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Billys Island

Five Essays

The Village of Billy's Island

By Lois Barefoot Mays, Charlton County Historical Society

On an island deep in the Okefenokee Swamp, time and nature have conspired to erase the memory of a lively little town that was born, lived and died within a single decade, 1918-1927.   Chris Trowell, noted author of many books about the great swamp in southeastern Georgia, researched and wrote of this village, and much of the following information is contained in his work “Billys Island.”

On this island of animals, birds, reptiles, a single human family -- James and Catherine Lee and their extended family -- had lived since the 1800s. They watched in wonderment as a Pennsylvania businessman suddenly arrived with plans to build a self-contained village --right on their doorsteps.

Daniel Hebard, a millionaire timber-baron from Philadelphia, had decided that this secluded island just five miles long and one mile wide would become the site of a company town for his employees. His men then proceeded to decimate the pristine beauty of the Swamp and carried away the grand bounty of magnificent old-growth cypress trees.


John M. Hopkins, civil engineer and Mr. Hebard’s right-hand-man, helped Hebard plan the village, which was built near the Lee Family’s log cabin homes. Pines were cut, palmettos, gallberry bushes, thorny bamboo vines were grubbed up to provide a place for the buildings of a miniature town which soon was complete, even with planted shade trees and laid-out streets. Harry Quarterman was hired as the General Manager.

Planned for the hundreds of woodsmen who carried on the daily work of cutting and hauling the enormous trees out of the swamp, the Hebard- Hopkins team worked from the beginning to make life easier for the workers who struggled “from sun-up to sun-down” in their dangerous work. From 400 to 600 persons lived on the island during this time.

Hebard Cypress Company Logging Camp was its official name but it soon it was referred to as “Billys Island” or simply “Billys”.

There were boarding houses for the workers, and nine-foot-square  wooden shanties that housed two men each, just large enough for a bed and a stove, one window and a door. (Some of the shanties had been moved to the island from nearby Hopkins, Ga.) Together with the rows of three-room residences for families, there were approximately sixty buildings.

Following the custom of  racial segregation during the early 1900s, there were separate neighborhoods, schools and churches for black and white families; the  bachelors lived in two clusters of shanties, each referred to as “the batch.”

Included in the plans was an office where the workers would receive cash on payday, also a general store (commissary), an electric light system, church, four bathhouses, a telephone line to the mainland, a café and doctor’s office, and the largest structure on island, the motion-picture theater. At its entrance was a small ticket-seller’s window, then the large space for seats, and a stage on the end, complete with curtains. Hand-cranked projection machine movies were shown several nights a week. The same one was shown over and over until everyone had a chance to see it. Then a new movie was brought in from Waycross.

Approximately fifty children attended school for the annual six-month terms. Classes were held in the churches, and teachers included Catherine Clark, Viola Taylor, Ruth Hunter and M. Sirmans.

Dr. W.F. Reavis treated patients at his office on the island once a week traveling from Hebardville to the village on the busy train.  Lucy Bell  Pittman, a resident of the island, was his assistant. In emergencies, Dr. Reavis came quickly on a specially adapted Model-T car which rode the rails to the island. When the village’s population increased by a new one, he usually stayed on the island for two days, to care for the mother and new baby.

A concrete cattle dip about a block south of the white neighborhood was used to dip the island’s cows. Filled with water and a poisonous insecticide, it destroyed the ticks that were killing the cows. One child, who had been born on the island little Bernice Chesser, tumbled in while playing too close to the vat. Her frantic mother scooped her up, bathed her and the doctor was called from Waycross to treat her.  Years later she became the much-respected mother of  the well-known “Singing Roddenberry Sisters.”

A section of the town was set aside for family vegetable gardens, and there was a baseball diamond nearby. On July 4th, 1923 the Billys Island baseball team traveled to Folkston to play. The score?  Billys Island 10, and Folkston 5. A deputy sheriff kept the peace on the island. Much of his time was spent destroying the small moonshine stills hidden in the island’s jungle-like southern section.

An ancient Indian mound near the center of the village was left undisturbed, and was treated as sacred. Several shallow pits surrounded the mound indicating where the Native Americans obtained the soil for it.

