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Shoal Creek’s colorful men made history

POSTED: December 21, 2008 12:30 a.m.

Slab Town and Pleasant Retreat no longer are on modern maps of White County, but they once were significant communities that produced significant people in the county's history.

LaVenier Mize Hicks, who calls herself a Shoal Creek historiographer, has been digging into the past of that area in the southwest corner of White County near the Hall and Lumpkin counties' lines. She has compiled her third book, this one concentrating on the history of Shoal Creek Baptist Church and some of the characters in nearby communities.

Slab Town's name comes from the more than 50 houses built from slabs for miners searching for gold in the 1800s. Part of Pleasant Retreat, which succeeded Slab Town, meandered into Lumpkin County, according to longtime resident Charlie Thomas.

Three residents of the area became well known in White County: Capt. Rufus R. Asbury, Civil War hero; Maj. Graham C. Dugas; and Harrison W. Riley, whom Hicks described as one of the richest men to ever live in White or Lumpkin counties. All were attempting to build wealth through gold mining.

Pleasant Retreat once had a school, churches, general store and post office.

Asbury operated a mill on Shoal Creek and mined for gold after returning from the California gold rush and the Civil War. A road in the area still bears his name. He accumulated considerable land and wealth, was active in community and church life and is credited with helping build Smith's Chapel on what is now Ga. 115.

Asbury served in the state Senate and was president of White County's first school board.

Riley operated a plantation near Asbury's holdings. He was an early settler of Lumpkin County and turned into a shrewd wheeler-dealer who tried to take over the Dahlonega Mint when it ceased operations. According to Hicks, he fathered numerous children with different women, but never married.

Despite his reputation, Riley was able to win election as state senator and representative. One of his political opponents, apparently sore about losing an election to him, wounded him with gunshot, but Riley is said to have shot the man's hat off his head as he fled.

Legend has it that the powerful, wealthy Riley left some of his treasure hidden, but no trace of it was ever found. Some believe holes all over his property were from people hunting the treasure.

Maj. Graham Dugas is the third colorful character Hicks wrote about in her book. His is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story.

He grew up an orphan in Chicago, entered the military during World War I and earned a reputation as a daring pilot. When he eventually ended up at Pleasant Retreat, he mined gold, farmed and built a power plant. At one time Dugas claimed to have owned 10,000 acres. He took over the old Calhoun mine in Lumpkin County, creating considerable excitement when more gold was discovered.

The mining endeavor, however, ended his good fortune along with a series of other unfortunate incidents. While serving as a state representative, he was charged with murder after his car struck and killed a Lumpkin County school teacher near Gainesville. A jury acquitted him of the charge.

Dugas and his family narrowly escaped when their Pleasant Retreat house burned. He ended up divorcing three wives and died at age 65 in 1955 of an apparent heart attack in a hotel room in Albany. Some remains of the Dugas home in Pleasant Retreat are still visible.

Another colorful character in the Shoal Creek history was Jasper Courtney, a slave friend of Judge J.J. Kimsey. They worked on the family farm together and became close. Jasper converted all the money he made into $5 gold pieces, which he hid. He became well known and a familiar sight in the community. Though the family allowed Jasper his freedom, he remained on the farm until his death.

After he died, members of the family found his hidden gold in a small satchel several feet under fodder stored in the attic of a barn.

Hicks's book is titled "Cotton Pickin' Times on Shoal Creek, Volume Two, Give Me That Ol' Time Religion." It contains rich history of Shoal Creek Baptist Church and stories such as old-time foot-washings, mass baptisms, shape-note singings and "laying out" the dead in homes prior to funerals.

The community, once known as Shoal Creek Crossing, is north of Clermont along Ga. 284.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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