Emerging from its agricultural past, Putnam County has become an important center of industry and recreation in Georgia. Once the land of cotton, large plantations, and great wealth, a different look is now taking hold in the county with the establishment of golf resorts, gated communities, and new businesses.
Putnam County is located seventy-five miles southeast of Atlanta and covers 345 square miles. According to the 2010 U.S. census, Putnam County’s population was 21,218, an increase from the 2000 population of 18,812.
Putnam County was created in 1807 after being sectioned off from neighboring Baldwin County. Its name honors General Israel Putnam, a hero of the Revolutionary War (1775-83) and a veteran of the battles at Lexington and Breed’s (Bunker) Hill in Massachusetts. Eatonton became the county seat in 1808. It was incorporated in 1809 and remains the county’s only incorporated town. Farmers represented the majority of the county’s original settlers, and cotton quickly became the predominant crop. By 1810 enslaved laborers made up more than 30 percent of the county’s residents. A cotton factory opened in 1836, and by 1849 the county possessed fourteen sawmills and five gristmills to service the area’s other agricultural products and natural resources. In 1854 a railroad spur line connected Eatonton to Milledgeville, the state capital.
Education proved important to residents of Putnam County during the antebellum period. The Union Academy, later renamed the Eatonton Academy, was founded in 1809, followed ten years later by the Union School. William H. Seward, the future secretary of state under U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, was the school’s first rector. In 1828 Adiel Sherwood established on his plantation the Manual Labor Training School, which was founded to teach new planting techniques to local farmers and plantation owners.
Civil War and Reconstruction
The Civil War (1861-65) visited Putnam County in 1864, when Union general William T. Sherman and his army passed through the area on their March to the Sea. Putnam County had voted against secession in 1861, but this fact did not prevent the burning and destruction of cotton gins, railroads, and bridges. (The writer and Putnam County resident Joel Chandler Harris recounts these events in his 1892 book, On the Plantation.)
Putnam County experienced difficulty recovering from the war. The wealth of the great plantations had disappeared, and the county spent the remaining decades of the nineteenth century trying to revive its economy. A solution came at the turn of the century when dairy production emerged as an economic force. In 1876 Benjamin Hunt brought fifteen Jersey cows to the region and created Panola Farm, an experimental dairy facility that helped to establish the dairy industry in Putnam County. By 1901 Putnam had become the third-leading dairy county in Georgia, shipping cream to Athens and butter to Atlanta. The Eatonton Creamery, a cooperative created by fifty-eight local farmers in 1909, made various dairy products, including “Sweet Clover” butter, which was served to U.S. president William Howard Taft on a visit to Georgia. Dairy continues to play a part in the county’s economy. To celebrate the industry’s importance, the Dairy Festival is held annually during the first weekend of June.
A variety of industries later moved into Putnam County. In 1970 Horton Homes began producing manufactured homes. The New Jersey–based Haband Company, a clothing retailer, began operations in the county in 1988 and has become a key provider of jobs. Other important industries include Georgia Power Company, whose plant at Lake Sinclair provides many jobs for the county.
Recreation and Tourism
The creation of Lake Sinclair in 1953 and Lake Oconee in 1979 helped give birth to the tourism and recreation industry in Putnam County. The lakes provide opportunities to fish, hike, camp, or simply relax on the beach. Several golf courses have been created in the area, including the Jack Nicklaus–designed Great Waters Course at Reynolds Plantation. Putnam County also possesses several other points of interest. Two sites unique to the county are Rock Eagle Effigy Mound and Rock Hawk Effigy Mound, which were built by Native Americans more than 1,000 years ago and are the only two effigy mounds in the United States.
Downtown Eatontown has been awarded “Better Hometown” status by Georgia, allowing the town to revitalize the area with the help of state funding. The focus of the downtown area is the Putnam County Courthouse, located on one of the largest public squares in the state. The oldest part of the courthouse dates from 1824; the building underwent renovations in 1994. The county’s literary tradition can be explored by visiting the Uncle Remus Museum, which is dedicated to the works of Joel Chandler Harris. Alice Walker, another Putnam County native, won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for her book The Color Purple.