In 1926 most of the laborers on Billys Island moved to other logging camps, and the Hebard Cypress Co. Okefenokee operation was discontinued in 1927.  Today, nature has reclaimed Billys Island and it is once again a quiet and isolated spot in the great swamp.   


By Mrs. W.H. Robinson and Lois Barefoot Mays

[Editor’s note: In 1924 Mrs. W.H. Robinson was editor of Charlton County’s weekly newspaper and received an invitation for an excursion to Billys Island, along with about 500 other editors. The following is her impression of the visit, together with additional Billys Island news of that season by Lois Barefoot Mays.]


On a beautiful autumn day in 1924, a special train with its wood burning “cabbage head” engine pulled into the stop at the Hebardville store. The train is known to the residents of the the area as the “Dog House,” a  nickname given to the observation car of the Okefenokee Railroad [Hebard Cypress Co. R.R.].  It brought along seven flat cars fitted with a railing and seats, filled with reporters from many Georgia newspapers. 


Leaving at the Hebardville store, the train went first to Hopkins, which is “a genuine lumber mill town.”  There were great stacks of pine and cypress lumber of all dimensions, ready for shipment to contractors. Five smokestacks were sending silent signals into the sky, and the milling area wsd  noisily turning the huge logs into stacks of boards. Mill workers moved about quickly and yet another stack of lumber formed.

We journeyed to Billys Island over water through the dense growth of vines, bushes, and enormous majestic trees, that dripped long shadows of gray Spanish moss.  The train moved slowly through the jungle, even as birds and butterflies flitted on ahead of us. We sat in the open-air car, almost hypnotized into believing that we were in another world.


At last we reached Billys Island, and a more intriguing spot would be hard to find. The lumber company had created, in the heart of the Okefenokee Swamp, a little village. It sat boisteriusly on this one mile wide by five miles long island, which is covered with very large pine trees, vines, and ferns.

The little town had forty-nine dwellings, two boarding houses, one well-stocked general merchandise store, a restaurant, a moving picture theater, a barber shop, a church, two schools, an electric light plant, and a water works system.

At the dinner hour, barbecued pork and beef, pickles and bread were served by host A.J. Armstrong, general manager of the Hebard Cypress Co.  He had prepared food for more than 500 visitors. The meat was brought out on large wooden serving boards and placed on the picnic tables. Large barrels of lemonade and ice water were the center of attraction all day. The reporters were told some of the historic traditions that hover over this old Indian hunting grounds.  

Later, Harrison Lee, a pioneer of the Okefenokee, showed us a bear cub he had caught a few miles away. We were happy to meet several of the citizens of the island, Hamp and Sam Mizell, W.L. Chancey, Mrs. Rhoda Mizell-Spaulding and others. All were valuable employees of the Hebard Company. Mrs. Spaulding is proprietress of the hotel and has one of the most beautiful flower gardens seen anywhere.


Reporters were busy jotting down notes of this unusual spot, so I did also and found this hidden village was just like many other small towns with newsy bits of interest, just waiting to be written up in the county paper. They included:


……The island’s schools had sixty pupils in 1923, with Mrs. Paul Player and Miss Geneva Mizell as teachers. In 1924 their teachers were Miss Catherine Clark and Miss Viola Taylor. The closing of school each spring was the event of the year, the annual picnic which most people attended.


……Hebard’s Store had a new manager, I.W. Corbett, and Leon Bagwell was his clerk.


……The O.K. Theater had just finished showing the15th episode of “Timber Queen”. The theater usually has a large attendance for its shows three evenings a week, and is owned by Sam Edwards and J.R. Pittman.

……Unusual events would have included the days the children helped Mr. Scott, the florist of Homestead. He was there locating huckleberry plants for starting a huckleberry farm.

……Pastors from Homerville, Glenmore and Waycross churches were welcomed each weekend for revivals and Sunday services, coming and going via the company’s railroad.

……Accidents happened. The train wrecked between Billys Island and Hopkins. It threw off five trucks of logs and tore up ten bar links of tracks.  S.J. Calley once injured his leg with a bush knife; John Wallace of Jones Island had the misfortune of getting his leg broken when two engines ran together and T.S. White broke his arm while playing ball. Dr. Reavis of Waycross always came at once when he was needed. He traveled to the island in a special automobile that had been adapted to run on the rails.

