Ellijay, the seat of Gilmer County, together with its sister city, East Ellijay, is located at the junction of Georgia 515 and 52 and U.S. 76. The combined population in 2010 of these two contiguous but politically and administratively separate communities was 2,165 (Ellijay: 1,619; East Ellijay: 546), according to the U.S. census. Situated seventy-five miles north of Atlanta, Ellijay lies at the center of one of north Georgia’s most beautiful mountain wilderness areas. The primary industries are poultry and apple processing, and a major employer is Gold Kist.
The origin of the town name excites considerable speculation, but conventional wisdom holds that Ellijay is an Anglicized form of a Cherokee word, perhaps meaning “place of green things” or “many waters.” The latter definition seems sensible because the town of Ellijay, once a large Cherokee trading center, lies near the headwaters of the Coosawattee River at the confluence of the Cartecay and the Ellijay rivers.
Gilmer County was cut from Cherokee County in 1832, and Ellijay became the county seat in 1834. Ellijay existed as a remote mountain community until the Marietta and Northern Georgia Railroad (later the L and N) arrived in 1884. This prompted something of a boom in the timber industry, but the area remained relatively isolated until the Zell Miller Mountain Parkway (Georgia 515; named for Georgia governor and U.S. senator Zell Miller) was completed in 1991.
The new highway provided easy access from metropolitan Atlanta to the surrounding wilderness areas and made Ellijay a popular destination for nature lovers and sportsmen. Sixty-five percent of Gilmer County is public land, and Ellijay lies at the center of an area dominated by the rugged Cohutta Mountains and Rich Mountain Wilderness (both in the vast Chattahoochee National Forest) and Carters Lake, the deepest reservoir east of the Mississippi River.
In recent years Ellijay has become a hub for visitors and for the area’s growing population of second-home owners, who have been drawn to the natural beauty of the surrounding north Georgia mountains.
The picturesque valleys of Gilmer County produce more than 600,000 bushels of apples each year, more than in any other Georgia county, and every fall Ellijay is the site of the annual Georgia Apple Festival. Held during the second and third full weekends in October, the Apple Festival features a juried crafts show of more than 300 vendors, as well as what one old-timer called “every apple product known to mankind.”