In 1860 a census taken by W.F. Sanford of Thomas County, Georgia, determined there were 10,766 people in the county: 4,488 whites, 6,244 slaves, and 34 “Free Persons of Color.” Obviously, this was a crucial time in the history of the South, and it was certainly one in the history of Thomasville. Both plantations and smaller-scale farms were prosperous, enjoying the rich local soils watered by the Ochlockonee River and providing the foundation for enterprising agricultural efforts which continue to this day. Pecans, cheeses, hogs, vegetable crops, honey, and more—farms in Thomas County now account for over 170,000 acres of the county and produce over $83,460,000 in yearly revenue in agricultural products.
Yet the county seat of Thomasville itself has always been a bastion of refinement: starting in the 1880’s, at a time when other parts of Georgia were still struggling to rebuild themselves in the wake of the Civil War, Thomasville was becoming a winter resort destination favored by the wealthy from around the country. And the railroad came to Thomasville, making it the regional epicenter for selling and shipping out the bounty of agricultural goods the surrounding area produced, as well as bringing visitors from abroad.
That all makes for good press and boosterism, but there is a lot more to Thomasville’s tale of contemporary success: it’s a case study in the New South, in how Southern communities can make good without forgetting their roots which are oftentimes largely agricultural. What Charleston or Savannah or Saint Augustine have—huge tourist economies based on distinct history and ideal vacation locations in terms of geography—is not possible for all towns. While Thomasville is beautiful, it is comparably remote and lacks any overwhelmingly unique natural features—no beach, no mountains. But under the surface there are great opportunities for outdoor recreation, culminating in the fact that Thomas County is the nation’s heart for quail hunting, a pastime which draws in avid hunters and big money. For that matter, Thomasville is also a leader in raising domestic quail for the food trade. In most every sense, this city which was basically untouched by the ravages of the Civil War has continued in its provision of gracious Southern hospitality while embracing the future.
Thomasville and Thomas County got their formal start from Thomas J. Johnson, the planter and builder of Pebble Hill Plantation who sought prominence for the region. The county was named for Major General Jett Thomas, a War of 1812 hero from Georgia. While the Civil War virtually left Thomas County untouched, thanks to its somewhat remote location, the county did feel a very real burden and loss from the war, in that it provided both troops and goods to the Confederate effort. The railroad only found its way to Thomasville as late as 1861, meaning the area retained a remoteness which could have precluded sophistication, but amazingly it did not. And then as early as 1889 the forward-looking if traditional city saw its first electric lights (a paltry fifty of them, but still)—a small generator bought by local businessmen provided the power. By 1906 a larger generating plant was constructed, and the city ever since has been on the forefront of utilities and civic-minded modernization, being one of the founding cities in the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia.
Electric lights alone, though, would hardly constitute an attraction, but electric lights for a small Southern city as early as 1889 did demonstrate an earnest commitment to adopt new technologies and concern for how those advances could benefit citizens and visitors. From then until now, Thomasville has struck the right chord with its preservation of history—including its many historic plantations and winter homes of the wealthy—and its keeping abreast of the current times. Today, stores such as Smith Collective, Ally B, and Broad Street Clothing Company keep Thomasville as fashionable and classy as anywhere, but a motif of tradition and even restraint—fueled perhaps by the knowledge that all things are best in moderation—seems to float through the city.
Thomasville is the second-largest city in its extended region behind Albany to the northwest, and while Valdosta to its east serves as the region’s center for shopping and health care, Thomasville provides for these needs as well. While Valdosta has a large, typical mall, Thomasville has invested heavily in traditional downtown storefront shops (in all fairness, Valdosta’s own downtown renaissance has also been a huge success). Unlike Valdosta, Thomasville is not right off the Interstate, and unlike Albany it lacks a major waterway. Yet by having unique attributes to offer—its agricultural heritage which is still very much alive, the legacy of the fine winter resort homes and quail hunting, as well as an eye towards savvy business and civic leaders who have done well marketing the city—Thomasville has unquestionably prospered. And it has not simply done well for itself economically, but has cultivated an atmosphere of genteel refinement that many of us can conjure up in visions of the American South but at times find it difficult to locate in reality.
And that success has not gone unnoticed even internationally. Ronda Foster, co-owner of the renowned restaurant Liam’s of Thomasville, told me when I was last in for a visit that the legendary British gunsmith Purdey’s had recently come to Thomasville to visit a local outfitter and to demonstrate some of their fine hunting arms. Now if you know anything about Purdey’s, you know they’re about the best of the best, and an on-site visit like that is rare, to say the least. Perhaps in the heart of England’s fox hunting country you’d find Purdey’s out showing their wares to dukes and earls, but here was an instance where they came right to Thomasville because of the city’s fame in quail hunting circles.
This city which once had the foresight to purchase a small generator to light things up, a city which attracted both Dwight Eisenhower and Jackie Kennedy as guests at pivotal points in their lives (plus many other well-known folks), seems to be on just about everyone’s radar—yet somehow that fame, thankfully, has not gone to its head.
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