County historians reveal new Clayton history book

By Joel Hall


From past to present, the story of Clayton County is a tale of war, rapid growth, and being a key component of transportation in the region.

It is also filled with momentous events and the stories of interesting, often pace-setting individuals, such as Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, the founder of Eastern Airlines, and Truett Cathy, the man who created Chick-fil-A.

In a new book, "Historic Clayton County: The Sesquicentennial History," Clayton State University Professor Kathryn Kemp and Historical Jonesboro/Clayton County, Inc., recount 150 years of the county's existence through historical accounts, maps, pictures, and personal stories.

The book will have its public debut on Saturday, Sept. 26, during Historical Jonesboro's annual barbecue and fund-raiser at the Clayton County History Center (also known as the Old Clayton County Jail).

Kemp, who also authored the book, "God's Capitalist: Asa Candler of Coca-Cola," said she wanted to share Clayton's history in a way that would appeal to historians and laymen alike. The book is just over 100 pages, she said.

"It's not a heavy book," she said. "We focused on getting lots of pictures, so there is a lot of visual history. It gives some context of what life was like in the 1830s, when the trains first showed up in this part of the world, to modern times, where we have the airport in our own backyard. The thing that has continued is the theme of transportation."

The book begins with the history of the Muskogee (Creek) Indians, the original people to settle the lands surrounding Clayton's Flint River. The narrative tells of an 1825 agreement, brokered by William McIntosh and a handful of Muskogee, that surrendered all of the remaining Creek land in Georgia to settlers; the establishment of Jonesboro; and the first train to arrive in Jonesboro in July of 1845.

With detailed troop maps, the book describes the final days of the American Civil War, during which Jonesboro fell to Union troops. Through the accounts of businessmen and average citizens, it describes the trials Clayton County experienced during The Reconstruction Era, its development as a crucial "whistle stop" along the Macon and Western railroad, and it's eventual rise to become the Southeast's major airline hub.

Commingled with historical documents are the accounts of famous Clayton residents. It includes the stories of J.L.H. Waldrop - a Confederate veteran who served as a Freedmen's Bureau agent in Jonesboro after the Civil War, helping ex-slaves find jobs, education, and proper medical care - as well as Capt. Rickenbacker, a World War I flying ace and president of Eastern Airlines, who walked away from a 1941 plane crash in Morrow that killed seven people.

The book also includes profiles of Clayton's modern-day movers and shakers, such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport General Manager Ben DeCosta, Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Owner Allan Vigil, and Truett Cathy, founder of the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain.

"The biggest change is that it [Clayton County] has really become part of the big Atlanta metropolis," Kemp said. "I had a good time putting it together, and I hope people will have an equally good time going through the pages."

Historical Jonesboro President Barbara Emert believes the book will give a new generation of residents a renewed sense of pride and interest in their county.

"This is the 150th anniversary of Clayton County, so we wanted to recap that history, but not in a textbook way," Emert said. "This is something that the average person can sit down and enjoy. We have so many new residents who are not lifelong residents of Clayton County. If they can sit down and read this, they can have an appreciation for what they see."

According to Emert, Kemp will be at the Clayton County History Center on Sept. 26, during Historical Jonesboro's annual barbecue, to autograph copies of the new book. For $6 per person, patrons will be able to sample the barbecue of former Clayton County Sheriff Bill Lemacks. Tours of the Old Clayton County Jail will be conducted during the barbecue.

The book is on sale at the Stately Oaks Plantation in Jonesboro for $25. For more information about the book or the annual barbecue, call (770) 473-0197.