Monroe County, located in west central Georgia about fifty miles south of Atlanta and twenty-five miles north of Macon, is the state’s fiftieth county. It was named for James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States. Creek Indians held the land until 1821, when they surrendered it in the treaty resulting from their defeat at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. Portions of Monroe County later went to the formation of Bibb, Butts, Lamar, and Pike counties.
Many of the first settlers were Scottish Highlanders who had lived previously in eastern Georgia. Others were of English and Irish descent, and many came from eastern Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. Their rural community dates back to 1739, but it was decades before the settlement became a town, first called Cullodenville to honor William Culloden, a merchant who settled there in 1780. The name was shortened to Culloden when the town was incorporated in 1887.
The state legislature designated the county seat as Forsyth in 1823, and the first courthouse, built in 1825, was replaced by the current structure in 1896. Still in use, the courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The Monroe Railroad, begun in 1838, was the first railroad in Georgia and connected Forsyth to Macon. A later depot for the Central of Georgia Railway in Forsyth has been restored and now serves as the county’s historical museum.
Monroe County was an active site during the Civil War (1861-65). A skirmish was fought at a Towaliga River bridge on November 17, 1864. The Battle of Culloden on April 19, 1865, was fought ten days after the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Virginia, as the word about the war’s end had not yet reached Monroe County. Confederate soldiers wounded in battles at Atlanta were brought to a special hospital camp in Forsyth—said to be the first such camp in Georgia—and 300 soldiers are buried in a Confederate cemetery in the town. Monroe County escaped much of the destruction associated with the Civil War, possibly because of its reputation as a center for healing and respite.
Although there is not currently an institute of higher learning in Monroe County, its citizens have historically been interested in providing their children with educations of high quality. Within the decade of the 1830s at least three schools were founded in Culloden alone: Culloden Academy in 1830, Culloden Female Academy in 1834, and Culloden Male and Female Academy in 1837. Other early schools included the Darby Rosenwald School. The Montpelier Institute, founded in 1842, was the state’s second-oldest school for girls until it closed in 1876. Tift College was first chartered in 1849 under the name Forsyth Female Collegiate Institute. In 1986 it merged with Mercer University, which maintains its campus in Macon. The Forsyth Normal and Industrial School, founded in 1902 as a church-sponsored project, became a state responsibility in 1922. In 1931 its name was changed to State Teachers and Agricultural College, and its mission changed to concentrate on the preparation of Black teachers. In 1939 the college merged with Fort Valley Normal and Industrial School to become Fort Valley State College. Today Fort Valley State University maintains its campus in Fort Valley.
Agriculture was a substantial part of the county’s economy until the era of the boll weevil, whose destruction of the county’s cotton caused many farmers to turn to commercial dairy farming. However, agriculture declined in favor of timber-related industries and textile production.In 1968 the construction of Interstate 75 cemented the county’s departure from agriculture in favor of manufacturing. Today one of the largest employers is Georgia Power Company.
Noteworthy residents have included Alfred Blalock, an internationally renowned research scientist and surgeon whose work on surgical shock saved many lives during World War II (1941-45). His later contributions included solving the “blue baby syndrome.” William Morrill Wadley, president of the Central of Georgia Railway, and Emory Speer, a federal jurist and late-nineteenth-century U.S. congressman, were also county residents.
Places of interest include the Chattahoochee National Forest (Monroe County is one of the eighteen counties over which this national forest spreads); High Falls State Park, a 1,050-acre park that features waterfalls; and Lake Juliette, a 3,600-acre reservoir operated by Georgia Power and open for waterfowl hunting. Many sites in Monroe County are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Hil’ardin/Sharp-Hardin-Wright House in Forsyth; the Montpelier Female Institute,west of Macon; and the State Teachers and Agricultural College for Negroes Women’s Dormitory and Teachers’ Cottage in Forsyth. Juliette, an abandoned railroad town in the county, was reconstructed as the fictional town of Whistle Stop for the making of the film Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). Today Juliette offers several souvenir shops as well as the operational Whistle Stop Cafe.
According to the 2000 U.S. census, the population of Monroe County was 21,757, an increase of 27.1 percent since 1990. By 2010 the population had increased to 26,424.