Clayton’s Building Boom in the Roaring Twenties: Ford and Chevy Dealerships, Hotels and the Ice Man

It was a decade of surging economic growth, booming consumerism and the flouting of Prohibition by Jazz Age flappers in speakeasies. Both economically and socially, America was undergoing rapid and fundamental change during the Roaring Twenties. A measure of prosperity made its way to Rabun County’s towns during the 1920s. But with the exception of several brothels in Tiger, bathtub gin and short skirts were noticeably absent in this region’s version of the Roaring Twenties.

The county’s relative degree of prosperity was centered on the communities that were regular stops on the Tallulah Falls Railroad’s 58-mile route from Cornelia, Georgia to Franklin, North Carolina. The TF brought money in the form of jobs, freight, tourism, logging and the hydroelectric development of the Tallulah and Tugalo rivers. Clayton was Rabun County’s main beneficiary of the railroad economy during the decade of the 1920s. Businesses and buildings sprang up along the length of Main Street and Savannah Street, also then known as Court House Street. Something of a building boom was underway.

Ford Dealership with Ladies Room

The appearance of automobiles on the streets of Clayton was an unmistakable indication that the local 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. An advertisement proclaimed it was “one of the best equipped and most modern garages in northeast Georgia… Ladies rest rooms and conveniences. Free air and water. Make yourself at home at our place.”

Thomas E. Roane, the unschooled mountain man from Tiger who brought hydroelectric power to Clayton in 1914, purchased Rabun Telephone and Electric Company in 1918, which provided phone service in Clayton. He and merchant Charles E. Cannon constructed a building on East Savannah Street in 1924 to house a new telephone exchange. In October, the Clayton Tribune reported that the brick building was “45 feet wide facing the street and extends back 80 feet and will be two stories high. Mr. Roane will have the telephone exchange in the second story of his building, and Mr. Cannon will probably make storage and office rooms in his part of the building.” Roane’s telephone exchange now is home of the White Birch Inn.

Gas Stations and Garages

The pace of downtown development picked up in 1926. The Clayton Auto Supply Company built “a modern filling service station” on Main Street. Claude Derrick, a former major league baseball player, also built a gas station and garage on Main Street that year across from the Blue Ridge Hotel. It was reported as being “one of the most modern and up-to-date filling stations in this section of the country.” Derrick’s Garage was later occupied by Prater’s Main Street Collectibles. The building was sold in 2023 and awaits a new occupant.

An April 1926 edition of the Clayton Tribune reported, “Col. and Mrs. R.E.A Hamby are continuing to work on their hotel just as rapidly as carpenters, masons and plumbers can do their work. They are also daily receiving furniture and fixtures with which to furnish the hotel.” The Hamby Hotel, which opened for its first tourist season in June, became one of more than a dozen hotels and boardinghouses catering to tourists carried to mountain vacations by the railroad. It also was reported that the Earl House “never ceases planning for the convenience and comfort of their guests and have lately installed a private water system,” another term for indoor plumbing.

The Ice Man Cometh

But there was more to come in 1926. In April, the newspaper reported that J.A. Scruggs & Son, operator of a power grist mill, “installed a new Vita Cereal Mill that will be able to furnish the home people with breakfast cereals, from wheat and corn, of a uniform texture, just as they are produced by the largest milling corporations.” Then in July, the ice man came to Clayton. The owners of Gainesville Ice and Fuel Company opened an ice distributing facility on Court House (Savannah) Street. The Clayton Tribune wrote, “These gentlemen are receiving a hearty welcome by the general public, because they propose to keep ice on hand at all times and in such quantities as their customers want.” Beverages, adult or otherwise, no longer had to be served at room temperature during summer months.

Still another economic development of 1926 was the sale of 100 business and residential lots “in the very heart of the city.” According to a Clayton Tribune article that July, “This property is known as the Hamby-Felder Property and has been cut into lots of convenient sizes for business and residence purposes. It is an opportunity to become the owner of the most desirable property in this whole section of the country.”

Paving Roads and Sidewalks

Improvements on infrastructure were started in earnest during 1927 with the paving of Rabun County’s main north-south thoroughfare, now Highway 23/441. Clayton’s Main Street and Savannah Street down the hill to the railroad depot (now the site of Keller Furniture) also were “macadamized” in 1928. Downtown sidewalks were paved in 1929, and one evening in September of that year, a crowd gathered on Main Street to see downtown illuminated by streetlights for the first time.

In 1928, the Clayton Barber Shop installed “the latest model of dry cleaning” equipment, while T.W. Thomas and Sons “lately of North Carolina, have opened up a modern steam laundry in the building next to Derrick’s Garage.” The newspaper reported that two washing machines, one extractor, one iron and one steam drying room were installed.

Reeves Hardware Opens

Business activity accelerated further in 1929. Lewis and J.R. Reeves opened a hardware store in the Derrick Building on Main Street in January. Reeves Hardware moved from its original site and stands today on the southwest corner of Main and Savannah Streets. In May, the Clayton Tribune reported that a renovation of the Clayton Hotel on South Main Street was underway. The newspaper wrote, “The large columns in front will be veneered and stuccoed, and when completed (the hotel) will be one of Clayton’s best hotels.”

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 announced its purchase of three lots on South Main Street in May for a show room and garage. The building, now occupied by the Clayton Pharmacy, was completed later that summer. In another sign of economic growth, a local packinghouse shipped a substantial quantity of apples to the port at Jacksonville, Florida from where they were exported to England. It certainly appeared that local economic conditions would continue gathering momentum well into the future.

Ominous Warning Issued

However, in a harbinger of things shortly to come, merchant Charles E. Cannon published an ominous letter in the April 11, 1929 issue of the Clayton Tribune. He wrote, “I have repeatedly appealed to my friends and customers through the paper and through personal appeals to come to my assistance and pay at least some on their accounts and notes…It is not my intention to cause you any embarrassment, but you are causing me a great deal of worry over your past due notes and accounts, and beside that, I have carried them as long as I can…This may cause me to have to do something that would be very unpleasant to me and unprofitable to you, but unless you do something at once, I will have to make a move to collect what you owe me.”

Cannon’s warning about delinquent accounts preceded by six months the stock market crash on Tuesday, October 24, 1929, which spiraled rapidly into the Great Depression. The good times of the Roaring Twenties came to an abrupt halt. A decade of economic growth was reversed as industrial production plunged and unemployment soared. For Clayton, the building boom of the 1920s quickly gave way to a prolonged period of economic hardship. Years would pass before a semblance of prosperity returned to Clayton and Rabun County.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia in January 2024.

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.