The State of Dade

Excerpted from an article by staff reporter Robin Ford Wallace published in the DadeSentinel May 5, 2010.

Here is the legend in a nutshell, basic, unannotated and suitable for telling children or Yankees passing through, in the hope they will purchase a T-shirt:

Dade County, sick and tard of Georgia’s shillyin’ and shallyin’ at the beginning of the Civil War, seceded individually from the Union in 1860, declaring its independence not only from the U.S. but from a state that couldn’t make up its mind. Thus the feisty little county was a sovereign nation – the Independent State of Dade – for 85 years until, in a frenzy of patriotism toward the end of World War II, it rejoined the nation on July 4, 1945.

It’s a nice story and it makes for a cute T-shirt. However, it has a flaw, common with legends: “It probably didn’t happen,” said Allen Townsend of Wildwood.

For Donna Street, there’s no “probably” about it.

“I’ve been messing with this since I was about 14 years old and I don’t believe it,” she said.  “I’m a history major and I’ve read too much.”

So, as Allen Townsend, Donna Street and the history books all agree, Dade probably did not, in fact, secede from the nation. However, it most certainly did join back up on July 4, 1945, making as much noise about it as humanly possible.

There was a military band playing, a crowd of an estimated 4,000 in front of the Dade County courthouse thunderously voting “aye” to rejoin the U.S., a national radio broadcast and a triumphantly waved telegram from President Harry S. Truman congratulating the tiny nation of Dade on its reentry into the Union.  “Welcome home, pilgrims,” concluded Truman’s message.  

This is history.

What is not history is practically everything said about it that day in a speech by the man who had brought the joyous reunion about, Allen Townsend’s father, Judge J.M.C. “Red” Townsend.

“This is the Fourth of July,” declared the judge on national radio.  “That hasn’t meant anything to Dade for more than 85 long years. And in all that time, we’ve never raised a flag except for the one of a lost, however gallant, cause.”

“I think he just said that for dramatic effect,” admits the younger Townsend.  

In fact, everyone alive in 1945 whom the Sentinel asked agreed that the Stars and Stripes had flown over the Trenton courthouse, and that watermelon had been patriotically consumed on the glorious Fourth, every year in recorded history. Really, Dade was so overwhelmingly, loyally American that of the estimated total population of 6,000, no fewer than 600 were wearing uniforms in 1945. It was wartime, and patriotism was what this was all about.

Well, mostly. Allen Townsend agreed there was also probably some yearning on his father’s part, as he orchestrated the clever publicity event that was the county’s repatriation, to put Dade on the map.

“He wanted people to recognize that we were here,” he said.

Who was this Judge Townsend who got Dade noticed by the president of the United States?

Born in Wildwood in 1899, Johnson Murphy Claggett Townsend was related, as the plenitude of names attests, to most of the old families in Dade, and he became, possibly, the county’s most famous and influential son.

His people were farmers but his father, Will, had attained enough learning to become a justice of the peace, earning him the grand title of Squire Townsend. That dignity must have inspired J.M.C. Townsend, called Red because of the color of his hair, toward even dizzier heights; he worked his way through night school to qualify as an attorney in 1923.

Almost immediately, Lawyer Townsend went into politics. In those days, under the old “county unit” system, each county in Georgia had at least one representative in the state legislature, and Red Townsend got himself elected as Dade’s for several terms during the ‘20s and ‘30s. During that time, he served as attorney general for roads and then for revenue, in the course becoming good friends with then-Governor Ed Rivers.

This may or may not have had anything to do with Townsend getting money appropriated to build a highway from Trenton across the mountain to LaFayette. What is now called Highway 136 was originally dedicated as the Ed Rivers Memorial Highway in 1940 or ’41, said the younger Townsend, and that road unified Dade with the rest of Georgia more than anything else that happened on July 4, 1945.  

After his gig in the legislature, Red Townsend went on to be appointed judge for the six-county Cherokee Circuit, then to a prestigious position on the Georgia Court of Appeals. Both positions required him to live in Atlanta, and that’s where the family moved in 1944 when Allen Townsend was only 3. But Red was as loyal to Dade, said his son, as if he had never left. “He loved Wildwood. He never considered any other residence. He would come back here and vote every time,” said the younger Townsend.

But it was as an influential Atlanta judge and politico that Red Townsend was able to stage-manage the events of July 4, 1945. Not only did he get the local press of the day, Elbert Forester of The Dade County Times, on board, he roped in the Atlanta CBS affiliate, WAGA News. Those of us who grew up in the metro area somewhat later knew WAGA as television’s Channel 5, but during World War II it was still a radio station.

And Dade’s magnificent 4th of July reentry into these United States was – let’s go ahead and say it – a radio play. Donna Street, the local history buff and retired Dade educator who is now running for Board of Education, has the original script, and it carries the by-line of WAGA’s James Bartlett.

Bartlett, engaged by Townsend and crew to orchestrate the media event, was more into spectacle than actual, pesky fact, and the 1945 broadcast has “historical” flashbacks of R.L. “Uncle Bob” Tatum, Dade’s Georgia state senator, shaking his fist at the Georgia leaders for dillyin’ and dallyin’, then comin’ home to take a head count at the courthouse in favor of secedin’ immediately. And Red Townsend’s speech before the courthouse was not in his own words but just another part of Bartlett’s script.

Ms. Street, who, as pointed out earlier, takes history seriously, furnished the Sentinel a 1957 scholarly work by the University of Georgia’s E. Merton Coulter debunking the whole Uncle Bob story. Actually, Tatum was a Georgia representative, not a senator; the secession question came up in 1861, not ’60; and Dade’s two delegates to the secession convention "voted not fer but agin secession," wrote Coulter.

Dade was not, after all, a likely secession proponent in 1860. This was never plantation country. Of the county’s white population of 2,765, only 46 owned slaves and only two owned as many as 30. No one owned 40.

Interestingly, though the Coulter work flushes the idea of Dade being more Confederate than the Confederacy firmly down the toilet, it also points out that the county was called the Independent State of Dade even before the Civil War, its isolation owing more to the huge geographical fact of Lookout Mountain than to the political nuance of secessionism. 

But in 1945, Dade’s reentry into the Union was more entertainment than hard news, and WAGA was not fixin’ to let facts get in the way of a good story. Nor, the Sentinel is sad to report, were its fellow newspapers any fussier about literal truth. In Trenton, Elbert Forester’s pen gushed purply forth about the demise of Dade’s proud legacy of sovereignty; The Atlanta Constitution proclaimed that Dade’s initiative had brought a separate peace – “a peace called D-DY Day – Defeat by the damn Yankees”; and The Chattanooga Free Press’s article began, “The Stars and Stripes waved in a gentle breeze today above Dade County Courthouse, last citadel of the Confederacy.”

In addition to the history Ms. Street contributed to this article, a great deal also came from two amazing scrapbooks compiled by Allen Townsend’s mother, Eva Fryar Townsend, of newspaper clippings chronicling her famous husband’s career.