Harlem, Georgia, (population 2,000) was founded in 1870 by an Augusta doctor and a Georgia railroad engineer who wanted a liquor-free town in which to raise their families. Lined with big oaks and blessed with good drinking water, the town was a haven for many Augusta residents, especially during summer outbreaks of smallpox and cholera.
Before long, Harlem boomed with an oil/fertilizer plant, an opera house, hotel, high school, and 10 passenger trains daily. A 1917 fire in the downtown area and the Depression halted the town’s prosperity, and Harlem thereafter relied on its ties with the Georgia railroad to sustain its status. It remained a small and family-oriented community in which people could tell if a family had money by whether the street in front of its house was paved.
By 1943, all the streets were paved, and Harlem had a movie theater that showed the latest films, including those of its most famous native son, comedian Oliver Hardy, who was born in Harlem in 1892. Harlem also had two manufacturing plants and continued to be a regular stop along the Georgia railroad until 1983.
Harlem has done much to preserve its past. In 2005, it established a building façade program to revitalize historic downtown buildings and the following year launched a streetscape project. The Columbia Theatre, the oldest theater in Columbia County, is being renovated and will serve as a cultural arts center.
The Laurel & Hardy Museum and an annual Oliver Hardy festival, which honors the portly comedian and celebrates the town’s history, draws 30,000 visitors to Harlem each year.
Designated a Preserve America Community in June 2007.