……Weddings are always interesting news events, such as the marriage in September of Silas McCarthy and Miss Fannie Dixon who moved into one of the dwellings on Quarterman Street.


……By far the most newsworthy items would be the births of new babies on this island almost unknown to the outside world. In the fall of 1924 baby girls made their appearance at the homes of Mr. and Mrs. E.L. Tootle, Mr. and Mrs. H.M. Hickox (little Opal Elizabeth) and  Mr. and Mrs. Harry Chesser. The stork brought boys to the homes of Mr. and Mrs. V.A. Quarterman, Mr. and Mrs. Ward Jordan and Mr. and Mrs. Dave Alsobrooks.


We are delighted that we had the opportunity of making this trip, glad to shake the hands of our neighbors and subscribers. Long may they live, and always may they be as happy and prosperous as they are now.


[In fact, Billys Island was short-lived,  and by 1926 most of the workers had moved to camps on the mainland, and logging operations ceased in the Okefenokee. When the annual Billys Island Reunion is held each October, visitors will see how Nature is once again reclaiming this historical spot in the great Okefenokee.  LBM]     


49 Private houses built.

Families cultivated private vegetable gardens.

White family quarters were of managers, foremen, white workers, boarders.

450 PEOPLE, 105 CATTLE, 3 MULES 162 SWINE 1,000 FOWLS.

Two boarding houses

Stills, kicked over

Baby sister buried on island

Baseball games

Doctor once a week

Boarding House:::Mrs. Wilson

Held church in school house or theatre

Singing school



By Lois B. Mays, Charlton County Historical Society

One of the most unusual chapters in the history of Charlton County ocurred back in the 1920s that found a thriving village of about 500 people working and living on an island deep in the interior of the Okefenokee Swamp.

The Hebard family of Philadelphia set up a logging camp on Billys Island in 1918, and built a railroad system. It reached across the lakes and prairies of the great swamp, into the cypress groves, and was used to haul the trees out.

A village sprung up deep in the heart of the Okefenokee, with 49 homes, two schools, two hotels, a movie house (the OK Theater) a few stores, two juke joints and quite likely, a moonshine still or two. A doctor from Waycross made regular visits using an automobile that had been converted to run on railroad tracks.

Harvesting the old growth cypress was a dangerous occupation, but the men were glad to have full-time jobs and pleased to have their families living with them on the island.

It was about this time when teenager Dan Sweat of Ware County decided to apply for a job with “the Hebards”, like his brother Carl, and so he joined him one day as he rode to work on the train to Billys Island.

In an interview several years ago Mr. Sweat recalled the eventful day. In his own words:


     “My brother and I hopped aboard at Wildes Crossing, also called Grundy, about five miles from Waycross and sat down in the passenger car known as ‘the doghouse.’

     “The doghouse had two big doors on the side. You could sit there and look out, or hang your feet out if you wanted to. It didn’t have any windows.

     “They would haul anything in there on the train. They run that doghouse from Billys out there to Hopkins, another settlement established by the Hebards on the northwest edge of the Swamp. The train ran twice a day, taking people and getting the mail and stuff for the store. That was a chartered railroad. You could ride on it to Billys and not pay nothing. Just get in the doghouse and be one of the dogs!”

Mr. Sweat went on to describe how he got the job:

     “This old boy, he run over there and talked to my brother. He worked out there with him and Oh, he was drunk! And he had a big old pistol there! We had come on through the eight-mile post and this other old fellow got on down there, and he was drunk too, and they were having a good time.

     “My brother had done made him acquainted with me and he said ‘Well, you will be working with us tomorrow.’ Then he pulled out that pistol and shot a hole through the top of that doghouse! It had bench seats all the way around the sides and I went under there. I thought they were playing checkers and it was my move!”

Mr. Sweat got hired by the Hebards to do various kinds of work, much of it on their railroad. He recalled one of his carpentry jobs:

     “They had a telephone in the swamp on the railroad at Long-30. It was hanging on a tree with a little box over it.

