Chief Tiger Tail, Fruit Jars and Brothels: The Early Days of Tiger, Georgia

Located three miles south of Clayton, Tiger is home to about 400 people, give or take. Nestled at the foot of a cone-shaped, 3,000-foot mountain, the village is a tranquil place. But it wasn’t always that way. Tiger has a colorful history that belies the town’s diminutive size.

Tiger’s history extends back to the time of Cherokee trails. A north-south trail ran up the middle of Rabun County, the approximate route of Old Highway 441. A second trail crossed the Tallulah River and ran eastward to a crossing on the Chattooga River. Tiger was settled at the intersection of these Cherokee trails. Tiger was and remains today a crossroads town.

Tigers or Chief Tiger Tail

The naming of the town also goes back several centuries. There are two possibilities, according to lore and legend.

Eighteenth century English settlers, who allegedly had served with the British army in India, heard roaring and screeching from a nearby mountain that reminded them of Bengal tigers. Although mountain lions or panthers were the source of the roaring, the settlement and mountain were named Tiger nevertheless. A second version of Tiger’s history claims the town is named after a Chief Tiger Tail, who ruled his Cherokee tribe from a settlement on the mountain.

Since no record exists pertaining to the origin of the town’s name, take your pick about which story you choose to believe.

Covered Wagons from Hiawassee

Moving ahead to the mid-1800s, Tiger had become a trading post town. Mule-drawn covered wagons from Hiawassee crossed Davis Gap (along present-day Davis Gap Road between Highway 76 West and Bridge Creek Road) carrying foodstuffs to Tiger. These goods were sold or bartered for shoes, cloth, furniture and other items that were hauled back to Hiawassee.

The year 1904 is a key date in Tiger’s history. That was when Tiger was chartered as a city and the Tallulah Falls Railroad came to town, having been extended north from Lakemont and Wiley. The railroad was pushed to Clayton in 1905, and it arrived at its northern terminus in Franklin, N.C. in 1907. The railroad opened Tiger to the outside world and spurred its growth.

County Seat Election Legend

Given its location at the geographic center of Rabun County, Tiger thought it, not Clayton, deserved to be the county seat. A Clayton Tribune article from October 24, 1907 reported that 40% of Rabun County’s qualified voters had signed a petition calling for the relocation of the county seat from Clayton to Tiger. Accordingly, a referendum that December was scheduled to vote on the matter.

Legend has it that a Tiger voter riding on horseback to his voting location fell drunk from his horse and missed the critical vote. That missing vote, so the story goes, enabled Clayton to win the election and remain the county seat. A darker version of this story claims that Clayton partisans plied the Tiger voter with alcohol to keep him from voting.

Moonshine in Fruit Jars

Although it lost the election, Tiger continued to prosper due to the impact of the Tallulah Falls Railroad, which made two stops a day at the town. Products could now be shipped easily and inexpensively to and from the town.

Fruit or Mason jars were shipped by rail to Tiger in significant quantities. So many were unloaded that the Tiger depot became known as “Fruit Jar Station.” It was no secret that the jars were not intended for canning tomatoes or strawberry jam. Moonshining was Tiger’s (and Rabun County’s) biggest business back in the day. Fruit jars were the bottles of choice for brewers of illicit corn whiskey.

The prevalence of moonshining also is reflected in the name of one of Tiger’s streets: Syrup City Road. During World War II, sugar, a key ingredient in the making of moonshine whiskey, was tightly rationed. With little sugar available, corn syrup was substituted. Syrup mills kept moonshiners well supplied.

Liquor, Gambling and Brothels

A small army of workers built and operated Rabun County’s hydroelectric facilities, which were in close proximity to Tiger. The railroad also employed many locals for its operation and maintenance. All of these workers wanted something to do in their spare time.

Tiger’s heyday came in the 1920s and 1930s when several establishments sprang up to give the workers what they wanted: liquor, gambling and brothels. One was located near the site of the present-day post office, a second at the location of the current Rabun County Senior Center.

The owner of one establishment is said to have had five identical cars. When he would leave his place of work, all five would drive away at the same time, making it nearly impossible for the police to follow him.

World War II effectively brought down the curtain on Tiger’s days of bright lights. Quiet returned to the town.

Tiger Drive In

The Tiger Drive In opened in 1954. It became the center of Tiger’s social life until closing in the early 1980s. The drive-in reopened in 2004 at its old location at the intersection of old Highway 441 and Syrup City Road. The Tiger Drive In is still showing movies under the stars from March through November.

Tiger’s economy suffered twin hits in the early 1960s.

The Tallulah Falls Railroad went out of business, making its final run in 1961. Tiger’s economy started to decline in the absence of cheap freight and passenger service.

Tiger Bypassed by New 441

The second and more devastating blow was landed several years later when construction of the new Highway 441 was completed. Tiger was completely bypassed by the new road, leaving what is now called Old 441 a lightly trafficked byway. With tourists and commercial trucking no longer passing through town, Tiger was left a shadow of its former self.

Today, Tiger is a crossroads village with some attractive homes, a few small businesses, a senior center, two vineyards and a number of farms. It is a quiet town. But on some nights, you still might be able to hear the music and revelry echoing from the old “night clubs.”

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in October 2021.

About the Rabun County Historical Society 

The Rabun County Historical Society is dedicated to keeping alive Rabun County’s 200-year history in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. We collect, preserve and display important historic artifacts, photographs and records in our 2,300-square-foot museum and archives located at 81 North Church Street in downtown Clayton, Georgia. The Society is a not-for-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making membership dues and donations fully tax deductible. For more information, please contact us.