Time Is. Life Is. Lake Oconee
Automobiles slide westward toward Atlanta, gliding through I-20’s sleeve of tall, slender green pines. The gray lanes promise to stretch on along this seemingly limitless vector to the very end, interrupted only by the occasional lazy curve. Exit ramps to towns long lost to the old American South whiz into the rearview mirror. Only the local mailman knows if there’s something there worth seeing.
But then, in the distance, the horizon falls away from the road. The sky lengthens into a blue strip running perpendicular to the Interstate. Like a rip in that green sleeve of trees, the glassy waters of Lake Oconee wash beneath the I-20 bridge straddling the flooded remnants of Richland Creek. Spring morning fog hovers indecisively over the surface. A lone kayaker adeptly and rhythmically slices through the veil. This is the unofficial welcome sign announcing entry into Georgia’s Lake Country, an expansive swath encompassing Milledgeville, Madison, Greensboro and Eatonton and so named due to the sister lakes Oconee and Sinclair.
These towns, like so many others between Augusta and Atlanta, were once vaporizing into history too. The lakes’ inherent benevolence, however, raised them from the dust. Water washes everything new again.
Before this half-way point between Augusta and Atlanta was dubbed Lake Country, before it was even cotton country, it was home to generations of Native Americans who settled along the banks of the Oconee River. The area’s indigenous Creek Indians recognized the renewal power of water, referring to the wide river as “great waters” and relying on it in their agricultural endeavors.
By the time the Mississippian-period Indians, who predated the Creeks by thousands of years, appeared in the territories east and west of the Oconee, the ancient Atlantic Ocean had long receded, leaving only the Fall Line as evidence of its once high tides lapping against Georgia’s piedmont region. In the time between these events, the Oconee River, with its headwaters in north Georgia’s Hall County, carved a broad, winding course of brown water through metamorphic rock. For 220 miles it flows southward to its confluence with the Ocmulgee River near Lumber City, Ga. The joining of the two rivers forms the Altamaha, which eventually delivers the great waters to the patient sea.
By the mid-1700s, Georgia colonists pushed into the New World’s frontier and capitalized on the Oconee as a resource, setting up their farms in the area that later became Greene County. As the 19th century dawned, so did unprecedented prosperity. The Stagecoach Road from Augusta arrived on its way to Marthasville, which grew into Atlanta. In 1833, 100 years after Georgia was founded, the railroad came barreling through and residents of Greene County enjoyed a golden age of culture and wealth.
The War, the boll weevil, top soil erosion and unrest unhinged this unfettered lifestyle, however, bringing it to its knees before the turn of the next century. This region of Georgia went from being one of the wealthiest in the South to the poorest in the state. Not even the mid-century blazing of Interstate 20, which connected Georgia to the nation with one long Main Street, brought back abundance. It was a one-way road for population decline in small Southern outposts that once bubbled with activity and commerce.
The single constant through so much change was the dependable current of the Oconee River. It was interrupted in 1954 by the construction of Sinclair Dam, effectively pooling Lake Sinclair for a Georgia Power hydroelectric station. Twenty-five years later, Lake Oconee was born.
The second largest lake located wholly in Georgia, Lake Oconee is relatively young. In 1979, when Georgia Power completed Wallace Dam upstream from Lake Sinclair, the waters of the Oconee and Apalachee rivers rushed into the Oconee Valley, swallowing up a sizable portion of land, replacing it with nearly 400 miles of shoreline and approximately 20,000 acres of rippling water. The new reservoir improved Georgia Power’s hydroelectric capabilities. Lake Oconee receives water pumped up from Lake Sinclair. The release of the water through the dam separating the lakes drives the power turbines and generates electricity.
As Arthur Raper wrote in his 1940s account of Greene County history, Tenants of the Almighty, “The almighty had spoken. Time was. Life was.” God twisted the earth and wrung out the despair and restored the prosperity for His people. With waters again lapping against the rolling piedmont of Georgia, the new millennium optimistically catapulted Lake Oconee’s surrounding counties into fast-paced growth serving up slow-paced living.
The river basin has developed into an all new resource for retreat, relaxation and recreation. There’s nothing quite like a shoreline view to put things into perspective. On any given day, the lake is crisscrossed with zooming jet skis and serene sailboats. Pontoon motors make a cheerful hum as they part the surface. Skiers and tubers ready behind motorboats in anticipation of the pull of the rope and the feel of the warm wind across their skin. Sunbathers on rafts float dreamily on the dissipating wake. Rainbows of towels on porch rails flap in the breeze like celebratory flags.
