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Former Resident Writes of Charlton County in Earlier Times

Charlton County Herald

July 20, 1956



By Herman O. Smith


[Editor’s Note: The article “Retrospection” was sent to the Herald by Herman O. Smith of Savannah. Mr. Smith recently visited in Folkston with several of the older families including Mrs. B.G. McDonald and Mr. and Mrs. William Mizell. This article will be of particular interest to all who enjoy reading of the early times in Charlton.]


Eighty years is a very long time to look back upon.  At that age life consists mostly of dreams of the long ago by-gones, ahead lies only the sunset.


About a year ago I traveled to Macclenny, Fla. over the new road from Folkston down through the “bend” section of Charlton. Somewhere along the way I passed near the spot where my life began way back in 1876. That year our nation celebrated its centennial. Electric lights and power, the telephone and several other inventions had only recently emerged from the experimental stage. It was what Mark Twain called the “Gilded Age”.


As the car sped over the hard-surfaced road my thoughts reverted to a day in 1884 or 1885, when as a boy of eight or nine I passed over the same road which was then distinctly not hard-surfaced. My father, James C. Smith was then engaged in the turpentine and timber business at a place he had named “Sandusky”, seven miles north of the present town of Macclenny, just one mile north of what is still called “Smith Bridge”. On that occasion we were driving through the country to visit my mother’s parents at the old Joshua Mizell place on Bailey Branch. We left at daylight, following what was then called the “Yelvington Trail”. It may have been named for some Indian trader of the early days. The events of that trip are almost as fresh in my memory as they ever were. It seems to me that the road consisted of alternate stretches of soft sand and mud and the progress was necessarily slow but I enjoyed every minute of the eleven or twelve hours it took us to reach my grandfather Mizell’s place.


I remember that we paused at Cornhouse Creek for lunch and there was a tree near the ford on which was carved the name “Robert Ridley”. Mother told us that this tree marked the spot where Ridley, on his way home from Centre Village on a very cold night, had fallen asleep and had frozen to death. I remember the great forests of significant long-leaf pine, although sawmills had been operating on the St. Marys River for a number of  years, these forests had hardly been touched. Now alas, they are gone forever. Nature bestows her gifts with a lavish hand but she seldom restores what man wantonly and wastefully destroys.


We stopped for a short time at Traders Hill as Mother wished to see Mr. John Brooks who was then Sheriff of Charlton County, whom she had known all her life. “The Hill” was then the county seat but there was nothing there but the courthouse, jail, Mr. Brooks’ store, and three or four residences so far as I remember. One of these houses had been occupied by my grandfather Dr. Francis Marion Smith. He was in some respects a somewhat remarkable man. Born in Elbert County in 1814, he entered the Methodist ministry in early manhood and was for some years one of the old-time circuit riders who someone has called “God’s Calvary”. His health becoming impaired he studied medicine. Leaving Elbert County he moved to Charlton about the year 1850 and settled at  Traders Hill where for many years he ministered to both the physical and spiritual needs of the people of that section, preaching in a little church at the hill and performing many marriage ceremonies. I have some of the records of these marriages and know many of the names still exist in Charlton until this day. He was a man of very strong convictions and once his mind was made up he was utterly uncompromising. He hated slavery and was strongly opposed to secession from the Union. When the Secession Convention was held in Milledgeville in 1861, he was one of the two delegates from Charlton. The other, I believe, was a Mr. Mershon. When the vote was taken he voted against secession while Mr. Mershon supported it. This did not add to his popularity but time has indicated his  course on that momentous occasion.


In the days of my youth I heard some of the old timers speak of the many tragic incidents that from time to time occurred at the hill, especially when Superior Court was in session. On one occasion, two men, whom we will call Jones and Brown, became engaged in a violent quarrel in the course of which Jones advanced with a drawn knife whereupon Brown retreated up the outside stairway of the courthouse, followed by Jones. Just then my grandfather came up, and Brown, unable to retreat further, called out to him, “Doctor, what would you do if you were in my place?”, to which the old gentleman replied promptly “I think I would defend my life.” Brown drew his pistol and fired and Jones rolled down the steps a corpse.


A short distance from the hill, one road led past the gallows on which a certain man had recently been hanged for the murder of his wife. Unless my memory is at fault the rope had not been removed and the sight of that grim instrument of justice made a deep impression on my young mind. This execution was said to have been witnessed by a large crowd and it is possible the awful sight deterred some youth from a criminal career. The murderer and his wife are buried in the Traders Hill Cemetery but not side by side.


