Upon its completion in 1937, this Colonial Revival house became both home and refuge for Eugene Talmadge and his wife, Mattie Thurmond Peterson Talmadge, known to all as Miss Mit. Talmadge had just lost the governor’s race after serving two terms and this country estate provided him a place to revitalize and plan his political comeback. At the time, Telfair County was still seen as the seat of the Talmadge family and the rural anchorage was important, as Talmadge fancied himself a champion of the common man. The same voters who had rejected him for his lack of cooperation with FDR’s New Deal programs in 1937 returned him to the governor’s office in 1941. By now, Talmadge was relying on his unapologetic brand of racism to reach voters, and it succeeded; his well-attended rallies stoked racist fears among poor whites throughout Georgia.
After another absence from office, Talmadge ran again in 1946, and became only the second man in Georgia history to be elected to a fourth term (Joseph E. Brown, the Civil War governor, was the other). He died on 21 December 1946, before he could serve his fourth term. The so-called Three Governors Controversy followed, and soon Talmadge’s son Herman became governor. He later served four terms in the United States Senate.
The family seemed to have little interest in maintaining the house, as they lived their lives far away from Telfair County for the most part, and it fell into a state of neglect. For many years, the fate of Sugar Creek Plantation was uncertain. It had long been in disrepair when former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Jim Wooten, a Telfair County native himself, purchased and restored the house and grounds in 2011.
Please note: It is now a private residence and security-monitored.
I pass abandoned stores like this often, and I do my best to notice them. Because many don’t have distinguishable architectural features, it’s easy to dismiss them. But it’s important to realize that if there was a store, there was a community that supported it. I’m honored to share Royce Neal’s history of the Neilly community (below). The words are his and if shared, credit should go to him, as well. [The road on which Pope’s Store is located is known today as Neely Road. Royce Neal notes that there have been several misspellings of the community over the years; this underscores the importance of documenting such communities.]
Remembering Neilly, Georgia
In Telfair County, Georgia in the almost forgotten community of Neilly, sitting on the North West corner of the intersection of county road 160 which is known as the Cedar Park Road coming out of McRae and county road 267 that is known as the Tom Haley Road coming out of Lumber City is the decaying remains of an old block building that at one time was known far and wide as Junior Pope’s Grocery store.
This old store and two churches are all that remain on the Thomas Jefferson Smith land that was known as Neilly. Tom’s father Christopher Columbus Smith and his wife Anna McEachin settled on this land around 1840. Christopher was the son of Campbell Smith from Robeson County, North Carolina. The Smith family were farmers and raised livestock in their early years there. Christopher was tax-collector of the county, and judge of the inferior court for some years. Christopher and Anna married in Montgomery County, Georgia in December 1839 and had eight children all born at Neilly, John Tyler, Thomas Jefferson, William L, Augustus A, Christopher Columbus, Joseph Henry, Franklin and Andrew J.
First Lieutenant Thomas Jefferson Smith and his brother Sgt. John Tyler served in the Civil War together, John Tyler was killed at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia. He was buried there in the confederate cemetery but has a tombstone at Dodge’s Chapel Methodist Church at Neilly.
The Neilly community was named after Tom Smith’s wife Cornelia Ann McKay the daughter of Archibald and Mary McNeil McKay, their children were Frederick Augustus Smith and Eva Mae Smith Graham. They were married in 1874 after the death of her first husband Lauchin Hill Clements in 1870 who was buried in Clements Cemetery. They had one daughter, Kate E Clements Freeman. Cornelia Ann was called “Neilly” as her grave is marked “Neilly Ann Smith.” Neilly was the younger sister of Susannah McKay McEachin who was married to Alexander Saunders McEachin, all are buried at Dodges.
The two churches that remain on Neilly land today are a black church called Green Grove Baptist Church and a white church called Dodges Chapel Methodist Church both standing alone on the South and North borders of the land and both are still active churches. Dodges Chapel was established in 1886 on land given by the Dodge Lumber Co. Joseph Henry Smith is the oldest grave in that cemetery who died in December 1854, the six-year-old son of Christopher Columbus Smith who himself died on January 4, 1860, which means the cemetery existed as a family cemetery before Dodges Chapel Church was established.
