A Ghost Town Close to Home

Published 12:30 pm Sunday, May 5, 2024

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As I do with most of the places that I explore, I wish that I had seen them back in time. Definitely, Baker County is one of those places. Its history is very interesting and different from that of Decatur County. Of course, the Flint River has played a major role in its settlement and its problems. Baker County was named after Colonel John Baker a noted patriot of the Revolutionary War. A slice was taken from Early County in 1825, and it became an unusual shaped county.

Most of Baker County’s history is about devastating floods. The courthouse, which is in Newton, was severely damaged by floods three times: once in 1925, once in 1929 and then in 1994. After this flood, Newton could not recover and was moved farther away from the Flint River. All of this gives the area a kind of spiritual past, because it has so many ghost towns. This always awakens the curiosity in me, and ignites that urge to find out more about its heritage.

Since its spring time and the wildflowers are everywhere, an egg and cheese biscuit will be perfect. I prefer coffee as a beverage, how about you?

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Perhaps, the main reason for the many settlements in this area is the Flint River. It was known to the Indians as “Thronateeska”, which is Indian for “flint”. Thus, it is named for the abundance of flint rock.

The Flint not only provides transportation and recreation, it also serves a civil purpose. This 344 mile long ribbon flows diagonally from northeast to southwest. Plus, for 45 miles, it forms the boundary between Baker and Mitchell counties, as it meanders through central Georgia.

In the early 1800s, the farmers realized that Baker County was a part of the best cotton lands in the Gulf States. Not only was the soil perfect but there was the transportation, which was provided by the Flint. However, this gorgeous river has a couple of thorns. One is that it travels over a bed of unstable limestone and the other is that it is prone to flooding, mostly because it is fed by many subterranean streams and scenic creeks, all which affects the water level.

The Flint River’s uneven limestone river bed hides many rock shoals, boulders and rapids. It also makes the unpredictable water levels worse by providing places where there is a very strong current. Usually tame, the Flint River does, occasionally, explode out of the confines of its banks and inundates all that is around it. These conditions presented many problems when it came to navigation, especially between Bainbridge and on up north to Newton.

When there was high water, it brought about tragedy. One particular happening that is still talked about, involved the Alderman family. Sarah Martin Adams Alderman was the granddaughter of an original settler, James Martin, who left South Carolina and came to an area just above Bainbridge, that became Cheevertown.

After her husband passed on, Sarah decided to continue to run the family business, which was a ferry across the Flint River. During one particularly rough water day, in 1828, tragedy struck this family. Sarah’s young son, Choice Hall Adams, and two helpers drowned while trying to secure the wildly pitching ferry.

There were many of these types of happenings and the need to improve the river became a real issue. Attempts were made in 1836. This is when Rope Walk Shoals, a mass of loose rocks and boulders, was built clear across the river near Newton. It was constructed by removing rocks from the middle of the river and piling them to one side, forming a sluice way 100 feet wide by 300 feet long. Now the steamboats would have access, when conditions allowed them, to go up to the popular ports of Cheevertown and Newton.

The workers on the rivers carried cargo from Baker County on down to Apalachicola by raft. However, it wasn’t long before the unreliability of the water levels, showed that something more needed to be done. Thus, the invention of the cotton box.

These were steamboat/barge type vessels made for low water levels. They were 80 feet long and 22 feet wide, with sides and ends that were 5 feet high. These dimensions provided a lot of cargo space. Also, it was possible to hook these boxes together, thus taking a larger amount of cargo downstream.

About this time, the early settlers realized that the supply of turpentine and yellow pine lumber along the wooded banks of the Flint was almost endless. However, the advent of the War Between the States changed the focus for the time being. After the War, it was decided, that the Flint needed to be improved even more, making it possible for most steamboats to join the cotton boxes on their trip down river.

Several more attempts were made to improve the river from Bainbridge on up to Newton. These first plans included excavating loose rock, blasting boulders and constructing wide dams along the way. The estimated cost for the improvements was $1760 per mile. It was to provide a three foot deep channel by one hundred feet wide during extreme low water levels. Everyone hoped that the water would stay mostly at 5 feet.

This project was adopted and work began on December 7, 1873. However, the work boats were met by river banks that were lined with dense hammocks that stopped progress. Luckily, this was not the case the whole way up.

Flooding was still happening, but despite this fact, the town of Cheevertown came into being in the early 1870s. Ideally situated near the mouth of Itchauway Nochaway Creek, which drains into the Flint River, it grew to become quite a large town. Named after William Cheever who, at the age of 28, became mayor of Albany, Georgia, and later was appointed town commissioner of Lamar.

Cheevertown was an important asset to Baker County. Numerous turpentine distilleries operated in the area as well as cotton being a major crop. Together, they increased the population of the town.

As the years passed, Cheevertown developed into quite a bustling place. Located 18 miles south of Newton, the high point in population was in the 1880s, when approximately 100 families inhabited the town. In 1886, the town had seven mercantile stores, a milliner, and a steam powered grist mill and saw mill were in operation. There was also a church, an academy, a public school, a blacksmith and post office, as well as a doctor and two saloons.

