Primitive trails linked villages hundreds of miles apart, and one of the most significant, the Hightower Trail, wound along the current border between Gwinnett and DeKalb counties. Originating from Cherokee territory near present-day Calhoun, in northwest Georgia, the trail leads to Augusta, at one point separating the Cherokee and Lower Creek natives living in Gwinnett.
Today, along the prehistoric High-tower Trail, lies a stretch of rugged and wooded land that is at the center of a controversy between south Gwinnett homeowners and the county.
For five years, the nearby Summer-town Homeowners Association and local preservationists have fought to stop development of a 198-acre tract located less than a mile east of Stone Mountain on the DeKalb County line. So far, the area known as Deshong Crossing has been spared because of its pristine native vegetation and several archaeological sites associated with the ancient Hightower Trail.
But on Jan. 2, at the first Gwinnett County Commission meeting for new members John Dunn and Marcia Neaton, the board voted 4-1 against buying the land to serve as a park. Owned by Florida developer Bermuda LLC, which proposes building 345 residential homes, a shopping center and two office buildings there, the parcel is likely to be developed after all.
But activists say it's not over until those bulldozers roll in.
"I am not giving up yet," says Denise Rutherford, president of the Summertown Homeowners Association. While the native vegetation, streams, rare flowers and abundant wildlife are worth preserving, she says, the property should be saved because of its significant historical and archaeological value.
According to Gwinnett County historian Marvin Nash Worthy, Rutherford is absolutely right. "This is one of the oldest and most significant trails we have," she says. "It is just a shame that politicians and developers cannot appreciate the significance of this."
An archaeological survey of a small portion of the Deshong Crossing property in late 1999 by TRC Garrow Associates Inc. -- which has studied some of the most important finds around Georgia -- revealed artifacts dating back 8,000 years.
"This is an extremely important trail," says company vice president Pat Garrow. "There are sites here that are several thousand years old. Any time we get close to these types of trails around Georgia, we find the same density of sites associated with them."
Garrow's report recommended three of the sites surveyed as prehistoric archaeological sites worthy of listing on the National Register of Historic places.
But those findings haven't been enough to convince Gwinnett County to buy the land. With $320 million in taxpayer money earmarked for parks and green space in Gwinnett, proponents say the money is there, and they are pushing for the county to open its pocketbook.
Although the commission's vote was taken in closed session, Dunn, whose district includes the property, has been quoted as saying he doesn't want to build an expensive park in a remote part of the county that likely would serve a large number of DeKalb residents. He's now feeling the glaring heat of criticism from constituents who feel betrayed by his stance.
History takes back seat
The situation sounds all too familiar to Theresa Cantrell, founding member of the Gwinnett Open Land Trust and a member of the Gwinnett County Planning Commissioner. She was involved in a similar battle to preserve the Little Mulberry area in Dacula, which residents and activists fought for years to save. Thirty archaeological sites were documented on the Little Mulberry property, including one stone mound complex with nearly 200 mounds that some believe could contain human remains. The area, which yielded artifacts documented to be up to 10,000 years old, is now part of Gwinnett's portfolio of green space.
History takes back seat
"The presence of Native Americans in Gwinnett should be a treasured part of our heritage," Cantrell says.
But that sentiment alone is unlikely to be enough to persuade either politicians or developers to spare usable land, says David Chase, former president of the Greater Atlanta Archaeological Association. Along with Nash Worthy and a number of other preservationists, Chase believes business and politics continually override history in Gwinnett.
"I think Gwinnett is so proud of its growth that it has become the most important thing," Rutherford says. Archaeologist Garrow says he applauds Gwinnett for saving the Little Mulberry area, but feels "politicians need to be more sensitive to these archaeo- logical resources."
Native American sites are relatively plentiful in Gwinnett, with documented settlements dating back 10,000 years on up to the removal of the last Cherokee and Creed natives just 160 years ago in the infamous "Trail of Tears" episode. Gwinnett has more than 500 recorded archaeological sites; Georgia as a whole boasts more than 35,000. "And that's only the tip of the iceberg," says Phyllis Hughes, past president of the Gwinnett Historical Society. "Think about how many go unreported."
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