The Creation of Turner County Georgia

By David M. Baldwin

It was Friday, August 18, 1905, at 1:00 p.m. at the state capitol in Atlanta when Governor Joseph Meriwether Terrell took the new golden pen provided by the Ashburn county committee and signed into law house bill 75 creating the 145th county of the state of Georgia. It would be called Turner.

After signing, Governor Terrell presented the gold pen to 37 year-old Ashburn attorney W.A. Hawkins, the secretary of the Ashburn county committee, who was responsible for much of the detailed work for the creation of the new county. J.S. Shingler, Chairman of the Ashburn county Executive Committee, made his way to the nearest telegraph office with a telegram to Joe Lawrence, Editor of the Wiregrass Farmer and Stockman. The telegram read: YOU ARE NOW LIVING IN TURNER COUNTY. PRAISE GOD FROM WHOM ALL BLESSINGS FLOW. TELL THE PEOPLE.

What was Irwin County in 1821 had become Worth County in 1853 and now Turner County in 1905. Capt. Jack Henderson, for whom the county was originally to be named, would be among the few who could say he had lived in three Georgia counties and had never moved.

This is the story of the creation of Turner County as gathered from news reports of the Vienna News, Worth County Local, Tifton Gazette, Wiregrass Farmer and Stockman, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Macon Telegraph, Ocilla Dispatch and the Irwinville Courier.

Ashburn County was the first to make its intentions known to have its own county; however, Tifton Gazette Editor J.L. Herring claimed to be the first to call for smaller counties as early as 1895.

Why was there a need for smaller counties? A May 12, 1905 Tifton Gazette editorial put it like this: "In those good old days just mentioned, but few were forced to attend the courts and time was not so valuable as it is now. With the advent of steam and electricity, of increased expense of living, with close competition and modern business methods, time has grown of more value with each passing year, until now, to any active business man, nearly every moment is precious." Additionally, crime was increasing. A farmer could no longer risk leaving his family and stock alone at home all day.

To get to court, some farmers had to leave home with horse and buggy at 4:00 a.m., travel five hours through unkept, country paths and across ragged creeks, render duty in court all day, and return around 11:00 p.m. or later that night. It was exhausting.

Opponents of smaller counties said it was better to have large counties with well located county sites and low tax rates than small counties with no better county sites and higher tax rates. New small counties would incur heavy expenses for setting up new a government, a new courthouse, jail, and other buildings in addition to the extra trouble and expense to change districts and courts. Opponents said the new county movement is the work of a few ambitious towns, a few tenth rate politicians, and a few office seekers who are too lazy to work.

In Vienna, for instances, the opponents accused those in the Cordele county movement of wanting to create for themselves a political office, since they were unable to get elected in Dooly County.

In 1904, Georgia operated under the Constitution of 1877 which provided for only 137 counties. For this to be changed, the legislature would have to approve a constitutional amendment and it be ratified by a public vote. Governor Terrell readily endorsed the change. In his opening day speech to the legislature on July 1, 1904, he said, "The inflexible rule of the constitution which forbids the creation of any new county has brought about in some sections unexpected and unintentional hardships. Counties that in 1877 were geographically large, but sparsely settled, have greatly increased in wealth and population, but the line of growth has left the body of the inhabitants remote from the county site, to the manifest inconvenience and detriment of those who, under conditions as they existed in 1877, undoubtedly would have been granted relief by the creation of a new county. The matter is one calling for an appropriate amendment to the constitution providing for the creation of new counties up to a fixed limit, or by such other legislation as will meet a condition of serious and permanent hardship to many good citizens who are entitled to relief."

By mid July, 1904, the Senate and the House had approved a constitutional amendment to raise the county limit to 145, allowing for eight new Georgia counties. The need for new counties was in South Georgia as they had the larger counties in the state. In mid-October, 1904, the new county amendment was ratified. In the amendment voting in Ashburn, 307 voted for the amendment or for new counties and 7 voted against the amendment. Statewide the amendment was approved by a healthy margin. By June, 1905, the joint committee on new counties had 24 new county proposals vying for the eight openings.

