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Storyteller Revealed

A Conversation with Lake Burton's Leading Author

by Kathleen Stevens Whaley

Novelist Mike Maffett will tell you anything you’d ever hope to know about the history of Lake Burton, the upper Tallulah River, every hike within a 30 mile radius of Clayton, Georgia, and his wife’s middle name.  But don’t ask him the title of his upcoming book.  It’s a secret.

For three long years, Maffett has tasked himself with penning a 65,000 word manuscript chronicling the rich history of Lake Burton, one of Georgia’s most beloved lakes.  In addition to the creative writing, Maffett has painstakingly gathered countless exhibits of personal testimony, maps, charts and vintage photographs for inclusion in the hardback.  For those unfamiliar with the lake, this means very little.  But for others who’ve summered on her shoreline since childhood, or discovered Burton’s pristine emerald waters along life’s journey, Maffett’s book can only be referred to as a long awaited gift to her disciples.  To Lake Burton’s faithful, there’s no place on earth equaling her mystic pull.

Plenty of literature has been written about Georgia, North Georgia adventures, the Appalachian Trail, Rabun County and other neighboring lakes.  But Maffett’s book is a first.  Its pages will concentrate solely on Lake Burton’s history, physicality, her people, and the greater legacy to America’s Southeast at large.

Most locals, repeat visitors and homeowners know the basics:  that Lake Burton’s inception cannot be credited to glacial formations, natural erosion or an ice age.  Man was involved.  Its creation bubbled forth from the minds of Gilded Age industrialists employed by Atlanta’s Georgia Railroad and Power at the turn of the century.  A technology boom was erupting across America.  Electricity.  Power.  Cities needed it.  Rural places like Tallulah Gorge boasting thundering waterfalls, had it.  For hydro-electric aficionados of the day, it was a match made in heaven.

In a stunning display of logistics and engineering, the 100 year-old town of Burton was dismantled, its valley of farmers were paid to relocate, and the Tallulah River, which had run free through the bottomlands of this picturesque landscape, was shuttered and silenced forever.  This is Lake Burton 101.

Maffett’s book digs further into lesser known details and the personal stories behind the facts.  For instance, tempers flared.  Swapping out the high-popular Tallulah Falls for an impassive hydraulic dam proved to be the first big environmental battle in the southeast.  Atlanta’s Helen Dortsch Longstreet led the impassioned cry.  Never the less, big business won.  Lake Burton Dam was completed in 1920.  A quiet valley braced itself, and started to fill.  Confused river water had no place to go but up.

To a modern-day kid zipping across Lake Burton’s surface on his jet ski, none of this matters.  But someday it might.  And that’s why Maffett has picked up his pen.  Or rather, spent untold hours hunched over a keyboard.  He’s crafted a masterpiece re-telling of this impressive yet melancholy story.  In a fantastic stroke of good luck for Lake Burton’s devoted, the book is due to publish spring 2020; just in time for the lake’s centennial.  Though it’s changed much since her humble beginnings of a remote fisherman’s paradise, passion for the lake has remained unabated through the decades.

Maffett himself is Lake Burton born and bred.  An Atlanta native, he was but 12 years old when his father went in halfsies on a small cabin at the north end of the lake.  The year was 1958.  Phil Maffett’s share of the property set him back $1,000.  A pinch more if you throw in annual property taxes of seven dollars.  Back then, Lake Burton’s target market were those high on nature, light on cash.  Atlanta’s monied elite had flocked to Lake Rabun with its closer proximity to the city, trains and other means of civilized transportation.  By comparison, Burton was wild.

Maffett, a retired physician, cuts a tall figure of affability and calm.  He talks with a slow, tempered voice, which somewhat belies how clearly excited he is about a wide variety of subjects.  In fact, Maffett is so knowledgeable on so many things, sitting down with him is like unwittingly signing up for a continuing-education class.  You want to pull up a bowl of popcorn, get comfortable and absorb the download.

Recently, tucked into a couch on his screened-in porch overlooking the lake, Maffett ran his hand through the soft coat of the family dog as he spoke of his personal Burton memories.  He recalled in the 1950’s and 60’s the lake would be drained down around thirty feet.  This allowed for kids, grandparents and souvenir hunters to stroll her shoreline pocketing 1,000 year old arrow heads and Indian pottery shards.  He fished and swam and boated around unencumbered, enjoying a kids’ paradise to the fullest.

By the early 1970’s, Maffett was bringing his long-legged girlfriend Beaty, up to the lake.  She was charmed.  The lake wasn’t bad either.  The two native Atlanta love-birds eventually married, and in 1991 they purchased their own lake lot, establishing their legacy on the lake.  For twenty years, friends, family and an ever-revolving circus of kids, smushed into a 1,000 square foot cabin perched at the water’s edge.  Like the lake itself, humble beginnings.

“I see the upper Tallulah Basin as a special, if not unique place, from both a natural history perspective and in the history of our nation.” Maffett mused with gentle smile.

But why would any author spend exhaustive hours writing and gathering content on a project, then refuse any form of compensation?  All book profits, in fact, will be donated to the Lake Burton Civic Association at Maffett’s behest.

“There are dreams of turning two original 1920’s La Prades cabins into a Lake Burton Historical Museum,” Maffett revealed.   “Relocate them closer to the shoreline, with maybe even a shop.”  But even more than that, Maffett has written this book as a legacy to a special place that he and his multigenerational family have loved for almost seventy years.

The author wants people to understand that Burton was on the forefront of the pioneer movement at a highly transitional time.  He insisted most area lake lovers truly don’t understand the impact Lake Burton played in Atlanta’s growth and rebirth of the south.  Like the rest of rural America, before modern technology and electricity seeped through farmlands and backroads, people were quite literally in the dark.

“When the sun went down,” Maffett explained, “The day was over.”

Damming the upper Tallulah River birthed power.  Power brought illumination.  Almost with a flick of a light switch, Rabun County found itself connected with the outside world.  A small vignette of the bigger picture that was stretching across our nation.

The keepsake book Maffett has written will be professionally designed and published by Shock Design out of Atlanta.  Laurie Shock is a creative veteran within the world of book design and publishing.  Maffett feels fortunate to have her talents on board.  In short, the book will be gorgeous.  With a price point of around $65, the hardback will undoubtedly fly off the proverbial shelves.  Coordinating with other centennial products and activities around the lake summer 2020, look to purchase Maffett’s book at both La Prade’s Marina and Anchorage Boat Dock, stores in Clayton and of course, on the Lake Burton Civic Association website.  LBCA believed in the project from the start.  Its board of directors decided to financially underwrite the endeavor, ensuring the manuscript saw the light of day.

As we sat on Mike and Beaty’s back porch talking, we watched the sun break through a loitering cloudbank left over from a recent rain.  The zoom of a boat motor was heard.  Its mechanical growl altered us to an old bowrider advancing into the cove.  Maffett turned his head to the sound.  A boy around twelve years old, piloted his wakeboard across the glassy surface behind the boat, cutting wide.  Having the time of his life.  Mike smiled, perhaps reminiscing he himself was around that age when he first came to the lake.

“I want people to share my insights,” Maffett said, wistfully petting the lounging dog curled up by his side.  “And for future generations to not forget what this personal Eden represents.”

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