Up until the mid-1980s, Cherokee County was a quiet, rural community of rolling hills and a few scattered subdivisions of 50 to 100 homes. Most of its 50,000 residents lived around Canton, the county seat and historic mill town.
Southern Cherokee featured a few subdivisions, mostly surrounding Woodstock, and a scant few restaurants and shops. For the most part, the area was dominated by a rolling expanse of heavily wooded acres, close to a large lake, with good road access.
If someone was looking to build a large master-planned community featuring golf courses, swimming pools and tennis courts, they would have a hard time finding a better location, only 30 miles from a major city.
So, Larry Johnson, of the Texas-based Johnson Co., made his move.
Johnson’s vision was to create a community of homes, schools, restaurants and shops that would resemble a small city. The original plans for Towne Lake envisioned 12,000 homes spread across 3,700 acres. Eventually, the plan was modified to approximately 8,000 homes.
Arvida was one of the first development companies to sign up. Their 1,300-home swim-tennis neighborhood helped set the tone, leading the way for other homes, apartments, offices and retail centers.
Semi-retired developer George McClure, 70, owned Manchester Properties, another of the developers. He also is a pilot, and remembers taking others for a bird’s-eye view of the rocky terrain, which had no roads, county water or sewers.
One flyover with John Wieland left the well-known builder commenting about feeling like he was “in the middle of the boondocks.”
The property wasn’t completely in the hinterlands. While a new interstate, I-575, brought northbound travelers by the master-planned community, there was no direct access to the development. The first phase of I-575, which stopped at Highway 92, opened in October, 1980. The second phase, taking travelers to Riverstone Parkway at Exit 20, opened in March, 1985.
Former Canton Mayor Gene Hobgood, who was sole county commissioner at the time, said the Georgia Department of Transportation funded construction of a two-lane bridge over Noonday Creek (on the present Towne Lake Parkway), but the road from I-575 to the schools, called West Mill Road, was just a trail, only passable with four-wheel drive.
McClure remembers when a trip to the grocery store or bait shop meant driving to Big Star, in the shopping center on the northwest corner of the Bells Ferry Road and Highway 92 intersection.
Not everyone was excited for the growth that Towne Lake would bring. Hobgood recalls quite a bit of opposition; about 300 people attended the meeting when he approved the final plan. The crowd filled the first floor and balcony of the old courthouse.
“When the plans were presented to me, I felt very strongly that it made sense to have a large, well-planned community, as opposed to what had been developing in the southern part of Cherokee County,” he said. “Those developments had no connectivity to one another, with many entrances directly off SR 92 and other roads. It just made sense to plan a community where residents could truly live, work and play. Towne Lake was truly the first mixed-use development of its kind in Cherokee County.”
– By Candi Hannigan
No Joke: Cherokee Isn’t the Exurbs Any More
Many of my colleagues at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution considered me a bit of a trailblazer when I purchased a home in Cherokee County in 1981. It was the source of constant ribbing. “A multiple-car wreck has closed I-75, just south of Chattanooga,” might be a typical news alert, “near where Hannigan lives.”
Truthfully, it wasn’t a terribly long commute from the AJC building at 72 Marietta St. in downtown Atlanta. But, Cobb County and Gwinnett County were considered the fringes of metro Atlanta then. In 1981, Cherokee had only 50,000 residents. Today’s count is close to 260,000.
I didn’t move here because I craved isolation. I chose Cherokee because the lots were large and the homes were affordable, even for a 23-year-old sports journalist. About a month after moving into my new home, just off Eagle Drive on the southern edge of the county, the Sunday AJC real estate section had a cover story that featured my new neighborhood. The large headline proclaimed: The Exurbs.
I paused for a moment. The exurbs? What are the exurbs? Where the heck have I moved?
Ten years later, when my wife, Candi, and I announced we were building a new home in Cherokee, to accommodate our growing family, the new joke became, “You gettin’ a double-wide?”
But, my journalism colleagues had failed to keep up with the news.
In hindsight, it seems inevitable that Cherokee would become a destination of choice for many families relocating to metro Atlanta. But, it certainly didn’t seem that way in the early ’80s, when I-575 abruptly ended at Ga. 92 and there wasn’t a single fast-food restaurant in the entire south end of the county.
Still, for all the positive changes here — and it would be nearly impossible to list all the advantages we now enjoy — there are a few things I miss. It was 30.6 miles from my driveway to the parking lot at the Omni decks (now CNN Center), across the road from the AJC. It was not uncommon for me to make that door-to-door commute in 32 minutes. Sure, I might have been going a bit over 65 mph every now and then, but there was not a single traffic light between me and downtown. Now, on a bad day, it could take you 32 minutes just to reach I-75.
In the early ’80s, I often would drive the entire length of I-575 and not see another car in either direction. “Why in the world did someone build a four-lane highway here?” I wondered.
Now, a more reasonable question would be: Why isn’t this road six or eight lanes?
When I moved here, I treated it as folklore when people told me there were plans to build a big mall on Exit 1 (Barrett Parkway). “Why would anyone want to put a mall out here?” I wondered.
The other crazy rumor I heard was that, when I-575 was extended, they were going to add an exit on Eagle Drive (now Towne Lake Parkway). I didn’t believe that, either.
Of course, I was skeptical when I heard about plans for development of Thousand Acres, the vast expanse surrounding our neighborhood (which was actually closer to 4,000 acres). They said homes in this new Towne Lake community might sell for $130,000. In Cherokee County? Who would pay that kind of money for a small lot way up here?
Then came the rumor that Arvida, a successful developer I knew from South Florida, was going to build a golf course community with 1,300 homes as part of Towne Lake. I didn’t believe it.
