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Column: Railroad, mine pushed Brookton to prominence
Johnny Vardeman

Brookton is a four-way stop at the intersection of Ga. 52 and Ga. 284, just a hop and a skip from its larger North Hall neighbors, Quillians Corner and Clermont.

It isn’t as busy as it once was, though the traffic at times through the intersection would indicate otherwise. Bucolic Brookton remains a quiet corner of Hall County with the green fields, cow pastures and poultry farms enhancing its peaceful and picturesque character. Many fine homes on spacious acreage have sprouted along the highways, better known as Lula-Brookton Road and Clark’s Bridge Road.

Brookton used to be quite a bustling community. Turner Quillian and John, his son, operated a cotton gin and warehouse. There was a general store, post office and depot for the stop on the Gainesville & Northwestern Railway that ran from Gainesville to Helen. It had its own school. Trinity United Methodist Church has been part of the community since the 1870s.

Brookton became even more important as World War I was beginning. Gold prospectors had stumbled some time ago on pyrite deposits near the Chestatee River in Lumpkin County. 

As gold had played out, miners turned to pyrite because its sulphur content was a critical ingredient in explosives and fertilizer. Apparently, there was a fertilizer shortage in the country as sources in Spain dried up because of the war.

Pyrite was so important that the federal government subsidized much of the project that became Chestatee Pyrites and Chemical Co. It even paid half the cost of a dirt road between Brookton and Dahlonega, so pyrite could be hauled to the Gainesville & Northwestern Railroad in Brookton. 

Later the railroad, with a loan from the War Department, extended a spur from Brookton to the pyrite mining site.

Brothers N.P. and George Pratt headed the mining project. At least 175 people were employed, and a dam provided a lake and power for mining equipment. 

Sixty-two homes were built to accommodate some of the labor force. Pay ranged from $1.75 to $3 a day. A covered bridge crossed the Chestatee River at the mining site.

At its peak, the mine produced 150 tons of the mineral a day.

The late George Austin, former public works director for Gainesville, said his family moved to Lumpkin County when he was 5 years old. His father, G.A. “Art” Austin, was general manager of Chestatee Pyrites and Chemical Co.

George Austin said World War I ended before the mine was in full operation. That was the beginning of the end for the pyrite project. Adding to the demise, large deposits of raw sulphur were found in Texas and Louisiana, negating the need for what was coming out of Lumpkin County.

The railroad spur — which for a time even moved passengers from Brookton to Lumpkin County —was closed, the rails destined as scrap sold to Japan.

However, Brookton’s post office endured from 1914 to 1944.

The mine itself limped along officially until 1928, and the company moved to Lithonia. Before it closed, a new company, Piedmont, was providing crushed stone for roads, including a 104,000-ton contract with Florida. Considerable money was lost in the mining operation. Lawsuits lingered in the courts years after the mine shut down. In her book, “I Remember Dahlonega,” the late Anne Amerson wrote that the Pratts sued the federal government because they had a contract for furnishing pyrite. They settled for almost $500,000.

Brookton suffered more bad luck in 1922. The Quillians’ warehouse burned, destroying cotton, farming equipment and other goods. Later, Brookton School burned.

The rebuilt Brookton School became well known for its annual chicken pie suppers around Valentine’s Day, starting in 1925 when it raised $63. When the school consolidated with Wauka Mountain Elementary, the supper moved to the new school until it discontinued in 2013. Hundreds had attended yearly, and thousands of dollars were made for the school. But, attendance and sponsors dwindled, and the school found other ways to raise money.

Brookton is said to have been named for early settler John B. Brooke.

Copper mines

The pyrite mining area has always been referred to as “the copper mines.” There is even a road by that name to the area — Copper Mine Road. However, copper wasn’t the product of the operation. An analysis of the ore showed 48% sulphur and only 2% copper.

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

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