With the not-long-ago relocation of a longtime business, an eerie silence fills the air around the vacant brick building at the traffic light in downtown Harlem. For years, the Prather and later the Culpepper Ford automobile dealerships stood as landmarks at the intersection.
Older residents recall when a portion of the building served as the neighborhood bus station for the Southeastern States Line and the regional Picayune bus service. Providing convenient daily morning and evening schedules, the "Pic" from Thomson to Augusta, via Harlem and Grovetown, ran from 1930 to the late 1960s and left memorable imprints upon the lives of local residents.
For years, the center of the sylvan city of Harlem was considered by many to be in front of Harlem Baptist Church. Before the present gospel sanctuary was completed in 1952, a wooden edifice assumed a prominent central position for many decades, dating back to its founding in 1874. The nearby brick Harlem United Methodist Church has graced the adjoining landscape since opening in 1928, replacing a wooden church that was erected in 1902 and also tracing its roots back to 1874.
Recently, a new bigger post office has been constructed at Harlem on U.S. Highway 78, giving patrons much additional parking space for their convenience. Plans call for the former small post office downtown to become a museum, featuring memorabilia from Harlem native son Oliver Hardy. The city's first mail service began at the train station in 1875, with railroad clerk James Hussey acting as the first postmaster. The old Zachery and Riley houses near the depot served as restaurant and hotel at Harlem in past years and once welcomed early visitors and travelers year-round to its pleasant atmosphere as they disembarked from the numerous passenger trains passing through the village.
Strolling down the pathways of yesteryear of Harlem, one notices old structures reminiscent of another time, such as the Pollard Academy school building. It stands as a symbolic reminder of a bygone era before schools were desegregated. Well-liked principals of the Pollard Academy include George T. White and Mary E. Sanders. Later, a school would be named for Mr. White, and Miss Sanders would become a principal at other schools before finishing her career on the Columbia County Board of Education.
The old Harlem Ice and Coal Plant, once managed by local politician and state Rep. Glenn Phillips, is well remembered by old-timers. The company was in operation during the infancy of refrigeration. It opened in 1945 and served the community for about 20 years, replacing an ice plant that had existed since 1913.
The now-closed Thomson Co., Harlem branch, was for a while a major area employer in the garment market, beginning in the 1950s. Another well-known clothing store that was notable at Harlem over the years was Hatcher Brothers, dating back to the 1880s.
Various storefronts of the old Masonic building -- which was built about 1911 -- still ply their trades. Today in Harlem, the nationally known Tracy-Luckey Pecan Co. Inc. continues to prosper, dating back to 1937.
Hamlets like the once-bordering Sawdust succumbed to the ravages of time and progress before the turn of the century and are now forgotten except as a name on the pages of local history.
The first bank in Columbia County opened Nov. 3, 1905, with the establishment of the Bank of Harlem. A few years later, it was replaced by the Bank of Columbia County. Present-day city hall is located in another building that once housed a bank. The current city hall was dedicated Feb. 28, 1991 during the tenure of Mayor James Lewis.
In earlier years, the business district reverberated with the dots and dashes of Morse code from the telegraph escaping from a window at the railroad station. Amplified by a Prince Albert tobacco can, longtime agent R.G. Hanna was the sender and receiver of this now-lost art of railroading nostalgia. A small flower garden near the railroad tracks blooms in his remembrance. The circa 1896 wooden train depot vanished from the scene in the mid-1960s, replaced by a small office for a brief period. Dial telephones appeared in Harlem in about 1956, replacing the old exchanges that existed for a number of years. Memorials bear testament to residents and stand as solemn epitaphs in the local cemetery, such as the marker within an iron-fence enclosure to the town's founder, Dr. A.J. Sanders. Close by, another pioneer settler, Newman Hicks, is buried. Both of these men would serve as mayor and were instrumental in seeing that a clause stipulating the prohibition of hard liquor within the city limits was inserted in the original town charter. Harlem's name came from a fashionable residential area of New York City at that time. Originally the name came from a city in Holland.
A well-run and efficient library has served the public at Harlem since opening in 1981. The former house was bequeathed for a library by the Walton Family. Educational facilities now include an elementary and a middle school within boundaries of the city. Comprehensive Harlem High School occupies a location three miles outside the city on Georgia Highway 221. Legend says one of the first high schools in Harlem was located downtown between the Baptist and Methodist churches.
A popular teen-age gathering spot of the 1960s was nearby Smith' Drive-In, now remembered by baby boomers with a touch of gray slipping into their hair.
Among other houses of worship of the vicinity are Old Union Baptist Church, established in 1845; Second Mount Moriah Baptist Church, 1887; Mount Tabor Baptist Church, 1883; New Holt Baptist Church, 1868; New Hope Baptist church, 1887; Trinity Episcopal Church, 1954; and Harlem Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1978.
Civic and fraternal organizations include the Harlem Masonic Lodge, Lions and Rotary clubs, Woodmen of the World and the Harlem's Women's Club.
Harlem remains one of Columbia County's significant towns, sharing the honor of being one of its two incorporated cities, since its beginning Oct. 24, 1870. The close-knit village along the tracks of the old Georgia Railroad has always radiated a certain Southern charm and mystique, with hints of a rural atmosphere.
Each year on the first Saturday in October, people converge on Harlem to honor Oliver Hardy, who was born here Jan. 18, 1892. The jovial, rotund comedian with a moon face and small mustache was one-half of the film duo of Laurel and Hardy. The annual event has grown in popularity each year and lets the casual tourist experience a little of Harlem's down-home Southern hospitality.
Charles Lord is a Columbia County historian who lives in Grovetown.