Crisp County, in south Georgia, is Georgia’s 138th county. The 274-square-mile county was carved from Dooly County in 1905, after residents successfully petitioned for a division of that county. It was named for statesman Charles Crisp, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1891 to 1894, and Cordele was selected as the county seat.
The area now forming Crisp County was once a province called Chisi, Ichisi, or Achese, which was inhabited by the Lower Creek division of the Muskogee Indians. The first Europeans visited the area in 1540, when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his followers passed through. Priests traveling with the explorers said Mass in a village that historians have identified as a predecessor of the modern town of Cordele. This Mass may have been the first Christian religious service held in the southeastern United States.
In an effort to curtail English trade with Creeks in the region, Spanish Floridians allied with Apalachee Indians and attacked the English and Creeks in 1702. The English and Creeks prevailed against the invaders near the Flint River in what is now Crisp County, and the battle marked the opening of a campaign that led to England’s successful bid for control of the Mississippi Valley.
The coming of railroad transportation to the area in the 1880s had a significant impact on population patterns. Several towns were formed at the sites where one or several of the railroads made stops. Among these was Arabi, founded in 1888 and incorporated in 1891. Cordele, founded in 1888 by John Edgar Dawson Shipp of Americus and incorporated that same year, was named for a daughter of Samuel H. Hawkins, president of the Savannah, Americus, and Montgomery Railroad. The town was known in its early years as “the Hub City” because it stood at the junction of several railroad lines. In November 1864, during the Civil War (1861-65), Joseph E. Brown, the Georgia governor, fled to his farmhouse near Cordele to avoid Union general William T. Sherman’s troops, and for a few days Cordele served as the temporary capital of Confederate Georgia. In 1987 Cordele was named a “Main Street City,” becoming part of a nationwide program aimed at revitalizing downtowns. Other unincorporated communities in the county are Hatley, Raines, and Wenona.
The Crisp County Hydroelectric Power Dam is the first county-owned, -constructed, and -operated hydroelectric power project in the United States. When the dam began generating electricity in 1930, a secondary benefit was the formation of Lake Blackshear in its backwaters. Named for David Blackshear, the founder of Fort Early, the 8,700-acre shallow lake is the centerpiece of the Georgia Veterans State Park, which offers venues for water sports and facilities for golfers. Much of the land surrounding the lake was bought from Daphne Plantation, formerly a popular outdoor recreation resort to which the Seaboard Railroad ran excursion trains.
Industry and Economy
Railroad transportation continues to be an important factor in Crisp County’s economy, and Cordele–Crisp County is the only Georgia community located on Interstate 75 to be served by three major railroads. In addition to I-75, both U.S. Highways 41 and 280 run through the center of the county, facilitating the distribution of manufactured goods and bringing travelers through the area. Education and the health and social services are the largest employment sectors, closely followed by manufacturing and retail trade. Agriculture remains significant to the county’s economy, with melons, peaches, peanuts, and pecans being among the most important crops. The Georgia Department of Agriculture runs the Cordele Farmers’ Market, which features local produce. Because of the large number of watermelons produced in the county, Cordele has styled itself the “Watermelon Capital of the World” and holds an annual Watermelon Days Festival each July.
People and Places
Riley Shepard Brown, a writer of detective stories and other works, is from Cordele. He published two books, Men, Wind, and the Sea: The Story of the Coast Guard (1939) and Stringfellow of the Fourth (1960), and later wrote a weekly columnfor the Courier-Post in New Jersey. Mac Hyman, author of No Time for Sergeants (1954), was born in Cordele in 1923.
Joe Williams was born in Cordele in 1918 and went on to sing with Count Basie’s big band from 1954 until 1961. He then performed until the 1990s with other bands, in club routines, in movies, and on television variety shows. Williams recorded forty albums over his career and finished first-place for five consecutive years in Down Beat magazine’s polls of international critics (1974-78). Healso played the part of Grandpa Al in the television comedy The Cosby Show.
Among the county’s historic sites is the St. Paul/Gillespie-Selden Rural Life Community Center in the Gillespie-Selden Historic District. Today the center provides learning and recreational facilities for children.
Fort Early, built by Blackshear during the War of 1812 (1812-15), was used in 1818 by Andrew Jackson during his campaign against the Seminole and Creek Indians. A short line of the old Savannah, Americus, and Montgomery (SAM) Railroad has been refurbished within Georgia Veterans State Park, which runs the SAM Shortline Excursion Train regularly to Americus and Plains. There are also indoor and outdoor military museums on the site. The Georgia Southern and Florida Railroad depot, built in 1888 in Arabi, was moved to a location south of town and is today part of the local historical society’s outdoor museum.
Education and Population
According to the 2010 U.S. census, the population is 23,439, an increase from the 2000 population of 21,996.