Intersection at 136 and 382 named for longtime local storeowner
Members of a family who, for decades, have lived on the west end of Gilmer near the Murray County line are happy to see a nearby highway intersection named for a relative whose roadside store was once a popular stop in the Carters Lake area.
Three generations of the Priest family gathered near the intersection of Highways 136 and 382 in Talking Rock Friday, June 29, to unveil a state-approved marker that dedicates that section of road to the late Milt Priest.
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston joined the family to present the marker and an official resolution.
“This has been a special place to people in this county for a long time, (back to) a time before the lake came. Mr. Priest was a real leader to this community and just a solid, salt of the earth guy,” said Ralston.
Located off 136 just feet from the intersection with 382, Milt Priest ran the country store before Highway 136 was paved and before Carters Lake became a tourist destination, confirmed his son, James Priest.
“He (started) in about 1950 when this was just a dirt road. The original store used to be behind where that one was built,” said James, 62, in reference to the former store building that’s since been sold and turned into a private residence.
“This whole section out here was almost vacant of people through the ‘60s,” he continued. “The pulpwood and paper mill companies, Bowater’s and Georgia Kraft, owned so much of the property. Almost this whole road was owned by pulpwood companies.”
James said his dad played a big role in part of 136 becoming a paved two-lane highway.
“He worked with people all over north Georgia — in Pickens, Gilmer and Murray County — to get it paved,” James confirmed. “He tried to coordinate it with all the commissioners because that wasn’t really too important in their book. The paving would have happened around 1960 or ‘61.”
Carters Lake dates back only to 1977, the man-made result of a 15-year dambuilding project by the Army Corps of Engineers that backed up a portion of the Coosawattee River to control annual flooding in the Etowah Valley.
The paved highway and creation of Carters Dam and Lake brought more traffic to the rural Talking Rock community, James said.
“Before that, (where we live) was really out in the country. Later, you started getting more people coming through just to go to the lake. Now this road has turned out to be a pretty big route not just for the lake, but for the marble dust and other things going out from Whitestone. It’s pretty important for commercial growth now,” he added.
The lengthy lake and dam construction project also brought additional business to the community store, James recalled.
“Ever since I can remember, we had surveyors coming in with Corps of Engineers stickers on their caps,” he said. “They must have killed 500 rattlesnakes when they were backing the water up (for the lake). People would come up the road saying they’d never seen so many rattlesnakes (out there).”
Priest also worked as a Gilmer school bus driver, but he didn’t drive a standard yellow bus when first hired as a contractor.
“Before they had the Ellijay schools, there used to be a little school on top of the hill called Berean School,” James remembered.
“When they opened the East Ellijay school, the county hired my dad as a contractor and he hauled the local kids to the East Ellijay school. He used his own vehicle, too. It was a truck with a homemade camper and with Gilmer County Schools on it. Later on, the county gave him a regular bus, which he drove for years.”
“Milt’s” or “Priest’s” was primarily a general store, as well as one of the only stops for fuel along the rural route that spans Pickens, Gilmer and Murray counties. The store later carried bait, tackle and other lake supplies for boaters and anglers.
“The old store was laid out to where everything on the shelves was behind the counter and you’d bring your list to the clerk. It was an isolated area and people needed a one-pump station so they could get gas,’ James recalled. “(Milt) was a Standard Oil dealer at first, but he switched to Wimpey’s Oil Company in Ellijay after he got electricity because they would give you an electric pump. With Standard, he still had to use a hand pump.”
Eldridge Silvers, a family friend who lived near James and his wife, Diane, for many years, said the store was a longtime landmark for those traveling to Ellijay along 382 from the west side of the county.
“Priest’s Store was always the place you told people to turn to go to Ellijay. On the other end, there was Green’s Store and Charles Green was its proprietor for years. Those were two landmarks for everybody in the area,” Silvers said.
The neighboring Milt’s Restaurant was one of few stops for food on the same route. Priest operated the store up to his passing in 1988, said James, who assisted in its operation for several years.
“(Dad) owned the restaurant building and different people ran it at different times,” he added. “He also cut timber and sawed lumber. He had a sawmill that they would move to different tracts of timber.”
Retired Ellijay Primary School teacher Debbie Smith has a lasting memory of the first time she and her husband, Neal, also a retired local educator, met Milt Priest and his wife, Mellene.
“Neal and I were working on our master’s degrees and we had research papers due the Monday after Thanksgiving. We decided not to go to my brother’s for Thanksgiving dinner with the family and stay home to write,” Smith recalled.
The two mistakenly expected at least one local restaurant would be open.
“We drove all over the county looking, (but found) nothing open,” Smith continued. “We drove by the store and Milt had run down to check on something. We stopped to talk to him for a minute. When he learned of our dilemma, he invited us to eat with them. I don’t remember writing the paper or what grade I got, but I will never forget his kindness to virtual strangers. Milt Priest earned his wings while here on Earth. He was one in a million without a doubt. ”
The marker dedicated June 29 that reads “Milton Priest Memorial Highway,” will be replaced with one noting the intersection itself, said a representative from Ralston’s office.
James is glad his dad’s memory will live on through the renamed section of highway.
“I inquired about how to get that done and, when they brought it up, they were agreeable to do it. I was surprised. I also had to get a resolution from the county and they were good to give it to me,” he said. “These days, very few stores seem to be owned by people who also live in (the same community). Most people own several stores and live somewhere else or you have a (chain) like a dollar store. That’s become the trend.”