The history of Sugar Hill and Buford are deeply connected. The name of William Millington Shelley may be unknown in modern times, but when he passed away at the age of 86 in 1940, it was major news inside and outside of Sugar Hill and Buford. The Atlanta Constitution ran a special titled “W.M. Shelley, 86, Buford, Succumbs” on March 3, 1940. In the article about his death, the writers noted that he was an Atlanta Constitution subscriber and reader for more than half a century.
William was not just known for his newspaper subscription status. He was also well-known for his public service to Buford, Gwinnett County and a local school where he served as a trustee. The article also stated that “alert and active until his last illness, Mr. Shelley never wore glasses, and drove his automobile until about two years ago.” William was a frequent glimpse of old-world charm for passersby as he drove from his old white home on Level Creek in what is now Sugar Hill to Buford.
William was born in England, but at the age of 16 moved with his father and family to Virginia. His father, Edward, was a geologist and was pursuing coal mining interests there. William was also a geologist. He would join his father in a later move to the Sugar Hill community in the 1880s to prospect for gold. William was joined by his wife, Elizabeth, on the journey to settle in Georgia. Upon their arrival, the Shelley family invested in gold mines and purchased 249 acres near Level Creek. Edward would later move back to Virginia, leaving William and Elizabeth behind with the gold mining operations in Georgia.
William, in his life, established himself as a man of civic engagement and political involvement. William held the position of justice of the peace for nearly 48 years. Additionally, William served as clerk of the City Court of Buford from its beginnings in 1914, as a commissioner for Gwinnett County and trustee for a local school.
Up until 1925, he also served as city clerk of Buford, and in a letter included in an Atlanta Journal article in that same year, describes a “Dixie Motorcade” car ride that would enter the state from Chattanooga and include prominent Buford citizens like the mayor and members of the city council. In the letter, City Clerk Shelley writes that “the city of Buford [will] enter a car in the Atlanta Journal motorcade of the Appalachian Scenic Highway.”
William was somewhat of a character to residents of Buford and the Sugar Hill community. In the book by Charlotte Howerton titled “The House on Level Creek Road,” she writes: “He would entertain his friends with tales of Britain, Scotland, and Ireland. His British accent was more entertaining than his old-world tales, due to a mixture of southern drawl and Irish jargon.”
In his years of living and serving in the Sugar Hill community and Buford, he gained quite a good reputation and garnered the respect of his neighbors. Even though William had chosen not to pursue a law degree in his early years, he was often referred to as Squire Shelley and, sometimes, mistakenly referred to as Judge Shelley. His role as justice of the peace and city clerk of Buford won him admiration from the legal community. On June 8, 1940, a tribute was held for Squire Shelley in Judge Marvin Allison’s courtroom in Buford, with a memorial address from attorney Joseph Quillian of Winder.
William would not make it rich from mining gold in the Sugar Hill community and, in fact, there would be hard times for the Shelley family beginning in the depression years for Georgia and even past his death. On Aug. 22, 1940, Rowe Land Company of Buford would auction off 180 acres of his property with an estimated 1.5 million feet of timber. While history does not record the amount of money the acreage sold for, we do know that the old white home on Level Creek Road would be passed down through descendants of William up until very recently. Squire Shelley’s legacy lives on through family, the old white home on Level Creek Road and the written stories about an Englishman that could cite the law like a judge and still dance an Irish jig.
Brandon Hembree is mayor of Sugar Hill. He is a 20-year resident of the city, and he uses his interest in history to detail Sugar Hill’s rich past.
FEATURED PHOTO: William Shelley, seated, third from left, is pictured with his family, including his wife, Elizabeth, seated, fourth from left. Photo courtesy of Brandon Hembree.