Finding Suches is not difficult, but getting there can be a little time-consuming. The community is located along SR 60, a little more than 15 miles north of Dahlonega in the mountains of North Georgia, but the drive isn't something to be done in a hurry, since there are a number of curves to navigate and several breath-taking views to take in along the way. Really, the leisurely drive is good preparation for a visit to "The Valley Above the Clouds" because life moves at a fairly relaxed pace in Suches.
Woody Gap School is the centerpiece of the community
While Suches is unincorporated - no elected government officials to call the shots - it's still very much a cohesive community where everybody knows everybody else.
The focal point of the community is Woody Gap School, the smallest public school in the state of Georgia. The school was founded in 1940, a consolidation of five one-room schoolhouses in the community. The building was financed by WPA (Works Progress Administration) funds and built with CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) labor. Current enrollment is just 68 students - from kindergarten through 12th grade. The Class of 2020 is comprised of six seniors - five boys and one girl.
While there's a new gymnasium on the property (built in 2009), the classrooms are located in the original historic building, and Principal Carol Roberts Knight said that's a point of pride for her.
"You see the rock, you see the wood, you see the interior windows, you see the [wooden] lockers that have never had doors or locks on them," Knight said. "Underneath the tile and carpet is the original hardwood floor."
Knight is a 1985 graduate of Woody Gap, and she can remember wearing her "Sunday shoes" to school to slide on the hardwood floors after they'd been treated with kerosene.
While Knight is the school principal, she also takes on the role of testing coordinator and that of athletic director; she also teaches math. She said everyone has multiple roles to fill, but they're willing to do it to make Woody Gap and its students successful.
Althea Cantrell, a long-time math teacher at Woody Gap, is a Suches native and a Woody Gap graduate. She taught in a couple of other school systems during her career, but she said she returned to Woody Gap because it felt like a second family to her.
"I was so encouraged [as a student] and everyone looked out for everyone else and I just wanted to give back," Cantrell said. Plus, the small class size gives teachers a chance to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of each student, and that helps tailor the courses to each student.
In addition to teaching algebra, pre-calculus and geometry, Cantrell also is the coordinator for Woody Gap's Mountain Heritage Project.
"I teach the kids how to raise a garden and can food and some things about the Appalachian culture around here," Cantrell said. "Also - and it's been a long process - but we're trying to build a homestead across the creek [on the school property] that will be a replica of a settlement back in the turn of the century."
That's where the community help comes in, according to Cantrell. Bud Braddock, a retired U.S. Forest Service supervisor, has been instrumental in working with Cantrell on that project and others, teaching students about their mountain roots.
"[I enjoy] working with the kids at the school, teaching them things that there's no other way that they'll learn them," Braddock said. "I tell Althea 'you teach them how to use a computer...and I'll teach 'em the common sense things like how to chop wood with an ax and how to read a compass...things that they won't take time to learn by themselves."
Suches also holds the annual Indian Summer Festival on the grounds of Woody Gap School the first full weekend of every October. Community programs are held inside the school auditorium, too. And this Christmas, community members "adopted" many of the students at the school, making sure all children had gifts under their trees at home.
Searching out the history of Suches is a labor of love for retired Forest Service supervisor
Braddock is not a native of Suches, but you wouldn't know it by the time and energy he invests in the community.
Braddock grew up in Brunswick in coastal Georgia. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service after graduating from the University of Georgia and traveled the country as part of his job. His final assignment was in Atlanta in the regional office and he was responsible for history and archeology in the 13 southern states and Puerto Rico. By the time he retired and moved to Suches, he was addicted to historic research.
"There were just so many house sites and cemeteries and schools and churches that I got interested in," Braddock said. "I started a hiking group and we would go to those sites and we would talk about who lived there and why they were there."
Braddock said he wanted to commemorate the lives of those who lived in the valley, especially those whose graves he found that had no headstones.
"I found that many of them just had a rock and so if we could find out actually who was buried there, then I would take up a collection and we'd make a headstone and have it put there," Braddock said.
The last headstone he placed was for a woman by the name of Cora Seabolt, the mother of 22 children. In fact, he was able to find the names of 16 of the children.
"I said a woman who gave birth to that many kids deserved to be recognized," Braddock said.
Braddock is 80-years-old, by the way, but he said he'll continue his research - and leading hikes, too - "as long as I can."
Remembering Arthur Woody, a provider for the community of Suches
You can't have a discussion about Suches without talking about native son Arthur Woody, Georgia's second U.S. Forest Service ranger. By all accounts, Woody was quite a character. Even though he worked for the government, he reportedly didn't care for wearing a uniform and keep his shirt front open as he worked. Some called him the "Barefoot Ranger" because he didn't like wearing his shoes.
Suches native Hobert Lunsford, 89, remembers Woody, but he said the story about the ranger's bare feet might be a little exaggerated.
"He got that name, but he would after a day's work just pull off his boots and set back," Lunsford said.
Lunsford said his own father worked for Woody on projects, just as most other people in Suches did. He oversaw the building of roads - SR 180, for example - Lake Winfield Scott and parts of the Appalachian Trail.
"People looked up to him as kind of a provider for the community," Lunsford said.
While Woody didn't have much formal education, he was a very intelligent man, according to Lunsford. In fact, he had to take his common sense to Washington, D.C. more than once. Lunsford remembered one tale about a trip Woody took to Washington to receive honors for his work in keeping forest fires curbed in the mountains.
"They asked him to get up and make a speech," said Lunsford, but the speech wasn't completely focused on forest fires. "He walked up and said 'I kiss all the babies, hug all the women and take a little drink with the men.' That's the way he got along with the mountain people."
Lunsford left his home of Suches only once, when he went to Korea to serve in the U.S. Army. That was from 1950-1952. He and his late wife raised their family in the community and he still lives in the home they shared. He spends part of his time now painting images of some of the places in Suches that are dearest to him - family barns and old churches, for example.
Lunsford said while there are new faces in Suches now - and they're certainly a welcome part of the community - he can't help but think back to years ago when he was growing up on the mountain.
"It's just a little spot on the earth that when I was growing up, we were just all family and we helped one another...it was just a wonderful place to live."
FAST FACTS ABOUT SUCHES
Suches, which is located in Union County, is unincorporated, so there are no elected officials in the community. Locals call Suches "The Valley Above the Clouds." Some sources say the community is named after a family who settled in the area, while the community website says the name is taken from that of a Cherokee Indian chief.
Estimated population: 1,017
Places of interest:
Suches hosts the annual Indian Summer Festival the first full weekend in October