Reaction to the establishment of the new Ashburn County was favorable. On July 6, 1904, the Vienna News reported, "Ashburn ought to come in for one of the county sites of the new counties to be created. It would only take off a few miles of the lower edge of the county and still Dooly would hold her title of the "Great State of Dooly".

In August, our friends from old Worth County said, "By the time we give Cordele a slice on the north, Ashburn a slice on the northeast, Tifton a slice on the east, and Doerun a slice on the south, Worth county will look like thirty cents." 

Mr. J.S. Betts and Mr. W.A. Murray visited Sylvester on Monday, March 13, 1905 to assess the status of Ashburn's new county there. These two gentlemen learned there would be no opposition and quite a number of the old Worth Countians pledged to aid them in securing a new county. Mr. Murray proceeded to tell the Worth County Local Editor Clifford Grubbs that "the county of Henderson would be launched upon scheduled time beyond a doubt. The way has been greased and everything is almost in readiness for the launching."

A quote from the Ocilla Dispatch said, "Well, old father Irwin's children and grandchildren are numerous in South Georgia, and their advancement has been wonderful. Possibly some great grandchildren would not be so bad."

The only sour puss in the whole affair was young Editor Rodgers of the Irwinville Courier. After attending a 5000 person barbeque held in Ashburn on June 16th, 1905, in support of the new county, the editor of the Worth County Local said, "If the denizens over there know as well how to get a new county as they know how to get a crowd and entertain them, the county of Henderson is an assured fact. The only thing in their way is Rodgers, of the Irwinville Courier, and if what Herring of the Tifton Gazette says is true, Rodgers is a "mighty small potato in a very small hill, and does not cut much ice."

Tifton county committee claimed they did not have any opposition and considered themselves a shoe in from the start. Not so. Controversy arose over the town of Ty Ty, which the new boundary line split. Also, others wanted to be included in the Tifton county much to the objection of Senator Knight of Berrien County, who would lose this taxable land.

To the north, the Cordeleans faced opposition from state senator D.A.R. Crum, who resided in Cordele, of all places. As it turned out for Ashburn, no opposition ever developed. Since we were in a position to take a little land from all around us, we were considered a small encroachment.

One of the first meetings of the new county committee was held at Brown House in Macon, Georgia on August 25, 1904 and was attended by attorney W.A. Hawkins, George M. Daniels, Dr. T.H. Thrasher, and H.S. Story of Ashburn. The purpose of the meeting was to organize a statewide campaign of all those interested in forming a new county. Attorney Hawkins was elected secretary of the statewide organization.

On Saturday, March 18, 1905, W.A. Hawkins, as secretary of the committee to secure the new county of Henderson, was in Atlanta to discuss prospects of securing legislation for the establishment of the new county. Mr. Hawkins said, "The people in and around Ashburn are farmers who own their own homes. While attending court their families are left unprotected and the distances from the various county sites works a hardship upon them."

The Executive Committee of the Ashburn new county committee was headed by Chairman J.S. Shingler, a large naval stores operator. Ashburn Mayor J.S. Betts served as Treasurer and Attorney W.A. Hawkins was Secretary. Every major business leader in town served on the committee in their best capacity. Members of the General Committee were: Dr. C.E. Walker, W.A. Murray, J.W. Henderson, H.B. Erminger, E.R. Smith, Sr., J.B. Smith, Dr. W.L. Story, E.R. Smith, Jr., Willis Odum, D.H. Davis, R. L. Betts, H.W. Bussey, W. A. Shingler, W.W. Cowan, Frank Wardlaw, W. A. Greer, B.F. Raney, B.E. Smith, Dr. T. H. Thrasher, J.H. Gorday, C.W. Evans, and Wiregrass Farmer and Stockman Editor Joe Lawrence.

