Harlem, Ga (WJBF)- Georgia was one of the original 13 colonies in the United States and a lot is known about the history of some of the more prominent areas. But, not much is widely known about the background of some of the smaller towns in our viewing area.
I spent most of my childhood in Harlem and didn’t know anything about its history, except that Oliver Hardy was born there and there is an annual festival celebrating him. So, I headed back to Harlem to learn more about MY hometown history.
“The minute you drive into Harlem, you are home, wherever you go,” smiled Mayor Roxanne Whitaker.
Harlem is a small town on the southern border of Columbia County. While many towns in the county are growing rapidly and beginning to blend together, Harlem remains a small town and true to its roots.
Meghan Foster, Director of the Harlem Museum, explained that Harlem was built to be a bit of an oasis.
“Well, it actually started before the incorporation of Harlem. there was a town nearby called Saw Dust, which was basically a stop for the train. And the area was very rowdy.”
Saw Dust was situated along the Georgia Railroad that ran from Augusta to Eatonton. It had a reputation for being a bit like the wild west with saloons and brothels in town.
In 1857, Dr. Andrew Sanders, one of the first graduates of the Medical College of Georgia, moved to an area about a mile from Saw Dust. Eight years later a railroad engineer named Newnan Hicks built a home near Dr. Sanders and together they founded a new town.
“They decided to make a new city nearby that was less morally corrupt, let’s put it that way. And they ended up trying to name the city Sylvan,” said Foster.
The town was called Sylvan City until 1870. Historian and town Poet Laureate, Phil Turner, said that all changed when a visitor from New York made a remark that changed the little town’s name forever.
“And a visitor from New York suggested that this town should be named Harlem, because it was a resort and that’s what original Harlem in New York was.”
Harlem was chartered in 1870 and quickly began to grow- eventually absorbing Saw Dust and other nearby communities. Dr. Sanders was its first mayor.
During the summer disease carried by mosquitoes near the Savannah River increased, making Harlem a popular getaway destination.
“Harlem sits about 500 feet above the Augusta riverbed. And folks from Augusta would come to Harlem as a summer resort to get out of the conditions of Augusta,” Turner said.
Harlem was mostly a farming town and a fertilizer plant grew up from that and helped to sustain the town. Harlem was also a hub for the arts.
“They had the Columbia Opera House and the first theater in Harlem, Georgia and Columbia County. It was the Star Theater,” said Foster.
Roxanne Whitaker is the Mayor of Harlem. She said that Harlem thrived as a farming, tourist and railroad town until the early 1900’s when tragedy struck.
“And then it was devastated, I think in 1917, when the fire came through. And Harlem didn’t really recover from its tourist aspect,” she said.
“It might have been the fertilizer plant that set it off, because nitrate can do that. But we don’t have any confirmation of what actually started it. But it did take out quite a lot of the area,” explained Foster.
The fire destroyed the fertilizer plant and the Opera House among other buildings.
One large industry business survived the fire was Lucky Lady Pecan, later known as the Tracy Luckey Pecan Company. It was a part of Harlem’s culture for more than one hundred years.
“It was the largest pecan producer, I guess that’s what it was, in the nation. And so Mr. Tracy would get pecans from all over the United States, come here, process them and resell them,” said Whitaker.
Tracy Luckey was the largest employer in Harlem for a long time. In fact, Turner was an employee there for years.
“The Tracy Luckey Company when I worked there in the 1980’s was the largest sheller of pecans in the world,” said Turner. “And one of my jobs as export manager was to send container loads on ships to Europe and England and Africa.”
Every small town has its founding families and its prominent families. Harlem is no different- and some notable families include the Hatchers, the Prathers and the Clarys. Whitaker thinks it’s part of the town’s charm.
“My grandfather had a gas station right on the other side of this building. You have the Hicks family. They’re not here any longer but their namesake’s here. We have a street named from them,” Whitaker explained. “The Moon family. His historical house is still here. His daughter is a children’s author, Ms. Helen Kellerman. So all of them have left roots here to help us grow and be who we are.”
One of the many legacies left to Harlem from its founders are deep religious roots. In fact, it has more churches than one would normally see in a town its size.
“It was supposed to be a biblical Christian background. And from there it sprung up. And that might be why we have twenty something churches just from I-20 to the other side of our city limits,” said Whitaker.
“I think it’s just part of Harlem’s history that does relate to the type of community that was wanted here, that there would be a lot of churches and it remains so today,” Turner said.
Two of the most prominent churches in town are Harlem Baptist and Harlem United Methodist. Whitaker said there is a funny story behind the founding of the two churches.
“It’s kind of ironic. People laugh because the Methodist church and the Baptist church share a piece of property. And Mr. Sanders- and I don’t remember which was which- either he was Baptist or his wife was Baptist. One of them was Baptist, one of them was Methodist. And so, he just bought the property and gave it to them to keep family peace.”
Harlem was a city of firsts, both in Columbia County and in Georgia. Among those, the town boasts the first traffic light in Columbia County and today Harlem still only has one traffic light in town.
“We had the first opera house. The first bank. The first hospital,” said Whitaker.
“We had the first woman who was elected to a public office. That was Mrs. McDaniel. And that was for the state of Georgia, not just Columbia County. We also had Harold Scott who was the first black bus driver in Columbia County as well,” said Foster.
In the 1920’s, Carrie McDaniel was appointed to fill her deceased husband’s term as Columbia County Tax collector and ran for the seat herself and won. This was before women were even eligible to vote.
In 1948, Harold Scott was asked by the Superintendent to drive children going to the African American schools. He used his own car to do so before buying his own school bus.
And of course we can’t forget Harlem’s big claim to fame. It’s the birthplace of silent film star, Oliver Hardy.
“It was known that he was born here, but did not live here even for the first year of his life. But because he became a true silent film star and was in Hollywood, he became known worldwide,” Turner explained.
In 1989, Harlem hosted its first Oliver Hardy Festival, an event previously known as the Pecan Festival. Now tens of thousands of people attend it each year.
According to Whitaker, Hardy came back to Harlem on occasion to visit family.
Whitaker: “Mr. Hardy’s relatives still live in Harlem. Coach Jimmie Lewis is a relative of his. something you probably didn’t know.”
Kim: I did not know!”
Columbia County has been experiencing major growth over the past decade and Harlem has too, but it’s deliberate growth designed to retain the town’s small town charm.
“We sent out a survey to the residents, you know, what do you want to see in Harlem? What do you want the atmosphere of Harlem to be? And the majority of them said ‘We want to keep our small town,'” said Whitaker.
“Harlem is very much the same today as it was when I first moved here in 1955,” said Turner.
All my Harlem folks, I asked the most burning question we all want to know: “Will Chicken Taters ever come back?’ Sadly the answer is not anytime soon.
Hey CSRA! That’s just part of your (and my) Hometown History.
Photojournalist: Will Baker.