After the Georgia land lottery of 1832 large numbers of white settlers had begun to move in and take over the lands of the Cherokee Indians. Some of the richest farm land – Paulding County’s Cedar Valley – was drawing the adventurous and ambitious to the area.
By the time that the U.S. Army had rounded up the last of the Cherokees in 1838 for removal west, settlements were springing up and developing into towns like Cedartown, with farms and shops, schools and churches, roads and post offices.
One of the earliest families to arrive, the Priors, were to prosper greatly, not only from farming but from buying and selling land. As early as 1832, Asa Prior was buying and selling land in Paulding and Floyd Counties, although it is unlikely that he moved his family to Cedar Valley until a year or two later. Before the Priors left Morgan County for Cedar Valley, three of their fourteen children had died and one had married.
During his early years in Cedar Valley, Asa Prior suffered a great tragedy. His wife, Sarah, who was so dear to him, died in 1838 at age 54. The spot chosen to receive Sarah Prior’s remains, some say, may have been near an early Prior home. The Priors’ first home was built on what became known as the Dick Jones place. In 1848 Asa built a substantial place in the center of the new community, not far from the Big Spring. The house still stands today and serves as the Gammage Funeral Home.
The Priors were no strangers to tragedy. Five of their fourteen children had been born deaf. Throughout his life Asa Prior was deeply concerned with caring for his handicapped children. In his last will and testament he provided a lifelong income for each of his deaf children, painfully but firmly identifying them as “deaf and dumb.” Dedicated years of care for these children made something of a triumph out of a tragedy: His efforts to educate them may well have advanced the cause of other such children throughout Georgia.
In the 1830’s the state recognized the need for educating Georgia’s indigent deaf children and enacted legislation for the state to pay all expenses. In 1832 Prior sent only his two oldest deaf sons to a school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. Later he was able to send all five deaf mute children to school in Cave Spring.
Asa Prior appears to have been a charter member of Cedartown’s Baptist Church. In 1835 the Baptists rented a building located on a knoll above Tanyard Branch which served as both church and school.
After a period of ten years the congregation decided to build a proper church. Property with a beautiful oak grove along what would become Main Street and West Avenue was donated. One acre for the site of the new church and graveyard was donated by Asa Prior, and an adjacent acre was contributed by William E. West.
The one building most often associated with Asa Prior still stands today in Cedartown. Apparently Prior, ever alert to commercial development, saw another need in the community, this time for a grist mill. Built in 1849 it survived the Civil War, and for almost one hundred years Cedartown residents took their corn to be ground there.
Later it changed hands and became known as the Benedict Mill and operated until 1945. In 1960 Robert L. Stevens and his wife bought the property and opened the Old Mill Restaurant, which quickly became a popular dining spot.
During his days in Cedartown, Asa Prior reportedly accumulated six thousand acres of land and a number of slaves. By the 1840’s he had a large plantation approximately eight miles west of town. Asa’s son, Haden, lived on the plantation in a fine home and managed the plantation for his father. Asa maintained his residence in town. When the Southern Railroad laid rails from Rome, Georgia, to Birmingham, Alabama, a railroad depot – Prior Station – was established on Prior plantation.
Much of the property in the central portion of what is today downtown Cedartown was once owned by Asa Prior. In 1852 the benefactor made an impressive contribution to the community. He sold, for $1,200, an area encompassing 19 acres – including rights and access to the Big Spring – to the city of Cedartown for a courthouse site.
Despite the vigorous growth in the community he had helped found, Asa Prior had pulled up stakes in Georgia sometime around 1850. He moved to Sabine County, Texas, purchasing a new spread not too far from his son, Andrew, who had been bitten by wanderlust earlier, settling in nearby Rusk County.
Asa Prior may merely have been visiting Cedartown from Texas, when he made his last will and testament dated October 13, 1853. In this document, he left instructions for disposition of the Prior properties both in Cedartown and Texas. A few months later, on July 2, 1854, the man who had done so much to foster the city from its earliest days, died.
The Heritage of Polk County, Georgia: 1851-2000
Submitted by Gordon D. Sargent
Sargent’s large donation of research material is available in our research library.