Story By: Taylor Ennis.
The vast Oak Mountain ridge blanketed in native pine has peered over the Valley of Hope for more than 80 years. Its vibrant landscape witnessed the growth of a community founded on perseverance and the faith to start over in life and work.
Today, a single neon green highway sign marked “Pine Mountain Valley” located two hours southwest of Atlanta indicates the first change in scenery when the tree-lined streets fade into spacious plots of farmland. The tall blades of grass whisper in the cool November wind as the afternoon sun stains an orange glow on the small farmhouses, which locals refer to as the “valley homes.”
“Even though it’s spread out, I think there’s a sense of community here,” Pine Mountain Valley resident Faith Birkhead said. “The families that came in the 1940s were all in the same predicament. The fathers were out of work, and they seized upon an opportunity to make a new life. And that new life was enjoyed by the kids.”
During the core of an economic depression, former President Franklin Roosevelt had a vision to provide hope to the hopeless with the Pine Mountain Valley Project.
Beginning in 1934, Congress allotted 13,000 acres of land nestled between north of the Pine Mountain Valley and south of Oak Mountain. This area was once referred to as the “Valley of Hope.”
Roosevelt’s mission was to provide relief for victims of the Great Depression who were unable to financially support themselves and their families. Based on 1935 Georgia Emergency Relief Administration, the first goal was to resettle newcomers in the area and provide a sense of security by supplying a “decent home with decent surroundings, and the opportunity for cultural and educational development.”
The book “Labor of Love” by Emily Minton and B.J. Baxley provides details on the history of Valley of Hope. On Nov. 20, 1934, a group of six engineers were sent to an unknown farmland with an order to break ground under the administration of Roosevelt’s New Deal plan. Their task was to develop the components of a civilized town such as public utilities and housing.
By February of 1935, the first valley settlers arrived and were housed in tents while survey teams strategically organized their future home sites by alphabetical sections, which still stand today.
Once a narrow red dusty road, smooth asphalt now forms a wide black path on K Street, a neighborhood still standing in the valley. The road is surrounded by quaint single story valley houses and acres of green farmland.
Although the government funded this project, the first team of male settlers and engineers proceeded before their wives and children to handcraft their land. During this time, they lived alone, ate in a temporary mess hall and built their future homes from the ground up.
No more than seven miles away from the lettered streets stood the Pine Mountain Valley School that was shaped like an eagle and housed elementary to middle school grades.
“I think it was an excellent school,” Charlotte Winsness said. “The teachers were educated, and we had good classes. We had a hot lunch there every day and a nice playground. We also had a nurse, and I remember running from her because I didn’t want shots.”
There was also a massive community center that once served as a recreational hall, movie theatre and library. However, the pride of the valley was the Roosevelt Memorial Church where Winsness and other residents were married. All three of these establishments eventually burned down.
Today, the houses and memories of those who grew up in the Valley of Hope are the only few pieces of history that time has not destroyed in the area.
At 84, Barbara Pearson still recalls that sunny afternoon in 1944 when a unit of Patton’s 3rd Army found themselves in front of her valley home. A group of five soldiers were marching through the valley when their tank broke down. After a failed attempt to contact Fort Benning, all five soldiers stayed for a week.
“My mother and daddy fed them three times a day,” Pearson said. “We had plenty of vegetables, chickens and pigs, so we had plenty to share with them.”
Pearson’s father was a farmer who grew pimento peppers, tomatoes and sweet potatoes. He also had three chicken houses, which supplied him with 500 baby chicks to sell to the community grocery store.
“Sugar was rationed, but mama would send daddy in his two-mule wagon to the grocery store and get sugar and lemons,” Pearson said. “Mama would make those boys lemonade and get some cookies, so they could have something while they were sitting because they didn’t have anything to do but sit, unless they were sleeping outside around the tank.”
Because it was “sweet potato picking time” the soldiers helped Pearson and her siblings pick up the sweet potatoes after school that week until they left.
