Clayton has been around a long time, probably longer than many people think. The town’s history begins with the Cherokees and ends, at least for now, with tourism and a Main Street lined with boutiques. A good deal has transpired in between.
As the homeland of the Cherokees for hundreds of years, northeast Georgia was crisscrossed with Indian trails. The intersection of five major trails on the land that eventually became Rabun County was called The Dividings. Centuries later, Clayton was founded at this location, and the five trails today are known as Highways 23/441 North and South, Highway 76 East and West, and Warwoman Road.
An enormous tract of land in northeast Georgia was ceded (a diplomatic word for stolen) by the Cherokees to the state of Georgia in 1815. On a portion of this land, Rabun County was established by an act of the state legislature in 1819, and parcels of 250 and 450 acres were sold through a land lottery in 1820. In 1821, Solomon Beck sold 67 acres of his 250-acre lot in the second land district to Rabun County for $150, and Claytonville was laid out in sub-divided lots on this tract. Rabun’s county seat was named for Judge Augustus S. Clayton, the first judge of the county’s superior court. The town’s name was shortened to Clayton in 1823.
Isolated from Outside World
Isolated from the outside world by mountains and frequently impassable roads, Clayton was little changed by the mid-1800s. According to an almanac of Georgia county statistics, the town’s population totaled 16 residents in 1845. Clayton had a courthouse, jail, post office, a church, a general store, a lawyer, a school as well as many vacant lots. The almanac reported, “At the time this notice was prepared, there was no trade of any description carried on in Clayton.”
Clayton’s only identifiable feature in the 1800s was the public square at the intersection of present-day Main and Savannah streets. The first of Rabun County’s five courthouses was a log structure built on the square in 1824; it was replaced by a similar log building in 1838. In 1878, so the story goes, the dilapidated structure collapsed while court was in session. The court moved to the town’s Masonic Hall, while a wood frame courthouse was constructed that opened on the public square in 1879.
A “Ramshackle” Town with Vacant Lots
By 1900, Clayton remained barely a speck on the map with a population of about 200. Andrew Jackson Ritchie, a noted local educator and amateur historian, wrote in 1948, “Clayton was a ramshackle town. There were no paved streets. The few houses it had were scattered around with wide vacant lots between them…The town had no paved sidewalks, no public waterworks, no electric lights, and no telephone or telegraph.” However, Clayton was on the cusp of change.
A railroad was extended from Cornelia to Tallulah Falls in 1882. Passengers now could make the trip from Atlanta to view the “Niagara of the South” in Tallulah Gorge in a matter of hours. After the railroad was sold, the successor line went into bankruptcy and was reorganized as the Tallulah Falls Railroad, or TF, in 1898.
Tallulah Falls Railroad Reaches Clayton in 1904
The TF was extended north from Tallulah Falls through Rabun County, reaching Clayton in 1904. In anticipation of the economic development that the TF could generate, a group of businessmen organized the town’s first bank, the Bank of Clayton, in 1904. The newly constructed bank building became Clayton’s first brick structure, and a city ordinance mandated that all future buildings in Clayton had to be of masonry construction to lessen the danger of fires. Also alert to growth opportunities were those who owned vacant land in Clayton. Just a year following the railroad’s arrival, 22 downtown lots were sold at a public auction.
The railroad made Clayton a mountain tourist destination. Within a few years of the TF’s arrival, Main Street was lined with hotels and boarding houses, one of which was Rabun County’s old courthouse. The courthouse built in 1879 had deteriorated to the point that it needed to be replaced. The building was auctioned off and moved to South Main Street, directly across from what is now Reeves Hardware, where it was remodeled and opened as the Bleckley House hotel in 1908. The hotel was moved five years later to a knoll across from the train depot at the end of East Savannah. The county’s new courthouse was not built on the vacated public square, because the planned structure, a stately Victorian-style building, was too large for that site. Instead, it opened in 1908 near the location of the current county courthouse on West Savannah.
Sewerage, Electricity and Telephones
In a major step toward modernity, Clayton’s hotels began installing “water works” or “sewerage,” other names for indoor plumbing, around 1910. And then, Thomas Roane, a farmer from Tiger with little formal education, electrified Clayton. He built a small hydroelectric facility on Stekoa Creek and ran power lines into town. The lights came on in 1914. Roane also purchased Rabun Telephone and Electric Company in 1918, which had inaugurated phone service in Clayton around 1915. To improve service, he constructed a brick building in 1924 on East Savannah to house a new telephone exchange that today houses the White Birch Inn.