By the time we moved into Eagle Watch in January, 1992, in a home built by Tony Perry, there weren’t many homes available for $130,000. Twenty-eight years later, Tony is building another home for us, an investment property in downtown Woodstock, where I am not sure you could find many lots as low as $130,000.
Cherokee isn’t the exurbs anymore. The county enjoys a wide variety of dining and entertainment options, has excellent schools, and more amenities-rich neighborhoods are being added all the time.
The jokes ended a long time ago.
In fact, a couple of the colleagues who poked fun at my chosen place of residence ended up moving to Cherokee themselves — but a few exits farther north.
Welcome, pilgrims. Life is good here.
– By Glenn Hannigan
History of Cherokee County
Native Americans have inhabited the place we call Cherokee County for thousands of years; numerous archaeological investigations reveal Cherokee County was occupied 11,000 years ago by the Paleo-Indians and then by the Cherokee Nation. During the 1700s, the Cherokee towns were self-sufficient and self-governing, and each person was a member of one of the Seven Clans of Cherokee. Continuing their efforts to adapt to white culture and keep their lands, the Cherokee established a government with the capital at nearby New Echota.
Despite the national unease over who controlled the Cherokee territory, the white settlers began moving to the area in the mid-1700s and, by 1831, the new Cherokee County was created, which originally encompassed all territory west of the Chattahoochee River and north of Carroll County. Soon after the formation of the county, this area was dotted with gold mines and encampments of miners. Most miners did “placer mining,” which included surface mining or panning for gold in the many rivers and tributaries. Larger operations concentrated on mining vein deposits.
The best-known mines were the Franklin, Pascoe, and Sixes mines, which yielded gold and other minerals for decades. As the gold supply dwindled, many people from Cherokee County left for the west after gold was discovered in California in 1848.
During that time, Georgia and the federal government continually pressured the Cherokee Indians to give up their lands, until finally creating legislation that took their land and forced them out. In 1837, local removal forts were built at Fort Buffington and Sixes. In 1838, soldiers forcibly evicted the Cherokee and sent them to the forts. In Cherokee County, 950 were sent from Sixes and 450 from Fort Buffington. They joined more than 15,000 on the Trail of Tears and estimates say that approximately 4,000 did not survive the journey west.
During the mid-1800s, the Etowah Valley became the industrial hub of north Georgia. In addition to gold, other minerals mined in Cherokee County included iron ore, copper, titanium, quartz, mica, granite and marble. During this time, Cherokee County had as many as 10 grist mills, 14 sawmills, seven flour mills, and 12 distilleries and a population of about 12,000.
The years leading up to the Civil War were prosperous for Cherokee County. Agriculture was the main industry in the area and small farms dotted the landscape. As in the rest of the South, whites purchased blacks and forced them into labor. The slaves in Cherokee County made up 9% of the population and of the 150 residents who owned slaves, most owned fewer than four.
Although soldiers fought no major battles in Cherokee County, they did frequently forage in the area for supplies, and there were many skirmishes between the armies. The order to burn Canton was issued in October 1864 and at least half of the town was burned, including the courthouse and the bridge over the Etowah River. The order may have been issued because Georgia Gov. Joseph E. Brown had lived in Canton.
For Cherokee County’s enslaved blacks, the end of the Civil War in 1865 brought freedom and citizenship. Many former slaves worked as sharecroppers, some on the same farms they worked before the war. New black communities were settled, including Hickory Log near Canton. Some of the land in this area was given to the freed slaves by their former owners, the Keith family.
Life was hard, though, for almost everyone in Cherokee County — the gold rush was over, boomtown Atlanta was attracting talented people and investment dollars from Cherokee County, and the wounds of the Civil War were still fresh. When the railroad rolled into Cherokee County, it opened new markets to farmers and industrialists. In May 1879, the railroad linked Woodstock to Canton and two years later it extended to Ball Ground, where the first train arrived in May 1882. Farmers began to send their cotton to larger markets and mills flourished. Trains also made it possible for marble finishing plants in Ball Ground, Nelson and Canton to flourish using marble quarried from Pickens County.
Cherokee County continued to prosper, and in the 1920s experienced a surge of growth. During this decade, the population grew to more than 20,000 and new construction flourished throughout the county. The new buildings in Canton included the marble courthouse, a post office, Canton High School, and Baptist and Methodist churches.
After the Great Depression, which Cherokee County withstood better on average than the rest of the country, the economy slowly began to improve. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, men from Cherokee County enlisted in the service and in May 1942, women could join the Women’s Army Corps. While the soldiers were away, the families at home dealt with the stringent rationing of goods; others planted victory gardens to supplement their food supply. Numerous women also went to work to support the war effort and their families.
The poultry industry that began during the Great Depression grew dramatically during World War II. This continued through the 1950s and 1960s, bringing prosperity to Cherokee County. During the late 1950s, Cherokee County was known as the “Poultry Capital of the World” and billboards proclaiming this fact greeted everyone as they entered Cherokee County. The surge of the poultry industry created much needed job opportunities in hatcheries, feed stores, rendering plants, processing plants and equipment manufacturers.
After the turbulent 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, Cherokee County was given another opportunity for growth with the federal government’s construction of Interstate 575. In 1979, the first stage of I-575 was completed to Highway 92 in Woodstock and opened to traffic the following year. The next section to Highway 20 was opened in 1985 and the last section to Pickens County was completed later. The interstate let Cherokee County residents work in Atlanta, and made Cherokee County part of the Atlanta metropolis. More and more people moved to Cherokee County, by the early 2000s at a rate of one new resident every hour. Home to 100,000 people in the year 2000, Cherokee County currently has more than 250,000 residents.
– Provided by the Cherokee County Historical Society