A whoop echoes off of the trees as bare feet slap across a wooden dock and launch a towheaded browned boy into a cannonball. Fishermen ease bass boats or paddle canoes quietly in and out of coves, casting into the shadowy depths. Bass, crappie and catfish give sport. Laughter rises from
the Lawrence Shoals Park picnic pavilion. A weekender putters around the lawn of his lakefront cabin. Golfers tee up on Reynolds Plantation’s sun-dappled Great Waters course.
Georgia Power built Lake Oconee and the people came and all manner of accommodations have sprung up to make their stay one to remember, from back-to-nature tent camping at Parks Ferry Recreation Area to resort luxury at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge. Where the lakeside parks’ amenities include the happy sounds of birds singing, the rustle of wind in the trees and a cocoon of fresh air, the Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation’s amenities include a day spa with a full menu of treatments, turn-down service, golf, tennis and a children’s program. No matter which option suits the tastes more, both come complete with evening campfires, hiking trails, fishing, boating and days that make the week’s troubles slide off of the soul.
Golf cottages at Harbor Club comfortably accommodate four people and call to golf enthusiasts attracted to the plethora of courses constructed on the shoreline of Lake Oconee. Harbor Club’s stay and play packages allow visitors to stay in the gated community and to play the Harbor Club course designed in 1991 by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish. Bermuda fairways and bent grass greens dance around creeks, cradle interior ponds and elegantly stroke the lake’s edges. Nature trails, tennis courts, croquet courts and a swimming pool entice the golf lover’s family. Keeping them busy leaves the golfer time to visit other area courses, such as The Landing at Reynolds Plantation, the first golf course built on Lake Oconee.
Similar to Harbor Club, Reynolds Plantation and Cuscowilla both offer a host of stay and play alternatives in tranquil lake settings. Large groups can rent cottages, while smaller groups and couples can choose hotel-style rooms or condominium-style lodgings. Reynolds Plantation boasts six on-property golf courses. In fact, so many amenities are distributed throughout Reynolds Plantation, there’s no need to look any further for fun. Four outdoor family pools, one outdoor adults-only pool, an indoor pool, four marinas and 16 tennis courts provide more than a weekend’s worth of activity.
Lots of visitors stay at Cuscowilla to play the Ben Crenshaw-Bill Coore par-70 golf course. The back nine holes meander along the water’s edge and Cuscowilla’s caddy program is top-rate. Yet Cuscowilla caters to families with kids, too, fully outfitting their Kids Club by the swimming pool with recreational equipment such as tennis courts, a basketball court, ping-pong tables and foose ball tables. Canoes and walking trails are available for enjoying the resort’s seven miles of waterfront.
While Harbor Club, the Ritz, Cuscowilla and Reynolds Plantation all offer on-site dining beyond compare, the gastronomically adventurous indulge in the varied culinary experiences waiting beyond the property gates. A good rule of thumb when stepping out of the resort is to dine where the locals do. Southern barbecue connoisseurs sample the traditional shredded pork and succulent sauce at Holcomb’s Bar B Que. Ladies who prefer to avoid drips on their blouses lunch on the refined tearoom fare at the Potted Geranium in Greensboro. Down-home cooking at the Yesterday Café is complemented by the best pie in Georgia, according to Southern Living Magazine. Friday and Saturday nights at the Silver Moon, described by some as a dressed up trailer, are crowded with hungry repeat customers.
A well-managed lake is the economic boon to this region that spent a century dwindling down to die-hard holdouts who refused to be broken. Georgia Power, though it constructed Lakes Oconee and Sinclair for industrial purposes, maintains the lakes for public recreation on and around the water. In fact, it is the largest non-governmental supplier of recreational facilities in the state of Georgia. Georgia Power is committed to minimizing its environmental impact. Conservation and preservation are priorities. It promotes usability by keeping its lakes clean and at consistent levels.
Georgia Power even attends to woodlands and wetlands and places of historic significance. The Rock Hawk effigy, located on the 1,000 acres of land managed by Georgia Power on the Putnam County shoreline, is but one of many examples. Believed by archeologists to be a monument built more than 2,000 years ago by the Woodland Indians that inhabited the river banks before the Creeks, it is preserved and protected by Georgia Power. Miles of trails allow visitors to observe the Rock Hawk and to soak up the natural beauty of the woods surrounding it. Confidence in Georgia Power’s continued interest in caring for the resources entrusted to its stewardship attracts visitors and businesses to Lake Oconee like a magnet.
