AS SEEN ON THE CUSP of spring, Thomasville, Georgia, might be any small town in the Deep South. But beneath the sultry perfume and soft palette of wisteria and azalea, wisps of Spanish moss drifting from gnarled live oak trees, and big, white-columned houses, lies an unusual story.

Thomasville’s rich, loamy soil and thick pine forests drew its earliest settlers, winners of the Georgia Land Lottery of 1820. Later, second sons of wealthy planters along the Atlantic Coast bought up tracts of land to grow cotton and rice and build showy houses. It looked as though the classic plantation culture had taken irrevocable hold until, with the Civil War, the town’s history swerved. Tom Hill, whose lively patter makes him not just curator of the local historical society but its star attraction, explains: “To understand it at all you must understand the kind of money coming in from 1870 to 1900. All Northern money. One out of every three men in Thomas County died in the war—a few years later we smiled at Yankees. The man who smiled had just laid down his gun. You can’t hate up close.”

The elegant homes on Thomasville’s shady residential streets and the old brick buildings housing an intriguing mix of shops along the perfectly groomed commercial blocks reflect the post-Civil War boom, a period known locally as the Hotel Era. One normally thinks of a health resort as commanding a mountaintop or the shore of a lake, but that wasn’t Thomasville’s lure. People seeking a cure for tuberculosis and other ailments came to the mildly scenic southwest corner of Georgia for the gentle climate and pine-scented breezes. At 350 feet above sea level, ran an 1891 ad, “this city … is entirely free from malaria or any disease generally particular to a low climate … come find relief and safety in this high, dry resinous atmosphere in which yellow fever has never been known.”

The railroad had made its way to Thomasville in 1861, briefly opening up visions of commerce until war intervened. Later, when the Hotel Era blossomed, 20,000 visitors would arrive by rail during the social season. The antebellum plantations were by then showplaces owned by Northerners, “some of the richest people who ever lived,” says Tom Hill. He cites Whitneys, Hannas, and many others with names less known but with fortunes equally secure.

The grand hotels that housed the thousands who swelled the town’s population no longer exist. The earliest, the Mitchell House, opened in 1876 and burned down ten years later. A surviving portion of its successor, which bore the same name, still stands on Broad Street, but so disguised that one would never know it. Neel’s, a department store that opened in 1899, reworked the structure several times and inhabited it until going out of business last year. (A new occupant has set up a fabric and decorating business on the ground floor.)

Thomasville in the 1880s “enjoyed the glittering spectacle of thousands of wealthy individuals parading through the community,” one historian writes. “There were European noblemen and American business moguls rubbing shoulders with local black and white residents on Broad Street, and an easy tolerance developed.” This urbane legacy has been instrumental in shaping the town’s success down to the present time.

In 2000 the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Thomasville among the year’s “Dozen Distinctive Destinations,” citing its cultural diversity, interesting architecture, and, most important for a community’s health, “dynamic downtown.” Two years earlier Thomasville had won the National Trust’s Great American Main Street Award, reflecting a commitment to preservation that goes back to the mid-1960s. It is a pleasure to stroll the commercial streets, whose appealing shops and eating places draw visitors from elsewhere in Georgia and neighboring Florida. Markers on many of the old brick buildings explain their nineteenth-century uses. An officesupply store occupies an 1886 bowling alley, and the former “Millinery and Dry Goods Store” is now Firefly Gifts. Several businesses have remained in the same spots for the best part of a century, their interiors scarcely changed. Izzo’s Pharmacy has its original 1920s soda fountain; Jerger Jewelers, established in 1857, houses its treasures in the same mahogany cabinets and deeply beveled glass display cases that greeted its 1880s clientele.

By 1905, Thomasville’s time as a resort was over. Two developments opened up tourism to northern Florida: the conquest of malaria and the railroad’s extension to St. Augustine. But the northern millionaires had set deep roots in the area, and they never left. Today, their fifth-generation descendants still own the huge estates in the nearby countryside that by the late 1800s had been adapted for the gentleman’s sport of quail hunting. They became known as hunting plantations, and seventy-one of them survive, covering a total of 300,000 acres. Two are open to the public: Melhana, which began accepting overnight guests in 1998, and Pebble Hill, which is run as a museum.