagon's drive of the county seat," said University of Georgia professor Doug Bachtel. That meant counties had to be small, and because Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi, it also meant there had to be a lot of them -- 159 in all, more than any state but Texas.
Georgia's first seven counties -- Burke, Camden, Chatham, Effingham, Glynn, Liberty and Richmond -- were created in 1777 from 12 parishes formed from land ceded by the Creek Indians.
The number of counties quickly multiplied as the state became more populated. By 1924 with the creation of Peach County, the state had 161 counties. The number went dropped to 159 in 1932 when Campbell and Milton counties merged in to Fulton County.
Dr. Bachtel says the South always has had a lot of counties. In fact, he says, almost 40 percent of the nation's counties are in the Southeast.
"The tradition got started in the South for these small little counties and naming them after people," he said. "And everybody wanted a county named after them."
After the 1870s, a unique system of nominating officials to statewide office fueled the proliferation of counties in Georgia.
"You have to remember, the county was the most important form of government," said University of Georgia historian Lawrence Hepburn. "That was back in the days when the state didn't provide any services."
And until 1963, officials were not elected according to the popular vote, but on the basis of county unit votes, similar to electoral votes in presidential elections.
"If you created a new county, it meant that the people who could control the vote could get clout at the state Capitol," Mr. Hepburn said. "It really gave a lot of power to small rural counties. Four little counties with a total of 20,000 people could have more unit votes than Fulton County with a million people."
Bonnie Murphy, for one, is glad history worked out as it did.
Athens continued to grow while Watkinsville has maintained its small rural town charm and has only recently hit a growth spurt.
Ms. Murphy, who staffs the Oconee County Welcome Center in downtown Watkinsville, moved from Athens to Oconee County 10 years ago so she could have more land, more privacy and less city hassles.
"What is so great about Oconee County is that you are out of the city but yet able to enjoy city life and have all the services you need with shopping, doctors, parks and culture close by," she said.
Ms. Murphy pointed out a written history of the county on display in the Eagle Tavern, which dates back to 1801 when Watkinsville was the county seat of Clarke County.
Some Oconee County residents compare the subdividing of counties to panning for gold, it reads.
"'You've got to wash away the excess before you get down to the nugget of gold."'
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