The settlers who moved into Pickens County were primarily American born descendants of British colonists, as were those who came later with the growth of the marble industry. Many residents can trace their ancestry back to these settlers. But probably the largest single immigration came as late as the 1970s with the construction of the large, gated communities in the eastern mountains. The people of the county have tended to live in close knit communities organized around place or church. More than a third of the people in Pickens live in the area around Jasper, the county seat, which serves as the center of commerce, education, and government.
Younger families with children tend to live in the City of Jasper and along the populous corrider along GA Highway 5/515 that bisects the county. The schools, likewise, line up along this same area in the center of the county following the distribution of the students. The voting precincts reflect this concentration in the eastern retirement communities and the urban central area of the County.
The main artery of communication is the weekly newspaper, the Pickens Progress, published continuously since 1898. There’s a weekly farmer’s market during the summer and an annual Marble Festival every October. People line the streets for the parade, as for the annual Fourth of July parade, where there are as many NASCAR t-shirts as red, white, and blue, testifying to the local popularity of stock car racing, a sport that originated in this part of the country. Local sports, particularly high school football games, are community-wide events. And, of course, the sounds of the opening of deer season echo throughout most of the area. Pickens County is a southern place. It shows in the style of living, the friendliness of the people, and the bumper stickers on the trucks. But whether it’s a legacy from the marble industry, the ever present view of the mountains, or the century of relative isolation, the people here have an unusually strong and infectious sense of place – more “Pickens” than Georgian, or even Southern.
Gone are the days when Pickens County was an isolated mountain community. TOver half [52%] of the employed people in Pickens County work outside of the county – primarily in the more heavily populated counties to the south. 63% of the work force in the Pickens County itself is is supplied by local residents. But comparing the overall employment figures, independent of where the people live, there are between two and three thousand more workers than jobs in the county.
Another change from the past, Agriculture and Mining, once the mainstays of the local economy, now employ only 5% of the total work force. Half the jobs in the county involve service delivery and one person out of five works for a government, primarily the local governments which provide 17% of the jobs for residents who work inside the county. The largest employers in the county, other than government, are Appalachian Technical College, Imery’s Marble Company, Lexington Components, Mountain Side Medical Center, and Royston LLC.
Census data tells little about the spirit of a people, but does contain some useful information. The 2000 U.S. Census highlights only a few differences between Pickens County residents and the average Georgians. Racially, the county is 96% white as opposed to 70% in Georgia as a whole. The percentage with formal education is lower than the Georgia average in both the high school graduate [70%/80%] and the college degree[16%/24%] categories. The individual and family incomes are slightly lower. The only other real difference is in the age distribution of our residents. There’s a “dip” in late adolescence, suggesting that there’s a net flow of young people out of the county. Also, Pickens has a relatively large elderly population, located primarily in the eastern gated communities of Bent Tree and Big Canoe, home to many retirees. It’s often remarked that this is a place of choice. “People either choose Pickens County because they were born here, or because they want to be here.” And where the latter group wants to be is in our beautiful mountains to the east. The preponderance of retired professionals in the mountain areas is also reflected in the distribution of educational levels, mean income, and house value. The majority of these retirees and second home owners are southerners, primarily from other parts of Georgia.
But the most important piece of information from the Census is simply the population total itself. After a growth spurt with the coming of the railroad and the marble industry after the Civil War, Pickens County had a remarkably stable population figure for almost a century – the only ripple coinciding with the 1918 influenza pandemic. While the upward turn in population in the 1970s came at the same time as the building of the gated communities and the completion of I-575, their numbers in no way explain the population increases. These numbers are universally seen as harbingers of “urban sprawl,” as Metropolitan Atlanta expands at an unheralded rate – having become the largest area of “sprawl” in the country. Whatever the population statistics and profiles are at this moment; whatever the life of residents of the county is like now; things will be different in a short span of time. Life is changing at a rapid pace in Pickens County.