      “Me and a fellow named Cobb from Hebardville were working. They come in out there and throwed a whole carload of lumber down and my boss said ‘I want you to floor that whole thing.’ We were to build a little phone house too. That  fell on Cobb and me to build that. We just floored that whole thing right there; about 20 by 20 feet We put a little roof over that crank telephone but not over the flooring. There was swamp water all underneath – we used cypress and pine stumps for foundation!

     “In the summer the weather got so hot that sometimes a rail would expand. We had to cut it in two, right at the joint. We would take that piece we sawed off and set it on a stump. Then during the wintertime we would have to put it back, to fill in the gap.

     “My brother and I worked at the same place. We always went home on weekends, about four or five miles from Hebardville. Our mother would already have our clean clothes fixed, and we would put them in the suitcase.

     “We didn’t have too much washing done on our work clothes. Back up towards Mixon’s Hammock, back in there, we had to cross Billys Lake. We’d just stop and leave the car and all would jump in that lake. It’s 25 or 30 feet down and we weren’t afraid of alligators!”

One thing the workers did fear were the “gator fleas.” They are water bugs about an inch in length and with long pinching claws that could get inside their clothes. Whenever this happened the men would holler and splash around, get out of the water and jump out of their clothes, even if there were ladies present.

Dan Sweat worked on the island for about three years, and then began a fifty-year career as a machinist for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. He and others who worked and lived on Billys Island played an important role in the brief era when this amazing little village prospered, deep in the heart of the great Okefenokee.


Interview with D.E. Sweat, November 2, 1989

By Lois Barefoot Mays

One of the most unusual chapters in the 150 year history of Charlton County was in full swing back in the 1920s. A village of approximately 450 people were living and working on an island deep in the vast Okefenokee Swamp. The Hebard Cypress Company built rows of homes, several churches, boarding houses, stores, and even a moving picture theater for families and for the workers who harvested the great swamp cypress. It was a dangerous occupation, but the men were glad to have full-time jobs, and were especially pleased to have their families living on the island with them.

It was about this time,1920, when Mr. D.E. Sweat, a teenager, decided he would like to work for the “The Hebards”. His brother had been working there so young Dan joined him one day, riding for the first time on the train to Billys Island. The two brothers hopped aboard at Wildes Crossing near Waycross and sat down in the passenger car, known as “the doghouse.” In Mr. Sweat’s words….. The doghouse had two big doors on the sides. You could sit there and look out or hang your feet out if you wanted to. It didn’t have any windows. This old boy, he run over there and talked to my brother. He worked out there with him and oh, he was drunk! And he had a big old pistol there! We had come on through the 8-mile post and this old fellow down there, he was drunk too and they were having a good time!

My brother had done made him acquainted with me and he said “Well, you will be working with us tomorrow.” Then he pulled out that pistol and shot a hole through the top of that doghouse! It had bench seats all the way around the sides. I went under there! I thought they were playing checkers and it was my move!

They’d haul anything in there on the train, and use it. They run that doghouse from Billys out there to Hopkins twice a day, taking people and getting the mail and stuff for the store. That was a chartered railroad. You could ride from there right on in to Billys and not pay nothing. Just get on the doghouse and be one of the dogs!

Mr. Sweat did go to work for The Hebards, working mostly on their railroad. He recalled one job he had while working there. Again, in his own words… "They had a telephone on the railroad at Long-30. It was hanging on a tree with a little box over it. Me and a fellow named Cobb from Hebardville were working. They come in there and throwed a whole carload of lumber down and my boss said, “I want you to floor that whole thing.” We were to build a little phone house too.” That fell on me and Cobb to build that. We just floored that whole thing right there, about 20 by 20 feet. We put a little roof over that crank telephone but not over the flooring. There was water all underneath – we used the stumps for foundation!"

Mr. Sweat worked at different jobs on Billys Island for about three years then began a fifty-year career as a machinist for the ACL Railroad. He, and many others, were an important part of the brief history of this almost unbelievable event when this industrious little village prospered in the middle of the Okefenokee Swamp.



Charlton County Herald                               

By Lois Barefoot Mays


May 9, 1979

A small group from Folkston traveled to an island in the great Okefenokee last week, and caught a glimpse of the ghost of a village which once thrived there. Mr. Harry Chesser, Sr. and two boatloads of his friends walked once again on Billys Island, and found remnants of the village that had prospered here from about 1912 until 1927.