“I loved going to school because that kept me from having to work,” Pearson said with a small laugh. “I didn’t like working in the field, and I would get tired. I told my daddy one day that I’m going to the house to get me some water. I didn’t get any water. Our front porch was high, and I went under the front porch and played.”
Pearson attended the fourth grade at Pine Mountain Valley School the year her family moved to the valley. She was 10 years old when her father made the collective decision to move their family in February of 1940 from Griffin, Georgia, where he was a supervisor at a major peach farm. He personally enjoyed farming and encouraged his four children, Jimmy, Tommy, May Nell, Barbara and Annette to work with him.
Because the Pine Mountain Valley did not offer advanced education, the valley kids attended high school in a nearby town of Hamilton where she met fellow classmate and basketball player, Emily Minton.
Originally from Hamilton, Georgia, Emily Minton was in elementary school when the Valley of Hope was established.
“I went to school with all of the students from Pine Mountain Valley,” Minton said. “Some of my best friends were from there, but I grew up in the area.”
Being young at the time, Minton did not appreciate the valley’s significance as much as she does now, but over the years she fell in love with the land and its people.
During May of 1997, Minton and local Pine Mountain Valley resident B.J. Baxley published a tribute to the Pine Mountain Valley and its church in “Labor of Love.” In the dark green booklet, Minton and Baxley remember the lives of 21 of the original settlers and their families.
However, one family in particular Minton carries close to her heart. “My husband was from the valley, and he was raised there,” Minton said. Now deceased, Charlie Minton met Emily when they both attended Hamilton High School.
Charlie’s father, Raymond, was a printer in Atlanta with Foote and Davies, which was the most important book printing company in Atlanta. After he lost his job during the Great Depression, his father decided to come to the valley where he was a postmaster at the local post office until he retired.
“Charlie and I were high school sweethearts, but I knew him before then,” Minton said as her bright blue eyes sparkle. “When I went off to school, he was in World War II in Japan and then he went off to school when he came back, but we always got back together. It was meant to be.”
Minton proudly speaks of Charlie as she shows off the tangible pieces of their life together in her home. Displayed in the foyer, she has her pastel rose bowl collection in a lit wooden case and his handsome turkey feathers spread on the living room wall.
Now 84, Minton also recalls her time growing up with the valley kids. “They were just like me,” Minton said. “Everybody was compatible, and we had a wonderful basketball team. Barbara and I played point guard, but it’s hard to face the fact that we didn’t expect to get old this quick.”
About two years ago Minton and four other valley kids, including Barbara, all visited each other for the last time. “That’s hard to realize,” Minton said as her grandfather clock slowly ticks. “But time marches on.”
As a little girl, Charlotte Winsness had fond memories of the Valley of Hope living among her family members, which included her aunt Emily Minton.
Winsness’ father, C.M. ‘Smittie’ Smith was the valley’s original designer. A graduate from Georgia Tech, Smith came to the valley in 1934 before anybody else where he began surveying the land, designing the roads and planning the water system.
Throughout her early life, his project became her playground. “I remember roaming through the woods and not worrying about anything,” Winsness said. “You could roam anywhere. I would leave in the morning and come home in the evening. Grandma would fix us a little box of peanut butter crackers, and we would put them on back like we had a backpack.”
Most of all, she remembers feeling safe in the valley when she played with her six cousins, rode bikes down a dusty path and swam in the local swimming pool.
She was younger than most of her friends and was often the little sister in her group. Though, she was also the “tomboy.” Winsness still has her collection of Native American arrow heads framed in her home that she dug in the woods behind her valley house as a little girl.
“When I go to see Barbara we just connect because we’ve known each other all of our lives,” Winsness said. “I also feel that way with my aunt Emily since I’ve known her since I was born.”
By the time she was 10 years old, her family moved to Atlanta for her father’s work, leaving her beloved childhood home. However, her father kept the house and returned with his wife, Ruth Minton, when they retired.
