Originally created 12/09/01

Lore abounds along old Washington Road



Chimney ruins hidden in pine forests. Names and dates chiseled into crumbling tombstones. Antebellum plat records inked with quill pens.

A history buff's heaven.

Driven by curiosity and fascination, Charles Lord has spent decades finding clues of Columbia County's overlooked history. He has become the county's unofficial historian, writing columns about his discoveries for The Augusta Chronicle.

While researching the lost village of Brownsborough, poring over frayed deed records stored in a back room of the Appling courthouse, he noticed a recurring reference that didn't make sense. Washington Road appeared in places where it shouldn't - between Appling and Pollard's Corner.

"That set off an alarm," said Mr. Lord, 56. "I used to hear people talking about a Washington Road being in those areas. Now I had proof."

Mr. Lord has since mapped out a route for the original road - and destinations along the way - that he's fairly certain about.

Along the ancient pathway are places of humble beginnings and ruins of bygone fortunes.

Abram Simons' 'inn'

At the turn of the 19th century, settlers of Washington, had begun hiring wagoners to make the weeklong runs to Augusta for goods and supplies. Sometimes they'd run into a problem when they reached a certain hill located just outside of town on Augusta Road, as they called their end of Washington Road.

A man who lived there, along what is now called South Smyrna Church Road, took to swindling travelers, first trapping them, then getting them liquored up until they gambled their money into his pockets.

Although much of the tale surrounding Abram Simons has been passed down as local folklore, J. Russell Slaton of the Washington-Wilkes Historical Foundation has been able to verify part of it through court records. Some of Mr. Simons' victims apparently reported him to authorities.

A Revolutionary War veteran, Mr. Simons had a legitimate business as a cotton farmer. He lived in a two-story house about 150 feet off Augusta Road, and built a horse-racing track and stables nearby.

Rumor had it he ordered his slaves to douse the dirt road with buckets of water from Upton Creek after dark. Wagons would get stuck in the mud, and the drivers would be forced to seek shelter at the Simons home. Mr. Simons then charged them for spending the night in one of his rooms.

Other rooms in the house were made into a tavern and a gambling den. Mr. Simons used them, along with the race track, to pry money from his guests.

Mr. Simons died in 1825. In his will he left $5,000 to each of his stepchildren, signifying great wealth for that era, Mr. Slaton said.

The house has since been taken down, but Mr. Simons' grave remains, surrounded by a moss-covered stone wall with an iron gate. It would be difficult to find off the still-unpaved road without a guide.

Legend says the wall was put up to keep the devil away, and that Mr. Simons was buried standing up, with a musket in one hand and a whiskey bottle in the other. He wanted to be ready if the devil came, and if he couldn't bribe him with drink, he'd shoot him.

Smith's mill

The damming of the Savannah River to create Thurmond Lake drowned plenty of villages and buildings, many of them long abandoned. Among them were a homestead and the site of what historians say was the world's first gold stamp mill, both of which stood near the bridge where Augusta Road crossed Little River.

During the 1800s, Joseph Belknap Smith's family home and three-story gristmill stood by the dusty road. A dam below the bridge powered the mill. Farmers traveled from miles away to have their corn and wheat ground into meal and flour, according to Washington historian Waldo Harris.

When his neighbor Jeremiah Griffin died in 1842, Mr. Smith bought his stamp mill located just up the river. Gold mining was a lucrative business in McDuffie County during the 19th century. With furnaces and a stamp powered by a water-wheel, Mr. Griffin had invented the mill in 1833 to process the ore into gold bars.

It's all underwater now, except for the cemetery, which remains above ground on a peninsula jutting into the lake at Holliday Park in Wilkes County. During droughts, a winding line of rocks emerges, which was the Smiths' rock garden and walkway.

The Crawford plantation

The Crawford house, known as Oak Hall, was said to be the oldest house in Columbia County before it burned down in 1968.

According to local lore, Charles Crawford, a captain in a militia company, came to the area from Virginia and built the house during or just after the Revolutionary War.