The Hebard Lumber Company had bought large tracts of the Okefenokee Swamp, and around the turn of the century began harvesting and hauling magnificent old-growth cypress trees out to make lumber. Billys Island provided the perfect spot on the western side of the swamp for a village of about 500 people - Hebard’s people who cut and hauled the timber. This island, fifteen miles into the interior of the swamp is firm high ground about four miles long and one and a half miles wide.

After docking the boats at a wooden ramp built by the state, Mr. Chesser led his friends up on the island, going first to the wire link fence enclosing the Lee Cemetery. He told them of the Lee family, who homesteaded on the island from 1853 and who had to leave their cabin and cleared land when the Hebard company bought the swamp. The Lees had lived a self-sufficient life miles from civilization, and had raised a large family without benefit of the institutions of government, schools, hospitals and stores that we now take for granted. Two very tall sycamore trees dominate the small cemetery, obviously planted years ago near a loved one’s grave.

Mr. Chesser had worked for the Hebard Company as an independent timber-cutter and he lived on the island several years while the large trees were being cut and removed from the swamp.

The Folkston group roamed over the island finding roads nearly grown up in young trees, rusty bath tubs left behind when the houses were removed, the remains of an old car which offered only its rusting steel frame, axles and fenders as a token to the past.

A railroad bed extended in to the swamp from Waycross to the island and remains of the built-up tram bed are still visible, as well as several metal box cars left when the village was dismantled and the railroad irons were taken up.

Mr. Chesser told of the six rows of houses, ten houses to the row, where some of the timber workers had lived. A poke of his walking stick here and there soon established the remains of a chimney and then pacing a straight line he found where each chimney stood for a whole row of houses. Each house had three large rooms, one big fireplace for heating and one chimney flue for the cookstove. The size of the house could be clearly seen in many instances for the old lightwood foundation blocks still stand as sentries denoting the lines of the house wall.

Three of the Chesser children were born on Billys Island - Bernice Chesser Roddenberry, Lois Chesser Bryant and Tessie Chesser Knowles. Mr. Chesser led the group to the home place his family occupied which was across the road from the cattle-dipping vat and next door to the church. The concrete remains of the dipping vat and part of the old fence is still visible. One of the earliest memories of Bernice Roddenberry is when, as a very small child she fell into the dip-vat. A doctor was summoned from Waycross to tend to her and he came to the island on the train.

The group found a concrete foundation where the electric generator for the island’s store was located. Remains of wells are still visible, especially the large square well near the tram road bed. Water taken from this was used in the locomotives.

Mr. Chesser pointed out where the blacksmith shop was, where the turpentine still and mule lot was located and where the boarding house, school and tavern were. Footpaths and tram road beds brought back many memories of his life on the island.

He remembered tragedies too, such as when the train killed a small child who lived near the forks of the tram tracks, and the unprintable scandalous conduct of some of the villagers.

After a picnic lunch, which was shared with a nearly tame raccoon, the group explored more of the island, finding a head-high Indian mound, the metal remains of a buggy, a rusting bedstead, fencing that once kept animals from a garden, a tall citrus tree growing at the foot of a decaying chimney, all mute evidence of a bygone village.

The group had taken a different route to get to Billys Island than Mr. Chesser had taken over fifty years ago. Three cars traveled about eighty miles through St. George, Moniac and Fargo to bring the explorers to the island last week. Fifty years ago, Mr. Chesser left his home on the eastern edge of the swamp and paddled his boat through the wilderness to get to Billys Island.

Everyone agreed as they left, that they had spent an unforgettable day with Harry Chesser, a member of one of Charlton County’s pioneer families, in a place that now remains only in the memories of those who once lived on the island.

Among those making the trip were members of four generations of the Chesser family, including Mr. Chesser, his daughter (Bernice C, Roddenberry); his two granddaughters (Judy Roddenberry Drury and Betty Roddenberry Owens); and his two great-grandsons, (Scott and Brian Owens). Others on the trip were Layton Mizell, Sidney Southwell and Richard and Lois Mays.

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