For more than 40 years, Don Henderson and the town of Cohutta have been inseparable.
In the late 1960s, Henderson was one of a small group of citizens who organized and lobbied the General Assembly to incorporate Cohutta. And after the town received its charter in 1968, voters elected him Cohutta’s first, and so far, only mayor.
But that era is coming to a close. Henderson declined to run for re-election this year, and he’ll step down as mayor from the city of about 600 on Dec. 31.
“I’m really proud of what we have done, but I just felt it was time,” Henderson said. “I don’t enjoy the job as much as I used to, and I’ve got a hearing problem. If I’m talking to you one on one, it’s not much of an issue. But if I’m in a group and three or four people are talking it can be difficult. And (Wednesday) was my 80th birthday. I’m still doing OK and feel fine, but 80 years is a long time.”
Henderson didn’t plan a career in politics when he got involved in efforts to incorporate Cohutta. The town had a charter in the 1800s but had lost it.
“It was a group from the Ruritan Club. We just wanted to get some services. We were up here away from everybody else and wanted to be able to provide some things for ourselves,” he said. “(State Rep.) Virgil Smith gave us a charter, and we had a lot of meetings to model it to suit our needs. I guess Stan Maples and I did most of the legwork. We’ve tweaked that charter a time or two since then, but it’s basically what we are still using.”
Henderson said he had no plans to run for office during all of that work.
“I had no intention of running for anything,” he said.
So what led to him first running?
“Nobody else wanted to,” he said with a laugh. “We were starting out with nothing but a charter, no money, no assets. We didn’t have anything.”
So what kept him going all these years?
“I guess I enjoyed it, on most days. I like meeting with people. I like trying to help them. I like seeing Cohutta improve,” he said.
It may have started with little, but Cohutta has added over the last 45 years a number of amenities and services: street lights, police, recreation facilities, a community center, garbage collection, ball fields and a walking track, zoning and a volunteer emergency medical service.
That last, started in 1985, is the service Henderson says he is most proud of.
“We are probably the only all-volunteer rescue unit in the state,” he said. “We do everything but transport people (to the hospital).”
Henderson said the town’s relative isolation from the rest of the county makes the emergency medical service so important.
The service is operated by the town’s volunteer fire department, which was founded in the 1950s.
One thing Cohutta doesn’t have is a property tax. Henderson said the council has never believed the city needed one. Instead, they have financed their budget, currently about $150,000 a year, from franchise fees on cable and utility companies, its share of the county local option sales tax, its share of the state insurance tax and court fines and fees.
It still has just two full-time employees, including the police chief, and two part-time police officers, as well as seasonal employees for things such as mowing in the summer. None of the Town Council members are paid.
“We really depend a lot on volunteers. This is still a community where people want to help out and volunteer,” Henderson said.
Henderson himself said he still puts in up to 20 hours a week on city projects including his duties as mayor.
Former Whitfield County Board of Commissioners member Leo Whaley, who served on the Cohutta Town Council for 25 years, said the city owes a great deal to Henderson.
“To put in those sort of hours for 45 years, with no pay? Not a lot of other people would do that. But he is really dedicated to the city,” Whaley said.
Cohutta had 661 residents according to the 2010 census, and Henderson said he knows most of the people who live there by name.
“We are small by design. That’s what we want. We think that’s what the people they want. Everyone says they moved to Cohutta because it is so quiet,” he said.
Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb said Henderson has always been clear and consistent in his goals for Cohutta.
“If you measure someone’s success by how much of his vision he is able to accomplish, then he has been a big success,” Babb said.
Henderson’s successor is Ron Shinnick, who has served on the council for almost 20 years, and Henderson says he feels confident the change will run smoothly.
“I plan to do what I can to help them out,” Henderson said.
But Henderson says he expects to now spend most of his time running the family farm.
“I’ll probably miss it at first, but there’s enough to do on the farm to keep me busy,” he said.