“It was a great place to grow up,” Winsness said. “The street was full of children my age, and we had a ball. Before we moved to Atlanta, I stood out in the front yard crying because I didn’t want to leave the valley.”
As public information increased across Georgia and neighboring states about the Valley of Hope, 210 homesteads were completed by the summer of 1935.
An original landmark prior to the Pine Mountain Valley Project still stands at the top of K Street. The 1830s faded white house’s overgrown pathway leads to a wide unoccupied front porch cluttered with dusty antiques and a rusted rocking horse.
Now shut from the sunlight, the two-story pine infrastructure knew every detail about the Pine Mountain Valley Project when it served as the administration building. The two-story building housed the project’s legal documents handled by the supervisory council.
It was the brain of the relief project that stored the necessary guide to building a town. However, it was not until the people who settled in the valley created the heart of the land, transforming a government development project into a community.
The transition in to the valley was not a simple task. Therefore, project leaders hired a moving team to pack future settler’s belongings and travel with them until they reached their new valley house.
Project manager Tap Bennett played a vital role in welcoming valley newcomers to their homes. Now deceased, his work is not forgotten, as he once led families to fall in love with their little white houses.
Each family was given 34 acres of land and a house for an exchange of $12 per month, according to the Georgia Emergency Relief Administration. Both the house and the land, which included a barn and chicken house required constant upkeep.
“My mother cooked on an iron stove,” Pearson said. “The valley homes were built with a fireplace in the living room and a brick wall on the other side in the kitchen and that’s where the stove was. When mama cooked, she burned little pieces of wood about 12 inches long. So my youngest sister Annette and I would fill from the screen door up to the wall with logs for mama to use the next day while we were at school.”
Along with a stone fireplace, every white house had an individual floor plan comprised of a long front porch, heavy pine wood doors, hard pine walls and dark longleaf pine floors.
“The whole thing if it were to catch on fire would be gone before the fire department could get out there,” Pearson said.
Upon moving into the valley, original settlers were designated a model one or model two home, which included a kitchen, living room, three or six bedrooms and a single bathroom. Winsness had the largest home in the valley.
In the documentary, “Valley of Hope” produced by Pine Mountain Valley resident David Johnson, child settler Sarah Langford shares the story of when her family moved to the valley.
“The day we moved was on a Monday, December 13, 1937,” Langford said. “When we were coming to the underpass, I told my sister next to me not to worry that if we got here and if we don’t like it we can always go back, because I had been watching the way and I know how to get back, but I don’t think neither one of us would have made it because I was only 12 and she was only 9.”
Over the years, homeowners have added renovations including brick or master bedroom installations, but the houses have never lost their historical charm. Several of the valley homes still have the original pine wood doors, bathroom tiles and trap doors.
Most importantly, many of the houses have the same owners. Pearson, Minton and Winsness have moved back into valley homes to retire in the neighborhood where they spent their most cherished days.
“My dad would still be here if he had lived,” Pearson said. “My husband and I lived in Jonesboro for 37 years, but after my mother passed away, I got the home place. I hadn’t planned to come back, and I said we’d just stay for two years. Well, my word, I hadn’t been down for two months and never wanted to leave. It was home.”
For Winsness, she always knew she would come back to the valley with her husband John. After her parents died in the 1980s, Winsness left Atlanta and returned to the valley where she still enjoys the outdoors.
“It is in part their collected memories that have added life and authenticity to a story of a time and its people,” said David Johnson, Pine Mountain Valley resident and producer of the “Valley of Hope” documentary.
As the cars race by going 50 mph on the narrow Pine Mountain Valley road, they pass a silver lining in history where hard work looked like soil-infused hands and hope was found in a valley behind the tree tops.
