In the late 1800s, agriculture in the Oconee Valley centered on cotton and sharecropping. Landowners subdivided their plantations and farms into parcels to be worked on a shared basis with their tenants, both black and white. In this relationship landowners often provided housing, tools, seeds, and fertilizer.
Often tenants were only able to supply labor. They depended on the landowner or the local merchant to provide all the supplies necessary until the crop was harvested and sold. Loans, crop liens that were guaranteed using the potential crop, allowed landowners to obtain farming necessities for the croppers from merchants.
Rising cotton prices created relative prosperity in Georgia staple farming during World War I. But infestation of cotton fields by boll weevils drastically reduced yields from 1.4 million bales in 1920 to 588,000 in 1923. The economic decline resulted in a massive exodus out of the Oconee Valley. Between 1920 and 1930 the population of Putnam County declined by 45%, Greene by 34%, Morgan by 38% and Hancock by 29%.
The Depression of 1929 sent farm prices plummeting. Between 1890 and 1940 thousands of Georgians moved from sharecropping into industrial work in the region’s burgeoning textile and cotton mills. There were cotton mills in nearby Eatonton, Union Point, and Greensboro.
In the Oconee Valley, Greene County led the way in manufacturing jobs in the late nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1880s, Putnam County farmers began to abandon cotton farming for dairying. In Hancock County, cotton fields disappeared and landowners planted pine seedlings. The pulp wood industry became a major employer in the county and the area.
From the 1870s to the 1920s, railroad construction expanded throughout Georgia. Many citizens depended upon the rail lines for transportation; they were vital for shipping agricultural products as well. Beginning in the 1920s, the railroads declined as competition increased from automobiles and trucks.
During World War II, the area became an important center for dairy production. The area had begun to develop its dairy farming in the latter part of the 1800s. Some farmers also began to diversify their farming to include poultry raising or egg production.
In the 1980s, the creation of Lake Oconee brought about the beginnings of economic change and progress to the area. The new lake was used not only for generating electric power but also for recreational purposes. Land values also began to rise as more and more people began to utilize the area for vacation and later retirement.