The Delaware Regiment at the Battle of Long Island.
Photo: Domenick D'Andrea
Photo: Domenick D'Andrea

DeKalb County named after German general

This story was originally published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on May 16, 1985.

DeKalb County was named after Baron Johann de Kalb, a native of Germany who aided the colonists in the fight for independence. 

He came to America as a brigadier general in the French Army with the Marquis de Lafayette in 1777.  

The Continental Congress bestowed the rank of major general upon de Kalb, who had appointed himself to the nobility and was an avowed soldier of fortune. But he was transformed into a selfless patriot, according to documents of the DeKalb Historical Society. He suffered 11 wounds before he was felled in the battle of Camden, S.C., in July 1780.  

To encourage immigration during the last year of the American Revolutionary War, the Georgia Legislature enacted a law offering each head of a family who would settle in the state 200 acres of land for himself and 50 additional acres for each white member of his family and each slave, not exceeding 10 members.  

In January 1821, in a treaty signed at Indian Springs, the land which would become DeKalb County was relinquished by the Creek Indians and a new county, Henry - named for Patrick Henry - was formed. Hardy and industrious Scotch, Irish, English and Welsh stock came to the new territory to farm.  

The name DeKalb was adopted for a section of land carved out of Henry, Gwinnett and Fayette counties in 1822.  

Five commissioners were selected to decide the location of the jail and courthouse.  

A log cabin was erected near the present courthouse site in Decatur. A more elaborate building was constructed in 1829 at a cost of $5,100.  

Fire destroyed the second building and almost all county records also burned. A third courthouse was built in 1842.  

Although pioneer families raised food, cotton, weaved cloth, made wagons, wagon wheels and tanned leather, DeKalb County was not typical of other areas on the eve of the Civil War. There were few large land holdings and slaves. Most residents opposed slavery. Very few households had servants.  

But, complying with the wishes of the state, DeKalb was among the first counties to organize and enlist troops.  

In July 1864, the disaster of war hit the county when vanguards of the federal forces rode into DeKalb. Union Gen. James McPherson attacked Decatur in mid-July, and the city, named for Stephen Decatur, a naval hero of the War of 1812, remained occupied until November.  

When General William T. Sherman ordered his troops to occupy the city of Atlanta on September 5, 1864, the Swanton House in Decatur was used as headquarters for the Army of Ohio. Women and children were allowed to stay in the basement.  

Union casualties in the Battle of Atlanta were 31,687; the Confederates lost 34,979. All the plantations along the South River in DeKalb County were destroyed by fire in Sherman's swath, 300 miles by 60 miles.  

Reconstruction meant total rebuilding for DeKalb settlers, who were short of food and dependent upon aid from other states. The price of cotton dropped from a dollar to four cents a pound.  

By the 1880s the county had returned to prosperity with its cotton crops and papermaking.  

Rebuilding and repairing railroads brought about the establishment of new small towns. The Georgia Railroad, completed in 1845 and partially destroyed by Federal troops during the war, was rebuilt. Along or near the tracks were Clarkston, Stone Mountain, Redan, Lithonia and Tucker.  

During reconstruction, 50 mills sprang up in the county (the number of mills would shrink to two in the early 1950s, and in April 1982, Scottdale Mills would be the last to close down). Sawmills, lumber mills and furniture making were major industries, operating by steam.  

Other mills were located on the South River for its water power.  

Another major industry was dairy farming. R.L. Mathis Dairy, once one of the largest in the state, is still operating in south DeKalb.  

After World War II, the county took off in a spurt of industrial and residential growth, becoming a premier bedroom community. In 1948 General Motors Corp. built an assembly plant in Doraville and remains DeKalb County's largest industrial employer. Following behind it were DuPont Co., Seaboard Railway and Kraft Foods. During 1950-55, according to DeKalb Historial Society records, DeKalb was the second fastest growing county outside the incorporated cities in the nation.  

As Atlanta grew, so did DeKalb. Along with homebuilding came a demand for retail stores. The first shopping mall was built in the early 1950s on the corner of Candler and Glenwood roads.  

Government grew too along with industry and homebuilding. In 1957, the one-man commission system increased to two, and by 1985, a seven- member commission and chief executive officer now govern the county.  

In 1960, the biggest industry in the county was home building. But by 1963 there were 400 industrial plants in the county and what was once a bedroom community was rapidly changing. Between 1960 and 1970, the population doubled from more than 200,000 people to 400,000. Today's population hovers near 500,000 people.  

A modern 10-story courthouse was completed in 1967, with the Old Court House on the Square making space for the historical society's musuem, archives, parks and recreation and extension departments.  

 Emory University Hospital became an institution primarily for research and teaching and the Henrietta Egleston Hospital, located on the university campus, became the largest children's hospital in the southeast.  

Despite a recession in the early '70s, DeKalb's growth continued. Commercial building permits totaled $20.8 million in 1977 alone. Last year, building construction totaled $621 million - a 35 percent increase over the previous year. Approximately 1,850 businesses are located in DeKalb today.  

It became the quality place to live because of its education system, considered one of the best in the state and the Southeast as well. The county board of education oversees schools up to the junior college level.  

The Fernbank Science Center, also operated by the board of education, houses the third largest planetarium in the nation and has 65 acres of forest, an obse rvatory, electron microscope and an observatory.  

 Stone Mountain, once a ceremonial ground for the Creek Indians, is now a major tourist attraction and the state-owned park is enjoyed by thousands daily.  

With a population of 500,000, DeKalb is more like a city than a county, its burgeoning growth posing a dilemma for homeowners, especially in north DeKalb. High-rise buildings and hotels continue to shrink farmland. One of the last pioneer families, descendants of Stephen Spruill, sold farmland in Dunwoody for a record of $1.3 million per acre for use as a high-rise office complex.  

North DeKalb is the most densely populated, but building is booming in central and south DeKalb, where rural, undeveloped areas remain.  

DeKalb claims one of the best transportation networks in the southeast with four interstate highways, DeKalb-Peachtree Airport and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority's rail and bus service. MARTA's Brookhaven station is now open and work is progressing on the Chamblee station before the line moves on to Doraville by the end of the decade.  

DeKalb boasts more churches and schools per capita than any other county in the Southeast. Its per capita income is $13,909 - the highest in Georgia and 25 percent above the national average.

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