In the past 3 ½ years, Sweetwater Creek State Park has seen some of its most significant changes since it was established in 1972, and David Jordan has been there as park manager to help oversee it all.
The park added overnight camping two years ago, with 10 yurts and five camp sites. And this year the mill ruins from the 168-year-old New Manchester Manufacturing Company were restored so the iconic, five-story brick structure burned by Union soldiers in the Civil War will be intact for future generations to enjoy.
Additionally, the number of trails at Sweetwater has roughly doubled to the current seven trails covering 15 miles of piedmont forest in Jordan’s time at Sweetwater, a project that his predecessor as park manager, Brad Ballard, started.
Jordan is a self-described “community guy,” and while his job requires him to live on site at the Lithia Springs park, he and his wife, Pam, have ingrained themselves in the Douglas County community during their time here, helping start a civic group and staying active in their church.
But the life of a state park manager is often a journey. And now, for the Jordans, that means a move to a new state park.
Jordan was recently promoted to park manager at Laura S. Walker State Park in Waycross. Jordan’s last day at Sweetwater was Thursday. After taking some leave and loading up the moving truck, he’ll start his new job on Nov. 1.
“As hard as it is for me to leave this park, in order for me to continue to advance my knowledge and my abilities with our department, I’m eventually going to need to move up," Jordan said, standing inside the newly restored mill ruins Wednesday morning. “So I thought this would be a good opportunity to do that. I tried to leave this place in as best condition as I could just like every other manager has.”
While he’ll be moving about five hours away, Jordan is leaving a lasting legacy in Douglas County.
In addition to the improvements he’s overseen at Sweetwater, he and his wife are also involved in the Church at Chapelhill and the Friends of Sweetwater Creek State Park volunteer group.
And he helped start the Optimist Club in Douglas County that just turned 2 years old. Jordan said he believes civic clubs are important and help make people more well-rounded.
The Optimist Club focuses on helping children, and the local chapter was organized at Sweetwater Creek State Park.
“My wife and I, we can’t have children, so we’ve always been involved in a civic group called Optimist International,” he said. “Every community that we’ve worked in. One of our dreams when we came here was to start an Optimist Club here in Douglasville. And we were very excited we were able to get it going. In fact, I’m the current treasurer for the Optimist Club, and even though I’m moving away I’m still going to be treasurer for the Optimist Club and fulfill my obligation for this year. We’ll be able to work it out long distance.”
Journey to the Next Level
Sweetwater Creek State Park is the closest state park to Atlanta, and it’s also Georgia’s busiest state park. There were 812,227 visitors to Sweetwater in Fiscal Year 2016. That number dropped a little to 775,246 in FY2017 when the area was in the midst of a drought that brought wildfires, a ban on campfires and lower water levels to the creek and lake at Sweetwater.
Jordan said the Georgia Department of Natural Resources organizes state parks based on the number of facilities and employees they have, with historic sites at the bottom, and then upward from Class I state parks, to Class II and Class III at the top.
While Sweetwater Creek has more visitors than any other state park, and at 2,549 acres is about four times larger than the 626 acres at Laura S. Walker, Sweetwater is a Class II park and Laura S. Walker is Class III park. That’s because Laura S. Walker has many more structures to manage along with more employees; there are 44 campsites, six sportsman’s cabins, a group camp that sleeps 142, a pioneer campground, a 120-acre lake and an 18-hole golf course that Jordan will be in charge of at Laura S. Walker.
Jordan said being a state park manager is like being a CEO, where he is responsible for everything from budgets to clearing fallen trees from trails to helping injured hikers and everything in between.
Laura S. Walker will be Jordan’s sixth state park and his third park as manager over a roughly 23-year career with the state that has included five years with the Department of Corrections before he moved over to the Department of Natural Resources.
He started out at Sprewell Bluff State Park in his hometown of Thomaston as an enforcement ranger, then moved to Hart State Park in Hartwell as assistant manager and then manager. After that, he took a position as assistant manager at Seminole State Park in Donalsonville and then an assistant manager position at F.D. Roosevelt State Park in Pine Mountain before accepting the park manager job at Sweetwater in April 2014 when Ballard, the former Sweetwater manager, was promoted to manager of Fort Mountain State Park, a Class III park in Chatsworth.
Jordan said he almost died during one of those stops. He said he likes to do educational programs and used to keep venomous snakes in his house. In 2010, while getting ready for work at Seminole State Park, he was bitten by a venomous snake while feeding it. He said he took two ambulance rides and a helicopter ride, and spent seven days in the hospital where he received 65 vials of antiventom. He still does snake programs at the state parks he works at and out in the community, but he said the only snake in his house now is a ball python.
Jordan found out on Oct. 13 that he had gotten the job at Laura S. Walker, and he made the announcement last Monday, Oct. 16, his first official day assigned as manager at his new job.
During his tenure at Sweetwater, Jordan said he’s most proud of DNR’s efforts to restore the mill ruins and of the support from his staff and the Friends of Sweetwater volunteer group during the process.
Another thing he said he’s proud of is the diversity at Sweetwater, recalling conversations with visitors to the park from all over the world.
“I’ve tried to make this as diverse a state park as I could,” Jordan said. “That’s why we get people of all creeds, all races, all nations and countries to the park. And that’s very important. If you can work for our department and you can take a park and really open it up and encourage people from all over the world to come in and visit, that’s good for the community and it’s good for the park and it’s good for you.”
He said the thing that still surprises him the most is local residents, many in their 60s, 70s and 80s, who come to the park to fish in the lake at Sweetwater and are completely unaware of the New Manchester mill ruins, which he said are sort of an "icon or image" most people think of when they think of the park.
As he leaves, he said plans are in place for more improvements at Sweetwater including a new boat dock next to the bait shop, and more parking and new restrooms near the trailhead.
Walking through the ruins Wednesday, his last full day at Sweetwater, he pointed to heavy steel supports called lintels put in all window sills and other parts of the structure to secure it.
He noted that during the restoration, two Union soldiers’ names — Gilbert and Davidson — were uncovered on the inside of the mill. The two soldiers also carved their names on the outside of the mill.
The mill and its history are things that excited Jordan and assistant manager Royce Johnson — who will be in charge at Sweetwater until a new park manager is hired — about coming to work at the park.
“This park is extremely unique,” Jordan said. “You’ve got history. You’ve got flora and fauna. And you’ve got part of the piedmont forest. All of those things really make this park unique. But if you think about it, every state park that we have in Georgia is a little bit unique. One has a little something different that another one doesn’t have. And that’s probably one of the things that me as a manager, or Royce Johnson, our assistant manager, that’s one of the things that draws us to a park too is there’s so much to learn, so much going on and so much history.”
And with Laura S. Walker, he’ll get a chance to learn a new park and all its unique history. Even though he hasn’t worked a day at the park yet, he can cite from memory an inventory of interesting facts about Walker, who was born in 1861 in Milledgeville and was heavily into forestry, civic activity and educational programs.
Jordan said Laura S. Walker was the first state park named for a woman, was once a national park and is the 13th Georgia state park.
Laura S. Walker is located on the northern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp and the 36,100-acre Dixon Wildlife Management Area is close by.
“It’ll be a little bit different experience than what we’ve had here at Sweetwater Creek,” Jordan said. … “Although we’re leaving this park and going to a whole other community and whole other area, we’ll build the same relationships with the folks that my wife and I have built here and the park staff has built here."