A Brief History of Cleburne County, Alabama
A Brief History
Named for Irish-born Confederate general Patrick R. Cleburne, killed at the Battle of Franklin,
Cleburne County was formally established in November 1866, when the state of Alabama carved
it out of Benton County, which had included today’s Cleburne, Calhoun, Talladega, and Randolph
Counties. An 1855 census showed a population of 20,010 in Benton County.
Before white men came into Cleburne County from Georgia and the Carolinas, Native
Americans lived in the territory, and the boundary for the Upper Creek and Cherokee Indians
ran through a portion of the county. Oakfuskee, considered the largest community of the Creek
Confederacy, was located on the Tallapoosa River in Cleburne County. Two other large Creek
towns in Cleburne County were Niufaka and Atchinalgi along the Tallapoosa River. Atchinalgi
was destroyed during the Creek War of 1813.
The oldest white settlement in the county was Ranburne. Early settler Thomas Blake came to the
area in 1825 with a number of slaves and set about farming. Settlers traveling the McIntosh Trail
established the communities of Muscadine, Palestine, Bordens Mill, Kemps Creek, and Arbacoochee.
Families included Towsends, Bowlins, Parkers, Roberts, Steeds, Wheelers, and Bordens.
In 1832, a new treaty opened up much of the former Native American land for settlement,
and efforts were made to remove the Native Americans from the area in 1838. Prior to the 1849
California Gold Rush, several eastern Alabama counties had yielded some 50,000 ounces of gold.
From 1838 to 1860, coins were minted at the U.S. Mint in Dahlonega, Georgia, from Alabama
gold. One of those early gold mining towns was Arbacoochee, located in Cleburne County and
considered the gold center of the nation in 1840. It produced over $5 million in gold. Historian
George Yarbrough described the Arbacoochee Mine as “probably the most profitable gold mine in
Alabama’s history,” and it was here that Alabama gold was first discovered in 1832. In Cleburne
County, gold was found from Muscadine on the northeastern side southward into Coosa County.
Arbacoochee was among about 100 mining towns in Alabama located in or near the Upper Gold
Belt, or Dahlonega Belt, which ran from northern Georgia down into Alabama.
Arbacoochee was by some accounts Alabama’s biggest town in 1845, with a population of
around 5,000, five saloons, a school, two churches, two hotels, two mining supply stores, a fire
department, a racetrack, and over 100 homes and tents. But the rush to California’s goldfields
left Arbacoochee a ghost town by 1849. Some interest in gold-mining was reignited in 1853, when
some Cornish miners from Ducktown, Tennessee, found gold while searching for copper. As late
as the 1930s, gold-panning provided a livelihood for local residents. Overall, nearly 30,000 ounces
of gold were uncovered in Cleburne County. Deposits of copper and mica also drew miners to
the county’s southern half.
But miners were not the only fortune seekers to Cleburne County. In the late 1800s, settlers
were attracted to the north Cleburne County community of Zidonia, where they set about building
a town and renamed it Fruithurst. The town became internationally known for its wines and as
having one of the finest hotels in the South. Notable Fruithurst leaders included Ernest Rudolph
Carlson and George Washington Morris. Born in Sweden, Carlson was president and manager
of the Fruithurst Winery, a councilman, and later the mayor of Fruithurst.
George Morris came from Michigan by way of Minnesota where he had run a lumber business
before being named director of the Fruithurst Vineyard and Product Company. He also had interest
in the Reliance Gold Mining Company of Washington, D.C., which operated in Cleburne County
along the Tallapoosa River. Both Carlson and Morris served as councilmen, as Fruithurst’s mayor,
and as members of the Cleburne County Democratic Executive Committee.
Gradually, the market for wines and grapes soured, and a harsh winter and plant diseases killed
the vines. There were also rumors of mismanagement, and in the end, in April 1898, the C. S.
Curtiss Company of New York paid $15,455 for the town and all of the real estate (including the
famous hotel) belonging to the Alabama Fruit Growing and Winery Association.
The county, like the nation, was split in its loyalties during the Civil War, with sharp divisions
between those living in the northern end of the county and those in the southern end. Some
historians estimate there were less than 100 slaves in the whole county, as there were few slave owners.
The Stone Hill community suffered some Union raids, but most of the county saw no conflict.