It’s also why Lake Country has so much more to offer in addition to high-end resort and spa experiences. A wealth of boutique shops, local arts galleries and antique stores make it easy for visitors to leave with more than just memories. Stores like Fish Tales and Tiny Tales sell resort apparel for day and evening, adults and children. Art of Oconee features pottery, paintings, photography and jewelry produced by multiple artists who all live in the Lake Oconee community.
Antique hounds prowl the vintage merchandise of well-culled high-end stores, as well as those out of the way gems with cluttered deposits of hidden surprises. An entire Saturday can be devoted to sniffing out bargains and poking around the Eatonton Antique Market, the Greensboro Antique Mall or any number of the smaller antique dealers such as Dreamcatcher’s Antiques in Greensboro or Auntie Bellums at the Lake in Eatonton.
Of course, lots of lake visitors prefer to keep their wallets in their pockets. With the advent of GPS and smart phones, geocaching has evolved into a popular way to explore points of interest while experiencing a hide-and-seek adventure. The activity involves following clues to uncover treasures and it keeps kids and adults engaged while sightseeing. Geocaching takes participants to places they may not have thought to go on their own. And
it’s never the same quest twice. Greene County alone has almost 200 caches tucked away in nature and concealed near historical sites.
It would be dishonest to claim that the formation of Lake Oconee didn’t impact the historical record. Mounds built by the Mississippian-period Indians lie below the sunny side of the water’s surface. An old plantation is lost to the depths and an entire mill community dating to 1845 was flooded when Georgia Power completed Wallace Dam. In fact, in anticipation of the dam’s construction, archeologists surveyed the future lake bed and identified 3,000 sites of interest. Unfortunately, because of time and money constraints, less than 30 of those were ever excavated.
Plenty of Lake Country’s past remains to be appreciated, nonetheless. The Old Gaol in Greensboro, with its castellated roofline, was completed in 1807 and is the oldest standing jail structure in the state. Its imposing granite physique is morbidly fascinating due to the trap door located over the entrance. Death-sentenced prisoners stood upon the trap door with nooses around their necks. When the door released they were hung.
On Highway 15, the ruins of Scull Shoals, which was established in the late 1700s, interpret the hardships and triumphs of white settlers. The frontier village was subject to several severe Indian raids from across the Oconee River to the west. In response, Fort Clark was built as a buffer and manned by a local militia known as Phinizey’s Dragoons. Not only does Scull Shoals present a picture of life in the wilds of Georgia in the infancy of the United States, but it also gives up clues to the Native Americans who inhabited the land for thousands of years prior to that. Plus it provides evidence of the brief presence of Hernando de Soto’s troops in the 1500s.
On Wards Chapel Road in Putnam County there stands the Wards Chapel A.M.E. Church where famed author Alice Walker was baptized. Down the road from there is a marker and tree indicating the location of the house where she was born in 1944. Not too far away, on Old Phoenix road, is Turnwold Plantation where Joel Chandler Harris apprenticed and collected the creative collateral, from which he composed his Uncle Remus works. Branch out down Highway 441 toward Milledgeville to visit Andalusia, the estate where Flannery O’Connor lived out her final years.
All that aside, lake recreation primarily attracts not just weekenders or seasoners, but day trippers too. Several of the parks provide public access to sandy beaches and designated swimming areas. Boat ramps dot the lake’s perimeter. Those without a personal watercraft can partake in guided skiing trips, lake tours and fishing excursions with Lake Oconee Outfitters. Rent jet skis or a pontoon boat from Typhoon Tommy’s located in Cuscowilla to cruise the lake at leisure. No matter how a person experiences Lake Oconee, whether divining for fish at the end of a rod or catching wind in the triangle cup of a sail or wading in waist deep or meditating upon the reflecting red spray of sunset, he is rejuvenated. He is released. His spirit is restored.
What else could explain the millennium-old draw of people into the Oconee Valley? The “Great Waters,” the Oconee River powerfully carving itself into the tapestry of the land ties the ancient past and the proud present together. When it overflowed its banks and filled the river basin, it introduced a new golden age. Once again, the tenants of the Almighty have a foothold. Time is. Life is. Lake Oconee.