Taxes and Elections Over the Years: Chain Gangs, Free Water and Absentee Ballots

Although some politicians equate paying taxes with patriotic duty, few people celebrate their payments into the government till. That proved to be the case in 1907 when Rabun County’s Ordinary, the county’s chief executive responsible for everything from taxation to roads and bridges, ordered the imposition of a special tax to finance the construction of a new courthouse in Clayton. The courthouse was built, but the Ordinary was not present at the opening ceremony in 1908. He already had been voted out of office over the unpopularity of his tax.

Taxes don’t always increase. On rare occasions, taxes actually go down as they did in Rabun County in 1931 courtesy of convict labor on chain gangs. Due to the free labor provided by convicts, the county had amassed a road fund surplus of $128,000. Since the state was paying for much of the county’s roadwork, Georgia assumed this surplus as a state debt under recently enacted legislation. The state also was obligated to pay Rabun County 10 percent of this outstanding debt every year until the entire amount was extinguished. This infusion of chain gang cash enabled the county to lower its tax rate.

Reduced Taxes Courtesy of Chain Gangs

In reporting this welcome development, the Clayton Tribune cheerfully predicted that chain gang labor “will someday enable the county to levy so small a tax that it will hardly be noticeable… Don’t get the idea that we favor keeping the convicts longer (than required)…However, we do say that the chain gang has served a good purpose…”

 Amid the depths of the Great Depression, unpaid county taxes had become a significant problem, prompting Rabun’s tax collector to pen “An Appeal To Tax Payers” in a December, 1931 edition of the Clayton Tribune. He wrote, “You will find me in the Tax Collector’s office during the rest of the year, and I am expecting you to help me in getting in the taxes…The taxes are due, and they are needed to finance county affairs and to pay county teacher salaries.”

His appeal ended on an understanding note. “I am in sympathy with you during this period of money shortage, and I am willing to do anything I can to help you.” But sympathy and understanding aside, he still wanted the money. “I earnestly ask you to pay back taxes.” How successful this appeal was in a time of “money shortage” is not recorded.

Free Water Without Mud

The Clayton Tribune urged residents to vote in favor of a new water system in 1931. “Up to the present time,” the newspaper wrote, “we have been drinking branch water,” meaning water drawn from streams. “The plan now is to go to the springs…to get the water right out of the rocks and into the 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…The result of the new system would be to put a mountain spring into every house in town.” The editorial also stressed that mountain spring water would be a major selling point for Clayton’s hotels and boarding houses.

Best of all, the new water system would be free. “The beauty of the new plan,” extolled the Tribune, “is that it would not cost a cent to operate. Once it is put in, it will work itself and require no operating cost.” Apparently, the system would be a type of perpetual motion machine.

Water Rents or User Fees

Well, the system was not actually free. Toward the end of the Tribune editorial, it was disclosed the water system would be financed through a bond issuance. Interest on the bonds, as well as the system’s operating costs, would be financed by “water rents,” otherwise known as user fees payable by everyone hooked up to the system. The old adage still proved to be true; there is no such thing as a free lunch…or drinking water free of mud.

The water bonds were sold to investors, and the new system was installed at a cost of $3,500, an enormous sum for a depression-era town in northeast Georgia. Seven springs on Black Rock Mountain were encased in concrete to prevent the water from becoming contaminated before it was piped into homes and businesses. It was proudly reported that the state certified the spring water as 100 percent pure.

Case of the Inebriated Voter

Voting is a sacred right in our democracy, but elections are sometimes won or lost by interventions somewhat less than divine. A case in point was the 1907 referendum to determine if the county seat should be relocated from Clayton to more centrally located Tiger. At the time, some said that a Tiger voter riding 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 narrowly and remain the county seat. However, some Tiger supporters claimed a darker reason for the outcome of the referendum: Clayton partisans had plied that Tiger voter with locally brewed moonshine to keep him from voting. That was not altogether implausible, since the Tiger railroad depot was then known as Fruit Jar Station because of the delivery of thousands of Mason jars used by local moonshiners to bottle their whiskey.

Absentee Ballot Controversy

Hanging chads on Florida’s paper ballots during the 2004 presidential election plunged the nation into a bitter controversy. Absentee ballots resulted in chaos during Rabun County’s 1952 election for Judge of the Court of Ordinary between 14-year incumbent Frank A. Smith and challenger Robert H. Vickers. An unusually large number of absentee ballots were cast in Rabun’s 1952 Ordinary election. Protests were lodged, claiming that the number of absentee ballots was out of proportion to the number of in-person votes. Accusations were rife of election fraud and ballot box stuffing. Had big city machine politics made their way to Rabun County?

For several days, election officials debated what to do. According to a report in the Clayton Tribune, it ultimately was decided to reject any absentee ballot that was not accompanied by a certificate of voter description, giving the voter’s age, eye and hair color, race and approximate weight. After a significant number of absentee ballots were disqualified, Vickers was declared the winner of the election by 300 votes.

Smith’s supporters filed a protest with Governor Herman Talmadge. They demanded a new election, but the governor refused to get involved in a local squabble in a remote corner of the state. Another possible reason for Talmadge’s lack of concern laid in the fact that Vickers and Smith, like the governor, were Democrats. The governor told the protesters to accept defeat, which, in those less litigious times, they did, albeit sullenly.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia magazine in May 2022.


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.