Courtesy Rick Lucas
Editor’s Note: Ellijay, Georgia, was selected as one of Reader’s Digest’s Nicest Places in America. Meet the winner, find out how the finalists were selected, and hear from our chief judge, Robin Roberts.
On a cold January morning nine years ago, Steve Cortes and his wife were traveling in Ellijay, a tiny town of 1,600 nestled in Georgia’s Smokey Mountains. It was just about time for breakfast as they stumbled upon the Cornerstone Café, only to find it jam-packed. Just as they prepared to go elsewhere, one of the diners motioned them over. “We can make room,” he said. In fact, several diners scooched over until there was enough space for the couple to pull up two chairs at the end of a table. Breakfast, and camaraderie, was served.
“After an hour, we had made too many friends to count,” Cortes wrote.
The hospitality may have surprised the Corteses, but Ellijay is famous in these parts for taking care of others. When an epic thunderstorm roared through the town in July, dozens of residents were trapped in their homes by fallen trees—or unable to stay in their homes at all. Without even being asked, neighbors offered neighbors food and comfort.
“This is the most amazing place I have ever lived! Every time I think about it, I actually get emotional,” one woman wrote on Facebook. “Thank you for coming to my house, picking up my generator, working on it, then bringing it back to my house at 10 p.m. and hooking it up for me. Thank you for the delicious chicken and dumplings and fresh pineapple.”
But this neighborly kindness is the norm here in Ellijay; it’s the town’s kindness towards newcomers that sets it apart. As the apple capital of Georgia, Ellijay has seen migrant farm workers from Mexico and Central America come through town to help pick the Granny Smiths and Fujis and Honeycrisps during the harvest season.
In some towns, those new arrivals might have had the welcome mat pulled out from under them. But the people of Ellijay have made room. The Gilmer Learning Center now teaches English as a second language, while the Catholic Church offers Mass in Spanish. A charity fashion show and auction are also in the works, with the proceeds earmarked for the farm families.
“I came to the United States from Mexico not knowing any English, and I’ve always felt very welcomed by my peers and the teachers in the community,” says Maria Gonzalez-Santos, 21, a biology major at the local community college.
When Gonzalez-Santos’s father was picked up and held at an ICE detention facility after his work permit had expired, community members did everything they could to lend the family a hand. “People were constantly checking up on us, asking if we needed help paying bills, transportation, or food—people who my dad has worked for, several of my teachers, and my employer checked on us,” says Gonzalez-Santos. “Regardless of their political stances, we’ve always felt support here. I am very thankful for this community. It’s shaped me into the person I am today.”
Not only that, many locals don’t even consider their new neighbors to be new at all; they’ve become part of the fabric of the city. As Devell Frady, a resident building contractor, puts it: “I don’t know that the majority of the people here notice a ‘very large influx’…they’re just people. They live and breathe just like everyone else and they need to work too.”
Don Hyde, a volunteer with the local Good Samaritan Catholic Church, agrees: “I have never seen any animosity. You just don’t see it. This is the friendliest little town. Everybody says good morning; everybody says hello; everyone smiles. It’s like Norman Rockwell. You have a party and everyone shows up with a dish.”
Ellijay’s spirit of acceptance has a way of staying with people. It happened to Steve and Marie Cortes too. They started off simply driving through town those many years ago, but they felt so welcomed that they ended up moving to Ellijay. They even opened a store—WhimZ, a children’s clothing boutique. You can find it right next door to the Cornerstone Café.