CHENNAULT, Ga. - Walker Norman's childhood was filled with legends of Confederate gold hijacked and hidden in the red clay hills of Lincoln County.
The lost wagon train was never found. But the same vacant forests that lured searchers for a century are yielding a different sort of treasure today.
"It's absolutely amazing," said Mr. Norman, the chairman of the rural county's board of commissioners. "And it's happening faster than most people think."
The sudden treasure - resort development - has emerged from an unlikely source.
Timber companies that bought surplus government land decades ago along Thurmond Lake began selling off those parcels this year - and the buyers are developers planning high-end, gated communities.
The catalyst that got things started, Mr. Norman said, was a speculative project called Savannah Bay.
With 125 acres and 68 lots, a Greenwood, S.C., developer rolled the dice two years ago with an $800,000 investment in property backed by $2.7 million in marketing and infrastructure.
When the lots went on sale, with many priced in the $150,000 range, the results were amazing.
"They sold $10 million in two weekends," Mr. Norman said.
Savannah Bay's sales, mostly to Atlanta-area residents, caught the attention of other developers who were ready to pounce when timber companies began selling other lake parcels this year.
One tract includes 954 acres formerly held by International Paper Co., which acquired it in the 1960s for about $100 per acre.
Kenny Adair, the county's chief tax appraiser, is familiar with the property.
"We had it appraised at $320,000 in 2001," he said. "We knew it might be worth more, and we raised it four times and ended up at $1.25 million, which we thought was about right."
Two years later, it sold for $4.6 million to developers investing millions more in a new gated community called Stillwater Coves, where waterfront lots will be priced in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.
The subdivision lies atop some of the highest land in Lincoln County and along the lake, where the Corps of Engineers retains ownership of "collarlands" that surround the water itself.
Because those collars are defined by elevation, the steeper the terrain, the closer private homes can be to the water.
Some of the choicest lots in Stillwater Coves are barely 50 feet to 100 feet from the water, and the homes eventually built there will be in the $1 million range.
"It's being marketed to people in the Atlanta area and in large cities," said Meg Burg, the county's planning and zoning director. "They've had a huge response from Atlanta, and with all the hurricane problems, there are lots of people in Florida looking up this way, too."
though Thurmond Lake has been developed for decades, with much of its 1,200-mile shoreline already dotted with small subdivisions, the large, undeveloped parcels in northern Lincoln County are free of homes because they have been tied up by timber interests for almost 40 years.
With these time capsules being opened for development, there is an opportunity for more elaborate - and expensive - resort development that differs greatly from past projects.
Bryce Grafton, the director of sales for Stillwater Coves, said Thurmond Lake is underpopulated and gorgeous - a surefire mix for profitable resorts.
"You'll find, in three to four years, the northern end of this lake will look completely different," he said. "There will be development, more people, new businesses."
Stillwater Coves, he said, will hold its official opening Nov. 11-12.
"We'll have two helicopters to fly people around in, four or five boats and even a crane to lift people up over the treetops to see the property," Mr. Grafton said.
A catered reception with live music will be held in nearby Washington, Ga., and a fireworks display is planned.
"We'll have plenty of people there," he said.
Recent presentations on the Lincoln County development have taken place in such locations as the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Orlando, Fla., and in similar hotels in Jacksonville and Panama City.
"The interest we're getting from Florida is amazing," he said. "With the weather and all the hurricanes, people are looking at other places."
Stillwater Coves is just one of many such projects in varying stages of development in Lincoln County.
Mrs. Burg's office is involved with six subdivisions planned or proposed, in addition to Savannah Bay, where homes already are being built, with new inquiries coming in weekly.
"At one point, we were getting as many as eight inquiries a day about land," she said. "Most of it's generated by IP (International Paper) selling properties on the lake."
The pricey lots and homes have raised eyebrows among locals, but Atlanta residents eager for a view have apparently taken notice.
A list of owners of lots in Savannah Bay, for example, includes addresses in Roswell, Lawrenceville, Dunwoody, Duluth, Stone Mountain, Alpharetta and Atlanta - and others as far south as St. Petersburg, Fla., and as far north as Fairview, N.C.
Though rapid growth has burdened some county services and school systems in Columbia County, local government is expected to benefit from resort growth in Lincoln County, Ms. Burg said.
"It usually costs a lot when you have a lot more kids going to the schools," she said. "But the average age of these buyers is in the 45- to 65-year-old class, so there wouldn't be a huge increase in children."
Also, she said, many buyers of pricey lakefront homes are absentee owners with primary homes elsewhere, meaning they are unlikely to enroll more children in local schools.
MR. ADAIR SAID the spiraling land prices have kept his office busy trying to keep assessments on par with changing values.
"I've had a hard time keeping up," he said. "There are new sales coming in every week."
The resort development also is boosting property values in existing subdivisions, which typically have a mix of older and newer homes. In one recent series of transactions, a pair of lots in an established area sold for $85,000 apiece, only to change hands a few weeks later for $135,000 each, he said. Within 90 days, they sold again - for $180,000.
Though the new developments are private, and most will have gated entrances, the Corps of Engineers retains ownership of the waterfront and maintains scores of public-access areas such as boat ramps, campgrounds and day-use parks throughout the lake. Lincoln County also has several large parks, including Elijah Clark State Park north of Lincolnton, with an abundance of public waterfront areas.
Although Lincoln County has just 8,800 residents (or 13,000, according to Mr. Norman, who challenges U.S. Census data), there are few services available that cater to well-to-do city folks.
But so far, it hasn't been a problem.
"The people in Atlanta love it over here," Mrs. Burg said. "To them, it's like Mayberry. They're always looking for Barney."
Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.