Why Visit Oconee County, Georgia?
Many different attractions ranging from First Fridays to Elder Mill Covered Bridge to Washington Farms strawberry picking to old standbys like the Fall Festival and Eagle Tavern bring visitors to Oconee County. Biking, softball, and schools keep them here
What brings people to Oconee County? Quite simply the way and quality of life may be the biggest single attraction, since we have amongst the lowest unemployment rates, highest graduation levels as well as the healthiest and wealthiest populations around, but this article will attempt to highlight some of the other reasons people travel to Oconee County in northeast Georgia.
Just for those who are not from around here, we do not have Lake Oconee (that is part of Morgan and Putnam counties to the south), the Oconee National Forest (Greene County), nor do we have mountains or nuclear reactors (that is Oconee County, South Carolina to the northeast).
For those who are visiting here for the first time, may I suggest staying at either Ashford Manor Bed and Breakfast or SpringHill Suites by Marriott? These are just two of the more outstanding places to stay in Oconee County proper.
For me, the Eagle Tavern Museum in Watkinsville was the first place I ever really checked out, long before I lived here. The Olympic torch came through well before the 1996 Olympiad and I was assigned to cover it. I was amazed at the amount of people who gathered around the old hotel and stage coach stop to watch people jog up the road with a symbolic flame carried in one hand.
I later worked in the Eagle Tavern when it was the Welcome Center and gave tours of the old facility that dates back to the time that the county seat of Watkinsville was known as either Fort Edwards or Big Springs. It was originally much bigger and people could stay upstairs in a rope bed or sleep on the floor if they chose to. The rumor that the University of Georgia moved to Athens instead of locating in Watkinsville because of evil spirits of alcohol at Eagle Tavern has largely been dismissed as (sub)urban legend, but it makes for an interesting story. The University started in 1785 and, generally speaking, the first accounts of Eagle Tavern are in the 1790s.
Many visitors have been drawn to the Fall Festival (located just behind Eagle Tavern on Rocket Field). This gathering has been run well by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce since 1974 during an off weekend in October where no University of Georgia football game would interfere. The festival has continued to grow and evolve over the years, with concerts by Boxcar Willie and traffic help from the National Guard when the festival began to outgrow the Main Street location, according to a wonderful book published by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce and available to check out from the Oconee County Library.
The First Fridays in Watkinsville (a relatively recent development designed to bring visitors to the city) might give a glimpse of the earliest days of the Fall Festival when the Girl Scouts helped keep parking problems to a minimum. Of course Watkinsville Police Chief Lee O'Dillon and the fine folks like Jerry Harris at the Street Department keep the streets clean and flowing for the families to come down and enjoy activities thanks to the Watkinsville Trade & Tourism Association.
Bicyclists have always had Oconee County as a destination, whether for miles of undulating terrain in the country or the safe streets of the cities. The Tour D'Oconee Saturday, May 7 will be a chance to sample both.
Elder Mill Covered Bridge ranks high on my list of attractions in Oconee County worth checking out in person. This wooden relic was initially saved with help from then-Gov. Jimmy Carter and has survived several attempts of vandalism and indifference over the years. The nearby grist mill is open occasionally for tours. Former next door neighbor Al Cuming kept the bridge decorated with Christmas lights when appropriate, but he has had to relocate recently.
Plans were drawn up but never enacted to create a large park around the entire facility and creek. A historic marker sign was swiped from one side and replaced on the other to make it nearly impossible to remove. A bench and parking have been added, but this fragile aging facility needs all our help, as much as Eagle Tavern does.
Parks and recreational facilities bring a vast array of visitors here to experience the Oconee County brand of state championship level softball, soccer, basketball and baseball. Oconee Veterans Park is the newest of the fabulous recreational facilities, with the older Herman C. Michael Park right across the busy Hog Mountain Road/State Route 53. Between the two facilities, they have just about everything you would need to hold a tournament or a picnic.
If you are interested in history, then the 364-acre Heritage Park might be the perfect place for you. Amongst the horse and mountain bike trails there is the Central School House, which made national news when they slowly moved it down Highway 441 off some old roads. There are also some other historic buildings nestled not too far from the school house. The Oconee County Historical Society has drawn up plans to keep the site as historically accurate as possible, instead of just a bunch of older buildings shoved together.
Should you want to host a large equine event, then either Heritage Park's massive pavilion or possibly the University of Georgia Equestrian Complex near Bishop would be the ideal location. That is located at 1171 Astondale Road and was formerly known as High Point Farm. This is where the 1996 Olympic dressage team chose to train, and the University of Georgia women have won five National titles at either this location or the better known previous home site at the end of Milledge Avenue in Athens-Clarke near Whitehall/Simonton Bridge.
Washington Farms offers strawberry picking, and this year there will be a strawberry festival from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on April 30 with many different musical acts for your listening pleasure. The festival will only be going on at the Oconee County location.
There are also amazing restaurants scattered about Oconee County ranging from Hot Thomas Bar-B-Que located way down Highway 15 to Chef Jose Zambrano's fantastic fusion favorite Girasoles or the quaint lunch eatery Krimson Kafe in Watkinsville. These are just some of the favorites that locals frequent.
In short, whatever the reason you come to Oconee County Georgia, stay awhile and enjoy the surroundings. Peggy Holcomb and the fine folks at the Oconee County Welcome Center can answer your questions about local schools and the (not so) suddenly abundant housing available, including rentals.