L-R: County employees John Nicholson and Rodney Buckingham look through an old book in Pickens County Probate Court Judge Rodney Gibson’s private collection. This book was one of several that helped the men uncover names of Pickens’ former leaders, which they are compiling for a photo wall for the Pickens County Administration Building.
Per the request of Pickens County’s current sole commissioner, Robert P. Jones, first in office January 2005, two county employees have been transformed into historical treasure hunters, scavenging the countryside for the names and faces of leaders from Pickens’ past.
See a list of all Ordinaries and Commissioners of Pickens County in this week’s print or e-edition.
Nearly 160 years after C. Marshall McClure was appointed as the first ordinary of Pickens County in 1854, Pickens County Land Development Control Officer Rodney Buckingham and Pickens County Right-of-Way and Utilities Specialist John Nicholson are charged with finding names and photographs of Pickens’ former Big Cheeses, all 22 of them––part of a project that will bring a touch of history to the county’s administration building.
After all photos have been collected, they will be displayed as a photo wall in the commissioner’s meeting room.
Commissioner Jones said he has had the project on his mind for years but has just recently been able to get the ball rolling.
“As I went around North Georgia, I would see other buildings where they had photos of local commissioners and ordinaries from past terms,” Commissioner Jones said. “I think it would be a nice thing to touch up the buildings here. We are trying to bring a little more history in, because there has been a lot that hasn’t been kept up with.”
While Jones says he has been thinking about this project since 2007, its timing has played out quite interestingly, coinciding perfectly with the overturning of Pickens’ sole commissioner form of government.
After Pickens recently voted to change its form of government to a three-person board of commissioners, just eight counties remain in the entire nation (and all in Georgia) still operating under the sole commissioner form.
Prior to ratification of the Georgia Constitution of 1868, no Georgia county was governed by a commissioner. Back then the Big Cheese was called a “county ordinary” with duties that have changed over time.
According to GALILEO’s GeorgiaInfo, an online resource about Georgia, starting in 1851, the county was governed in part by the elected position of county ordinary, whose duties included probating wills and estates, determining guardianship of children under 14, and issuing marriage licenses.
Until 1868, other functions of government, including providing for construction of a county courthouse and other public buildings, levying taxes, and overseeing maintenance of county roads was handled by the “inferior court.”
But the 1868 constitution did away with the inferior court and provided that the "courts of ordinary shall have such powers in relation to roads, bridges, ferries, public buildings, paupers, county offices, county funds and taxes, and other matters, as shall be conferred on them by law." The constitution also authorized the General Assembly to create county commissioners "in such counties as may require them, and to define their duties."
“On the state of Georgia website it says that after Reconstruction some counties in Georgia started coming up with the commissioner idea, but they didn’t all phase in at one time,” Nicholson said. “After this change, ordinaries were still used, but they just worked at the courthouse. They didn’t have the power they had before.”
Nicholson said, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the ordinary became the probate judge, “and then some counties kept the probate as ordinaries until the 70s,” he said.
“Yeah, so Robert thought about it, doing this,” Buckingham said, “ and I guess John and I have been doing this project since the fall of last year, but we really stumbled around in the dark for a long time.”
The two men have traveled to courthouses and other government buildings all over North Georgia to check out similar installments to get ideas for presentation style of the photo wall, and they have also found themselves nosing through books in people’s private collections for information about who governed here and in what years.
To find names of men from the early years, the two men say Luke Tate’s The History of Pickens County, Ga., published in 1935, was a primary source of information.
“[Tate] was assigned the job [of writing the book], because it was the bicentennial year of the state of Georgia,” Nicholson said. “Of course, he had an advantage. A lot of people he was talking about and writing about were alive. He had the most complete list he thought at the time.”
But, interestingly, Buckingham and Nicholson say, Tate’s book was mysteriously missing one piece of history that became the most challenging for them to find.
“The gap that we couldn’t find was this one here,” Nicholson said, pointing to the years from 1921 through 1936. “We couldn’t find who was the first commissioner. We finally found that in a book up in [Pickens County Probate Judge] Rodney Gibson’s office. It was a book that had all the county bonds of officers, and we found that M.S. Long was the last ordinary and also the first commissioner.”
Long, Nicholson said, was first appointed as commissioner by the governor in 1921 and was elected by the public for subsequent terms.
While they say overall the project has been quite a bit of work, both Buckingham and Nicholson say they have thoroughly enjoyed the research up to this point.
“It’s been fun,” Buckingham said. “I guess for me the most interesting thing was that Pickens actually went multi-man in 1901, and it was withdrawn in 1904. It lasted all of three years.”
Nicholson said the three men were appointed to the commission board, not elected, and that one of the three men died within six weeks of his appointment.
“We don’t know that [the three-person board] ever became effective,” said Nicholson, who added they could find nothing about the hierarchy of power among the three men. “Yeah, we never found anything that showed the other two ever did anything,” Buckingham agreed. “We can’t find out much information about this at all.”
Despite Luke Tate being alive during that earlier multi-person commission, Buckingham said Tate’s book makes no mention of the alternative form of government.
“We’re still trying to root around and find documents as to why they pulled it, but with the courthouse burning down back then, that didn’t help us any. There’s limited research materials you can find, but we’re still trying to come up with places it may have been noted,” Buckingham said.
Now, with all names collected, the men are on the hunt for photos from the period from 1854 to 1912.
“We got the list,” Nicholson said. “Now we need to come up with photos, and we need some serious help. There’s someone alive that is in these later men’s families, but the ones we have real concerns about are the guys that are one term and the older ones.”
Take a look at the list, and if you have any good leads, call the county administration building at 706-253-8809 and ask for either Nicholson or Buckingham.