Rochelle Historic District

Rochelle City, Wilcox County, GA

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The Rochelle Historic District [‡] was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

The Rochelle Historic District is significant in the area of architecture because the commercial, residential, and community landmark buildings are representative of architectural styles and types built in Georgia cities from the end of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th century. The wide variety of house styles and types in Rochelle is documented in the statewide historic context, Georgia's Living Places: Historic Houses in their Landscaped Settings. These houses include high-style Queen Anne-style houses, built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The historic district also includes Georgian-plan, central-hall, hall-parlor, and saddlebag houses, all house types popular statewide through the first decades of the 20th century. Craftsman-style bungalows were also built in Rochelle. After World War II, the American Small House and later the ranch house were built nationwide; the Rochelle Historic District includes excellent examples of American Small Houses and Ranch houses, mostly south of the railroad line.

Commercial buildings in the historic district are characteristic of commercial buildings constructed throughout small towns in south Georgia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The commercial district includes a variety of early to mid-20th-century architectural styles and building types. Many of the commercial buildings are attached one-story buildings with a single storefront. Others are two-story commercial blocks with a storefront on the first floor and rental or storage space above. Many of these buildings have elements of the Italianate style, such as the stepped parapets and corbelled brickwork.

The Rochelle Historic District includes a significant number of community landmark resources. Community landmark resources are buildings or structures that are typically public buildings or other types of resources that because of their location, size, or status have become social or physical landmarks in the community. Historic community landmarks in Rochelle include the numerous churches associated with the African-American and white residential neighborhoods and the two Masonic lodges. The railroad depot, built in 1916, is also an important community landmark building. The historic district also includes significant examples of modern architecture built after World War II. The United States Post Office and the Wilcox County Health Center are both excellent examples of modern architecture with their flat roofs, basic geometric form, lack of ornamentation, and lack of references to past architectural styles. Buildings, such as these, that were part of broad federal programs were often the first modern buildings to appear in small towns in Georgia.

The historic district is significant in the areas of commerce and industry because it represents the city's importance as a regional center of commerce and industry from the late 19th to the middle of the 20th century. Before the railroad was laid through Rochelle in 1887, Ashley Street served as the main route of commerce from Irwinville to Hawkinsville. Logging routes that joined Abbeville and the Ocmulgee River also passed through town. The arrival of the railroad made Rochelle an important commercial shipping and receiving point. The city became the warehousing and distribution center for Wilcox County because of its central location and because agricultural and forest products could be shipped by rail.

The location along the railroad of the warehouses, the Reid House hotel, and the freight depot fueled commercial activity on First Avenue. Most of the commercial buildings in downtown Rochelle are one- and two-story attached buildings that were constructed at the turn of the 20th century. They were designed in a variety of popular revival styles and in many cases cast-iron columns support large, plate-glass storefronts. Some businesses have operated continuously since their founding. These include Mashburn & Fitzgerald (1890), Braziel Mercantile Company (1911), Doster's Warehouse (1945), Rochelle State Bank (1947), and Wilcox County State Bank (1952). The district is significant in the area of community planning and development because the town plan is representative of cross-rail communities established alongside the railroad in Georgia at the end of the 19th century. Cross-rail towns were planned around the railroad with the intersection of roads and the railroad line at the heart of these communities. This plan is an important type of community plan documented in the statewide historic context, "Georgia Community Development and Morphology of Community Types."

In 1887, the Americus, Preston, and Lumpkin Railroad established an east-to-west railroad line through the town of Rochelle. The commercial district was built one block south of the tracks on First Avenue. Industrial operations were located along the tracks. The streets were laid out in a gridiron pattern in response to the rail line. The short-lived north-south line of the Ocilla Southern had less of an impact on the physical development of the community. Ashley Street, the principal north-south avenue, was important because it crossed the railroad line and because it followed the route of the Irwinville-to-Hawkinsville trail.

Rochelle is significant in the areas of community planning and development and social history as an intact example of a racially segregated community dating from the "Jim Crow" era of the late 19th century. Division along racial lines was a characteristic of nearly every Georgia town founded after 1870 with many, like Rochelle, physically divided by railroad tracks. The African-American neighborhood in Rochelle includes houses, schools, churches, and a cemetery north of the railroad tracks. The white neighborhood, with its houses, schools, and churches, is located on the south side of the city. The practice of segregation was part of a broad pattern race-based discrimination that resulted in a distinctive pattern of development in Rochelle and in cities throughout the South. Rochelle is significant in the area of black ethnic heritage because it includes residential and community landmark buildings associated with the city's African-American community. Although few houses survive intact, the African-American neighborhood, located north of the railroad line, includes a significant number of historic churches. These include the Evergreen Baptist Church, Hosley Temple CME and Pharmers Chapel Church. Other important community buildings include the Rochelle Colored School and the Masonic lodge.

