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Column: Demorest was once a hotbed for prohibition
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

Demorest in Habersham County remains a relatively quiet town nestled between the county seat of Clarkesville and bustling Cornelia.

Not that Demorest isn’t buzzing itself, home of prestigious Piedmont College, Habersham Medical Center, the late baseball great Johnny Mize and numerous cultural amenities. The city advertises its Fourth of July celebration as the longest running of its kind.

It’s curious the way the place was founded in 1889. Some out-of-staters came to Habersham County to organize a community with the highest moral standards. Those new citizens wanted people to forfeit their property if they allowed drinking of alcohol, gambling or prostitution. Demorest became a hotbed of prohibitionists.

The name of the town itself came from one of the nation’s foremost prohibitionists, W. Jennings Demorest. A successful New York businessman and publisher, he became widely known for his philanthropy, business acumen and especially his unflagging opposition to alcoholic beverages.

That’s why those early citizens of the town named their place Demorest. While he remained a New Yorker, Demorest came to Demorest during a chautauqua event in his honor in 1890. Chautauquas were gatherings of people to hear speakers, music and various other cultural offerings.

W.J. Demorest was president and treasurer of the national Prohibition Party. He published a monthly magazine that was circulated nationally and was eagerly read by prohibitionists of the day.

They called it Demorest Day when Mr. Demorest came to speak during the chautauqua. He fired up the crowd, telling them that the “liquor traffic” cost the country $16 billion a year. He decried “the licensed saloon that desecrates the home.” The Prohibition Party, he continued, “is the only political party that is pledged to stamp out this iniquity of our time, this vampire of civilization that lives only as it destroys the best and brightest of our young men. … Nothing short of prohibition will save our country.”

Besides his campaign against alcoholic beverages, Jennings became known for the valued medals he presented young people in declamation competitions. He awarded some during his Demorest visit.

Demorest’s second wife Ellen became well known, too. She found her place in the business world as a fashion expert and designed paper patterns for making dresses. She also made a speech supporting prohibition during Demorest Day.

Demorest Times

The fledgling town of Demorest had its own newspaper early on, the Demorest Times, published in the 1890s. W.A. Fowler was its editor. 

The newspaper enthusiastically supported the prohibition movement. It couldn’t say enough about W. Jennings Demorest when he came to town in the fall of 1890. It bent over backward to laud his work, printing apparently every word of his speeches.

The paper advertised itself as “the only paper printed in Habersham County.” That might have been the case, but the Habersham County Grand Jury of the time didn’t recognize it. In its presentments, the grand jury recommended its proceedings be published in the Clarkesville Advertiser, the Toccoa News and the Northeast Georgian of Cornelia.

Incensed, the Demorest Times editor wrote, “It seems queer that a set of men supposed to know as much as the grand jury did not know that the News and the Advertiser were dead and have been for some time. There is only one newspaper in this county — the Demorest Times.”

Helen Longstreet

An interesting note in that early Demorest Times newspaper was about Ellen Dortch, later to become Helen Longstreet, wife of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet. The paper wrote in 1894 that “Ellen Dortch wants to be Gov. Atkinson’s secretary. We hope she will get the appointment; no doubt she will fill the position as well as any man and probably a great deal better.”

She had become friends with Gov. W.Y. Atkinson while she was publishing a newspaper in Milledgeville. With his help, she promoted the founding of Georgia Normal and Industrial College, later to become Georgia State College for Women (GSCW), now simply Georgia College.

Ellen Dortch did become the governor’s secretary, which led to her becoming the first woman to hold statewide office in Georgia as assistant state librarian.


Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or johnnyvardeman@gmail.com. His column publishes weekly.