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River ford bandits lair is gone, but legends live
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Woolley’s Ford was one of those places on rivers in Northeast Georgia where people would cross either wading across shallows or riding a ferry. Bridges weren’t all that common on such streams as the Chattahoochee or Chestatee until the late 1800s.

Woolley’s was on the Chestatee at the Hall-Forsyth county line just north of where the river merges with the Chattahoochee.

Its name came from Basil and Margaret Wooley. The community that built up around it at one time had its own post office and Masonic lodge, according to a history of Chestatee Baptist Church written by Tina Howard and other church members.

The community in 1885 included residents from Hall, Dawson and Forsyth counties, a total population of 200, including a doctor. After W.R. Bolding built his bridge and grist mill, the area became known as Bolding Mill. Some maps spell the name Bolling.

A famous home at Woolley’s Ford is the stuff of mystery and legends. Margaret Woolley is said to have built the house, which became a regular stop for travelers going to and from the Cherokee Indian territory to Gainesville or other trading places in the 1800s. The Wooleys also built a dam, grist mill and saw mill at the site.

The notorious bandit, John Murrell, also known as Guy Rivers, commandeered the Woolley house, whether through force or friendship, and used it as his base for robberies and murder.

Legend has it that if travelers to Woolley’s Ford had gold with them, they would disappear, victims of Murrell’s gang. The house was said to have a dungeon beneath it, and a trap door in the floor above would send unsuspecting visitors plunging into it.

Another story is the house had a keyhole carved above its outside door, a sign of welcome and that friends were inside. A secret chamber was said to be in a wall reached through a hole in a ceiling.

The late Bob Brice of Gainesville once recalled he played in the house as a child. He described the “dungeon” as made of solid granite and comfortably warm even in winter. He remembered the house being built on the side of a hill covered with trees and hard to see until you were right on it beside a rough wagon road. The three-story structure had a large chimney for a fireplace that would take 8-foot logs.

Though Murrell was a desperado, he also had a following as a preacher. A large man with dark skin, he is said to have preached in a nearby church until his clothes were soaked with sweat. All the while, his gang would be stealing horses outside.

Few would cross him. He shot one man, ripped open his body, filled it with rocks and sank him in a river, probably the Chestatee. Another time, he stopped a traveler, made him disrobe, had him turn his back, then shot him in the head.

Murrell had gang members all over the South, but he apparently spent a lot of time near Woolley’s Ford to waylay the constant trickle of travelers coming through.

It is also said that he plotted an overthrow of white authority by encouraging blacks at the time to rebel against their slave masters. Murrell, or Rivers, told them the property on which they worked was theirs because of their hard labor, and they should take it from the white landholders. His idea was to foster a wholesale rebellion throughout the country.

His plot was foiled by a Jackson Countian, Virgil Stewart, who infiltrated Murrell’s gang, learned details of the plan as well as names of its leaders. Stewart rounded up neighbors against Murrell as well as law officers and surprised the bandit. Murrell was tried in June 1835 for stealing slaves, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in a Nashville, Tenn., penitentiary. He died before completing his sentence.

Law enforcement officers attributed 32 murders in Georgia to Murrell, but more than 400 across the country.

As for Woolley’s Ford, it remained a dot on early maps for decades, but Lake Lanier devoured whatever remnants of the community remained, including the old house from which Murrell is said to have operated. Gold and bodies rumored to have been buried beneath it were never recovered.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at

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