The historic district is significant in the area of transportation because its streets and rail-related resources represent the city's importance as a hub of transportation. Rochelle benefited from its location in the center of Wilcox County. Foot trails to Fitzgerald, Ashburn, Owensboro, Pineview, and Cedar Creek evolved into wagon roads and then developed into roadways for automobiles. Among the important early roadways was the road between Irwinville and Hawkinsville. Area farmers used this route to take crops and produce to market and brought home supplies from Rochelle. In 1887, the Americus, Preston, and Lumpkin Railroad was laid through Rochelle. The city's gridiron pattern of streets developed around the east-to-west railroad line. Major roadways developed to connect Rochelle to other towns, including a road to Abbeville, the seat of county government, and a road to the larger town of Cordele. The railroad-related buildings in Rochelle include the railroad depot and the Reid House hotel, which served railroad passengers.

Rochelle was established after the Americus, Preston, and Lumpkin Railroad was laid through Wilcox County in 1887. In 1888, the Georgia General Assembly granted the city charter. Ten years later, a fire destroyed most of the burgeoning downtown. The rebuilt city continued to thrive and by 1900, the population reached 793. In 1913, bonds were issued to establish a municipal water supply and electrical system. Cotton remained the staple crop in Wilcox County through World War I when the price plummeted. The Great Depression and World War II continued to dampen growth. The population, which reached 1,235 in 1960, increased by less than 200 in the year 2000.

Wilcox County was established on December 22, 1857. The county was formed from parts of Pulaski, Irwin, and Dooly counties. The area was settled in the late 1700s and early 1800s primarily by people of Scots-Irish descent, who migrated southward from North and South Carolina. By 1860, the population of Wilcox County was 2,115. The seat of government in Wilcox County is Abbeville, located at the east end of the county. Although there was some discussion of relocating the county seat near Rochelle in the center of the county, the seat of county government remained in Abbeville. John A. Owens and John R. Ashley owned the land that was developed as the city of Rochelle. The Hawkinsville-lrwinville Road, now called Ashley Street, was the principal trade route through the area during the 19th and early 20th centuries. This road formed the boundary between Owen's and Ashley's farms. Ashley, who served in the state legislature in the 1880s, lived in a log house at Third Avenue and Stephens Street. Ashley is buried in the small Ashley-Jackson family cemetery. He built a new home on Ashley Street between Third and Fourth avenues. Ashley's log house was demolished in 1926.

Most of the early settlers to Rochelle traveled west across the Ocmulgee River, or south from Georgia northern counties. These settlers engaged in retail merchandising, banking, medical services, and the production of lumber and naval stores. They raised livestock including cattle, sheep, hog, and domestic fowl, and planted row crops, such as cotton, sugarcane, wheat, rye, sweet potatoes, and field peas. Most of the woodland was an open range for cattle and sheep, which were taken to market once a year. Residents of Rochelle traded items, such as wool and animal hides, for food they could not produce locally, including coffee, sugar, spices, flour, and salt. Among the early families in Rochelle were the Stanfords, Quattlebaums, Smiths, and Blackshears.

In 1887, the Americus, Preston, and Lumpkin Railroad was extended east across south Georgia from Americus to Abbeville in Wilcox County. The railroad, which was financed by Colonel Samuel Hugh Hawkins and a group of investors from Americus, was the state's only railroad constructed entirely with local capital. The line was inaugurated on October 17, 1887. The daughters of Colonel Hawkins, who had recently toured Europe, named the towns along the line after European cities, including Seville (Spain), La Rochelle (France), Milan (Italy), and Rhine (Germany). By 1889, the railroad began operating steamboats on the Ocmulgee and Altamaha rivers, eventually reaching Savannah and Brunswick.

The streets and avenues in the city were laid out in response to the railroad line. The major thoroughfares are First Avenue and Ashley and Gordon streets. Commercial development is concentrated on First Avenue between Mills and Jackson streets. The residential area for the city's white residents was located south of First Avenue. A section of Sixth Avenue came to be known as "Silk Stocking Avenue" because it includes large houses of the city's affluent residents. The railroad line forms an industrial corridor through Rochelle that includes warehouses and ginning operations. The African-American community in Rochelle is located north of the railroad tracks.

In 1888, a year after the railroad was established, the city of Rochelle was granted a charter of incorporation by the Georgia General Assembly. The charter defined the city limits and established the city's governmental structure. Peter Coffee was appointed the first mayor. Businesses in Rochelle included Pollock and Brown general merchandise, Warren & Fitzgerald general merchandise, and Lassiter & Ham's wholesale business. The first cotton warehouse was built in 1889 by the Reverend James W. Mashburn and Frank Willcox. The warehouse occupied the site of the present Mashburn & Fitzgerald store on First Avenue.

The Rochelle State Bank was established by John N. King on the southwest corner of First Avenue and Gordon Street. In 1908, the Brown Banking Company built its bank next door. It operated there until 1910 when it moved to a new building on the southeast corner of First Avenue and Gordon Street. By 1910, Rochelle banks included the Bank of Rochelle, Citizens Bank, Brown & McNamara, and King & Brown. Insurance companies, which worked closely with the banks, included King and Mashburn and J. H. Rogers Company.