Crossing the Flint, at the nearest river bank, was a telegraph office. There also was an express office located 15 miles away in Camilla.

Baker County became a prime area for the production and shipment of lumber and turpentine products. It also was the center for liquor distribution and fish scrapes for fertilizer. These products caused numerous complaints from residents: those who opposed alcohol and those who could not stand the stench of rotting fish on hot summer days.

As time went on, the floods would come and wreak havoc on the area. The Flint would go wild and Cheevertown would shutter, trying to hold on. High water and flooding did eventually destroy Cheevertown.

However, low water did not help it either. Sometimes riverboats would get up there, but were not able to float back down. They would dump their cargo on shore. Then, being lighter, they were setting up higher in the water and could go back down river. When the boats would leave, the residents would go to the dump site and take whatever they needed from the riverbanks. Despite this problem, most of the time the town was accessible, with the steamboat, “Lowell,” routinely making trips up there.

The death knell for Cheevertown came when a report on the progress of taming the river was filed in 1915, with the improvement 93% complete. The work was generally successful in the depth part, but still a number of shoals existed and the channel remained narrow and treacherous in some areas. Consequently, the river improvements never reached the expectations. Therefore, it was decided that any further improvements on the river were fruitless. After 50 years in existence, this decision caused commercial shipping to dry up for Newton and also Cheevertown.

With Cheevertown almost a ghost town, there were several mysterious stories that went around. One frequently told story is about a man who literally lost his head on the Flint River or on one of her banks. It started as news, that on March 14, 1901, the body of a man was found by someone living in this area, on a river bank along the upper Flint, just below Cheevertown. The head had been cut off and could not be found anywhere. Then several neighbors got together and decided to bury the unknown man without any further investigation.

Having heard about this, the next day the coroner went down to the burial site, exhumed the body and held an inquest. He thought that the deceased was a young man, rather small, would weigh probably 124 pounds. He wore an expensive dress coat and vest, black in color and blue pants. Under his vest was another vest but of a lighter material. His shoes were heavy and the heels were knocked off. Pants, and shirt were badly torn but there was no way to tell whether they were torn in a fight or worn out. In this vest pocket were a few roofing nails, a quill pen, a toothpick, some matches and a piece of tobacco. Also, there was a page from what appeared to be a book of poetry, that was found in a coat pocket.

It was decided that he was a raft man because they frequently knocked off their shoe heels and wore two vests or two coats. Also, the only weapon which would have made the marks on the man’s body, when his head was cut off, was an axe and raft men frequently carried axes. There was no way to find out who the man was or what raft he could have been on. The mystery continues on to this day.

Now, Cheevertown, once a bustling town, is a legend. However, it has another, very different claim to fame than most of the local, forgotten towns in Baker County have. It is not only known because of its being destroyed by floods, but because it was the site of a prison. On October 3, 1898, a Misdemeanor Convict Camp, better known as the Chain Gang Camp, was established two miles from Cheevertown. This facility was jointly owned by Baker, Miller and Decatur Counties.

The prison came about because in 1898, the state of Georgia first attempted to prohibit the sale of liquor. Many folks did not agree. Thus, there was a lot of trafficking in moonshine and this created a large influx of prisoners. There were very few paid employees at the prison, just the warden, T.G. Jones, a few guards and a whipping boss.

In the 1900 census, forty-seven prisoners were listed as turpentine laborers. This was because convicts in the Chain Gang Camp were leased as turpentine laborers to A. S. Nicholas, John M. Fleming and M. C. Sharpe, to work in the vast pine forests of the area. These men were chained together for the walk through the woods to where they would be working that day.

The main danger to these men were the rattlesnakes, which were abundant in these virgin woods. To help keep the snakes at bay, the men walked the same path each day, making noise so that the snakes would scurry away.

The men also carved the famous “cat faces” into the longleaf pines and then attach the metal gutters that directed the turpentine into the pails which were attached to the tree and emptied daily.

There always seemed to be some confusion as to if the prison was physically located in Baker County or Miller County. The misconceptions may have been caused due to the fact the camp was built very close to the county line. Some longtime residents even deny that the camp existed. However, land records show that the camp was two miles below Cheevertown, in Baker County.

Confusion may also have been caused by the 1900 census itself. In the population count, part of the forty-seven prisoners were listed in Baker County and the other part were listed in Miller County. Also, there is the fact that the land was owned by a man named Matt Miller which more than likely, just added to the confusion.

Cheevertown was off of State Route 253, on a dirt road that goes down to the Flint River. The area where Cheevertown existed is still populated by many descendants of the original settlers.

Now, Baker County is home to several plantations ranging in size from 5,000 to 28,000 acres with the largest being Ichauway Nochaway Plantation. It houses the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, one of the largest outdoor research centers in the world. Here scientists study local  vegetation, water systems and wildlife, including 32 species of endangered plants and animals that are now at home on the plantation.