Montezuma (population 3,999) is a little town in the Middle Flint region of South Georgia. It has its origins in settlements associated with land grant lotteries, and its development has been driven by the evolution of transportation. Land lots were surveyed in the late 1700s beginning at a point known as “Travelers Rest,” a fork on a trading path at a river crossing. By the 1840s, the trading post boasted a ferry that could accommodate stagecoaches. The village’s prosperous businesses, school, and churches served area planters. It was poised to blossom from a frontier village into a transportation center, when it was announced in 1851 that the railroad was to cross further to the north.
The intrepid proprietors of the village disassembled their homes and businesses, resettled upriver, and incorporated the thriving town of Montezuma in 1854. Once the Flint River was determined to be navigable in 1887, steamboat builders incorporated, providing another means of shipping agricultural products. A bridge built in 1889 was abandoned for a new steel and concrete structure in 1902, and replaced with a steel bridge capable of supporting automobiles in 1916.
A knitting mill ushered in manufacturing, while the advent of refrigerated shipping expanded produce markets. A vegetable freezing plant helped revived the community. Over time, however, as the Interstate Highway System bypassed rural communities, passenger rail declined, and the textile industry waned, Montezuma’s economic base withered. This decline led to disinvestment in the downtown area and failure to repair vacant historic structures.
In 2006, concerned citizens, business owners, and local government officials sought assistance from the state, which recommended participation in the Georgia Better Hometown Program. To be included, Montezuma has to complete a 30-task checklist within a two-year time frame, with activities coordinated by the Downtown Development Authority, a public-private partnership. Active citizen participation has been essential to revitalization efforts, and a downtown work plan is being implemented. The city has committed itself to operating a downtown welcome center, participating in tourism partnerships, and supporting docents for the historical museum. The Better Hometown Program has helped reconnect citizens with their heritage and is promoting Montezuma’s heritage attractions throughout the region. Tangible results include five new businesses Downtown, generating 19 new jobs. Previously neglected historic buildings are being maintained and used.
The Macon County Historical Society and downtown merchants purchased the Norfolk Southern Railroad Depot in 1980. A Department of Transportation grant helped restore the structure, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and housing the Macon County Historical Museum. Montezuma’s Downtown Manager runs a youth internship program, which provides experience in community development, historic preservation, and event promotion. An active cadre of students serves as volunteer docents for the Historical Museum. A youth variety show about local history is under development, to be produced in the freight room of the Depot.
Montezuma has a Historic Preservation Commission, a National Register-listed historic district, and a design review process for the district. A façade improvement grant program has also been established.
The annual Beaver Creek Festival, initially called the “Flood Festival,” was established to support the rehabilitation of the historic downtown and railroad depot after a devastating 1994 flood. More than 3,000 participants enjoy the community’s cultural and heritage resources while raising funds to help preserve them.
Designated a Preserve America Community in October 2009.