In 1898, a fire in Rochelle destroyed almost the entire business district, including drug stores, three millinery shops, a barber shop, meat markets, general merchandise stores, saloons, the telephone exchange, and a music store. Several smaller fires destroyed downtown buildings before the city's fire department was formed in 1913. By 1900, the population of Rochelle increased to 793.

As more people moved into Rochelle, hotels became necessary for both residents and for travelers. Rochelle's first hotel, the Ashley House, was built in 1887 on the northeast corner of First Avenue and Gordon Street. Built by Captain William C. Ashley and Dan McLeod, the two-story Ashley House included the post office and a store. In 1889, John L. Boynton built the Boynton House hotel. Located near the Ashley House, it was destroyed by fire in 1895. The Reid House hotel was built on the site of the Boynton House on the northwest corner of First Avenue and Gordon Street in 1896. The Reid House hotel, which served as a hotel until the 1950s, now stands vacant. Other early hotels in Rochelle include the Veranda House, which was built in 1889 and operated by Mrs. W. B. Fitzgerald. Jim Gibbs operated the Frog Pond Hotel beginning in c.1890. It was located on the west side of Ashley Street between Second and Third avenues. In 1900, Hotel Algernon was completed. It was operated by H. L. Land. Fires destroyed the Hobby Hotel on July 19, 1905 and the Hotel Lasseteron December 26, 1907.

On April 9, 1913, residents of Rochelle approved a bond issue for $20,000 for a water system and electrical plant that would provide electricity for lights. The electric plant was used from 1913 until 1928, when Georgia Power Company purchased the franchise to supply electric power to the city. Rochelle's fire department was formed in 1913.

By 1918, Rochelle had more than 50 businesses, four churches, two schools, medical doctors, a veterinarian, a dentist, three attorneys, two druggists, three insurance agents, and several building contractors. By 1930, there were four automobile agencies selling Chandler, Paige, Oldsmobile, and Ford cars.

The increased use of automobiles resulted in improvements to the city's roadways in the 1930s. State Route 30 and U.S. Highway 280 were routed through Rochelle on May 1, 1936. These roads were paved in the 1940s with First Avenue serving as a link in the federal highway system between Savannah and Columbus. During World War II, the highway was used to transport military personnel and equipment from Columbus to Savannah on their way to Europe. Additional roadways through Rochelle include State Route 112 to Ashburn and Hawkinsville, State Route 233 to Owensboro and Hawkinsville, and State Route 215 to Fitzgerald and Vienna.

In 1914, the Ocilla Southern Railroad line from Fitzgerald to the south was laid through Rochelle. The railroad hauled slag, lumber, and highway paving materials. As forests in the area were depleted of timber, the line became less active. By June 1918, the north-south Ocilla Southern was in receivership and it had begun to abandon sections of the line. The Ocilla Southern ceased operations in February 1924.

Civic organizations in Rochelle include the General David Blackshear Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which was organized in 1938, the Rochelle chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which was organized in 1972, the Rochelle chapter of the Lions Club, which was established in 1957, the Masonic Lodge, the Dogwood Garden Club, the Alberta Crummey Garden Club. Rochelle's population has remained stable since 1960 when the census recorded 1,235 residents living in Rochelle. In 2004, the city's population was recorded as 1,419.

In 1974, Rochelle was among 25 Georgia communities designated as National Bicentennial Communities. The Stay and See America competition was part of the American Bicentennial Program and was sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. Rochelle received several awards including the top Newcomer Category Award, which was presented by the president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and former Governor Carl Sanders, the second-place Business Advertising award, and the third-place Button Gwinnett Award for solving community problems. The Bicentennial-Heritage Cookbook, which was published in 1974, remains a popular item in stores in Rochelle.

The railroad line is currently operated by the Heart of Georgia Railroad Company, which transports crushed stone, fiberboard, chemicals, lumber, pinewood, scrap metals, plastics, and gasoline. In addition to freight, the rail line is used by the SAM Short Line Excursion Train, which mostly runs between the southwest Georgia cities of Cordele and Plains. The Short Line passes through Rochelle on trips to Savannah.

Agriculture remains the most important industry in Wilcox County, which is among the state's largest producers of watermelons and cantaloupes. Local farmers also produce peanuts, corn, soybeans, cotton, tobacco and pecans. Peanuts are brought to warehouses in Rochelle to be cured. Rochelle, like many other small towns in Georgia, has been affected by the development of the Interstate Highway System, which reduced the level of traffic and also diminished the commercial activity in the city. Nationwide retailers, such as Wal-Mart, Dollar General, and Family Dollar, represent a large portion of the city's retail business. The Rochelle business district is centered on First Avenue, which remains intact, although the condition of many of the buildings has deteriorated in the last several decades. U.S. Highway 280 through downtown has enabled the city to remain vital and a center of industry and commerce in Wilcox County.

Adapted from: Stephen Moffson, Historic Preservation Division, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Rochelle Historic District, Wilcox County, GA, 2008, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Street Names
1st Avenue • 2nd Avenue • 3rd Avenue • 4th Avenue • 5th Avenue • 6th Avenue • 7th Avenue • Ashley Street • Gordon Street • Jackson Street • Lee Street • Stephens Street

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