It is no accident Pendergrass in Jackson County is about halfway between Athens and Gainesville.
The little community first was known as Garden Valley. When what became the Gainesville Midland Railroad was organizing in the late 1800s, company officials determined a midpoint in Garden Valley. Then separate crews started laying track from Athens and Gainesville.
Frank L. Pendergrass’s crew reached the midpoint in Garden Valley first, and that’s where the depot went up with Pendergrass’ name on it. Thus Garden Valley became known as Pendergrass, officially being incorporated Aug. 11, 1891. The depot no longer is used by the railroad, but continues to be a community landmark, recently restored and used for various gatherings.
That’s just one of the interesting stories Sue Holliman, longtime resident, has compiled in a history of the community.
Pendergrass could be considered the birthplace of large-scale cotton farming in Georgia. William M. Smith, a cotton farmer in South Carolina, came to the community in the 1850s. The story goes that the farms adjoining Smith’s grew only enough cotton to make a single bale. Farmers at that time were more interested in cattle and grew small crops, worried that cotton seed would kill their livestock.
Smith planted a large acreage of cotton and showed others how to make it productive. The Pendergrass area became a center for cotton farming, and Smith’s techniques spread to other farmers throughout the state. His expertise earned him the nickname "Cotton Billy."
In 1880, Baptists in the area began a Sunday school church in a log cabin and invited Methodists to join them in services. They moved to a school in 1882, and the Methodists followed. Baptists built a one-room church in 1889, and the Methodists also built a church across the road.
Again in 1935, however, Baptists and Methodists met together in a church built by Pendergrass native Scott Appleby, who made millions of dollars in finance and other businesses. He built the church around the original one-room facility in memory of his father, a Baptist, and his mother, a Methodist. The church originally was named the Methodist-Baptist Church.
Before he died in 1965, Appleby established a trust fund to make an annual payment to the church as long as it remained two-denominational. By 1997, however, only two Methodists remained, and the church discontinued as Methodist-Baptist. Instead, it became the Pendergrass Baptist Church.
Appleby was a benefactor of Young Harris College, serving as a trustee 38 years, chairman from 1941 until his death. He had given about $2 million to the college. Its Appleby Center residence complex is named in his memory. Appleby also was a member of Pendergrass’s baseball team in the early 1900s.
That was about the time Pendergrass apparently reached its peak. At that time, according to Holliman’s research, the town boasted a cottonseed oil mill, two gins, two buggy factories, a bank, telephone exchange, three hardware stores, a furniture store, five general merchandise stores, a blacksmith shop, two churches, a calaboose, a 15,000-bale cotton warehouse, a hotel, three doctors and a veterinarian — the only one in the state outside Atlanta.
Pendergrass residents established their own school in the late 1800s, consolidating it with the Jackson County system in the late 1920s. It became a part of North Jackson Elementary in 1956.
The community was busy enough in 1883 to have its own post office. While Pendergrass itself isn’t as bustling today as it was back then, the post office remains and is quite busy because of the nearby businesses and industry, especially around Interstate 85.
Jefferson, Jackson County’s seat, extended its city limits north along U.S. 129 across the interstate to Pendergrass’s city limits several years ago. That area has become a busy industrial and commercial corridor, most of the industry in Jefferson’s city limits. A flea market prospers just off the interstate.
In addition, U.S. 129 was widened to four lanes, but bypassed the main part of Pendergrass. Before the bypass, only two businesses remained along the main drag of the former U.S. 129: a car lot and a convenience store. A package store opened since, and another one along the four-lane.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.