But years have rolled on and heartaches have passed- and gray skies have turned to blue; for we’ve striven and won, our place in the sun in our Valley of Dreams come true! — Pearl G. Riles, original Valley of Hope settler
Only memories and pictures now tell the story of a land that was once fertile to its core. There was a time in the Pine Mountain Valley when the rich top soil produced rows of vibrant crops and the longleaf pine was abundant.
Today, the memories of the farms are fading, and the dirt is drying. However, through education awareness and practice, the exhausted farmland is being restored with the help of two Pine Mountain Valley residents.
Environmental enthusiasts LuAnn Craighton and Linda Luttrell are working to bring new life back into the Valley of Hope. Both women live in renovated valley homes and tend to the old farmland by adding nutrients into the soil, gardening and tending wildlife.
For 25 years, LuAnn Craighton has had a passion for sharing science in a fun way with other people. Craighton works for the Nature Conservancy as the outreach director in the Pine Mountain Valley region where she gets to apply her love of science each day.
“The natural world is so fascinating to me,” Craighton said. “It’s misunderstood or feared sometimes. Today, I don’t think people realize how much we depend on the natural world for our very existence.”
Originally from the Midwest, Craighton was naturally drawn to wildlife as a little girl when she gardened with her father, took care of livestock and spent quality time outdoors, which she still does today.
In her valley house at the end of K Street, Craighton watches a little bird dust its feathers in her full bird path before feeding her diabetic donkey, Jacob, hay because he can’t eat the sweet grass.
“It brings me great personal joy to interact with nature on a daily basis,” Craighton said. “It makes me a heathier and happier person.”
Currently, Craighton is spreading awareness about the longleaf pine to help people who are interested in re-planting the native Georgia tree and restoring the ecosystem that the original Valley of Hope settlers once found.
The valley houses are framed in fat lighter, which is the heartwood of a longleaf pine tree, according to Craighton. With a rise in population in the 1940s, builders overused the longleaf pine in the valley, which unknowingly sparked a near extinction.
Fire and other natural disasters have also led to the pine’s disappearance, according to Auburn University forestry professor Becky Barlow, who has extensively researched southern pine ecosystems.
“Another thing that I think is a problem is that there are people who have these really nice existing stands of longleaf pine, but they’re managing it wrong,” Barlow said. “People are planting longleaf now and that’s good if you don’t have any, but you don’t want to cut a longleaf forest just because you think it’s getting old. Longleaf can live up to 300 years.”
However, the longleaf pine is not the only vegetation at risk in the Pine Mountain Valley area. Most of the dark and rich top soil that the Valley of Hope was founded on has been swept away from erosion and improper cultivation by the previous farmers.
At the Harris County Farm Bureau, office manager Linda Luttrell stresses the values of a hands-on farming restoration experience and education across the region, especially in the elementary schools.
“I think it’s really important that kids know where their food and fiber comes from,” Luttrell said. “I walk them through that process. I’m always trying new and different things, and I share them with the kids because I want the students in Harris County to see that just ordinary people can do these things and teach them sustainability.”
At the end of the year, she hosts a two-bite party that celebrates her favorite rule where she brings in a nutrient-filled dish for her students to taste at least twice. For Thanksgiving, it was pumpkin pudding, and it was a hit.
Luttrell proudly shows off her colorful supply room at the Farm Bureau office that’s filled with everything from school supplies, a turkey talking stick made out of construction paper, wild cotton and soil samples.
She holds a glass jar up and shakes the soft black dirt inside, providing an example of what the topsoil should look like. For comparison, she holds another large jar and shakes sand, this example is what most of the soil has turned into in the valley.
Despite the circumstance, Luttrell routinely keeps up her garden at her valley home where she grows cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, flowerbeds and more. In the spring, Luttrell will assist in creating a new garden at New Mountain Elementary School in Fortson, Georgia.
“I think that if we don’t look out for the land each in our own way, it’s not going to be such a wonderful place for future generations,” Craighton said. “Diversity in every sense usually brings stability to living systems, and if we keep narrowing our diversity, things get more dangerous ecologically.”