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Johnny Vardeman: Peckerwood, peaceful now, had wild past
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The Peckerwood community in East Hall near Gillsville used to be a hub for moonshiners among the farm tracts and country lanes. - photo by Nick Bowman

You won’t find it on a map anywhere, and there’s no sign marking this east Hall County community between Gainesville and Gillsville.

There is a Peckerwood Road, but it’s not the original in the Peckerwood community. The road was so named because it led to the late Hall County Commissioner Charlie Strong’s Peckerwood Farm.

The real Peckerwood Road is now Emory Griffin Road leading off Gillsville Road (Ga. 323) just south of Gillsville. Ask residents the boundaries of Peckerwood, and you get different answers. Generally, it could encompass Emory Griffin Road, Cobb Griffin Road, Buffington Road down to parts of Bryant Quarters Road or even the North Oconee River at its double bridges.

Peckerwood is a bucolic area of the county, much less developed than the southern and northwestern parts of Hall. Large farms, some handed down through generations, continue to survive. Nice homes have been built along Gillsville Highway and some of the roads leading off it.

It’s a peaceful, quiet part of the county and comparatively sparsely populated.

It wasn’t always peaceful. Back in the day, Peckerwood had a dark reputation mostly because of some residents’ penchant for making and selling illegal liquor.

“It’s changed,” says James Parks, who grew up in Peckerwood. “It’s nothing like it used to be. It had a bad name. It used to be rough.” Now 93, he’s outlived all of his close kin except sister Mozelle Brady, 83.

As a boy he watched the grown-ups work a liquor still on a branch of their 200-acre farm. Andrew “Biggun” Gilmer, his grandfather, let him pour “white lightning” into jugs. At age 10, he was invited to take a snort. “And it liked to take the hide off my throat,” he said. “I never drank another drop.” Neither would he smoke, dip snuff, or chew home-made tobacco like his peers did.

The adults, Parks said, would partake, but his grandfather and father would take a little nip only early in the morning or at night “to keep a cold down.”

“The womenfolk would call the law on them,” he said. Once, when law officers had come, Gilmer was on his way to the barn with a pint bottle in his hand to get his nightly nip. The officers approached him and asked where he was going with that bottle. “To milk my cow,” he is said to have replied. “With that little bottle?” the officers asked. “Oh, he’s just a little heifer; it don’t give much milk,” Gilmer replied.

The farm had cotton, corn, wheat, bees for honey, vegetables, fruit, hogs and cattle. “We raised most of what we ate,” Parks said. “We were fixed up.” They would walk or ride horses to a store in Gillsville for what they didn’t have.

His grandfather built Gilmer Academy, and Parks went as far as the fifth grade. Some of the students, however, knew more than the teacher, and they would leave school.

Jerry and Jack Rylee of Gillsville are grandsons of Emory Griffin, whose name is on the road considered Peckerwood’s Main Street. If the community had incorporated and had a mayor, it would have been Griffin, who ran a large farm.

“Granddaddy fed them all,” Jerry Rylee said, referring to the large family, farm workers and even some neighbors. People came to him for everything, especially candidates for office. Most of the votes at Sandy Flat precinct would go the way Emory Griffin voted, Rylee said.

“There was a pretty wild bunch there at one time,” he said.

When anybody would get in trouble with the law, Griffin would bail them out. He might put up bond for a bootlegger, but never a thief, said Jack Rylee. “If they were able to steal, they were able to work,” Griffin would say.

When that crowd wasn’t making moonshine, there was a bunch who had a regular poker game going in a pine thicket.

His grandfather had people making liquor for him, Jack Rylee said. When a new sheriff whom Griffin didn’t support told him he would put his moonshine operation out of business, Rylee said he shut it down.

Early in his childhood, Jack Rylee would spend summers with his grandparents. He helped his grandmother with chores. There was no running water, no inside bathroom, and they cooked on a wood stove. They would draw their water from a well. “But there was always plenty to eat,” he said.

A black man stayed with the Griffins, something the Ku Klux Klan didn’t approve of in those highly segregated days, Jack Rylee said. When the KKK came to give him a whipping, Rylee’s grandmother told him to go hide in the attic. He did, and when the Klan left, Griffin went and told them never to come back. And they didn’t.

The black man borrowed $20 from one of the family and left the county. When he returned several years later, he produced a $20 bill for the man.

Bradley and Mary Griffin live on a cattle and chicken farm at the intersection of Emory Griffin Road and Gillsville Highway. Bradley said his great aunt, Eula Randolph, told him Peckerwood got its name from when travelers asking directions were told to turn at a prominent rotten post woodpeckers had pecked holes in.

He knows stories, too, of rowdy times of old when liquor stills were prevalent, revenue raids were regular, there were numerous fights and other disturbances. Bradley recalls somebody getting cracked over the head with an iron skillet.

Most of the oldtimers have died out or moved on. If there are liquor stills they aren’t obvious, and as in most areas, what illegal activity there probably involves drugs. Former residents moved to town or took factory jobs elsewhere.

Some of the main families with ties to Peckerwood include the Gilmers, Buffingtons, Griffins and Bryants.

Mary Griffin attached the Peckerwood name to her pottery shop. She is a trained potter, crafting a variety of items on her potter’s wheel behind their house. They call her “the lizard lady” because she adorns much of her art with lizards. And she does that because of the prevalence of lizards in the area. They even nicknamed Gilmer Academy “Lizard Lopes.”

Mary also is a woodcarver, though she does little of that anymore. Bradley, also a welder, creates metal sculptures.

They, like most longtimers, like the quiet pace of living in one of the dwindling places you can call “out in the country” in Hall County anymore. Along Emory Griffin Road, the heart of Peckerwood, houses are spaced far apart, unlike the crowded developments that are going up in other parts of Hall County.

The Griffins and others are glad the wild times are history and would be happy if their pleasant community with the unique name of Peckerwood remains the peaceful way it is today.

Watch for more local history in this column next Sunday.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville; 770-532-2326; vardeman1956@att.net.

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Mary, left, and Bradley Griffin. - photo by Johnny Vardeman
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