The beginning of Harlem ran along the Georgia Railroad and through the lives of two men who wanted a liquor-free town.
When the Georgia Railroad was built from Augusta to Eatonton, Georgia in 1835, Saw Dust was a main stop. The booming lumber town was founded in 1840, situated a mile from where Harlem is today. Travelers often stayed overnight in the town, which sold liquor and bore a reputation of being a little wild.
In 1857, Andrew J. Sanders – one of the first graduates of Medical College of Augusta – moved to the area. Hoping to increase the population, Dr. Sanders sold his land for a dollar an acre.
Mr. Sanders also donated land to build Harlem Baptist Church, Harlem High School (now Harlem Middle School) and Harlem Methodist Church. He was the first mayor of Harlem and served in that role for nine years.
Around 1865, railroad engineer Newnan Hicks decided to quit his job when he was asked to work on a Sunday. He wanted to start a town that didn’t sell liquor – unlike Saw Dust – and decided to build a house near Mr. Sanders.
So Harlem was founded on October 24, 1870. It was named by a New York resident visiting relatives who thought the town resembled Harlem, New York, the elite artistic area near New York City.
Lined with big oaks and blessed with good drinking water, the town was a haven for many Augustans, especially during summer outbreaks of smallpox and cholera, said Patricia Moore, whose ancestors were among the first residents.
Saw Dust was absorbed by Harlem in 1887, and nearby Cerlastae, another settlement, did the same in 1906.
In 1913, Harlem had about 500 residents and boomed with an oil/fertilizer plant, the Columbia Opera House, Hicks Hotel, electric lights along the road and in homes, two drugstores, three meat markets, two gin mills, a cotton warehouse, three hardware stores, two grocery stores, two clothing stores, a newspaper and ten passenger trains daily, according to the Columbia Sentinel.
But on August 24, 1917, a fire of unknown origin destroyed the plant, Opera House and several buildings. The blaze caused $60,000 in damage.
The town tried to regain its vigor through the Georgia Railroad. In 1933, the community of Berzelia merged with Harlem.
But Harlem remained small and family-oriented, and people could tell if a family had money by whether the street in front of its house was paved. “Until 1940, the streets weren’t paved. In the wet, rainy weather it was like going down a washboard,” said one long-time resident.
The Columbia Theatre ran the latest movies from 1949 to 1963. The Georgia Railroad Depot that was built in 1896 was torn down around 1965. The last passenger train came through Harlem on May 6, 1983. “There’s still something missing” today, said Charles Lord, an amateur historian who lives in Grovetown, recalling how the town used to bustle with visitors arriving on passenger trains
“We are a town of culture and refinement and have always been,” said Camilla Prather, whose family was some of Harlem’s first residents. “We’re proud of our little town.”
Harlem today has about 3000 residents, and the first weekend in October each year draws tens of thousands of people to visit the downtown area and celebrate the life of the portly comedian who was born in Harlem in 1892, Oliver Hardy.