In 1867, Cleburne County had its first election. The South Carolina–born Edwards brothers,
who had arrived in Cane Creek in 1835, donated land on which to build a courthouse. The first
court was held the following year in the rough log structure, which had a jail, four corner offices,
and one large room. Meanwhile, Edwardsville was developing around it. In 1905, following efforts
to move the county seat from Edwardsville to Heflin, a county-wide election was held, and Heflin
won by a small majority. The residents of Edwardsville did not give up without a fight, and a long
legal battle followed, with the Alabama Supreme Court ruling in 1906 to move the courthouse
to Heflin. The following year, construction began on a new facility. The cornerstone was laid on
July 4, 1907, with an estimated 3,000 attending the ceremony.
All across Cleburne County, a number of communities had sprung up, many with little one-
room schools that sometimes served both as school and church. One of these locales was Borden
Springs, situated at the far northern end of Cleburne County. Just before 1900, a group of 12
men from Atlanta, Newnan, and Carrollton, Georgia, had formed the Borden-Wheeler Company
and purchased land from the Wheeler family on which a mineral spring was located. The group
purchased the old Fruithurst Inn and employed the J. C. Bass Company of Carrollton, Georgia,
to take it apart, piece by piece, and carry it 16 miles over a mountain with mules and wagons and
reassemble it as the Borden-Wheeler Hotel.
The finished product consisted of 125 rooms with nine concert pianos, running hot and cold
water, a large outdoor swimming pool, electricity, a dance pavilion, and a 14-hole golf course.
Dotting this display of opulence were a number of guest cottages with maid service, running water,
and electric lights. The Borden-Wheeler Hotel became a well-known resort; the properties of
the mineral water were promoted as being “a close second to Ponce de Leon’s famed Fountain of
Youth.” The facility offered every appointment possible and employed a staff of 40, but the rates
of $15 per week or $50 per month (equivalent to $314 and $1,040 today) were not high enough
to keep the operation profitable, and soon it was up for sale. In 1935, after numerous changes of
ownership, a fire swept through the hotel and 20 of its cottages.
The following year, petitioned by local officials, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt established the
Talladega National Forest, which included almost all the western half of the county. Before this,
the farmers had suffered through the Depression, and farm and forest lands in the county were
worn out and unproductive. The U.S. government purchased land from individuals and lumber
companies for an appraised value. This was the beginning of the Talladega National Forest lands
in Cleburne County.
In June 1933, employees of the Civilian Conservation Corps began working to build a road
along the top of Cheaha Mountain and develop Mount Cheaha State Park. The CCC built roads,
lodges, cottages, cabins, picnic shelters, hiking trails, swimming areas, lakes, and beaches that
now form the basis of the present-day park. Cheaha State Park Observation Tower is now on the
Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.
Among the county’s other small communities was Sugar Hill, just south of Heflin, and Belltown
along the Tallapoosa River. Abernathy was settled in 1855. Macedonia Baptist Church, built in
the 1880s and nearly 130 years old today, continues to be the center of life in the Macedonia
community. Hopewell was a thriving place in the 1890s, as money was generated by timber
harvesting and transport.
The beauty of Cleburne County drew national attention in January 1961, when Hollywood
actress and Oscar winner Susan Hayward and her husband, F. Easton Chalkley of Carrollton,
Georgia, purchased property along the Tallapoosa River. The couple bought the W. J. Cole home
and 600 acres of land and called their new ranch Chalmar. They remodeled the house originally
built in 1912 by W. O. Owen, built a new air-conditioned barn, renovated a small outbuilding for
a studio, and brought in 200 to 300 cows and a prized $30,000 polled Hereford bull.
Not until the 1950s did the county and the city of Heflin began to really see economic growth.
Originally the city was known as a cotton center; cotton farmers throughout the county brought
their bales into town for shipment by train. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, industries began
moving into Heflin, including the Heflin Chenille Manufacturing Corporation, Moore Business
Forms, Inc., Dixie Mines, Inc., and Swell Manufacturing Company.
Once Interstate 20 was completed through the county, however, it diverted most of the
interstate traffic off of U.S. Highway 78, and the cities of Heflin, Edwardsville, and Fruithurst
saw business decline. The commercial development of nearby Oxford in Calhoun County also
attracted shoppers, and many Cleburne County merchants were forced to shut their doors. Of
the companies locating in Heflin in the 1950s and 1960s, only Swell Manufacturing Company
remains in operation today. Most Cleburne County residents commute outside the county to
work; the county’s cities and towns are now commonly considered bedroom communities for
Oxford and Anniston, Alabama, and west metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia.
(To learn more about Cleburne County, Alabama; the Fruithurst Winery and the old gold fields of Arbacoochee please check out the author's 127 page, 200 photo book at:
Cleburne County history book
Cleburne County history book
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