On Wednesday morning, May 10, 1905, attorney W.A. Hawkins, Dr. T.H. Thrasher, and Col. H.C. McKenzie represented Ashburn in Tifton in a meeting with Fitzgerald, Ocilla, and Tifton at the law firm of Fulwood, Boatright, and Eve for the purposes of agreeing upon boundary lines, harmonizing conflicting interests, and reaching an adjustment by which no injustice would be done any community.

The members of the new county committee spent months in Atlanta lobbying and guarding our interest. The only bump in the road, or disappointment, came when the legislature ruled on Tuesday, August 8, 1905, that no county created should bear the name of a man now living. We had laid our hopes on naming our new county after Capt. Jack Henderson, our native son and old Irwin County pioneer. That decision had been unanimous throughout the territory.

James Jackson Henderson, the son of a Methodist preacher, was born in this section on August 27, 1827. He married Susannah Whiddon on September 19, 1850, and from this union came five daughters and three sons. At the time of his death, May 29, 1910, only one son, J.W. Henderson survived. Capt. Jack is the great grandfather of Cortez Henderson Sconyers.

Captain Jack is the unquestionable founder of Sycamore. It was at his home in 1848 that his future mother-in-law returned from horse riding, and throwing her riding switch into the ground prophetically proclaimed that someday there would be a town at this spot and it would be named for that switch which would grow to become a large tree. The switch was from a sycamore tree. On April 17, 1878, Sycamore became an official town with a post office.

Capt. Jack fought with Company "A", 61st Ga. Regiment in 1861 and was captured at Fort Pulaski in the early part of the war, imprisoned at Fort Delaware, and later exchanged. Rejoining the war, he was painfully wounded at Petersburg, Virginia, being shot in the mouth with a minnie ball during the memorable siege of that stronghold. After the war, he remained true to the cause of the South as any man that wore the gray and loved to talk of the stars and bars as only the true and brave could.

Capt. Jack was an accomplished farmer. He was a leader in the Agricultural Alliance and other associations for the purpose of obtaining better prices. On many occasions, he conducted funerals and weddings, there being no pastor there. He frequently made home-made taffy and grew fresh strawberries to feed to Sunday night church groups at his home north of town. Capt. Jack was a man's man, hardened by the elements of life and well prepared to face any adversity.

Capt. Jack wrote one book, "Muster Roll of the Worth Rebels, Co. B, 10th Battalion Georgia Volunteer Infantry, Sorrel's Brigade, Mahone's Division, A.P. Hill's Corps, Army of Northern Virginia."" The book is a complete history of this gallant company and contains a member of nearly every family of prominence in this section," according to the September 9, 1904 article in the Tifton Gazette. These rebels organized March 4, 1862 at Isabella with Honorable Daniel Henderson, Capt. Jack's father, as captain and surrendered with Lee at Appomattox April 9, 1865.

At the request of several of his friends all over the state, the Ashburn county committee, now staying full time in Atlanta, went along with naming the county for the late Honorable Henry Gray Turner of Quitman, Georgia. The committee sent home the most encouraging news. They said, " they are realizing the merits of their claim for a new county and are not resorting to any clap-trap or bombastic statements, but, in a business-like way are showing forth the fact that the people of this section stand in need of the benefits the creation of a new county would give more than any other part of the state. The committee realizes it has intelligences of the highest order to deal with, who will be satisfied with nothing short of facts and who spurn fiction and sentiment."

To the committee's statement, Editor Joe Lawrence replied, “We have to compliment our people on the way they have carried on this movement. They have avoided everything that would in any way create bad feelings, ignoring every challenge in that direction. They simply knew they had the argument and they meant to stick by it and let others mind their own business. They propose to cleanly carry on their campaign, with malice to none and love to all, feeling assured that the Georgia legislature will recognize the righteousness of their claim and grant them Turner County".

