Talmo: 'We're a small town with a big history'

By B.J. Williams | Video: Joy Holmes
Posted 3:12PM on Friday 2nd August 2019 ( 11 months ago )
Nobody gets in much of a hurry in Talmo. People wave down their neighbors as they drive down Main Street just to have a talk, the adopted town dog Murdock makes the rounds from city hall to the fire station and all points in between, and the lunch hour at the Talmo Grill usually lingers beyond the typical 60 minutes. 
Chances are, most of the motorists who travel U.S. 129 about 10 miles south of Gainesville likely have no idea they are traveling right through Talmo. Athens Highway, as it's commonly known, bisects the small city, with Talmo Ranch sitting on the east side of the road and historic downtown Talmo just over the rise to the west. The noise and dust from the Georgia Department of Transportation's road-widening construction really seem to have little to do with the peace and quiet of the town that's known as "The Jewel of Jackson County."
Of course, Talmo hasn't always been so quiet. There was a day when the town located on the Gainesville Midland Railroad line bustled with activity. Not one, but two, cotton gins turned out bales of what was called "Gold Cotton," a variety of the finest cotton in the South. The guano plant produced high-grade fertilizer. Town ancestor Ellis Murphy is credited with starting the first commercial broiler flock and launching the poultry industry in North Georgia in 1924. Then there's Robert Hubert McEver, the founder of McEver Packing Company, which opened its doors in 1926, offering the finest in pork products in the region. 
While the first settlers came to Talmo in the 1840s, most historians agree it was the construction of the railroad in 1883 that sparked the growth in Talmo. The Gainesville, Jefferson & Southern Railroad - purchased in 1904 by Gainesville Midland - allowed residents of Talmo to travel more easily across the region.
Robert Hutchinson McEver, the son of the founder of the McEver Packing Company, will turn 93 in September, and he remembers the days when passenger trains traveled the tracks. In fact, he said he and his mother would board what was called the Jitney Railbus in Talmo and take products from the meat company to Gainesville to sell. The bus traveled on the same track as the trains.
"We would carry a lard can of meat - ribs and sausage and liver - to the Curb Market in Gainesville," McEver said. "You rented a space and we had a little meat counter."
While his mother sold products at the market, McEver, who was about 10-years-old at the time, would deliver orders to the boarding houses in Gainesville. 
McEver remembers flagging down the Jitney Railbus two to three times a week to make the trip to Gainesville, paying 10-cents for a ride. Sometimes, he would skip school to help with the family business because the economic conditions during the Great Depression meant he was more needed on the job than in the classroom.
"It was really important to make a little money, anything you could - it was hard to make a living back in those days," McEver said. "People helped a lot of people back in those days. Anybody who got in trouble - sickness or death in the family or anything - everybody was right there to help you - black and white. That was very important."
The days of thriving business in Talmo are history for the most part. Boll weevils forced cotton farmers to relocate to Texas by the early 1920s, the guano plant has been closed for decades and the storefronts that dotted Main Street are mostly dark. The McEver Packing Company, which grew to employ 225 workers, was sold to Gold Kist in 1970. 
Today, it seems that history is really the biggest business in Talmo.
Robert McEver won't take credit for it, but his son Chip McEver said his father and his mother Caroldene were the ones who ensured the rich history of Talmo would be preserved when they purchased - or rescued, really - the glass slide negatives of Cicero C. Simmons, a renowned photographer who captured the daily life of his hometown in hundreds of photos taken at the turn of the century. The McEvers bought the slides in 1993 at the estate sale of Simmons' niece. Two years later, they commissioned photographer Richard Stone to begin creating prints from the slides. 
Chip McEver, 66, said the prints breathed life into the history of his hometown for him. 
"I liked listening as I grew up to the older people talk and now I'm discovering that history through the Cicero Simmons pictures," McEver said. 
Many of the Simmons photos have been printed and adorn the walls of Talmo's Historic City Hall, the old home of Dr. W.C. Kennedy.  Others have been displayed at a gallery on the University of Georgia campus and others have been incorporated in the book Portraits of a Southern Place (still in print and available at the Historic Jackson County Courthouse, by the way) and it's possible they might inspire an even more comprehensive written history of Talmo.
Chip McEver said Adam and Brandy Pethel are part of the next generation of Talmo residents who want to preserve the town's past.
"They helped set up a Power Point that we've done and we're talking now about doing a map of Talmo showing all the old people can walk and look around and see this building is there and then this building is gone," McEver said, noting that the Cicero Simmons photos will help guide that effort. 
A relative newcomer to town has also done his part to preserve the history of Talmo. Wayne Miller pulled up roots in Hall County and replanted himself in Talmo in the mid 1980s, bringing a turf grass business with him. He said he was welcomed with open arms
"The people just went overboard trying to assist and help me," Miller said. 
Once Miller settled in Talmo, he realized what historic treasures the area held and he wanted to be part of preserving them. He and his wife Jill own the Talmo Ranch, but they also own and operate the Talmo Grill. Plus, they've bought and patiently restored several historic buildings in town, including the Talmo Depot. Interestingly, the depot doesn't sit alongside the train tracks, and there's a reason for that.
"You couldn't preserve it there on somebody else's land. You had to jump through these hoops to do something to it," Miller said. "Well, I purchased it, so I had the right to move it and we did. We restored it back to as original [a state] as we could."
Miller even found an old train car to display alongside the restored depot. Even though it's emblazoned with the name Talmo Southern, the train car actually came from West  Virginia and never traveled the tracks in Jackson County. Nobody seems to mind that he deviated just a bit from local history.
Chip McEver said despite the growth that's popped up in other parts of Jackson County, Talmo isn't looking to join the fray. Talmo, which has a mayor and city council and a planning board, isn't the place for subdivisions and big box stores. There is a Dollar General Store just outside the city limits, and McEver jokingly refers to the store as "The Talmo Mall."
"We in Talmo are trying to preserve the rural atmosphere...we're not looking for subdivisions, but we're looking to preserve what we have," McEver said. 
McEver, who has been the chief at the North Jackson Fire Department for 37 years, ever since it opened in 1974, said he knows the people in his hometown. He's rejoiced with them in good times and he's helped them when times were bad. He's doing exactly what his father and his grandfather - and other Talmo residents - have done for generations.


Chartered: 1920

Name: The name Talmo is thought to have derived from the Creek Indian word Talomeco, which means Home of the Chief Tallasee. Talmo is often called "The Jewel of Jackson County." The railroad name for Talmo might have been Poplarville. 

Residents: 255 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018 population estimate)

Government: Elected Mayor and Town Council 

Historic places to visit:

  • Talmo Depot
  • Talmo City Hall 
  • The Old Red Store
  • The 1854 Store
  • Talmo Grill (Make sure you eat breakfast or lunch here - or both!)

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