This is a place with a rich and colorful history. I’m talking about one of those truly Southern Places, shaped by Native American, African and European influences. The ruins sit in a complex ecosystem alongside a major river, that once fed a good-sized little town, a successful textile industry, agriculture, the exchanges of commerce and a decidedly unique public citizenry.
Hernando de Soto’s troops first entered the area in April 1540. They spent only a few days along the middle Oconee River, in the towns of the Paramount Chiefdom of Ocute, before turning east towards South Carolina. There’s no evidence, that de Soto actually visited Scull Shoals himself, but he was definitely in the Chiefdom, visiting other towns. He and his troops, horses, war dogs, and bearers consumed much of the Indians’ food supplies. The Spaniards, then left the Native People with devastating diseases, for which they had no natural immunities, like smallpox, plagues, and influenza. Devastating population reductions followed.
Scull Shoals village began as a frontier settlement in 1782, and in 1793. The settlers, began to expand rapidly across the Oconee River, after the treaty of 1802. White settlers and black slaves quickly opened up the land. The local villagers began with a gristmill and sawmill, and soon following Eli Whitney’s 1793 invention of the cotton gin, they began to raise cotton in huge quantities.
Under owner Dr. Thomas M. Poullian, Scull Shoals, contained gristmills, sawmills, and a 4-story brick textile mill, stores and homes. At its height, there were 500 workers tending 4,000 spindles in the mill. Dr. Lindsay Durham, of Scull Shoals, developed medicines from his extensive herb garden, and ran a sanatorium there. Unfortunately, flooding caused the demise of the mills in the 1880s, and the town was abandoned by the 1920s.
The 1887 major flood left water standing for four days in the buildings. The covered toll bridge floated downstream. Several hundred bales of cotton were in the mill, and 600 bushels of wheat in the warehouse. Everything was ruined, bringing economic chaos to Scull Shoals Mills, a chaos from which they never recovered. What was left is now the ghost of a community, that once thrived, and the wreckage of lives touched by nature’s capacity for destruction. Not long after the flood, the last inhabitant of Scull Shoals, moved on down the line, and the town’s ruins slipped into oblivion… almost.
Scull Shoals became part of the newly created Oconee National Forest in 1959. The old mill town has laid quietly waiting, marked only by the ruins in the woods. Now the 2,200 acre experimental forest area, contains the mill town, and a prehistoric mound complex dating from A.D. 1250-1500.
Today, only three walls of the brick warehouse and store remain, along with the arched brick bridge, that led workers across the raceway and into the mills. Stone foundations of the old mill’s power plant and scattered stone and brick chimney bases can be found in the downtown village, and out in the surrounding woods. The remains of the wooden covered toll bridge can be seen from the shores of the Oconee River.
The Scull Shoals ruins are beautiful and crumbling, they serve as a fitting memorial to the town’s citizenry, right down to the inhabitants forced to abandon their homes.
The Scull Shoals Mill ruins are located halfway between Athens and Greensboro, on the Oconee River. Just northeast of where Georgia State Route 15 crosses the river.