It was a mild Monday morning after another serene Sunday in the railroad town of Adrian, Georgia when the Devil himself erupted into a conflagration which engulfed nearly the entire business center of the town where two counties and two railroads came together.
Adrian, a town of some 1200 souls and yet to be incorporated as a town, was growing by leaps and bounds. Located at the junction of the Bruton & Pineora Railroad and the Wadley & Mt. Vernon Railroad along the zig-zag boundary line dividing Emanuel and Johnson counties, Adrian enjoyed significant progress, due in large part to the business empire of Captain Thomas Jefferson James.
James, a former Confederate soldier and a wealthy railroad baron, set up a saw mill in the town, where he employed a gang of some 75 convicts to operate his many business interests. At times, the number of his hired criminal hands reportedly totaled as many as a thousand.
It was on the morning of June 5, 1899, when in the soft light of a waning gibbous moon peeking from behind a layer of a gathering mass of cumulus clouds, someone spotted a large voluminous plume of gray smoke billowing out of Miss Gertrude Peterson's millinery store. Hardly a soul in Adrian was not awakened by the commotion which immediately ensued. Those who heard the frantic cries, gathered their sleepy wits, put on their just worn clothes and dashed off in the direction of the burgeoning calamity to lend whatever hand they could.
Several Samaritans did manage to salvage the entire general merchandise inventory of Sigmund Lichtenstein before the flames consumed his newly opened business.
As the fire quickly spread eastward toward C. J. Watts' barber shop and the Telephone Exchange, the entire business block was in imminent peril. Citizens salvaged all that they could as the flames spread through the wooden structures like a dry cornfield on a windy March day.
That's when the convict gang of Capt. T.J. James showed up to fight the flames. Without their assistance, it appeared that the whole town may have fell victim to the blaze.
With convicts and citizens working side by side, the stores of E. Ricks, J.R. Porter and M.L. Bailey were saved by the valiant volunteers, whose tasks were made much easier by a barely perceptible westerly wind in the cool, calm, wee hours of the morning.
A.L. Brown's drug store disappeared into a pile of ashes.
With the telephone exchange destroyed and owing to the fact that there were no telegraph lines going in and out of town, the town was cut off to the entire world.
Calhoun's Ice House was gone, its melted inventory being insufficient to douse the flames which consumed it.
The losses were made more devastating due to the fact that few of the property owners had insurance.
Investigators immediately suspected arson as several small fires had erupted earlier in the day with no apparent cause. Some believed that the entire inferno was caused by burglars who broke into the millinery store and set the fire to cover their crime.
There was a fire earlier in the day at Captain James' sugar cane mill, not his saw mill, which was still turning out 100,000 board feet of lumber every day. Rev. Leon O. Lewis was quick to correct the mistaken reports coming out of the beleaguered town. Rev. Lewis pointed out there was no motive of any disgruntled employees as no one in the town had any grudge to settle.
Those who hated, quickly pointed the fingers at the Negroes of the town. Lewis, pastor of the Adrian Methodist Church, discounted that notion when he wrote, "As to the Negroes being accused, I can see only one accusation to bring, viz, that as a class they worked as faithfully as the whites to save the property in which they had not a cent of interest." The minister went on to point out that several black citizens worked to the point of exhaustion. "All honor to them," concluded Lewis, who rejoiced in the fact that eleven business houses were yet standing in addition to Captain James' large store, the economic nucleus of the burgeoning town.
The fires about the town continued over the following days. On the night of June 9, Captain James suffered his second fire in five days. James' planing mill burned to the ground when a pit full of wooden slabs ignited causing $20,000.00 of uninsured damage.
The flames spread consuming three railcar loads of lumber and nearly six thousand dollars worth of lumber in a matter of hours. Machinery damage was estimated at $10,000.00, half of the total estimated damage to James's mill.
Once again, arson was suspected since the night watchman reported that he saw the fire begin in a section where no machinery was located.
Just as Adrian town and Captain James seemed to have recovered from the devastation of June of 1899, James businesses were struck again on April 19, 1900. This time the inferno destroyed his dry kiln near his saw mill.
All of the Captain's hands rushed to the scene. No one could approach the fire, which fed upon the exceedingly dry lumber inside the burning building and was fully engulfed in flames in a matter of minutes.
Once again, James' convicts rose to the occasion of rescue the critical saw mill plant from assured annihilation, although once again, James, a wealthy man who curiously chose not to insure his premises, suffered a substantial loss of $15,000.00.
Although the town, with her 1200 people, 22 stores, two churches and a very good school, never achieved the greatness it had so ardently attempted to achieve, the crossroads community once again rose from the ashes and chased the Devil away.*
*Suppose there was a connection between the fires and the name of Adrian school's mascot, "The Red Devils?"