I recall we passed through Folkston which was then but a very small place, dating with the completion of the railroad of I think then 1880 or about that time. Some miles farther along we reached the ghost town of Centreville which was once an important trading post but then completely deserted owning to the departure of its people to Folkston or elsewhere. Many of the stores and residences still remained though I have heard that one or more had been taken down, hauled to Folkston and rebuilt. There was not the slightest sign of life and looking back at that silent settlement it now seems to me that Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village” describes it perfectly.


Before closing this little sketch I will relate an incident which may shed some light on why personal difficulties at public gatherings were so frequent. In the winter of 1897-98 I was teaching school about four miles west of Hilliard. One evening a nephew stopped to spend the night on his way home from court at Traders Hill, where a short time before there had been a desperate encounter between two men in which one was killed outright the other critically wounded.


“Well, Willis,” the uncle asked, “Was there any more trouble at the hill this court?”


“No” replied the nephew. “You see, the Sheriff made every man who had a pistol turn it over to him till court was over.”


“Did you have one?”


“Yes, I had three!”  That was a gun-toting age and when backed up by a quart of mean liquor the results were often disastrous.


There have been a great many changes in the old country, most of them for the better. The distance we traveled on that long-ago day can now be covered in an hour or less. Even the poor now enjoy conveniences and even luxuries unknown to the well-to do at that time.  Every child can have a good education which was far from being the case then. But the beautiful forests of long leaf yellow pine are gone and no longer do ships come up the St Marys to take cargo to “far away places with strange sounding names”. Only the river itself remains the same. She was once a lovely lady and bore on her bosom a by no means inconsiderable commerce. Now that commerce is gone but she’s still a lovely lady and I shall always have a great affection for her.


                                                     Herman O. Smith, 303 East 37th Street, Savannah, Ga.


[Later the following letter was received by the Charlton County Herald, written by Herman O. Smith.]


Dear Mr. Harrison, 

In previous article I referred to my grandfather, Dr. F.M. Smith, and to his work in the dual role of physician and minister of the Gospel among the people of Charlton County. Among his papers he left a record of the numerous marriage ceremonies which he performed in the years from 1872 to 1884, and it occurs to me that these may be of interest to some of the present families of Charlton. It is entirely possible that some of them are descendants to the fourth generation of the men and women who took their marriage vows in those far-off days. A few of the names and dates follow:


Jack Washington and Charity Berry – June 26, 1872


James Clark and Caroline Beall – May 3, 1875


Almirah Coplin and Sally Smith – October 20, 1872


James Johnson and Elizabeth Reynolds – November 7, 1875


Andrew Jenkins and Louisa Coats – March 14, 1880


William Chalker and Louisa Elizabeth Lyons – September 10, 1875


Daniel Hodges and Lieucettie Howard – November 30, 1883


Joshua Mizell and Hattie Roberson – April 7, 1883


I  Barton and Martha Ann Missouri Brown – July 24, 1884


Matthew Durrance and Rhoda Padgett – June 28, 1884


John L. Williams and Missouri Taylor


These marriages were extremely informal affairs. If the couple had not obtained a license from the Ordinary at Traders Hill, Grandfather was empowered, as clerk, to issue a license and perform the ceremony simultaneously. The happy pair would drive up, sometimes in an ox-cart, and within a few minutes went on their way rejoicing. As a child I witnessed a number of these marriages and young as I was it seemed to me that it was terribly easy to get tied up for life in a matter of minutes. Grandfather must have tied a tight knot, for there were no divorces, so far as I remember.


Along with these marriage records I found another paper which should be of interest in these days of confiscatory Federal taxes. It reads as follows: “Received of Dr. F.M. Smith receiver of taxes in kind, 50 gallons syrup, 846 pounds bacon in bad condition and three empty bags.   J.C. Friedlander”


This receipt was given at Traders Hill in 1864. It appears that the Confederate Government levied a “tax in kind” to supply its armies in the field, which in that dark year of 1864 were fighting in the last ditch with all hope of victory gone and only a little cornmeal and bacon “in bad condition” between them and starvation.


These people of early Charlton were a simple, hardy lot who had reduced life to its lowest terms. They were for the most part industrious and law-abiding and of high moral character. We of today can have very little conception of the hardships which they accepted and endured without murmuring, and I am sure they transmitted their strong fiber to most of their descendants.


“Let not ambition mock their useful toil, their hopes, their joys, their destinies obscure, nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile the short and simple annals of the poor.”


      Herman O. Smith

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