‘If people keep leaving we’re going to be a ghost town’

Dooly County in rural Georgia leads state in population decline, census reveals



UNADILLA — Tony Lester answers the phones at the local housing authority in this central Georgia farming community. Maybe 50 times a week, it’s someone looking for a place to live. Lester, a retired local assistant principal, deflates a little each time he has to tell them he doesn’t know of a single available unit in the city.

Lester’s other job is sitting on the Dooly County Board of Commissioners, trying to figure out how to bring development — especially housing — to the community.

“We don’t want to get left behind,” Lester said Wednesday, walking down West Avenue, passing houses being devoured by vines and weeds. “Everything else is growing. If people keep leaving, we’re going to be a ghost town.”

New U.S. census data shows Dooly, where long expanses of farmland give way to fading, sleepy towns, lost a quarter of its population from 2010 to 2020. Dooly now has about 11,000 residents, down nearly 4,000, according to data released this month. By percentage, Dooly lost a larger share of its people than any of Georgia’s other 158 counties. Telfair County and Mcintosh County, now smaller by nearly 25%, were second and third.

Dooly County, consistently one of Georgia’s top cotton producers, sits 140 miles south of downtown Atlanta. It is bisected by I-75 and is part of Georgia’s Black Belt, a band of communities that are heavily driven by agriculture and have large Black populations. The new census tallies say Dooly is still majority Black, by 700 people.

Dooly County officials say they worry the lower population count may hurt. The number helps determine a community’s share of funding from 100 federal programs, including Medicaid, Head Start, block grant initiatives for mental health services and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). The count, of course, also affects political districting.

All over Dooly, people said the lack of housing was a huge reason some leave. Jobs is another. Many people head for booming Houston County. In the new census data, only 15 counties grew more by percentage than Houston County, home to agricultural hub Perry, Robins Air Force Base, a widely lauded school district and new businesses.

“Ain’t nothing to do around here,” Gwendolyn Wade, 62, said, chatting with neighbors on the porch in Unadilla. “Until they start building some houses and doing some things, they’re going to go to Perry or Warner Robins or somewhere.”




In downtown Unadilla, one of the only restaurants is nostalgia themed. The ‘57, as in 1957, sells pool-room-style chili dogs and diner fare. Old Elvis records climb the walls, and a life-sized (or slightly bigger) Elvis greets customers at the door, frozen in time, crooning.

Many of the other storefronts in downtown are vacant, windows busted, cobwebs spreading.

“Southern Keepsakes,” reads the flaking golden name on one closed shop.

Hunter Pulsifer said the limited shopping options are a common issue for some.

“Think about this: Where’s the closest Walmart,” Pulsifer said, walking into The ‘57 for lunch. From where he stood, it was 11 miles south, in Cordele. “People don’t want to drive (that far) to Walmart.”

Pulsifer, though, prefers the country. He grew up in Perry when it felt more like Unadilla. Not long ago, the 26-year-old, who works at the local John Deere dealer, moved from Perry to neighboring Pulaski County, which he said he chose over Dooly because he preferred the school system.

“And that was the only reason,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with Dooly County.”

Dealing with data

County Commissioner Eugene Cason disputed the census count. If 3,700 people left Dooly, Cason reasoned, why is there a housing shortage around the county?

“Just do the math,” Cason said, seated for an interview at the commission dais in downtown Vienna, where each board member’s spot is stocked with a bottle of hand sanitizer branded CENSUS 2020.

Commissioner Lester said part of the problem is that homes fall into disrepair or are abandoned. Some are old family homes owned by various relatives who don’t seem to have plans for the properties. There also is a shortage of affordable land for building, he said, partly because a lot of folks like to keep land for deer hunting. The only new construction he knew of recently was the 75 apartments that are rising in Vienna. Dooly officials hope those units, as well as a planned countywide expansion of broadband internet, spur growth.



Commission Chairman David Barron, a retired teacher and coach, agrees the count may be low, but he has seen people leave Dooly his entire life. He left for college in New York state and fled back to the woods where it wasn’t so crowded.

Two of Barron’s sons live in the Atlanta area; a third son swears he’ll never move to the city. But Barron keeps hearing about other young people leaving.

“I just had one of my (former) students last weekend to tell me, ‘Well, I’m moving,’” Barron said, shaking his head in disappointment. The woman said she was headed for Houston County. “I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘I just want to be around the city and all that.’”

Staying for home

Maxine Adkinson, 59, of Unadilla said her granddaughter moved to Cordele because they couldn’t find a place in Dooly but also because she wanted to try living somewhere with more bustle, which Cordele has if you compare it to Unadilla. The move turned out as the grandmother could’ve predicted.

“She’s trying to get back up here,” Adkinson said. “She thought it was going to be good. You know how young people do.”

“I love Unadilla,” said the grandmother. “I ain’t going nowhere.”

The main reason is the people, she and others said. In 2006, Adkinson lost her mother. Ever since then, instead of calling her mom each night, she calls Commissioner Lester’s mom.

Lester loves Dooly for the people and the slow pace of life. “People should want to move to a peaceful place,” he said.

Barron likes knowing almost everyone. He likes living way out where he has hardly any close neighbors, except for his son.



Cason likes having few traffic lights. He likes the quiet. He loves to see a field of freshly picked cotton on a moonlit night. It looks like snow, and snow looks magical in a place where it never snows.

Cason has a son in Atlanta, too. The father tried to make the case for cotton country during a visit. Cason recalled taking his son outside, telling him to look up. Cason lives nowhere near any development, not even a streetlight. That night, beneath a shimmering infinity of stars, the father turned to the son: Can you see that in Atlanta?

But after that visit, as he had every time before, Cason’s son drove back to Atlanta.