Nestled in the gentle swells of south Georgia are Lowndes County and the charming town of Lake Park. Both are steeped in beauty and history where proverbial “moonlight and magnolias” enchant the senses.
First to enjoy the region were Native Americans who ceded Georgia territories to the United States through a succession of treaties. Lowndes County existed only as a part of Irwin County until after 1820. That year settlers were eager to launch their homesteads. Pioneer descendant Mrs. Faye Cook Wisenbaker recalls how numerous 490 acre parcels were distributed by luck of the draw from two barrels. One barrel held settlers names and other contained land lots. Names and lots were drawn and matched and the new land owners were given nine years to pay their $8 deed fees.
In 1825 Georgia’s General Assembly carved off a portion of south Irwin County to create a new county. It would be named Lowndes in tribute to William J. Lowndes, the popular South Carolina statesman and Presidential nominee who had died during an 1822 sea voyage to England.
Finalizing a name and place to serve as the fledgling Lowndes seat of government however would test the decades.
First, Franklinville gained the honor in 1827. Then in 1833 the seat was moved to Lowndesville, which was renamed Troupville in 1837 to salute Georgia Governor George Troup. But by 1859 enterprising locals were sufficiently influenced by the Atlantic & Gulf Railroad’s arrival four miles south to purchase 140 acres from William Wisenbaker.
Thus a fourth county seat, Valdosta, was born. It’s name, a variation of the governor’s home plantation, Val D’Osta, meant “Valley of Gold”. The 1840 census counted 6,200 residents in Lowndes County, including the settler families of Christian Herman Dasher and William’s son James Wisenbaker. The populace was prospering. Cotton was a choice crop and the mild climate favored a variety of fruits, vegetables, and robust livestock. General mercantile’s well as saw and grist mills satisfied a steady flow of customers.
Within a brief two decades that peace and prosperity was wiped out by the War Between The States. Thannie Smith Wisenbaker’s diary attests to the hardships: “From 1863 to 1865 no stores were open for business”. Farming likewise was hard hit as livestock and crops, especially cotton, were lost.
In 1878 the community’s first church, The Lake Park Christian Church, was organized. It became a social and spiritual force in the community. The old Lake park Cemetery marks the church’s original site. Railroads also played a critical role in the area’s post war recovery. In addition to supply delivery the rails were a boon to employment as rail beds, tracks, and depots need to be constructed. More importantly the placement of train stops literally foretold a settlement’s future, whether it would flourish or wither.
Farmer and landowner Lawrence Arthur Wisenbaker understood the value of the railroad. So just as William Wisenbaker had provided land for a new county seat in 1859, Lawrence deeded railroad right-of-way in the 1880s to the Georgia Southern and Florida Railroad. Thus Lake Park’s future was assured. A fringe benefit was the extra income earned by citizens who sold lumber to fuel the steam locomotives. Residents put wood in boxes along the track, while rail employees would empty the boxes and leave payments.
By 1890 the hamlet previously dubbed Twin Lakes officially became Lake Park. That same year the black population celebrated the newly built Francis Lake AME Baptist Church. A more modern church was built in 1899 on a new plot of land, its site today.
With the dawning of the fresh 20th Century Lake Park was humming. Industry included the Palmer Brothers’ Turpentine Still and Ewell brown’s Lake Park Manufacturing Company, which ginned cotton. Residents operated merchandise stores, a livery stable, law offices and a drug store. Peat moss was harvested from local wetlands and sold to horticultural interests. And a Lake Park Spanish Moss factory thrived as strands of the plentiful, silvery air plant became as popular as horsehair for stuffing upholstered furniture.
But “stuffy” certainly could not be used to describe the Lake Park Ocean Road Hunting and Fishing Club, established in 1903. So popular was the club that it remodeled in 1909 adding a dining room, and garnered a widespread reputation of serving the tastiest fried chicken anywhere. A 1913 bathhouse plus a dozen rooms later, and the club emerged as the trendy haunt of area young people, who scooted to an evening’s entertainment in “new fangled” automobiles.
Other ventures were not as fortunate. Like much of the south in 1915, Lake Park agriculture depended heavily on cotton. But in 1915 the boll weevil struck, and the area’s crop would not recover until the 1980s. Lake Park Christian Church worshipers decided that 1922 was opportune for a move and decided to strap each corner of their steepled building to its own four wheeled dolly. A cable connected the two front and two rear dollies. A pair of cables were then lashed from the front of the church to a ‘skidder’, a rotating spool-like drum supported by a turntable sunk partially into the road. Single mule power turned the skidder. With each rotation cable wound onto the skidder, which inched the structure gingerly on its journey.
Progress was halted several times so the skidder could be moved up the road. Once at the new site, which the church occupies today, the cable contraption was moved to the rear of the building and the mule heaved it into place.
Churches were not the only things moving in the 1920s. So were people. And that fostered a new breed of entrepreneurs: land speculators itching to develop balmy and thinly populated Georgia and Florida acreage.
One such developer was Burton Lee Mank. He glanced from Lake Park up U.S.41 in 1926 and eyed a pair of popular lakes, Ponce De Leon and Balboa. Mank figured they were ideal for his notion of a “master suburb” named twin Lakes.
He reportedly spent millions to construct roads, bridges, and concrete entrances that would lead to the home lots he would sell. Mank was nothing if not a master marketer. Twin Lakes grandly opened March 3rd, 1925 to lure prospective land buyers from Georgia and Florida. Guests shimmied to a live orchestra and nibbled barbecue while Mank busily brokered deals. By day’s end his sales tallied some 150 parcels, But he wasn’t finished. Two weeks later his Twin Lakes Country Club opened charging a $1 admission.
Today furniture is no longer stuffed with spanish moss. Valdosta has remained the Lowndes County seat. Lake Park Christian Church has stayed where the mule placed it. King cotton is regaining its regal status, and Burton Lee Mank likely would be overjoyed to see Interstate 75 bustling along.
Lake Park celebrated its centennial in 1991 and dedicated the Lake Park Historical Society. Ewell Brown’s general Store now houses the Lake Park Museum and brims with family histories and artifacts. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
Perhaps William Wisebaker, with his fortuitous admiration of Lake park’s serene beauty, would grin broadly at all the thoughtful progress. He might have further enjoyed that Lake Park now produces the healthful carrot in such bounty that it shares the title “Carrot Capital of the South” with neighboring Echols County.
As a century of tradition dictates, visitors to Lake Park are warmly welcomed. The residents are confident. They know that the newcomers will enjoy their stay whether for a week or a lifetime.