Florence Walker has lived for decades outside Detroit, but she grew up in central Georgia’s Jones County, playing around a patch of hilly woods that, to a bunch of kids, seemed like any other tree-filled rural property. Back then, she was oblivious to the history of those woods—and the significance of the giant rock piles within them.
Walker is the great-great granddaughter of Jacob Hutchings—the previous owner, more than a century ago, of what’s come to be known as Jake’s Woods, located about 15 minutes northeast of Macon. Hutchings, a skilled stone mason born into slavery in 1831, quarried the 28-acre boulder field by hand, both as an enslaved man prior to the Civil War and later an emancipated business owner. He succeeded in buying the quarry during Reconstruction and played a significant role—literally—in building the county, carving the boulders for granite blocks that can still be found in street curbs, cemeteries, and the steps of the former courthouse and city jail in nearby Clinton. Hutchings would go on to become one of the first Black legislators in the Georgia General Assembly, and the first from Jones County, prior to his death in 1909. “Jake was a tall man of great strength, polite and well respected,” reads a historical marker in his honor today.
“We are very proud of our Jacob Hutchings,” says Walker, “and what he did in his life.”
The Hutchings family had passed down and overseen stewardship of the woods for generations, ending with Walker, who served as executrix of the estate that owned the land. By officially letting go and selling the property, Walker hopes the woods will be preserved in a functional way—and that her resilient ancestor’s legacy will be spotlighted like never before.
Should all go as planned, the quarried scars left by Hutchings’ handiwork so long ago will translate to unique fingerholds as a bouldering experience for rock-climbers around Macon, Atlanta, and possibly beyond.
Working with national nonprofit the Conservation Fund and other partners, Jones County recently acquired Jake’s Woods for $133,000 to refashion the property into a county park that officials say will be like no other in the region. In addition to a variety of expert-approved, climbable granite boulders suitable for most skill levels and ages, the $700,000 project (largely funded by grants) calls for: about three miles of trails for walking and mountain biking; a mile of trails through the boulders themselves; six wooden bridges; plus a new pavilion, parking lot, and numerous odes to Hutchings’ life and accomplishments. The acreage, for context, is roughly equivalent to Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park and Woodruff Park combined.
“It’s hard to explain how large these boulders are—they’re gigantic,” says Jason Rizner, Jones County administrator for the Board of Commissioners. (Earlene Hamilton, president of the nearby Old Clinton Historical Society, describes the granite outcroppings as “almost magical.”) “For us,” Rizner continues, “it’s a great opportunity to bring together certainly some very unique Jones County history and pair that with an outdoor recreation opportunity that we don’t have right now—which, frankly, I didn’t know was a sport until we got into all of this.”
The process began a decade ago when the Old Clinton Historical Society, intent to highlight an important but untold story, approached Walker about one day selling her family’s property for preservation’s sake. Two years ago, the historical society toured the woods with commissioners and the Conservation Fund—who all agreed they’d struck cultural, historical, and recreational gold. “I envision Jake’s Woods becoming a day-trip destination for folks throughout the Southeast interested in history, hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing,” says Roberta Moore, TCF’s field representative for the Southeast Region—and a rock climber herself.
Moore also foresees Jake’s Woods drawing in civil rights tourists interested in the Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction history of Clinton and county seat Gray, each with a wealth of artifacts, buildings, and historical places just down the street. Gray’s quaint downtown shops and restaurants are well-suited for post-hike day-trippers, says Walker.
In terms of next steps, the county will be working with a variety of partners to create interpretive and educational signage, facilities, and other facets around the park to relay its history and unique ecology (the woodlands, it turns out, are rich with Sweet Betsy). Meanwhile, the Southeastern Climbers Coalition and Access Fund are on board to assist the county in developing hiking and bouldering routes.
Rizner, the commissioner, says it all could be open by early 2024.
“Nothing in the scope is terribly time-consuming,” he says, “and we’re working through that process now. The next step is bidding out the trail.”
As for Walker, she says profits from the land sale went to the two grandsons of the original inheritor, her uncle William Hutchings. Although she worked to ensure Jake’s Woods was maintained, and the taxes paid, for many years, Walker was never in it for financial return, she says.
“It means a lot to the Hutchings family to see this piece of property preserved and dedicated to [Jacob],” says Walker. “I just can’t even begin to say the meaning it has for us—it’s just a wonderful thing.”