In 1776 when noted botanist and naturalist William Bartram traveled through central Georgia near present day Upson County he wrote ,”The territory through which we passed… exhibited a delightful diversified rural scene, and promises a happy, fruitful, and salubrious region when cultivated by industrious inhabitants; generally ridges of low swelling hills and plains supporting grand forests, vast cane meadows, savannahs and verdant lawns.” (Bartram’s book is a must read for those interested in early southern history and native Americans.)
Upson County was founded in 1824 by act of the Georgia legislature and named for a well known and liked young lawyer, Stephen Upson, who had died before reaching his full potential. In 1825 the area was open to more settlement following the ceding of Lower Creek Indian lands to the State of Georgia by Chief William McIntosh. McIntosh was the son of a Creek woman named Senoia and Tory Captain William McIntosh of Savannah. Interestingly, Chief McIntosh was a commissioned Brigadier General in the US Army and first cousin to then Georgia Governor, George M. Troup. Chief McIntosh was killed by fellow Creeks because of his collaboration with the government for personal gain. The city of Thomaston was created in 1825. Thomaston was named for War of 1812 hero, General Jett Thomas.
A few large plantations worked by slaves were located in the southern part of Upson County, but most of the farms in Upson were small. Because Upson is on the geologic “fall line,” there are many swift flowing creeks. On these creeks there were water driven grist mills, saw mills and cotton gins. The county even had a large water powered textile mill located in the now disappeared town of Waymanville. Although the railroad never went through Upson County, a spur was opened in 1856, going from Thomaston to Barnesville, that connects to the Central of Georgia Railroad. The city of The Rock, located between Thomaston and Barnesville, obtained its name at this time as the train would leave the mail bag on a large rock by the tracks and people began to address the mail to that area as simply “the rock.”
In April of 1865, a unit of Wilson’s Raiders Calvary came through Thomaston and burned many of the mills and cotton stores. In June of 1865, the Union occupiers brought many of the slaves to the courthouse and announced to them that they had been freed. This day was marked by an annual celebration that is still celebrated by the descendants of the slaves of Upson County. The Thomaston Emancipation Celebration is the oldest in the country. One of Upson County’s most well known natives, John B. Gordon, was a product of the Civil War. Gordon rose to the rank of General in the Confederate Army and at the end of the war he was a trusted aid to Robert E. Lee . Gordon later became a U.S. Senator and Governor of Georgia.
Following the Civil War and reconstruction, Thomaston recovered and became the largest mule trading center in the state. Several of the textile mills were rebuilt eventually leading to the founding of Thomaston Mills in 1899.
The 50’s were happy times in small town America, but in the southern part of Upson County a “different world” came into existence. As officials began to close down all of the casinos, bars and bordellos in Phenix City, Alabama, these illicit businesses moved into Upson County. The place referred to as “south of town” quickly began teaming with activity. To go there today one would never guess there was ever anything there. Believe it or not, there was even a five story hotel of which there is no trace today. During this time, Upson County became a large producer of moonshine. One can still find the remnants of old stills scattered throughout the county. Thankfully, by the early 70’s all of this was mostly a thing of the past.
As Thomaston-Upson entered the 21st century, it saw the closing of the major textile plants and other manufacturing facilities. Like the national economy, the local economy shifted to a more service-based economy. Most of the people who lost their jobs in the plant closings soon found jobs in smaller companies, or began to commute to jobs in larger areas. Strangely, the population size of Thomaston has changed very little from the late 1950’s.
Learn more about Thomaston-Upson history by visiting the archives located at 301 S. Center St. one block south of the square or by joining the Upson Historical Society.