shoals

Clarification: In the Sept. 10 print story, The Oconee Enterprise reported that the current hydroelectric dam owner provides "limited access" to walk in the tunnel under the dam.

However, neither the dam owner or the Titshaws have given anyone access to walk under the dam, as such access would be a liability to the dam owners. 

Local history buff David Titshaw takes great pride in explaining historic Barnett Shoals.

David and Sarah Titshaw purchased this storied 21-acre tract of land four years ago and have been steadily working to make the area more visitor-friendly, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Some of the beginnings of Oconee County happened right here,” David said.

Recently, Sarah has been hosting weekly field trip Fridays and tours from 9:30-11:30 a.m. A $15 donation is suggested for the first child participant, and $10 is suggested for each sibling. She teaches outdoor arts and crafts classes. Spots are limited to 10 children, and people may sign up by calling (706) 614-8928 or by messaging the Historic Barnett Shoals Facebook page. 

“I really started focusing on Fridays because of the homeschoolers and online schoolers,” Sarah said. “It’s also a good time of the day—not too hot—and there’s plenty of shade from the trees.” 

At first glance, much of the grounds, even formerly sparse areas and the mill ruins, were overgrown with privet, a prolific shrub-like plant. 

Landscaping assistance has mitigated part of the unruly appearance. Sarah added that the initiation of the park’s membership group, The Star Thread Society, has also played a helping hand. 

Since November, members have been able to register at five different levels ranging from day travelers to a trustee of the land and waters. Their donations have allowed David and Sarah to continue steps like clearing brush and shaping trails.

On some weekends, David offers kayaking sessions using the park’s designated set in/set off pint. There are also about two to three miles of walking trails on the premises, including one that parallels much of the river within the tract. 

Almost 10,000 years ago, there were already signs of human inhabitation in the area by indigenous peoples of the Paleoindian and Early Archaic periods. 

David displayed several artifacts that had been found along the ridge and proximate dig downhill. Finds included a sandstone mortar and pestle from two to three millennia ago and chert rock fragments from arrowheads and other tools being refined. 

What’s interesting, David noted, is that this chert was likely from the Cloudland Canyon area in Northwest Georgia, and dark red, yellow and opaque white arrowheads were all from South Georgia. 

The amount of flakes, or fragments, from the arrowheads in general suggests that people may have stayed here to permanently live rather than just to trade or rest from travel, he said. 

“The shoals were a good intersection site between a major junction of the river and cross land,” David said. “That’s why I think we’re finding so many [tools].”  

Eventually, following the Revolutionary War, John Barnett and his family won the land via lottery and settled along the Clarke side, which was the southernmost boundary of the United States. On the other side lived the Creek or Muscogee nation. 

The river served as a mighty boundary, with one portion of it containing three-quarter-miles of giant shoals that were largely unencumbered until about 150 years ago. 

“It was the biggest thing anywhere in this region,” he said. “It’d be like putting 10 to 15 High Shoals together... I’m sure it would’ve been tremendously loud, even on this hill.”

It took until the 1880s, when the Star Thread Mill was built, to harness the power of the waters for industrial purposes. This mill was two stories tall and about 20,000 square feet with skylights and a sprinkler system, a rarity in contemporary facilities. The mill produced the aptly named Star Thread from long, staple Egyptian Giza cotton. 

Originally, a wing dam and canal navigated the river waters from the highest point of the fall shoals into the factory’s large wheel, which helped twirl cotton fiber strands onto thousands of thread spindles per day. 

In its heyday, there were 43 houses, a church, a cemetery, a store, a school and numerous mill buildings on the property. 

In the early 1900s, James White bought the mill out of receivership and further sought to control the water, leading efforts to construct a hydroelectric dam. The mill continued to operate until some point in the 1930s, though the exact year and reason could not be determined. 

Much of the dam's structures, whether the house sites’ stones or the mill formations, remain.

“He (White) gave each family …. the option to buy their site or structure and relocate it to their land, or he tore it down and salvaged it,” David said. 

As David put it, their efforts have been “a long time coming” over the past decade. A historical area can now become a recreational and close-knit communal area through measures like the membership and other educational output.  

“It’s bringing in good people, and that builds a shared knowledge,” he said. “It feels like a movement.”

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