It was a two-story pine structure with six columns and an iron balcony. It had eight rooms, some with imported stained-glass windows. Washington Road likely ran between Oak Hall and the cotton gin.

Crawford family members and descendants came to be among the most influential figures in the state.

The dynasty includes George W. Crawford, a state attorney general, U.S. congressman and Georgia governor; William H. Crawford, a U.S. congressman, secretary of war, secretary of the treasury and an unsuccessful candidate to become sixth president of the United States; Nathan Crawford, who helped found Augusta Medical College; and Peter Crawford, a Columbia County sheriff.

George LaVarnway's home on Crawford Place Road is built over the site of Oak Hall. Trees in his yard still bear scorch marks from the 1968 fire.

The Marshall homestead

In the mid-1970s, a hunter mentioned something to Mr. Harris that got his attention, something about a forgotten place much dearer to his heart than the Smith mill. The hunter said he'd stumbled into a tombstone that read, "Abraham Marshall."

For years, the Marshall homestead had been lost to the members of Kiokee Baptist Church, which pioneer preacher Daniel Marshall, Abraham's father, founded in 1772. It is the oldest Baptist church in Georgia still in existence, and the origins of what would become the state's largest denomination, according to Mr. Harris, a co-author of Georgia's First Continuing Baptist Church.

Mr. Harris, 80, a retired Baptist minister and a Kiokee church member, found the grave on overgrown land along Tubman Road in Columbia County. The marker could barely be seen among the vines and foliage, he said. A rickety wooden shack stood nearby.

Deed records confirmed that the house had belonged to Mr. Marshall, and that Washington Road ran beside it. A massive roadbed, evidence of an old pathway, engulfs that section of Tubman Road.

"In my opinion, this is the most historic site on old Washington Road," Mr. Harris said.

A fire and brimstone preacher, Mr. Marshall issued his sermons with a "holy whine," Mr. Harris said. He baptized converts in nearby creeks, and was once arrested during a sermon for preaching a doctrine contrary to the Church of England.

No one knows for sure where his first meetinghouse stood, but it was likely somewhere near Little Kiokee Creek. A later church erected in 1808 sits west of the homestead on Tubman Road. The present church is in Appling.

Church members took the house apart in 1981. Large granite slabs commemorating the Marshall legacy guard the grounds, and a brick fence encloses the cemetery. A wooden platform makes for a pulpit in services held by the church every year, services held in the Georgia woods as they were when Mr. Marshall got his start.

Fruitlands Nurseries

The lushness of a tract of land off Washington Road that so impressed Bobby Jones was no miracle of nature. Green thumbs had been cultivating it long before the Atlantan got the idea to build his famous golf course.

Dennis Redmond once operated an indigo plantation there, and built the house that became the Augusta National's clubhouse. He called his land Fruitlands, and won a slew of prizes in agricultural fairs. He passed along his innovations as an editor of The Southern Cultivator.

Belgian Baron Louis Mathieu Edouard Berckmans bought the 365 acres in 1857. He and his son, Prosper Julius Alphonse Berckmans, began operating Fruitlands Nurseries the next year.

It was one of the largest commercial nurseries in the south, growing a wide variety of trees, bushes and flowers. It imported exotic plants from all over the world, and shipped its products throughout the country.

A stack of old catalogs, donated by a Berckmans family member, is stored at the Augusta Museum of History.

Prosper Berckmans died in 1910, and the nursery closed eight years later. The land sat dormant, its plants and trees still flourishing.

Fruitlands came to the public forefront again during the height of the Roaring '20s, when Florida businessman Commodore J. Perry Stoltz announced plans to build a lavish resort on the property. It started a land-buying rush along Washington Road, with prospectors spending millions in anticipation of the tourist mecca, according to Mr. Cashin's book.

Instead, a massive hurricane struck Miami and destroyed Mr. Stoltz's Fleetwood Hotel, wiping out the commodore's fortune and his plans for Augusta.

Fresh from his "grand slam" win of all four major golf championships, Bobby Jones set his sights on the land in 1930. Fruitlands was bought for $70,000 and became the Augusta National.