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Ben McDonald Urged Celebrating First Armistice Day

By  Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian

 

Congress in 1954 changed its name to “Veteran’s Day”. But Folkston and Charlton County observed its first unofficial Armistice Day on November 11, 1918. The climax came after a month of negotiations when the German government signed the armistice treaty at five o’clock in the morning in a railroad dining car in the forest of Compiegne. President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day a year later, in 1919.

 

That first Armistice Day marked the end of the bitter fighting in Europe. The Allies had beaten the Germans to their knees, and at six o’clock Folkston time, Monday morning November 11, 1918, World War One officially ended. The war had cost America the lives of 130,000 and another 203,000 were wounded.

 

The people of Folkston and Charlton County had trouble celebrating. The county and the nation were in the middle of a world-wide influenza epidemic which claimed the lives of 30,000 Georgians in the month of November alone. Worldwide nearly 20 million died from the disease within two .

 

While Folkston was spared the full force of the epidemic, the little community of Moniac, in the south end of the county felt all its fury. Influenza killed twenty people there within two weeks during the middle of October. The Charlton County Herald published by Mrs. W.H. Robinson, listed the victims: W.F. Fish; Charlie Crews and two small children; Mrs. John Crawford, Jr., a baby and two young sons; James Fringle and his wife; the son of Mrs. Oliver Anderson, …the list went on and on.

 

But, one Folkston businessman and political giant, Benjamin Griffin McDonald, thought the servicemen who had fought and died in the trenches of France, and the townspeople who suffered on the home front, and were now emerging from the tragic influenza epidemic, owed themselves a celebration to mark the end of the fighting and the dying.

 

Folkston, in 1918 had a senior class of three: Albert Sidney Stewart, Mary Banks and Mayme Askew. L.E. Mallard was School Superintendent and John Harris was the Folkston High Principal.

 

W.E. Banks had just begun his work as pharmacist at Pearce Drug Store and the Arnold Hotel’s dining room was planning its turkey dinner for Thanksgiving Day customers. Folkston’ 4th grade had 18 pupils: Marie Boyd, Ruby Davis, Joe Harden, Robert Harden, Eloise Roddenberry, Layselle Smith, Herbert Huling, James Askew, Agnes Wrench, Vinnie Brooks, Casper Walker, Pearce Stapleton, Helen Mills, Mamie Mills, Homer Allen, Elmer Waters, George Smart and Edward Hodges.

 

McDonald walked up and down the town’s muddy streets, trying out his idea on other businessmen. They all agreed, Folkston would have a Peace Demonstration that evening - Monday night, November 11, 1918. The people of the city and county had the utmost respect for the 52 year old merchant and hotel owner. He had been Folkston’s first mayor and what Ben McDonald wanted, Ben McDonald got. Plans for a massive Peace Rally were hurriedly laid out.

 

At 6:30 that Monday night, Folkston’s Main Street was filled with noisy boys and girls and enthusiastic grown folks. Bells rang, whistles blew and the sounds of automobile horns added to the bedlam. Then the crowd suddenly quieted…the full sound of Arthur Buchanan’s bugle played a medley of military bugle calls, the playing of Taps stirring the crowd.

 

A huge bonfire was built in the middle of the street. Celebrants joined hands and belted out choruses of “Over There” and “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary”. L.E. Mallard, acting as master of ceremonies, coaxed short talks from Col. A.W. Woods and Col. A.C. Franks, two local lawyers. The people of Folkston had put aside their troubles long enough to let off the steam which had been pent up inside them for endless months. The little town would be a long time forgetting its first Armistice Day celebration, November 11, 1918.

 

Ben McDonald stood back like an approving father, enjoying himself as the people celebrated. As always, he had judged his neighbors correctly. He knew they needed a break and he provided it for them with the victory celebration. Such was the character of Ben McDonald, the son of Martha and Donald McDonald, who had come to Folkston from Waresboro in 1885. Donald McDonald was a large and successful Ware County farmer.

 

Ben McDonald was a merchant, and a good one. He teamed up with Dr. A.P. English, L.M. Bedell and H.E. Renfroe in the mercantile business in Folkston. His store, featuring ladies’ finery soon became the in place for ladies to buy their finery. He brought in fashion experts from as far away as New York to help the local ladies choose. The renowned Lucy Fordham was at his store working with customers when the news of the ending of the war came on that first Armistice Day.

 

Ben McDonald grew with the little town. In 1896 he married Lucy Bernice Lang, the daughter of the county’s Representative in the General Assembly and his business partner, Felder Lang.

 

On April 3, 1895 the Town of Folkston was chartered by Superior Court Judge J.W. Sweat and Ben McDonald was named as its first mayor. He served several terms. Later he became an Alderman, Ordinary, County Commissioner, School Trustee, Chairman of Democratic Executive Committee and Vice President and one of the founders of The Citizens Bank. Ben McDonald was a busy man.

 

McDonald bought out Felder Lang’s interests in Folkston when Lang returned to Burnt Fort. In 1914 McDonald built the McDonald House Hotel on the city’s Main Street and opened his mercantile store in a part of the ground floor. The hotel still stands today, looking approvingly across the city’s main thoroughfare.

 

The people of Folkston and Charlton County turned to Ben McDonald for advice, both business and personal. He was always willing to take time to accommodate them. He joined his neighbors as they suffered through the agonies of World War One and through the flu epidemic.

 

McDonald played a leading role in the development of Hursey Park, a 90 acre 4-H Club recreation area conceived by Charlton’s County Agent, A.B. Hursey, between Folkston and Homeland which opened on July 7, 1931. The park’s original pine-log building, 35 by 70 feet, anchored festive county fairs and regional 4-H club meetings there until the mid-forties.

 

Benjamin Griffin McDonald, along with his wife, Bernice and a niece they had raised, Martha Grace Lang, ran the McDonald House Hotel and the millinery store. Both businesses thrived. The family joined in the community’s cultural, social and religious activities.

 

At 9 o’clock Thursday night, May 19, 1932, Ben McDonald died suddenly at his home after complaining briefly of acute indigestion. He was only 66, but he had seen many changes along Folkston’s Main Street. His widow, Bernice Lang McDonald and their niece, Martha Grace Lang Bragg survived, as did a sister, Mrs. D.O. Pearce.

 

Mrs. Bernice McDonald died twenty-six years later, on August 3, 1958. They are both buried in Folkston’s Pineview Cemetery.

Ben McDonald, Folkston’s first mayor and first citizen of the town and county for 47 years, from 1885 until his death in 1932, left fond memories among those who knew him. He and his family painted their names boldly across the pages of the history of Folkston and Charlton County. It will be a long time before another Ben McDonald comes along.

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