Thomas County. . . A Place Apart
July 21st, 2015 by Red Hills
published in Tallahassee Democrat 8/21/14
“Thomasville is growing metropolitan: Governors, great railroad Kings, the prominent millionaires of the country come and go without causing a ripple.” The Thomasville Times, December 1886
The existence of stately stands of longleaf pines that distinguish the Red Hills region today owes much to Thomasville’s fame as a winter resort in the late 19th century. In the 1880s and 1890s, the little town of 5,500 hosted approximately 12,000 seasonal residents each year.
Prior to the Civil War, Thomas County, established in 1825, boasted a thriving agricultural economy based primarily on cotton. Wealthy planters built fine homes on large plantations worked by enslaved people, while many self-sufficient yeomen worked their own smaller farms.
Thomasville, the prosperous county seat, had doctors, lawyers, merchants, churches and schools. Most significantly, the enterprising citizens succeeded in April 1861 — the same month the first shots were fired in the Civil War — in completing a rail line linking them to Savannah and thence to the major cities of the Northeast.
The line, which became a major source of provisions for the Confederacy, was disrupted near the end of the war but restored in 1866. By 1869, completion of a railroad to Albany connected Thomasville to population centers in the Midwest as well.
As the South struggled in the 1870s to overcome the economic devastation of the war, affluent Northerners and Midwesterners sought destinations offering relief from winter cold, the pressures of industrialized urban life and, often, from pulmonary diseases. Geography, entrepreneurship and serendipity converged to attract these “Northern invalids and pleasure seekers” to Thomasville.
Dr. Thomas S. Hopkins delivered a speech in 1874 in which he extolled the benefits of Thomasville for consumptives because of its elevation, excellent water and drainage, and the “vast pine forest of almost unlimited extent” which “sifted” the moisture from winds off the Gulf 60 miles away. His theory of the healing power of pine-scented air was widely circulated among lung specialists and Northerners soon filled any available room during the winter months.
Recognizing the need for new accommodations to appeal to these wealthy visitors, Thomas C. Mitchell built a luxurious hotel, the Mitchell House, at the corner of Broad and Jackson streets. It was completed in 1875 at a cost exceeding $100,000. Within 10 years, another major hotel — the Piney Woods — as well as numerous smaller hotels and boarding houses offered lodgings, and an even grander Mitchell House replaced the first following a disastrous fire.
Permanent and seasonal residents, who by the 1880s came primarily for recreation, shared a love for the area’s natural beauty and outdoor sports like hunting and fishing. The visitors came to appreciate Southern hospitality, and many locals enjoyed socializing with the urbane guests.
In addition to balls and concerts, carriage drives, golf, horse-racing, bicycling and quail hunting became favored pastimes. Winter residents built more than 50 elaborate “cottages” in Thomasville and the most prominent purchased declining antebellum cotton plantations in the surrounding area and transformed them into splendid shooting plantations.
Thomasville’s tourist boom waned in the early 1900s when railroads expanded into southern Florida. Its historic homes, tradition of hospitality and the Red Hills plantations, which preserve thousands of acres of pines, hardwood forests and diverse wildlife habitat, are the enduring legacy of the resort era.
Ann Harrison is the Executive Director of the Thomas County Historical Society.