About the Area (From the editors of Roadside Georgia)
Founded in 1856: Created from portions of Union and Rabun Counties and named after George Washington Bonaparte Towns, who served in the state houses and the U.S. House of Representatives, and as governor.
One of Georgia’s early roads passed through Towns County, running north to south through Unicoi Gap. This road was an upgraded Cherokee Trading Path that ran from the area of Maryville, Tennessee, over the Smoky Mountains, through roughly the center of present-day Hiawassee, through the Unicoi Gap, turning slowly eastward just north of Helen, Georgia. From this point it ran through the Sautee-Nachoochee Valley southeast to Tugaloo.
In the early 1800′s this road was used as the line between settlers and the Cherokee, but by 1820 nearly the entire road was in the hands of white men.
Towns County was originally part of Rabun and Union Counties, formed after the Georgia Land Lottery of 1832. Cherokee Indians, forced to give up the land they once called home, were herded into “removal forts.” One of these forts was located near the center of present-day Hiawassee.
When the county was formed in 1856, they did not have enough money for a jail. Walter Foster, the first sheriff, would throw the people he arrested in local cellars. Work soon began on both a jail and courthouse, although the courthouse, made of local brick, took a while to finish.
The Unicoi Road made this land valuable because it gave residents better access to markets for their crops, however, in the county’s more remote areas most residents were hardy farmers from Appalachian North Carolina instead of settlers from the Georgia coast.
The county was dependent on agriculture dollars in the 1800′s and would remain so until tourist dollars supplanted them as the number one cash crop beginning in the late 1970s.
Although undisturbed by the Civil War, Towns County remained in a near-anarchy state from mid-1864 until 1865. Reconstruction also had little effect on the county, although the residents suffered as did most other Georgians.
Over the next 60 years after the war Towns County returned to its agricultural roots. Mining in the eastern part of the county was a minor industry. The north-south connection to Gainesville markets permitted agricultural development, however commercial development was hindered by the lack of an east-west road and the lack of a rail route though the county. With the automobile taking hold on the American scene after World War I a road was proposed to run from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Spartanburg, South Carolina. Today known as U. S. 76, this route gave Towns County a much needed east-west connector and significant commercial development began.
Today the county is no longer solely dependent on agri-business. Tourism, depending extensively on outdoor recreation in the nearby National Forests and Lake Chatuge, and education (Young Harris College) make significant contributions.