Cairo, incorporated in 1870, is located in Grady County in southwest Georgia, thirty miles north of Tallahassee, Florida. Named either for the city in Egypt or for Cairo, Illinois, but pronounced “Cayroe,” the city has been the county seat since 1906. For decades it was known as the heart of Georgia’s syrup industry.
According to the 2010 U.S. census, Cairo has 9,607 residents. The town covers 9.37 square miles and is governed by a five-member city council, mayor, and an appointed city manager. Manufacturing and the retail and wholesale trades are the top industries. A satellite campus of Southwest Georgia Technical College (later Southern Regional Technical College) opened in Cairo in 2006.
In the early 1800s William Hawthorne (or Hawthorn), a Baptist preacher and explorer, became the first settler in the area and cut a forty-mile trail through it. Building a home for his family at Tired Creek three miles south of the current city of Cairo, Hawthorne encouraged other friends from North Carolina to come to Georgia and begin the settlement at Miller’s Station. The threat of attack from the Seminoles who lived in the north Florida swamps meant that all men between the ages of sixteen and sixty served in the local militia.
Early settlers include Henry Miller, who moved to what was then Thomas County in 1842, when Miller’s Station was a stagecoach stop between Thomasville and Bainbridge. By 1860 the Atlantic and Gulf Railroad had bought land for a depot from residents Nancy and Malachi Collins as well as from Phoebe and Washington Baggett. In 1866 H. H. Tooke and James H. Hayes sold their land in the area so that the town of Cairo could be founded.
In 1862 Henry Miller sold his land to Seaborn Anderson Roddenbery. That same year, Roddenbery began his medicine practice in a horse-drawn buggy, from which he sold his open-kettle sugarcane syrup. By 1867 Roddenbery had an office and a general store that sold syrup from large cypress barrels, and people brought their own jars to be filled with his molasses.
In 1889 Roddenbery marketed the first pure Georgia cane syrup as “Roddenbery’s Old Plantation Molasses.” By 1920 the business was known as the W. B. Roddenbery Company. Beginning in 1936, the company expanded its product lines to include pickles, peanut butter, and boiled peanuts. In 1993 Dallas-based Dean Foods purchased W. R. Roddenbery and about ten years later closed the Cairo plant. The former plant has been renovated and is now the regional community center with meeting and banqueting facilities.
Having escaped most of the ravages of the Civil War (1861-65), the Cairo area grew rapidly at the turn of the twentieth century. Located on the Lower Coastal Plain of southwest Georgia, the area is known for its many streams, long growing season, and sandy loam soil that produces many diverse crops.
The former county courthouse, which was destroyed by fire in 1980, and jail were built in 1908. The current courthouse was built in the 1980s. The city’s newspaper, the Cairo Messenger, was founded in 1904 and has been owned and operated by five generations of the Wind family ever since. In 2004 the Georgia legislature commemorated the newspaper’s centenary.
The Roddenbery Memorial Library in Cairo, housed in a building of nearly 19,000 square feet, contains one of the best children’s libraries in the area, as well as a “story garden” and genealogy collection. The library was founded in 1939, under a Works Progress Administration program, by Wessie Connell, a local librarian. In 1964 Connell persuaded the family of Walter Blair Roddenbery to donate $185,000 to build a new facility. Connell, who is credited with such innovations as story time, branch libraries, and other outreach programs, was also active in the civil rights movement. She won numerous awards, and many of her ideas have become standard practices in libraries across the United States.
Notable Residents and Events
Notable residents of Cairo have included George T. Smith, state lieutenant governor in 1967-70 and a justice in the Supreme Court of Georgia; author Vereen Bell; basketball player Teresa Edwards; and baseball great Jackie Robinson.
The city hosts several festivals, the most famous of which is the Great Southern Antique Car Rally, for which Cairo earned its nickname as Georgia’s Hospitality City. Along with matchbox cars and antique bicycles, the Cairo Antique Auto Museum boasts examples of the world’s most expensive cars from every decade of the 1900s.