Miners and Convicts on Pine Log Mountain

I’ve just harvested 250 bushels of corn, Bob tells me. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a gigantic red combine with Bob Neel, CEO of Aubrey Corporation, which owns half of Georgia’s Pine Log Mountain and leases 14,134 acres to the Department of Natural Resources as a Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Aubrey Corporation grows hundreds of acres of corn and cotton at Pine Log and near the Etowah River in Kingston. Bob is the CEO, but he still harvests his own crops.

The combine is two stories tall and two normal vehicles long. You have to climb a ladder on the side to get in. In the front there are eight large prongs that look like upside down canoes. As we approach each corn field, Bob aims the upside down canoes into the spaces between the rows, forcing the corn into the giant blades that pluck and shred the stalks, sending the corn into a storage compartment in the back. Each time it fills, we drive over to a shipping container and a giant hose spits out a cascade of corn.

This is the first time I’ve met Bob, who is a reedy and handsome man, as athletic 68, with a sardonic wit and a distrust of college professors. There is something Clint Eastwood-ish about him, as if he is waiting for me to say or do something stupid and make his day. It’s clear that he prides himself on being a no-bullshit kind of guy.

He won’t let me write anything down and at one point asks me pointblank if I am recording him.

“No,” I protest. He shifts his sunglasses and peers at me with penetrating blue eyes, always the skeptic.

“I’ve got a good memory, though,” I say. I can spar, I can hold my own. My curiosity outweighs my shyness.

“You’re not going to portray us as a bunch of ignorant hillbillies, are you?” he asks. “People look down on farmers.”

“I don’t,” I say. “Why do you think we just bought a 15-acre farm?”

That seems to satisfy him. He knows my neighbors Jim and Cathy, who sold my husband and me the farm we bought this summer. He and Jim are both part of the Euharlee Farmers Club, the oldest and most prestigious institution in Bartow County. Jim vouching for me is probably the only reason Bob has agreed to let me interview him about the history of Pine Log Mountain.

When I first called him, he said I could only interview him if I was willing to ride around on the combine with him while he harvested corn. This worked for me. I’ve never been on a combine, and I’m trying to learn more about farming.

He gave me directions that involved a one-way bridge, a gate, and a long dirt road. I found what I thought was the right dirt road, but I wasn’t completely sure. I’d seen this gate into the WMA before and always wanted to go up this side of the mountain, but the gate was always closed, and it was too deserted to walk in there alone. This time it was open.

I found myself driving down a rutted road through the woods in my Honda CRV with the tires that should have been replaced 20,000 miles ago. He hadn’t said exactly how far. After a mile or so, I passed a corn field but didn’t see anyone and kept driving. I realized I was starting to drive up the mountain, the road getting rougher and rougher. When I got to a narrow strait between two walls of hacked-out rock, I decided I had gone too far. I called Bob, who laughed and said he had heard me driving past 10 minutes ago. He was down by the cornfields.

I knew that this was his world. He was the gatekeeper and I was the gatecrasher. The world of female college professors and the world of men who drive combines don’t often intersect. I understood his protectiveness. He has hunters in there all the time during hunting season, although usually not in this part of the WMA. But they are only here to kill a few deer or wild boars or turkeys. I was here to pry about his family history and in his eyes probably had an agenda.

Before we climb into the combine, we walk out into the stubbly fields already plucked clean by the combine. “What do you see here?” he asks me, waving his hand to encompass the vista, a challenge in his voice.

“Fields of corn, Pine Log and Little Pine Log Mountain in the background,” I say, a little nervous. I’ve been trying to learn to read a landscape, to observe the lay of the land firsthand and with curiosity.

“These fields used to be tailing ponds,” he tells me. “When I was a kid, my Dad made me come out here and clear the rock, get the fields ready to plant.”

Tailing ponds, he explains, are where the impurities end up after iron ore is washed. The mining company that dug up this side of the mountain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century diverted the creek that runs off the mountain here to hose off the rock and separate the heavier iron from the lighter dross. Much later, Bob was the one who had to clear out the unwanted rock.

