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Bicentennial bit: Pike County’s early transportation

From wagons and trains to vehicles and planes. It’s not unusual to see an airplane flying over Pike County these days, in fact, there are six airports in the county – the largest being Peachstate Airport in Williamson. In the early days of aviation, a Pike County pilot was at the helm of the industry’s advancement. 

An account of Doug Davis’ impact on early aviation was published Sept. 28, 1934 by Katherine Pope Merritt in Sunday’s Atlanta Journal about ‘New and Old Transportation in Pike.’

“Since the recent great tragedy, when one of the nation’s best loved and trusted aviators met his death, Pike has made no effort to claim Doug Davis as her own. The papers all over the country proclaiming him as belonging to Atlanta, to Georgia, to the country at large, but the fact remains that he was Pike county’s own son – born and nurtured within the confines of her rolling red hills. In the history of Pike, written a few years ago by Lizzie R. Mitchell, of Zebulon, is given an account of the first airplane owned in the county and to the many who now lament the passing of the intrepid aviator, this may prove of peculiar interest. Miss Mitchell says: ‘When the United States went into the World War, among the boys who joined the American forces in France was one who enlisted in the Aviation Department. He was born and reared on a farm in the ‘Second District,’ in the northern part of Pike county. His mother, like all war mothers, passed through the slow torture of waiting during those trying years, and when the armistice was at last declared, she began counting the days before her son’s return. Finally, there came a message telling of his safe arrival in New York, and she joyously planned for his reception, looking daily for a letter telling at what station to meet him. 

“One day while busy with household duties, she heard an unusual noise overhead and looking out, was astonished to see an airplane landing in the pasture nearby. Thus did Doug Davis, whose fame is now worldwide, returned to his mother, and to his county, in an old plane he had purchased, which, as far as we have been able to trace, was the first airship owned in Pike County.’

The history given by Miss Mitchell, of the other more primitive means of transportation in the county – ranging from the first

The history given by Miss Mitchell, of the other more primitive means of transportation in the county – ranging from the first buggy to the first railroad and first automobile – takes this story from the realm of tragedy to that of comedy. In the light of today’s traveling facilities, when time and distance had been conquered by the locomotive and the motorcar, when the “magic carpet” of Arabian Nights lore has been eclipsed by the great airliners which traversed the continent from coast-to-coast in a few hours, the history of Pike’s first buggy causes a gas of amazement at the progress of a century – or less. This amusing story was given to the historian by Mrs. Bonita Arnold Searcy, of Allendale, S.C., a native of Pike County.

“In the early days of the county, travel was entirely by horseback. As roads were developed, the rich rode in their carriages and in stagecoaches, but the buggy, for those of moderate means, did not come into use until sometime in the ‘30s. An old bachelor down in a remote section of Pike, by the name of Uriah Askew, heard of this new mode of travel, and decided that he must have a buggy, so he saddled his horse and rode up to Griffin, then in Pike, to make his purchase.  His horse, of course, had never before been in harness, and went into nervous ‘fits’ when these strange trappings were put on him, but his master finally succeeded in getting him started towards home. But the staid farm horse did not like the tickling and tinkling of the harnesses and Uriah found he could not hold him, so had to let him run. When he started down the steep hill south of town, now on Route 3, the driver, feeling his life was in danger, decided to pray, but not being a praying man, the only words he could think of were those of his father’s grace before meals: ‘Lord make us thankful for what we are about to receive!’ By the time the horse had reached the bottom of the long hill, and started to climb the next, quite as steep, he was ready to stop of his own accord. Uriah meekly climbed out, unhitched his horse, put himself between the shafts and pulled the buggy back to the salesman, telling him that he had decided that horseback was far the safest method of travel, and henceforth he would be content with it!” 

One of the earliest advocates of the railroad in Georgia was General Griffin, for whom the town of Griffin was named. He was at the head of the first company to lay a rail or operate a locomotive in the state. This man of wide vision had a dream to build a great trunk line from Savannah, on the south, through the center of the state to Tennessee, then one across the state from Augusta to the Chattahoochee River on the west. His dream included Zebulon, the oldest town in Pike, on the extension of the line from Forsyth to the northern limit. 

But Zebulon was located on an important stage line, which extended from Columbus, through Macon to Savannah, over which each year traveled wagon trains carrying, besides other freight, thousands of bales of cotton to the seaport. And the population of the little town, then one of importance, consisted of conservative citizens who thought a railroad would not only bring the wagon business, but would bring with it countless innovations from the outside world which would have far from a good influence on the moral tone of the community. So the good people discouraged the idea of a railroad, and the result was that general Griffin bought land in the northern part of the county, laid out the town of Griffin, and directed the route of his railroad through this place, and on to Marthasville, now Atlanta. 

Many years intervened between the entrance of the first steam locomotive into Pike, and the arrival of the first automobile, the next vital step in the advancement of transportation. Could this first car, and early “Rambler,” make its appearance today on one of the beautiful paved highways of the state, it would be quite the curiosity it was then – but for different reasons – when it had the distinction of being the only one between Atlanta and Macon, with the exception of one in Griffin and one in Jackson. “But,” says Miss Mitchell, “to the young gallant who owned it – now one of our dignified, conservative citizens – it was the culmination of a dream which he had cherished since the first self-driven vehicle was put to use. The ‘Rambler’ was built on the style of the open buggy, and was little larger. The engine was one-cylinder and there was no steering wheel, a lever being used for steerage. It had no top, no doors, and no fenders, and the greatest possible speed he could attain was 12 miles an hour – downhill! This new-fangled machine was viewed with wonder about all the inhabitants, and each time it was driven every mule or horse which got in seeing, hearing or smelling distance of it, ran away, and the cattle, with cries of alarm, fled to the back of the pastures! 

In fact, the irate farmers threatened an injunction against its continued use, and had the young man been political-minded, it is doubtful, for many years thereafter, that he could have polled one vote. Alexander, of Atlanta, the first owner of a car in the state, had accomplished the astonishing feat of an auto trip from Atlanta to Indian Springs – a trip made in nine hours – the young Pike autoist was fired with the ambition to undertake a similar adventure. “Soon the Rambler – which did not always live up to its name, but more often remained stationary – was replaced by an Oldsmobile, and other models followed in rapid succession….. There was a ‘Reo,’ another ‘Olds,’ and a locomotive steamer, under whose temperamental engine ofttimes many newspapers were burned to ‘get up to steam’ for a get-away. There were Ford’s, and a Cadillac of early vintage, and one of the very first Buick models. In fact, a list of the young auto enthusiast’s cars reads like a history of the automobile industry of that early day. “When, in 1904, the late J. W. [?] persuaded his young bride to venture with him, in his new Olds, on a trip from Zebulon to Macon! At that time there were no paved roads in the state, but the smooth, graded highways of Bibb county were a great improvement over the rock red hills of Pike and Monroe. “When the young couple reached the level Bibb road, the bride herself, the possessor of an adventurous spirit, suggested that he ‘try out his speed,’ promising to hold tight to the car for safety! They were astounded to find that they were going at the rate of fifteen miles an hour! They made the trip in six hours, a record in deed, for speed in those days.”

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