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Eddie Edwards -- Son of a Slave, Cut Ties for Lydia Stone, Queen of the Okefenokee

By Lois Barefoot Mays

Charlton County Herald

April 8, 1987

Much has been written about the railroad cross tie industry in the south in the early 1900s, most of it from the perspective of the large land owners who hired woodsmen to work for them. But experiences of the laborers who lived in the woods, cutting the trees and shaping the cross ties are seldom written about. Eddie Edwards, of Folkston, who died in February 1979 at age ninety, was an expert tie cutter and in a 1975 interview, related some of his experiences working in the woods of Charlton County.

Eddie Edwards was born near Hilliard, Fla. in 1888, one of six children of Hettie Maxwell Edwards and Eddie Edwards, Sr. and when he was a small child, he moved with his family to Folkston where he lived the rest of his life. Sisters Rosa and Fanny and brothers Tommy, Roy and Rufus completed the close-knit family. Edwards’ father had been born a slave of Edmund Alexander and was thirteen years old when the Civil War came to a close. Alexander, who considered Edwards a close friend, rather than a slave, gave him a tract of pine land east of Folkston when Edwards was emancipated.

Eddie, Jr. attended school for only a short time, as the boys in the family were expected to work as soon as they were big enough to handle an axe or a saw. “Sister decided to teach me to read and write,” he said, and he soon learned to write his name and read the Bible, but that was all the formal education he received.

He was only twelve years old when he began a life-long work of tie cutter and supervisor in the Charlton pine forests. His first employer was the legendary Mrs. Lydia Smith Stone who lived on Cow House Island. His eyes sparkled and he smiled broadly as he remembered his days working for “Miss Lydia”, a person he held in high respect.

“She was a good woman and she died rich,” he said. “Miss Lydia would come into the woods every day to check on the work. She was a fine kind-hearted woman but didn’t trust anyone. She never did leave the swamp for long as she couldn’t trust anyone to run her business as good as she did.” Remembering Gordon Stone, Miss Lydia’s first husband, Edwards said “She took good care of him and wouldn’t let him do any of the hard work in the woods.”

Recalling the sight of a woman doing a man’s work in the swamp, Edwards said “Miss Lydia always wore a bonnet and when she worked alongside the men in the woods, she’d take up a tie, then push that bonnet off her head and let the strings hold it ‘round her neck. She could see better to work that way. She always wore long frocks that trailed in the dirt,” he said, illustrating by taking his shoe from beside his rocker on his front porch and dragging the toe along the boards.

Edwards and his friends lived in the hands’ quarters on Cow House Island which was a cluster of log cabins in the middle of a sapling thicket. Each cabin had one door, one window and a very large fireplace. The men cooked their meals individually in three-legged iron “spiders” in the fireplace and then put the food in buckets. This was eaten later in the morning in the woods. In the evening they built another fire and cooked their supper. A favorite meal would have been cornbread and fried bacon with rice or beans. The crusty cornbread would be cooked by putting hot coals over the lid on the frying pan so the bread would cook evenly all the way through. “Never et anything that tasted as good as that did!” he laughed.

The eight or ten men that slept on bunk beds in the hands’ quarters were a congenial group that “sang and laughed a lot,” Edwards said. “It was nothing unusual to be waked up at four o’clock on a cold morning by some of the men building a fire in the fireplace and others outside the cabin building another fire in the yard. They would be laughing and calling to one another. Sometimes breakfast was cooked on the fireplace and on the fire in the yard too.” Edwards didn’t drink coffee, “Only the old men liked coffee and they would mostly be the first ones up so they could heat up the coffee pot.” Edwards enjoyed syrup-water with his meals and this was made by putting two or three teaspoons of syrup in a glass, filling it with water and stirring until the syrup dissolved.

In the evenings, after a long day cutting cross ties, the men sat around the fire and sang for entertainment. “Some played guitars, banjos or jews harps,” he said. “We weren’t a rough bunch, just men away from home working for money to take back to our families. Some of the hands were from Camden County and worked cutting cross ties until they were sixty or seventy years old. Men were men in those days … no trash like we have now! And people were more honorable in those days,” he said as he remembered he had recently been the victim of a burglary at his little home and had lost a gun and $29.00 in cash.

