Covington News reporter Gabriel Khouli toured the five county districts with county commissioners as his guide to learn more about the people and places of Newton County. First up, the county’s largest and most rural district.
Mort Ewing has traveled the miles of country roads in District 1 for more than seven decades. His impeccable organization and elephant-like memory make him a vast coffer of county knowledge.
So when I asked him to show me his district, it was no surprise he came back with a list of 25 highlights he wanted to show me in the largest and most rural district in Newton County. The list was, of course, geographically-arranged. It was a three-hour tour.
District 1 is covered by large farms and larger tracts of timber. It’s the least densely populated district and has only two full-fledged traffic lights. As a result it’s also one of the most scenic districts.
Preserving the beauty and the agricultural way of life in District 1 is one of the key issues for these rural residents. For Ewing, there’s nothing more important than protecting farming and the county’s water supply.
He started our tour on Rocky Plains Road in the district’s western end. Driving east and looking left one sees trees. In and of themselves, unremarkable, but their significance is quite the opposite. Behind those trees is a subdivision full of homes, but you wouldn’t know that until you passed its entrance. Ewing made sure of it. That dense pack of trees represents the first subdivision in the county to have a 50-foot-buffer between it and a public road. For Ewing, protecting "viewsheds" is just as important as protecting watersheds.
Traveling farther east, Ewing points out Avery Place, a denser subdivision that shows the housing boom wasn’t relegated to Districts 2 and 3. He said there are high rates of crime and trespassing, and a high turnover rate for owners. He said several subdivisions along highways 162 and 212 suffer from similar problems.
"It takes a long time for the sheriff’s office to get out here," Ewing said. "I don’t like high density in the county because it’s hard to patrol."
High density also can clash with neighboring farmers. Ewing said the nearby Stokes Farm, which mainly produces cattle and hay, has experienced this firsthand.
"Unfortunately, people don’t respect property rights. They trespass, shoot cows, cut fences. Agriculture has been tolerant, but growth causes problems," he said.
Farming is big in District 1 and in comes in a lot of varieties. Hay farming is one of the most popular choices because of the large number of horses and cows in the area. He said horses require significant amounts of hay, and horse owners closer to Atlanta have to import large quantities.
Other farms raise sheep and goats, which fit a market niche in Atlanta’s larger ethnic community. The C.L. Cook farm, located in the east part of Newton County, is dedicated exclusively to raising higher-end Angus cattle.
Of course, several farmers produce fruits and vegetables. Nicholas Donc is one of the most successful organic farmers around, working his own farm and the one located at Burge Plantation.
As a lifelong farmer, Ewing has a well-cultivated passion for his craft. He makes a convincing argument that agriculture should be supported more, even as growth continues to come. He said farm owners pay significant taxes, too high in many cases, and demand very little in services. They provide beautiful landscapes and healthy, homegrown food.
The Ewing family farm, located on Dixie Road, has been in the family since Ewing was born, and even though his two sons work in different fields, they both want to make sure it remains a farm.
Farming related organizations also have long been a prominent part of Newton County. The well known 4-H Club was started in Georgia, but none other than the uncle of Ewing’s wife. Tom Greer was the original president of the Newton County Corn Club, which today is one of the most well-know youth organizations in the county. To this day, Newton County has one of the most decorated and most active 4-H clubs.
As we traveled to the county’s southern border we came across the Future Farmers of America camp, which Ewing describes as one of the county’s best kept secrets. The 500-acre camp was originally a recovery project built after the Great Depression, and today stands as one of the preeminent sites for camping and organizational events. The FFA camp has an arboretum, amphitheatre, cabins, fishing pond, pool, recreational complex and shooting range. Some of the original cabins and stone buildings date back to the late 1930s.
The site hosted 3,000 German students who came to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics and is regularly home to students and church groups. The Board of Commissioners has also taken its retreats at the FFA Camp in the past. Much of the camp is for use by reservation only, but Ewing highly recommends the experience.
Further south lies Factory Shoals Park. Ewing said the completely public park gets very little use, but if he could he would come every day to walk the trails and listen to the soothing sound of water rushing over the shoals of the Alcovy River.
"There is no better place in the county to have picnic. I love listening to the shoals, and love the view," Ewing said. "I would guess that only 10 percent of people in the county know that this park exist"
Water is so important to Ewing and District 1. Ewing has worked hard to extend water lines into his district to improve fire protection and provide clean water to as many residents as possible.
Because Ewing thinks water is so important to the county’s future, he was worked extensively to protect buffers for all of the county’s four major rivers and numerous streams. He also is an advocate of larger lots, not only to protect rural living, but to prevent runoff and water pollution. Sewer is rare in the county, and larger lots also prevent septic tank failures.
Protecting the rivers becomes even more crucial when talk turns to the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir. Ewing has always been a strong proponent of the reservoir because he believes the county’s future growth necessitates another water source. The reservoir has been highly criticized, and has suffered numerous delays, partially caused by Jasper County pulling out of the project a couple of years ago.
"When we built Lake Varner, people said we will never need all that water, but growth now makes it necessary. Bear Creek is part of our long-range plan -- a 30-year plan. A 1,400 acre lake that will only displace one family is totally unheard of," Ewing said.
As we traveled further east, we passed by Gaither’s Plantation. Ewing said the plantation was a bonus that came with Bear Creek. The historic plantation is being transformed into a pre-1940 village museum.
The Lochwolde subdivision on Elks Club Road – the highest-end subdivision in the county -- was one of the next stops. The near-mansions in this subdivision start at $500,000 and climb above $1 million. The community also boasts a lake and several walking trails.
"We use this as an example of what kind of developments we want in District 1," he said.
District 1 is also home to the county’s two smallest municipalities, Newborn and Mansfield. Ewing said the communities used to be booming during the early 20th Century, but have now settled down into small, rural towns. Beaver Manufacturing and the Rose Acres Feed Mill are two of the larger industries.
Ewing ended our tour with what he sees as two of the county’s most important resources: Stanton Springs and Georgia Perimeter College. The 1,700-acre industrial park and the GPC campus are long-term assets that Ewing hopes will improve economic and community development.
"I’ve traveled all over the state since 1965 on a regular basis, and I’ve been in every county of Georgia. Every city that had a campus of a unit of UGA has prospered," Ewing said.
He said the development of Bear Creek, GPC and Stanton Springs are the most important future issues, as well as preserving the farming lifestyle he has always loved.