How to help
› High-quality prints of Larry Dodson’s original watercolor of the Zachariah O’Neal homeplace are available for $75, with $10 from each sale going to the restoration.
› The first prints should be available in the coming days.
› To reserve a print, contact Judie Eaves at email@example.com or Debbie Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 423-629-1654.
TRENTON, Ga. — For decades it sat unnoticed, unknown and unloved.
Now the oldest dwelling in Dade County, Ga., is being returned to its appearance in the early 1800s, when Zachariah O'Neal built it for the third frontier family to settle in Georgia's upper left corner.
O'Neal's great-great granddaughter, Debbie Smith, said his descendants didn't learn the home place existed until just over a decade ago, when Smith's friend, genealogist Sue Parham, located the cabin and began to connect it to local and family history and to the current owner, Leroy Fanning.
Smith said one of her cousins knew the Fannings and it was "kind of history from there," Smith said. The Fanning family has allowed O'Neal's descendants to hold reunions there every other year since 2006, she said.
O'Neal was born in Greenville, S.C., in 1800 and headed west as a young man, landing briefly in Habersham County, Ga., then to the area of Cherokee County, Ga., that would become Walker County. He arrived in what would become Dade County in 1837, Smith said. He bought 200 acres of land and a cabin, believed to have been built in 1833 or 1834.
Some of his holdings now lie under Interstate 59, which passes just a couple of hundred feet behind the cabin.
O'Neal was instrumental in the Cherokee Removal, Smith said, and was friends with Cherokee chiefs Rising Fawn and Wauhatchie, both namesakes of nearby communities.
Besides being a farmer, O'Neal also became a politician, serving as the county sheriff, probate and treasurer for budding Dade County, according to Smith. Four of O'Neal's sons served in and survived the Civil War, while a brother and nephew served and died within a day of each other in July of 1863 at Cold Harbor, Va.
Fanning, a retired adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, loved the old kudzu-covered cabin that came with the house he bought in 1977. But he had no inkling of its historical significance until he and the O'Neal descendants got together.
"The house was occupied until 1965 or 1970," Fanning said. Former owners installed electricity and Sheetrock walls that covered O'Neal's handiwork.
Since 1977, Fanning has gradually worked to restore the building to its original form, replacing its floors with wide, milled boards, pulling out all the wallboard and furnishing it with period furniture. It's hard to imagine 10 children and their parents sharing the two tiny rooms, he said.
It was a yard sale that brought Fanning, the O'Neal family and artist Larry Dodson together for a fundraising idea to help preserve the cabin.
Earlier this spring, Dodson, who lives less than a mile away, noticed Fanning was having a yard sale and he felt inexplicably drawn to it. He didn't go to yard sales and he didn't really know this neighbor, but still.
Some people checking out the yard sale noticed Dodson getting out of his car and asked if he was still doing artwork, he said.
Fanning recognized Dodson as a local artist. They began talking about the house, and Dodson asked to do an original watercolor of it.
Dodson, a full-time artist for 40 years, took some photos that day and met with Smith and others to learn a little history about the cabin before he started working on his piece, starting with a vision of what it looked like 180 years ago.
Now prints of Dodson's original, unveiled in August, are being produced for sale and part of the proceeds will go toward restoration of the cabin.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569.