Thanks to an 1821 treaty between the state of Georgia and the Creek Indians, lucky land lottery winners began moving into the newly minted Houston County that same year, claiming tracts for about 7 cents an acre and starting to plow the fertile, sandy loam for corn, wheat, potatoes and fresh garden vegetables. The county took its name from Gov. John Houstoun, one of the original Sons of Liberty of the American Revolution. And though over the years the spelling has been slimmed to “Houston,” it’s still pronounced the way he did: “HOW-ston.”
Rail and Transit Access
Georgia’s first railroad tracks were laid in the mid-1830s on routes leading from Athens, Augusta, Macon and Savannah. Some 25 years later, the state not only could claim more rail miles than any other in the Deep South but also had linked its major towns and created a new rail center in Atlanta. In the early 1900s, a tiny train made its way into Houston County. Its first stop, named Wellston in honor of William H. Wells, the chief engineer of the Georgia Southern and Florida Railroad, was built on land that is now known as Robins Air Force Base and Middle Georgia Regional Airport. After that, the railroads continued to expand until the 1920s, when a long decline began that lasted into the 1990s. Today, the state’s rail system is a strong, 5,000-mile network anchored by two major lines, Norfolk Southern and CSX, and a couple dozen short lines.
By the 1880s, Houston County had become the largest peach-growing county in the United States, according to the Georgia Department of Agriculture. The county’s rural roots are celebrated to this day at public venues like the Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter in Perry, the county seat, and smaller private enterprises such as nurseries, roadside produce stands, farmers markets and garden clubs.
These days, though, agriculture is far overshadowed by manufacturing and Robins Air Force Base, Georgia’s largest single industrial complex with approximately 22,000 workers, an annual $1.38 billion payroll and a $2.87 billion contribution to the Georgia economy in fiscal 2017, an $11 million increase over fiscal 2016.
Abundant labor and easy transportation have drawn other industries over the years, but the two biggest boosts to the economy were the Army’s 1941 selection of level cotton fields near the railroad stop of Wellston for a depot, named Robins Field in memory of Brig. Gen. Augustine Warner Robins, onetime spy and the Air Force’s “Father of Logistics,” and the decision to run Interstate 75 north-south through the county under the direction of another hero general, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Father of the Interstate Highway System.”
Amid World War II and security demands extending into the 21st century, Robins Field evolved into Robins Air Force Base, home of the Air Force Materiel Command’s Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex, worldwide manager of aircraft, engines, missiles, software and avionics and accessories — and the engine for much of middle Georgia’s economic growth.
And growth has boomed. The U.S. Census estimated that in 2017 more than 153,000 people lived in Houston County in its three largest towns — Warner Robins, Perry and Centerville — plus its unincorporated communities and rural areas. Nearly 90 percent of residents over 25 held at least a high school diploma, and about a quarter had attained a bachelor’s degree or higher. More than 17,000 veterans called “Georgia’s Most Progressive County” home. Per capita personal income was $25,289, and the median household income was $55,480, higher than the state’s $51,037 the census said.
According to the Houston County Development Authority, other target industries that drive the region’s economy include aerospace, advanced manufacturing, food processing, distribution, and logistics and agribusiness.
Robins Air Force Base
Nearly 25 percent of the jobs in Houston County are at Robins Air Force Base. The approximately 22,000 people who work there — including military, civil service and private contractors — make the base the largest employer in Georgia. Robins Air Force Base is estimated to have an annual economic impact of almost $2.9 billion in the state of Georgia, according to the 2016 Robins Air Force Base Economic Impact Statement.