“We went back home for a weekend every two or three weeks,” he said, “And I would go to Sunday School and church at Mount Carmel Baptist Church.”

Edwards’ first wife was Mattie Washington who died when she was about thirty years old. His second wife, Angie Dawson, died in 1945 and as he never had any children there were many years that he lived alone in his home near the Burnt Fort Road.

Edwards’ nieces and nephews helped take care of his home place while he was working and there were gardens, fruit and nut trees that had to be tended. Mrs. Ruby Dell Peterson remembers her uncle as a gentle, kind Christian and recalls preparing the syrup-water for her father, Rufus, and her Uncle Eddie. “We used the hand pump to get water and had to pump until the water was very cold, then we mixed the syrup with it. They both liked syrup-water with their meals,” she said. “I also remember that during the weekends he spent at home, one of his most important chores was washing his overalls and starching them,” she continued. “Then they were ironed with heavy irons which weighed about five pounds each and had been headed by placing them near an oak wood fire in the fireplace. After the iron was hot, it was rubbed in pine straw, then on a clean cotton cloth. Then it was ready to use to press Uncle Eddie’s Sunday suit.”

Edwards also worked at the Georgia Southern camp between St. George and Moniac for several years, when there were over four hundred tie-choppers there and Stanley Mattox was the cross tie inspector. Commenting on the large number of woods employees, Edwards said “On paydays, when the men gathered around the bookkeeper’s office waiting for their money, it looked like people getting together to watch a fight!”

Later he worked for J.H. Johnson at Piddlinville near the W.W. Davis homestead on the edge of the Swamp, and for one twelve-months period he lived on an island about three miles inside the Okefenokee and was supervisor over twenty tie cutters. He marveled about the land inside the swamp, “It was plumb open and pretty land, as solid as it could be. There was always danger from snakes (“Rattlesnakes grow big in that swamp!”) and bears on the island. Edwards didn’t see many bears because they roamed at night, but when the creatures came near the house he lived in, the dogs would run howling under the porch.

Edwards recalled one terror-filled day when the swamp caught on fire and came toward the stacks of cross ties that had been cut. He ordered his men to scatter the ties all over the ground so they would be scorched instead of burned completely up. “It was a roaring fire and it scared all of us. If the fire had surrounded us, we would have been killed,” he said.

Edwards hitched a ride on the company truck on paydays every two weeks after he had collected his $12.00 to $15.00 in wages, and came to Folkston for a weekend. If he didn’t catch a ride back, he walked the fifteen miles to camp and would bring with him a sack of groceries that would last the next two weeks. “If I had bought $10.00 of groceries back then, the wagon wouldn’t have held it. Now I can carry $10.00 worth in a paper sack,” he laughed.

Edwards was about sixty-five years old when he gave up his work in the woods. Even then he didn’t consider tie chopping as hard work and could saw down the trees and cut out thirty ties a day without any trouble. “I liked that kind of work!” he said.

He spent his last years near his father’s old home place in a small cottage with cleanly swept yards and shaded with large pecan trees. About twenty feet away on three sides of the home were garden patches. “I wake up in the morning, and see my sweet potato patch no matter which door I open,” he said. There were no weeds in the gardens and only prints of the rake in the yard as it was grass-free. A small shredded palmetto broomlet was used to sweep sand from his front porch.

Eddie Edwards worked in the Charlton County forests all his life helping supply cross ties for the railroad industry. He is remembered by his family and many friends as an honest, honorable person and when he died in 1979 an important link with the history of our county was lost, for very few railroad tie cutters are left to tell of the experiences in this important work.

[Two pictures were printed in connection with this article, with the following cut line: Eddie Edwards, shown at left, was one of the county’s best tie cutters. He recalled working for Lydia Stone in the great swamp. Photo a right shows Lydia and her husband, Gordon Stone on their wedding day.]

from DeBrahm's Report
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