Just like an elderly woman sitting underneath her shawl on the porch of her home, the historic Coal Mountain Baptist Church sits alongside of Highway 9 in north Forsyth County watching traffic and noise increase and the old ways fade away to make way for the new.
Jimmy and Martha McConnell share the responsibility of running the Historical Society of Cumming/Forsyth County. The couple lived and worked in the Coal Mountain area for years with the community becoming part of their own history.
“Coal Mountain was always known for their talented musicians,” Martha McConnell said as she pointed to the old church as the center of life in the community. “They had singings there and people from all over the county, and really other counties too, wanted to always set the date that they were going to Coal Mountain to the singing. People came, like I said, from all around. Other singers came and it was always the highlight of the community. And the community did just revolve around the church.”
The name Coal Mountain first showed up on the 1870 Census, but the McConnells say they’ve found references to the community name dating back as far as the Civil War.
But have you ever noticed that there’s no coal? So, where does the name come from? Martha McConnell said they can’t find an official origin for the name Coal Mountain, but there’s one story.
“A family moved into the county and the wife was very homesick and wanted to go back. So, the husband had already bought a lot of land and he decided that he would tell his brother-in-law that there was a lot of coal in the area. If he would move down here, the coal was just everywhere, and he would be able to go out and heat his house with coal and never he would never have to cut wood again. So, the brother-in-law moved down here and found out that there was no coal mountain. That there was just barely a mountain at all, just a little hill. And it sort of became a family joke.”
Martha McConnell moved to Coal Mountain in 1967 and stayed until the early 90s. Her husband, Jimmy McConnell, worked as a postal worker in the community for 13 years. He grew up in Ducktown but remembers making trips to Coal Mountain.
“I always enjoyed going to the mill to get corn ground when I was younger,” Jimmy McConnell said. “We had a huge cornfield and we took all of our corn to the T.R. Thomas Mill there at Coal Mountain to have corn ground for cattle feed and for corn meal for ourselves.”
He said he loved to ask the grown-ups how it all worked. Today, that mill has been converted into a store called the Country Folks Superstore owned by Danny Roper. While the retailer sells locally-produced farm goods, firearms, feed and seed, and more, it also includes a barbeque restaurant, an arcade, an axe-throwing arena, an indoor gun range and laser tag. The creaky floor in several parts of the old mill are original boards that whisper stories of the past. As well, parts of the old corn mill remain such as a grain elevator that pulled the corn from the basement.
“Coal Mountain had a very diverse business community,” Jimmy McConnell said. “They had the Coal Mountain Egg Farm which was a huge egg operation which is where the fire department is now on Settingdown Road. They had individual egg operators that produced eggs and baby chickens for farmers to raise to then eventually sell to the chicken producers like Tyson's or whoever it might be.”
George Pirkle, the historian of the Historical Society of Cumming/Forsyth County, grew up in Cumming, but he remembers venturing up to Coal Mountain as a kid.
Pirkle showed off a house on McCoy Circle, built by one of his relatives around 1900. In the late 1980s, it became the set of an independent film called “A Son’s Promise” starring Rick Schroder and Stephen Dorff.
“The connection there is that Stephen Dorff’s father, Steve Dorff, was in school with me at the University of Georgia in the broadcasting sequence and we actually produced some things together,” Pirkle said. “Steve is now a composer and musician in Hollywood and he’s pretty well renowned and I’m kind of proud of that.”
Pirkle has worked to create the Sawnee Mountain Preserve, the second largest county park in the state. It’s located on both Spot and Bettis Tribble Gap Roads. He says that the area around the mountain has a history that stretches back to when it was home to Native Americans.
“Where we are standing now was actually at one time part of the Hickory Log district of the Cherokee Nation. Before Georgia was a state, which was in 1833, this was Cherokee land,” Pirkle said.
Where the current Coal Mountain School stands now, the county once operated a poor house with a number of widowed women and indigent men living there.
“Not long after the school was built, strange things started happening,” Pirkle said.
He said an area around the kitchen would inexplicably get very cold. Legend has it a janitor reported seeing an apparition of a woman in a hallway.
“There was someone who delivered the milk for the schools for the lunches every day and he took it about five weeks and then he said, ‘You’re going to have to get somebody else to do this,’” Pirkle said
Ghost stories aside, the community of Coal Mountain today continues to change from an agricultural-centered economy to more of a bedside community with farms disappearing and subdivisions taking over.
Jimmy McConnell misses the community that once was.
“There’s been a lot of land cleared, a lot of old home places that have gone to the wayside,” he said. “I hate to see them go. I like the old homes and the old farms… It’s sad in a way because you hate to see the old ways go. You hate to see all the nice pastureland go and the farms. But on the other hand, it’s growth. It’s progress.”
But Martha McConnell said there’s a push to preserve the look of the old Coal Mountain.
“There’s been a lot of property sold in that area and they want to keep it looking like old Coal Mountain. So, that’s in the plan and I’ve seen pictures of several of the house plans that they’ve come up with that actually look like some of the houses that were once in Coal Mountain many years ago.”