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The making of an equestrian community

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On March 23, 1858, Milton County was officially established and roughly covered the area presently known as North Fulton with Alpharetta designated as the Milton County seat. Milton County encompassed the present-day cities of Milton, Johns Creek, Mountain Park, and parts of Roswell and Sandy Springs. 

At that time, horses were considered “beasts of burden,” working on farms and providing transportation. Milton County became a stopover for pioneers traveling between the mountain communities to the railroad terminus, later named Atlanta.  

The time spent traveling was every bit the issue then as it is today, with the saying “Good horses make short miles.” In the spring and fall, local farmers on horseback would drive their livestock, potatoes, apples and honey to Atlanta. They would return home with clothing, tools and other “big city” items. It was not uncommon to see a countryman returning from the Atlanta market fast asleep, slumped forward over his saddle bag, while his horse plodded his own way home.  

From its inception, Milton County suffered one devastating hardship after another. First came the Civil War, then a smallpox epidemic, followed by the boll weevil infestation, and ultimately the Great Depression, which forced Milton County to merge with Fulton County to save it from bankruptcy.

Fortunately, after the merger, life soon improved for the former Milton County residents in terms of improved roads, new school buildings and better equipped teachers. After World War II, Ford, General Motors and Lockheed opened manufacturing plants which offered employment opportunities for local residents. With more discretionary money, horseback riding evolved into a recreational activity and competitive sport.

Local farmers with a good ring would host one-day shows for saddle clubs, hunt clubs, 4-H shows and other multi-disciplined events. Competitions grew in size and popularity. Over time, these “mom-and-pop” shows were replaced by large scale, multi-day equestrian events specializing in hunting, jumping, dressage, cross country, rodeos, polo tournaments and more.

The Wills Park Equestrian Center became a haven for horse enthusiasts and regional competitors which made North Fulton a horse capital of the South. Today, Wills Park hosts over 50 horse shows/year, including horse jumping competitions and championship rodeos.  

The Shakerag Hounds, the oldest recognized hunt in Georgia, was located on the eastern edge of the former Milton County (near McGinnis Ferry and Medlock Bridge Roads). This hunter group recently celebrated its 75th anniversary and like many equestrian organizations, Shakerag is passionate about land conservation. Folks who enjoy horseback riding usually have a great love for the outdoors.

Today, when visitors come to Milton, they feel like they’ve arrived in a unique place, not Anytown, USA. They may see horse people with boots and britches having coffee at Starbucks or lunching at the Old Blind Dog. People appreciate Milton’s bucolic character, and we certainly love our horses! From its humble beginnings as a beast of burden 160-plus years ago to today, the horse has become a symbol of pride and beauty for Milton. 

Jeff Dufresne is a member of the Milton Historical Society and will deliver a lecture on “Milton’s History with Horses – The Making of an Equestrian Community” at the Milton Library, 855 Mayfield Road on Tuesday, Oct. 22 starting at 6:30 p.m.