Though the Civil War officially ended in 1865, tension remained between Northerners and Southerners in the decades that followed. Embittered Southerners shooed Yankees off their doorsteps and vowed their lands would never fall into the sticky hands of the outsiders.
There was, however, one town that took a different approach. The citizens of Thomasville, Georgia, didn’t ban Northerners from their Southern lands. On the contrary, the welcomed them with open arms, warm smiles, and the South’s signature charm. As a result, Thomasville became a thriving resort destination while the rest of the region floundered with decades of debt and grudges.
Now, Thomasville owes its success as a resort to a lot more than kind hearts. Coincidence, for one, and location. The town’s Resort Era is usually defined as the period stretching from the mid-1870’s to 1905. It’s an era that, for most neighboring towns, was defined more by its lack of success than by the procuring of it. But in those years in Thomasville, business was booming. Dozens of boarding houses, hotels, restaurants, and shops catered to the rich Northerners and Midwesterners who flocked to the city in the fall and winter seasons. Annual tourists numbered in the tens of thousands.
Thomasville became a meeting ground for the affluent. By 1885, two sprawling luxury hotels had opened in the center of town, the Mitchell House and the Piney Woods. Moneyed industrialists from young, cold cities like Cleveland gathered in Thomasville for leisurely vacations. Natives of Thomasville recognized the opportunity to capitalize on the wealthy tourists and they arranged entertainment to satiate the refined palates of their visitors. Renowned composer John Philip Sousa and eagle-eyed Annie Oakley both brought their acts to Thomasville, as well as orchestras and entertainers that catered to the elite. Tennis courts were built and fancy dress balls were held for the wealthy, temporary townspeople.
These wealthy industrialists became so fond of Thomasville that they invested in the town, scooping up the dozens of plantations that lined its periphery. Where other antebellum plantation owners held tight to their dry lands with the tenacity of Scarlett O’Hara, Thomasville’s residents recognized the opportunity for what it was: pure profit. They inflated the prices of their properties, which the tourists paid blindly. The landowners filled their coffers, as did the city itself, which earned a pretty penny from increased property taxes.
The fields lay fallow as the industrialists turned their massive tracts of land into hunting grounds, especially for quail. Their investment in the actual land guaranteed the sustained success of the town long after its popularity as a resort waned in 1905.
The seemingly inexplicable popularity of Thomasville is a matter that many folks try to make explicable to no true avail. Instead, it seems the prosperity of the town can be attributed not to one thing but to a series of very fortunate events. The graciousness of the townspeople actually did encourage the vacationing Northerners to choose Thomasville over the cold shoulders of other destinations. Some speculate that the reputation of the town preceded the 1870’s and could be traced back to the decent treatment of prisoners during the War.
The location of Thomasville is also a fortuitous element in the equation. For a time, Thomasville was the last stop on the railroad from Savannah, offering travelers an easy introduction to the city. According to Thomas County historians, there was an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine around the time that touted the benefits of pine resin air for sufferers of consumption, which in turn led to the flocking of ailing Northerners to the area’s pine barrens. It’s also notable that Thomasville offered the same climate of Florida yet lacked the pesky accompaniment of malarial mosquitos, making it the perfect destination for those seeking a warm respite from harsh winters—without a death wish.
Whatever drew their visitors there in the first place, the citizens of Thomasville certainly capitalized on their luck. They catered to their guests, prioritizing profit over the distinctly unprofitable practice of resentment.
Thomasville’s Resort Era is generally defined as ending in 1905. The year following, the Piney Woods burned down, and what with that and the 1899 prohibition enacted by the county, tourism turned quickly from a gush to a trickle. But the citizens of Thomasville had done their job. The rich tourists had turned into rich investors and they continued to sustain the town as residents.
Special Thanks to the Thomas County Historical Society for their contributions, and extra-special thanks to Mr. Ephraim Rotter, curator of the Thomas County Museum of History, whose article “History of Thomas County” provided much of the primary source material for this one.
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