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More than fish in those waters
Lake transforms rural landscape of Gwinnett County

BUFORD - Randall Pugh's childhood can be marked by episodes on the water fishing with his father.

As he grew, the trips on flatboats poling down the Chattahoochee got more exciting as blasts from nearby construction brought a dangerous element to the expeditions.

But that construction - the blasting and earth-moving that created Buford Dam and forged Lake Sidney Lanier - not only made the fishing better, it also transformed his rural community at the border of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties.

"There's no comparison. Unless you were there, it would be difficult to comprehend the environment here in 1950," said Pugh, who is now the president of Jackson Electric Membership Corp. "This whole area was one of the most economically depressed areas in the state and in the country. I can remember when I was small, my dad used to say often, 'This old land in north Gwinnett and Forsyth County and Hall County wasn't worth anything but growing pine trees and making moonshine whiskey.' A lot of both of that happened."

Fifty years ago, the river where churches held baptisms and prospectors panned for gold made way for an entire lake full of possibilities.

Life on Rural Route 3

Pugh can trace his family history back to William Penn's settlement of Pennsylvania. He said they came to the area along the Chattahoochee - some on the Gwinnett County side and others on the Forsyth County side - in 1830, 12 years after Gwinnett was established.

The fertile farmland drew the family to the riverbanks, he said, but by the time he was born, the soil had been worked as hard as it could.

While his great-grandfather made his money from the cash crop of the day, cotton, Pugh's father made his living buying land, harvesting the pine trees on it for timber then selling the land away.

"If they had kept the land around where the lake was, they would have been extremely rich people, but they didn't think there was any value to the land itself," Pugh said.

After World War II, the fate of the community changed with the growth of the poultry industry and the construction of the Buford Dam, which was approved by the federal government in 1946 to produce hydroelectric power, control floods and help navigate the river downstream.

For the next several years, Pugh's boyhood memories living along Rural Route 3, which would later become Buford Dam Road, are filled with images of watching the earth-movers on an overlook with his father.

"It was just a massive project. Most people had never seen any of that," Pugh said, adding that many of his family members got jobs on the construction crew. One even died when a rock fell on his head during a blasting session.

And then in 1956 the gates were closed and families would gather to watch the lake fill, entranced by the water covering American Indian mounds, old roads and bridges, Pugh's great-grandfather's farm and even trees left to drown.

A great catch

Also left under the water was the land owned by Bill Anglin's wife's grandparents. That was where the first boats found a harbor at Holiday Marina, which celebrated its 50th anniversary along with the lake this year.

"He could have made a fortune, but we all could've in hindsight," Anglin said. "And the Bible tells us not to dwell on the past."

Anglin, who had begun working at a Main Street drug store in Buford about four years before the construction started, said changes were slow to come to the town.

"There was an anticipation of it," he said. "Almost all the conversations I had were talking about looking forward to fishing on it."

With a name nearly the same as the sport, Anglin spent his lunch breaks on a boat, catching a half-dozen or so fish as he ate his sandwich.

Some businesses began to profit off the lake, he said, talking about bait shops and similar fishing enterprises opening around town.

At the drug store, which Anglin later purchased, he kept a camera behind the counter for people to take photos of their catch.

His wife once caught a record white bass, but the record was eclipsed a year later. Lake Lanier still holds the record for white bass.

Anglin also snapped a photo once of what he swears would be a record rainbow trout.

"(The fisherman) didn't want to report it," though, he said. "He wanted to take it home and eat it."

Memories

While the lake helped the city grow, bringing first tourists then people settling for the summer, then making Buford their permanent home, Anglin said the lake has meant more to him than just economics.

"The beauty of it was what was so nice," he said. "It's a beautiful place, too. It gave somewhere close to go where you could recreate and relax. When I would go, I would get away from everything. ... I've got a lot of pleasant memories out there."

For Pugh, the birth of Lake Lanier brought a lot of changes.

The boy's family finally received electricity because crews extended power lines to help with construction.

His church, Shoal Creek Baptist, was moved off the land that is now Lake Lanier Islands because there was no plan for a road at the time, and the island would be isolated.

And the fishing - well, the fishing got even better, he said.

And once the flat-bottom John boats, which were often lost on the Chattahoochee in floods, were traded in for watercraft on Lanier, Pugh's father could ride on the waves and point down to the landmarks of his own youth.

"We'd be out in what I thought was the middle of the lake," Pugh said of his father's recollections of friends' homes. "He just had a vision of how everything looked."