Peacock Alley? What a funny name for a federal highway!
Times were hard in Gordon County in the early twentieth century. Primarily a farming community, the area was settled by hard-working, proud people who sometimes had only one mule, a plow, and a few acres of land. If they were lucky the farmers had land near the river, where they often plowed up evidence of earlier people and events.
They might have found a sherd of hand-formed pottery left when a vessel broke over a early Native American campfire in bottom land near a river. Or a fragment of blue-and-white English ironstone discarded when the Cherokees began their sad trail of tears to the west. Or a belt buckle or minié ball that had belonged to a Confederate soldier battling near Resaca or Snake Creek Gap.
These curiosities were small comfort to the sunburned men following their mules down a long row, or chopping cotton, or anxiously watching the sky to the west for much-needed rain.
When she was 12 years old, in 1892, Catherine Evans, who lived near Dalton, saw on a relative's bed a beautiful hand-stitched covering. She went home determined to make a bedspread like the one she had admired. By the time she was 15, she had developed a method of making bedspreads that was much like the old technique of candlewicking. Soon the tufted spreads that she made were being copied and produced by other women in northwest Georgia.
As crops failed in Gordon County, women learned to tuft the spreads and sell them to bring in much-needed cash for the family. A small front-porch industry sprang up along the rutted dusty roads winding through the hills of the county.
Women stamped patterns on cotton sheeting, wound several strands of cotton yarn together, and stitched designs following the patterns. To copy the designs, they inverted a completed spread on a big table, placed muslin sheeting over the reverse of the spread, and rubbed the blank fabric with a slab of hog fat, a block of wood with an inked wax coating, or a similar improvised device. The pattern would emerge in a form that could be washed out after the spread was stitched.
Using a heavy curved needle-a bodkin-threaded with yarn, they pushed their stitches through the sheeting, following the pattern. After they had finished, they or husbands or children used scissors to clip the thread into tufts on the top of the spread. They next boiled the spreads in black iron wash pots in the yard to shrink the fabric, thus locking in the tufts they'd clipped. Hanging the spreads on a clothes line overnight to dry, they then beat them with broomsticks or poles made from river cane to fluff the tufts. This process of making spreads was based on a traditional craft called candlewicking.
Enterprising individuals discovered that people outside the region were interested in owning the pretty chenille bedspreads made in the Appalachian south. A cottage industry grew up as local entrepreneurs organized weekly deliveries to homes around the county. A man called a hauler took thread and trimmed sheeting, by that time already stamped, to households. In about a week the hauler returned, paid the women, picked up the completed spreads, and left another load of sheeting and thread. The stitchers could make several spreads in a day and were paid from five to twenty-five cents, depending on the pattern, for each piece.
The growing industry led to attempts to mechanize and speed the process. At first old Singer sewing machines were adapted to stitch the spreads, first by single-needle processes; then, with heavier machinery, double needles; then many needles. The front-porch workers went to work in mills, where they made chenille materials, still by hand at first, and then by machine.
Some of Gordon County's pioneer families in the fledgling industry were the Bostons (left), later Browns, in Calhoun; Muses (right) and Bandys in Sugar Valley; Chitwoods and Nances in Resaca; and Laceys in Fairmount. Some are still active today in the business that has transformed our local landscape.
A big day came in 1929 when U.S. highway 41, the Dixie Highway, opened to traffic. Eager to get to sunny Florida, families from the frozen Midwest flocked to the highway and headed for the beaches. As they drove through north Georgia, they saw line after line of beautiful candlewick and chenille bedspreads flapping in the breeze. Going south or on the way back home, they were among the first to stop and shop Gordon County as they bought the spreads, many of which sported colorful designs featuring peacocks. Soon the route became known as Peacock Alley. North Georgians had discovered that it was easier to pick Yankees than cotton.
Gordon County has changed from an agricultural one that had seen the tragedies of the Trail of Tears, battles of the Civil War, and despair of the Great Depression to a bustling industrial and commercial corridor linking the metropolitan fringes of Atlanta and Chattanooga.
That corridor is now Interstate 75. It has made the transition from bedspreads to broadloom. Travelers whiz north and south, stopping at Gordon County's five exits to eat, sleep, shop, and sometimes sightsee. The tourists who leave the interstate to drive on the parallel U.S. 41 little know that they are on a roadway once lined with clotheslines hung with colorful bedspreads that attracted earlier tourists to stop and buy a souvenir made by the people living along Peacock Alley.