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Folkston's Bus Station Was a Center of Youngster's World

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


Sometimes there’s nothing more exciting to do than just watch the grass grow. Folkston and its surrounding communities have long been among those small towns where excitement is a rarity…mainly because the people prefer it that way.


One of the few oases in this desert of normalcy has been the transportation loading facilities of the town. Locals have always ganged up there to people-watch. Before the turn of the century and prior to the railroad lines being laid through Folkston, the St. Marys River and the river landings at Camp Pinckney, Coleraine and Traders Hill gave the people of the county a place to gather and a break from the every-day routine.


With the coming of rail transportation to the county around 1900, a railroad depot was built in Folkston, and the riverfront boat landing crowd began to fade away. Young people turned to meeting at the busy railroad depot and whiling away the evening hours there watching the trains come and go.


In the late 30s and early 40s, automobile transportation emerged as the favorite mode of travel. Because of economic reasons, most families had no automobiles, and turned to the bus lines for their travel needs.


Folkston’s bus station was at Pickren’s Service Garage. The owners, Woodrow and Verne Pickren, had the Greyhound ticket franchise. Verne had built the garage built on land he bought from his father, Tom Pickren, where the little family store stood. That landmark building was on the corner of Main and Second Street, right in the middle of town, and it soon became one of the busiest places in town.


The Pickren’s Greyhound agency was run as a companion business to the service garage, but quickly became the hub of activity for the town, and the young crowd flocked to the bus station for their people-watching in the evenings.


During the years of World War Two, the big Greyhound buses rolled in day and night, loaded with people. The owners reacted to the flood of business by keeping their doors open all night. Young boys, who soon would be wearing their nation’s military uniforms, but now riding bicycles, gathered up as the buses pulled to a stop in front of the gasoline pumps.


There was no automobile air conditioning back then. Buses ran with the windows open to keep passengers half-way comfortable. A half-dozen young Folkston boys would swing up to the open windows of the parked buses to chat with passengers aboard and if the conversation was with a pretty young girl, would plead with the bus driver not to leave. Other youngsters would board the buses selling boiled peanuts.


It was a time of excitement in Folkston every evening. Adjoining the bus station was the Blue Willow Café, later named the Whip-o-Will, with its loud juke box blaring out popular melodies of the day, like “Elmer’s Tune” and “Paper Doll” that could be hear aboard the buses. The young boys decked out in their sharkskin slack suits and the girls wearing skirts and bobby socks gathered around the Wurlitzer juke organ with its glittering revolving lights.


The owners of the service garage and bus station had an image to maintain in the town and they struggled hard to do so. They were ardent supporters of the town and of its athletic teams, including the formation of their own “Gulfsters”, a basketball team bearing the name of the gasoline the station pumped. The team earned quite a reputation as it, more often than not, took the measure of its opponents from nearby towns.


There was no lounge waiting facilities at that first bus station. Passengers waited at the restaurant next door, or stood around under the canopy of the gasoline station until their bus came in. A chalk-marked blackboard nailed on the front of the garage told of the scheduled arrivals and departures.


The bus station had its poignant moments. Parents of young boys, who had been drafted into military service in World War Two, accompanied their sons there to board the buses for induction centers. On those mornings half the town was there to wish the draftees well. The crowd would stand there long after the bus had pulled out, their eyes following the buses as long as they could be seen.


At night, while most of the town was in darkness, and only a few pitifully inadequate street lights fought a losing battle against the blackness, Woodrow Pickren’s Gulf Station on the corner glowed like a beacon. The town’s night policeman and Pickren’s night operator kept each other company; there was no police station and no city hall in the town and the policeman patrolled the town on foot.


Pickren’s Service Garage and Gulf Oil station had all the public relation tools of that day, free road maps for the adults and free comic books for the youngsters. Woodrow Pickren, who was the manager of the company, bought out his brother, Verne’s, interest in the service garage business in February 1941 and ran it alone after that.


U.S. Highway 301 from Folkston to Winokur was unpaved at that time, but on July 28, 1944 the newly formed Service Coach Line began hauling passengers to Jesup from Folkston. On many rainy days, the bus was forced to detour along a winding river road between Folkston and Winokur. The bus station and the service garage boomed through the war years.


When World War Two ended, Woodrow Pickren built a new bus station for the town on the corner of Third Street and Highway 40. The new building had a comfortable waiting lounge for bus passengers. A restaurant and coffee shop operated in the bus depot and a covered canopy let passengers get on and off the bus in rainy weather without getting wet.


The number of bus passengers picked up for several years after the war ended. Young sailors and their girl friends from Jacksonville stepped from every bus, looking to get married in Folkston. Uncle John Banks and his taxi service survived on trips from the bus station to the Judge, Alex McQueen’s, house.


Gradually automobiles became easier for the ordinary family to own. People began to forsake the buses for private automobiles, and the railroad depots and bus terminals stand nearly empty.


The airports in major cities are the only places where people-watching can still be practiced as in the past. A part of the town’s history is engraved into the benches at the railroad depot, and into the walls of the once-busy bus station at the corner of Second and Main in Folkston.

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