Henry Gray Turner was born in Franklin County, North Carolina on March 20, 1839. As a child he attended preparatory school and later enrolled in the University of Virginia, but was unable to finish due to his father's death in 1857, when he moved to old Irwin County, Georgia. He then graduated from the University of Georgia by 1859 and the family established in Quitman, Georgia.

In 1861, he served the Confederacy, advancing to the rank of captain and being wounded in the arm and later imprisoned. The bullet wound to his arm he carried in an infectious condition the entire war and it did not heal until he obtained proper medical treatment on his return to Quitman in 1865.

After the war, Mr. Turner became an attorney. His passion was knowledge and he would spend hours in solitude in the quietness of his study reading and ruminating over his books. Mr. Turner was a director for the Bank of Quitman and the local railroad. He served sixteen years as a member of Congress from the Second District, and for two years as an Associate Justice on the Georgia Supreme Court. He contributed to the writing of the Georgia Constitution of 1877.

Mr. Turner had gone to Baltimore to receive medical advice about a gallstone operation when on the return trip he stopped in Raleigh, N.C. to visit his brother, Dr. V.E. Turner. At 2:15 a.m. on June 9, 1904 he passed away. The train for which he served as director retrieved his body and as it slowly rolled into Quitman, it was seen to be draped in black honoring this great son and statesman. According to his state wide obituary, "He was one of Georgia's most distinguished men; one whom her people delighted to honor and whose death causes universal sorrow."

On August 11, 1905, information was dispersed that the joint committee would not finish the new county work this year; but Crawford Wheatley, an Americus banker and chairman of the committee, would not have such. The joint committee approved the county applications of Tift, Jenkins, Jeff Davis, and Crisp on the afternoon of August 16th. By the close of session on Thursday, August 17, all eight counties had been approved and were awaiting the Governor's signature. The winning counties were: Jenkins, Grady, Jeff Davis, Stephens, Toombs, Tift, Turner, and Crisp.

There were numerous formal celebrations over the creation of Turner County but none topped the spontaneity of the one led by Egbert Jones on the night of August 18th when he and others loaded a small cannon to a flat bed car of Mr. Betts tram train along with anvils, guns, pistols and "anything that would make noise, including a number of young ladies" and was carried on the tram car within a few miles of Sylvester and a salute of greeting fired.

In an editorial to the Worth County Local by Cracker Jack dated August 25, 1905 he said, "The creating of Turner County set the Ashburn boys wild. If a stranger had come in, not knowing of the new county, he would have thought that a war was at hand, or that he had run into Christmas times. They fired up the engine and ran as near Sylvester as they could and bombarded the town, but their shot was too light, they did no damage. If Ashburn will do as well as Sylvester did, she will set her people free."

On Monday, November 6th, 1905, Turner County started her freedom by holding its first Democratic primary with these results:

For Ordinary: W.A. Greer, 540; W.A. Murray, 401; Greer's majority, 139.

For Clerk of Superior Court: J.J. McDowell, 205; J.W. Burke, 199; W.H. Taylor, 226; C.L. Royal, 308, Royal's plurality, 82.

For Sheriff: D.J. Branch, 425; J.B. Cason, 515; Cason's majority, 90.

For Treasurer: J.H. Gorday, 344; J.D.L. Hobby, 203; H.W. Cockrell, 228; D.L. Rainey, 162; Gorday's plurality, 118.

For Tax Receiver: V.A. Freeman, 498; B.F. Avera, 301; J.W. Belflower, 132; Freeman's plurality, 197.

For Tax Collector: T.E. Brown, 620; J.R. Stephens, 311; Brown's majority, 309.

For County Surveyor: J.B. Smith, 229; James May, 464; G.W. Brooks, 184; May's plurality, 235.

For Coroner: L.K. Beal, 273; T. J. Willoughby, 156; J.B. Durham, 187; Alonzo Jones, 290. Jones 'plurality, 17.

There being no Republican opposition, on January 1, 1906, these gentlemen took office and the county of Turner began.


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