Modern-Day Ghost Town

Saturday, November 24, 2007 -- Joe Wheeler State Park near Rogersville, AL

Retrospective comments about Crawfordville, GA.

The traditional heart of the ideal small town has been a lively and energetic central business district, an area where people congregate, socialize, shop, and just hang out. Driven by businesses and shop owners, these areas are kept clean and friendly, often decorated for holidays, so as to be an inviting place for people to go, spend a little money for various needs and wants, and make it possible for these businesses and shops to make a profit -- which allows the cycle starts again. In the best places there are enough people who can spend enough money to allow this cycle to spiral upward -- additional new shops or businesses open, stores are remodeled or new ones built, perhaps the town develops a unique flavor that's enticing and causes more people to come, maybe even from nearby towns, to take part in the experience. There's a sense of energy and a sense of excitement that's palpable, that people feel. They want to be there.

By now you may have seen the pictures in our online photo collection of Crawfordville Georgia. They are pictures of a town that's only a few years from becoming a modern-day ghost town. The heart of this town stopped beating years ago. The central business district, made up of about 3 city blocks, has but 3 or 4 meager businesses still operating, including a branch bank, a cafe, and a very small clothing and shoe repair shop. If the town didn't also have the county courthouse (Crawfordville is the county seat of Taliaferro County), I wonder if any of these businesses could exist either.

It wasn't always this way. The 1920 census counted almost 9,000 people living in this county. Of these, about 5,000 called Crawfordville home. Transportation was more difficult in those days and those that lived in town probably spent their money in town. The businesses and shops were probably busy and making a go of it. The dry goods store had the shelves and display tables full of merchandise. The pharmacy, with it's requisite soda fountain, was a place to find a cool refreshing soda or ice cream treat on a hot Georgia day. The grocery store provided the needs of a well stocked kitchen.

The business of the county was primarily cotton farming. In addition, Crawfordville straddles the historic Georgia Railroad that connects Atlanta with Augusta and Charleston, and anything coming in or going out by rail came through Crawfordville. There were also dairies and logging in the area that kept people employed.

In the early 1920's the boll weevil turned up and, at the time, there was no way of controlling it. Cotton yields dropped. Profits dropped. Employment dropped. Shipments dropped. Money was scarce. People started moving to other places where they could find employment and opportunity. Those with any "get up and go" got up and went. By 1930, the population of the county had dropped to about 6000 people. From that time forward nothing has ever replaced the importance of cotton to Taliaferro county's economy. From that time forward the town struggled, people ebbed away, businesses failed or moved away -- it's been a downward spiral.

Already suffering economically and as if it needed it, the town of Crawfordville somehow became a focal point of the civil rights movement in 1965. A search of the New York Times archives found over 20 articles from that year and the subject of all of them was civil rights activity. Martin Luther King was here, the KKK was here, protests and marches were organized, and politicians wrung their hands knowing what was right but trying to pander to the segregationist element that was the largest voting bloc at the time. As things settled down, even more people left town -- mostly whites.

That was over 40 years ago and today the area has less than half the population it had then. The 2000 census counted less than 2,000 people in the county and has estimated the population in 2007 to be just 1,700 people. Of that, only about 500 live in Crawfordville. According to the census there are only about 100 people in the entire county that are employed and receiving a paycheck. It's kinda hard to keep a town vibrant when there are no resources or energy to fuel the community.

As we walked the main street looking into the windows of closed businesses, evidence of the better days was still present. The shelves and display tables of the dry good store were still in place, but empty, dirty, and forlorn. Fixtures, glasses, and mixers were still on the soda fountain counters as if someone left one night and just never returned. The roof and floor of the grocery store were missing -- gone, only the exterior walls of the building adorned with painted signage still exist. A number of buildings were missing their roofs.

The roof is gone.
The sun shines in all day and the moon beams in all night.
Nothing good happens to vacant buildings that are neglected.
The roof starts to leak and no one notices -- no one's there much anymore.
When someone does notice, they don't care -- there's nothing inside to protect from leaking rain.
When a trickle becomes a torrent, they can't afford to get it fixed -- there's no income or rent to offset the cost.
Eventually, the water seepage rots the roof timbers, they crumble, fail, fall, and the roof comes down with them.
But the walls still stand strong... the ruins a reminder of a previous, more hopeful and energetic time.
The building is now a total wreck... but there's still no money to tear it down and haul it away.
Besides, what's the difference between a broken down building and a junk filled empty lot?
Neither are worth anything.

Ultimately this is a story about lack of resources. And it's a story that has been re-told many, many times since the dawn of civilization and during the growth and development of the U.S. A small town in the wild west is established along a railroad line and then dies when the railroad was later re-routed. A community in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is established to service the needs of miners during the copper rush of the late 1800's and later is totally abandoned when the copper is gone. When key resources are suddenly exhausted, people are no longer able to survive the way they had. If they can, they seek resources and opportunity elsewhere.

Are we, as a civilization, so advanced that we don't have to be concerned about one of our key resources drying up? Can science and innovation solve any problem nature throws at us? Is there enough fresh water on the planet for billions of new people in the next few years? Can we grow enough food? Is there enough oil for millions and millions more cars in China and India? Could there be a "boll weevil" in our future?

It might be wise to stay adaptable and keep an eye on world events.



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