The iron mines are one of the things I am here to ask him about. Near the Stamp Creek entrance to the Wildlife Management Area, there are massive stone furnaces where iron was smelted for tools before the Civil War, and then for armaments during the Civil War.

I knew there were also mines here on the north end of Little Pine Log, mined well into the twentieth century, but I don’t know much about them.

Before we climb into the combine, Bob stoops down and and picks up a handful of soil, sifts it through his fingers. “It’s Georgia red clay,” he says. “It was a lot of work to clear out the tailings, but look at it now. It’s good soil.”

I start to understand his hard edges. He’d been on his hands and knees in this dirt. Even now, as a CEO, he is bringing in his own harvest. He probably thinks I’ve never done a day of manual labor in my life, and he’s not wrong.

After we climb up the ladder into the combine, him sarcastically asking me if I can climb a ladder, he warms up a bit.  As we weave in and out of the rows of corn, he starts to tell me about what I am here to learn.

This side of Little Pine Log was known as Sugar Hill, he explains. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was an entire town of Sugar Hill, with miners’ cottages, a store, a blacksmith shop, a hotel, and for some years a barracks for the convicts who worked the mine.

I ask him if he has any stories about the convict labor camp. The mining companies leased convicts from the state of Georgia to work the mines, part of Georgia’s notoriously brutal and corrupt convict least system that ended long before Bob’s family acquired the property. But when he was growing up he heard stories from older folks who remembered those times.

He tells me that legend has it that Hanging Mountain, the mountain between Pine Log and Little Pine Log, was called Hanging Mountain because they hung misbehaving convicts at the summit. The side of Hanging Mountain has a steep, almost vertical, grade, he tells me, and they made all of the convicts climb it as a punishment, and sometimes hung one as an example to the others. He says he has no idea if this legend is actually true.

I’ve been researching the convict labor camp and it is difficult to find information, but the Atlanta Constitution archives have turned out to be a treasure trove on this topic. From the articles I have found, they worked both white and black convicts here between 1874-1909. The conditions were so brutal that a number of convicts died here under suspicious circumstances, and the state investigated the mines several times and ordered them shut down.

I found a newspaper article from 1899 about five convicts who escaped from the Sugar Hill Mines. They fell upon the guards with a poker, knocked them senseless, and fled into the woods. Only one of them was caught.

In 1909, Georgia changed the convict lease system to the chain gang system, which meant that convicts only worked for the counties on municipal projects like road building, rather than being rented out to private businesses as cheap labor.

This side of Little Pine Log is also known as Poorhouse Ridge because the county poorhouse was also in this area. Later, it was turned into Hickory Log School, a home and training center for mentally challenged men, which it still is. Again, no one remembers that the poorhouse was ever there, and most people probably don’t know that the group home is there. Bob tells me there is still an overgrown poorhouse cemetery behind the building, all the graves unmarked. Right next door, the enormous Toyo tire factory spews a toxic rubber smell.

It strikes me that Pine Log was where Bartow County sent its misfits. A dumping ground for the unwanted, where people could disappear, swallowed up by the mountain.

Even when he was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Bob tells me, this place was “an industrial wasteland.” There were no trees on this side of the mountain. There were giant craters where the mines had been, 50 feet deep and the length of football fields. Some were filled with water, others dried out, like the tailings ponds he cleared for fields.

There were also the remains of a railroad. The Iron Belt Railroad, a single gauge railroad, started at the top of Little Pine Log and wound its way through the complex of mines and the processing center, and on to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad that parallels 411. The railroad bed is still there now, but the rails and ties are all gone.

When he was growing up, it was a Rustbelt, Bob tells me.

“What I most want people to know,” he explains, “is how much better it is now. How much the mountain has recovered.”

I had thought that the story I would tell about the mountain would be how pristine it used to be compared to now. But the story, again, is really how little we know or remember about even the recent past, and how the true story rarely matches the one we have in our head. A turn-of-the-century industrial wasteland has been reclaimed by wilderness. Nature always has its way.

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