A lot of Neilly’s history lies in the graves of Green Grove Church, Dodge’s Chapel and Powell Cemetery that is located just off of the northwest boundary of the Neilly property on what was then Charles Barney Powell’s property.
The heyday of Neilly came after the Civil War when Thomas Jefferson Smith got into the Navel Store business and built a Turpentine Still at Neilly. Neilly had a commissary, post office, and courthouse, which was established sometime earlier, a justice of peace court was provided in each community “militia district” for the purpose of trying minor civil cases these were also used as voting precincts. It also had a black school located on the property. That school building was bought by Robert Euris Neal in 1946 and was made into a home where he raised seven children.
Thomas Jefferson Smith was elected in 1872 to represent the 15th senatorial district in the general assembly for one term and in 1892 was again elected to represent the same district while still making his home at Neilly. Tom’s wife Neilly died in 1886 and He married Anna Eula Peterson the youngest child of Alexander McNeil Peterson and Ala McNatt in 1893. In 1900 they moved to McRae on Huckabee Street, they had three sons Thomas Jefferson Smith Jr., Alexander Peterson Smith, and Malcolm McNeil Smith, all were born at Neilly. Tom Smith was vice president of the Citizens Bank in McRae and also Mayor of McRae. He died in 1925 and is buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery in McRae.
The Neilly property around all the old houses and buildings is completely covered in a field now. All the houses are gone. The mule driven wagons are gone, the old wood structure turpentine still which lingered there until the end is gone, the sound of children playing is gone, even the sound of dogs barking has been stilled because of the passing of time, to be no more. The tree shadowed road running down through Neilly passing all the houses, Neilly lane, is only in the imagination of a few.
The old decaying store building still on the corner there is remembered by so few now. Junior Pope became the sole owner of Pope’s Grocery Store after 1958 when his brother Bud died. The store was originally owned by Charles Douglas Pope Sr. who died in 1953. The Neilly Community and the wider Powell Community that reached as for as Horse Creek to the West and Turnpike Creek on the East was a place of prosperity after the Civil War. Others in the Community besides the Smith Family had some means in those days but the descendants of many of those Neilly pioneers had almost all entered into the edges of poverty in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Actually until the 1960s and 70s.
I was raised there on property joining Neilly as the youngest of Robert Euris Neal’s children. One person from that community has said, we didn’t know how poor we were because we were all poor people. That same person also told me that nobody ever had any money to help pay for upkeep on Dodges Chapel Church and that it always fell to Will McEachin the grandson of Alexander Saunders McEachin to take care of most of that expense in those days.
This is where we return to the significance of that old decaying grocery store on that corner there for those times. Many folks in the neighborhood and even the surrounding communities sometimes struggled to put adequate food on their tables, many had no automobile, this was the case of both black and white families in those hard times, but because of that old store and its owners, Charles Douglas “Junior” Pope Jr. and his wife Grace they were there to help when anyone needed it. Junior ran a charge account with the people and worked with folks in every way possible and folks were able to survive properly until their crops came in or they had some money from some other source. They didn’t have to go without and in those days almost everyone was honest. When they had the money they paid their bills. It seems when you look back that Junior Popes Grocery was there by providence.
That grocery store and Junior Pope was placed in that community for that time. The store is gone now. Most of those people from that era are gone and for those living in that community today, poverty is gone. The memory of Junior Pope in the Neilly Community, him being the right man in the right place at the right time is not yet gone, but soon it will be.
Text © Royce Neal, 2020. Published on Vanishing South Georgia with permission.
Here’s a different view of one of my favorite places. Most folks just call it the Lumber City bridge, or the Lumber City trestle, but it’s an amazing survivor and no doubt a landmark for many travelers. It’s still in use.
Nearly three years ago, I reported that I had learned that this landmark, the most important surviving commercial structure in all of Telfair County, was being threatened with demolition. Soon thereafter, I learned that a local gentleman had stepped up and taken on its restoration. I’m glad to report that he has made a lot of progress, stripping paint off the brick and replacing windows. He has also done work on the interior, but it’s a slow process. I know there’s a long way to go, but how wonderful that someone chose to save this wonderful old hotel.