Watkinsville, the seat of Oconee County, has been a center of social life and a hub for local politics in northeast Georgia since the early nineteenth century. The city is located approximately fifteen miles south of Athens and sixty miles east of Atlanta.
Eagle Tavern, believed to stand on the site of the old Fort Edward, opened in 1801 and today serves as the Oconee County Welcome Center, as well as a museum commemorating the era of wagon and stage travel. Travelers from Madison and Greensboro visited the hotel and tavern, which became famous thanks to the legend of a Confederate veteran. The lore of Eagle Tavern holds that a Southern soldier hid in its attic as Union troops moved through the town after they were defeated at the Battle of Sunshine Church on July 31, 1864. The soldier was cared for by slaves, who provided him with food and coal.
Plantation agriculture dominated the early economy. Cotton was the crop of choice, and slaves provided the labor. In the census of 1810, 35 whites and 55 slaves made up the town's population. By 1860 there were 447 whites and 426 slaves.
In 1905 one of the worst acts of racial violence in Georgia's history occurred outside of Watkinsville. Nine men, eight black and one white, were lynched on the pretense that one of them had tried to rape a white woman. A mob of seventy-five men took the unprotected prisoners, who had no apparent relationship to one another, out of the Oconee County jail while the judge and sheriff were apparently out of town.
People and Places
One of the last wooden bridges still used on a public road in Georgia stands south of Watkinsville. The Elder Mill Covered Bridge was built in the late 1800s and is one of the few left in the state.
Printed in Watkinsville on Thursdays, the Oconee Enterprise is one of the last family-owned weekly newspapers in Georgia. A country printer named L. Shackelford founded the paper in 1884, which was funded by legal advertisements that mostly reported farm closures. Today the Oconee Enterprise is owned by a mother-daughter team, Vinnie and Maridee Williams.
A small but bustling city, Watkinsville no longer depends upon agriculture as its lifeblood. The city's agricultural economy has been replaced by light industry, small businesses, and the development of an arts community. Southwire, a Carrollton-based manufacturer of wire and cable products, and AmeriPride, an apparel and linen service company, are major employers in the city, and the Oconee Industrial Park features a number of businesses and light industries. The Town Center retail and office complex in downtown Watkinsville contains upscale restaurants, salons, and shops, while antique and retail shops line Main Street. The city, whose motto is "The Artland of Georgia," also supports a thriving arts community that contributes to the local economy. The Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation, located in the old Watkinsville High School, joins the Chappelle Gallery, Happy Valley Pottery, and a host of retail art stores and artists in the area. Because of the city's proximity to Athens, many Watkinsville residents work at the University of Georgia.
Eagle Tavern, Harris Shoals Park, and the Oconee County Courthouse attract visitors from throughout the area. The historic South Main Street District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, includes the Ashford Memorial Methodist Church, the Haygood House, and Ashford Manor. Ashford Manor, a bed and breakfast, conducts summer pop and classic concerts and supports various charitable events, including "Grace's Birthday Party," an annual fund-raiser for veterinary research and pet adoption.
According to the 2010 U.S. census, Watkinsville covers 3.23 square miles and has a population of 2,832.
Margaret F. Sommer, comp., The History of Oconee County, Georgia (Dallas, Tex.: Curtis Media, 1993).
Robert E. Luckett Jr., University of Georgia
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