In 1918, the Clayton Tribune reported, “The old courthouse site (the public square) which has been an eyesore in the city of Clayton for the past ten years is being graded down, and Savannah Street leading (west) from the train depot to the courthouse will pass over the ground where the old courthouse once stood.” Savannah Street also was to be “macadamized” or paved.
Hotel Dinner Bell as a Fire Alarm
Despite frequent downtown fires, Clayton did not establish a volunteer fire department until around 1920. The department’s original fire truck was a hand-pulled hose cart, and Clayton’s fire warning system consisted of gunshots fired by night watchmen and a hotel dinner bell that doubled as a fire gong. It was not until 1941 when Clayton got its first fire engine and firehouse siren.
A measure of prosperity made its way to Clayton during the 1920s. The railroad spurred the development of new businesses, and the appearance of automobiles on the town’s streets was an unmistakable indication that the economy was on an upward trajectory. In response to growing demand for cars, the Clayton Motor Car Company built a Ford dealership and garage on Main Street in 1921. Claude and Fred Derrick, both former professional baseball players, also built a gas station and garage on Main Street in 1926. The Clayton Chevrolet Company announced that sales in April 1929 totaled 16 new and 19 used cars. Stating this marked its best sales month since opening in Clayton, the company opened a show room and garage on South Main later that Spring.
Great Depression Halts Economic Progress
Main Street was paved in 1928 as were downtown sidewalks a year later. One evening in September 1929, a crowd gathered on Main Street to see downtown illuminated by streetlights for the first time. One month later, the stock market crashed on October 24, 1929, and the nation’s economy spiraled rapidly downward into the Great Depression. Plunged into economic hardship, Clayton would wait two decades before a measure of prosperity made its return.
The Depression notwithstanding, Clayton’s voters approved a bond issue in 1931 to finance a new water system. The Clayton Tribune wrote, “Up to the present time,” we have been drinking branch water,” meaning water drawn from streams. “The plan now is to go to the springs (on Black Rock Mountain) and bring it (water) into a reservoir in such a way as to keep it clean and pure. We would then be over with the trouble and embarrassment of having muddy water on our tables.”
Great Bank Heist of 1934
The most exciting event in Clayton’s history since the arrival of the railroad occurred in 1934 when the Bank of Clayton was robbed of $1,830 by five bandits armed with machine guns. Sheriff Luther Rickman gave chase to the escaping bandits, dodging nails the bank robbers scattered on the road, before losing track of them in North Carolina. The ringleader was arrested in that state for stealing a car during the group’s flight. He was sentenced to five years in the state penitentiary, and upon his release, Sheriff Rickman brought him back to Clayton for trial.
In 1935 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal’s largest public works program. The most recognizable legacy of the WPA in Clayton is the Rock House on the corner of Main and Savannah. Known originally as the Community House, the building opened in the summer of 1935 and was used for hosting community and social events. The Rock House later became local headquarters for the Civilian Conservation Corps and housed various city offices. The Clayton fire department was located in the lower level of the building. The Civic Center on West Savannah Street also was built with WPA labor in 1935 as the gymnasium for the old Rabun County High School.
Midwives delivered most of the babies born in Rabun County well into the twentieth century before the Rabun County Maternity Hospital opened in 1942 in Clayton. The first of its kind in Georgia, the facility provided 24-hour pre- and postnatal care. The maternity hospital closed in 1952 when Clayton’s first general hospital opened, Rabun County Memorial Hospital.
Textile Mills Revived Clayton’s Economy
Clayton experienced a gradual economic upturn during the 1950s that was generated by the advent of textile manufacturing in Rabun County. When the Clayburne shirt factory opened in 1952, the Clayton Tribune enthused: The effect of Clayburne…can easily be seen and the effect on the economy of its employees and of local business have brought about changes and improvements which could have never been possible otherwise.”
Built in the early 1960s, the new Highway 441 bypassed Clayton, threatening the future of the town. At the time, East Savannah dead-ended at a knoll on which stood the Bleckley House hotel. Judge Robert H. Vickers, Rabun County’s Ordinary or chief executive, led the effort to connect East Savannah Street with the highway. In 1964, he had the hotel moved to a new location, the knoll graded down, and Savannah extended to 441. Absent this initiative, Clayton would have been isolated from the main tourist route through northeast Georgia.
With the closing of the county’s last textile mill in 2006, Clayton’s economy is dependent on tourism, just as it was during the first decades of the twentieth century. The downtown area is congested on most summer and fall days as crowds of tourists flock to the boutiques that line Main and Savannah. Of course, tourism benefits from the absence of muddy water at restaurants, and “sewerage” is an added bonus. A ramshackle town Clayton is no longer.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia in September 2023.