It was a beautiful day, in April of 1971. Thirty or so, excited kindergarten students from First Methodist and First Baptist of Claxton preschool boarded a bus to Dover.
We had been invited to ride on one of the last voyages of the Nancy Hanks. Even though I was five at the time, I remember it vividly. It was the first time many of us had ridden a bus, let alone a train.
This Saturday, many of those memories came flooding back as we boarded the SAM Short Line Excursion Train in Bellville, Georgia. That last time anyone boarded a train in Bellville was May, 1951. The train was making a special visit today, as part of Evans Counties Centennial Celebration. I boarded the train with my Grandmother, Betty Grice who rode with me on the Nancy Hanks 43 years ago, and my daughter Edie Grace now a teenager.
As the train, pulled from the station my childhood friend, Judge Darin McCoy shared historical facts with us about Evans County. He talked about the buildings, movements and families who have impacted our community and our lives in incredibly special ways. As the narration, blended in the background I could tell this trip was personal for everyone aboard. So many stories, so much life lived aboard this train. Here is how this short journey opened so many wonderful memories for me.
First we passed Pinewood, as we were leaving the station and the flood of wonderful memories filled my heart. The presence of that school, its founders and leaders have had an indelible mark on me and so many others. I could see Tab’s (Mr. Smith) face peeking through the narrow window of the class room, checking in randomly, as he loved to do to make sure everything and everyone was on track. I remember Emmett Daniel, Jr. telling me one day that Mr. Smith had to be a direct descendant of Jesus, because he seemed to know what everyone was doing at all times good or bad. There wasn’t much bad back then, because Mr. Smith could transform attitudes promptly and attentively in a way that made you wish he would just send you home to mamma.
We chugged along through the industrial park and into Hagan where I could hear the Christmas music playing and remembered the beautiful Christmas display we all made our parents drive us to so we could sit and watch. I had never seen anything like that. It had to be the most Christmas lights and decorations in the entire world. What a labor of love by Eunice Shuman and incredible gift to our community and our childhood that was.
Then there was Nesmith Chevrolet. One of the highlights of our school days was during the week of Martin’s grand opening of his Hagan dealership, he invited our entire bus from Pinewood to come and get a free hot dog, bag of chips and a coke. Generosity, like that was hard to explain to me back then.
Past the Veterans center, which was the centerpiece of activity as it continues to be. I remembered a packed house one night when Mayor DeLoach was sharing the importance of voting in our first 1% sales tax. As he preached to the faithful followers, the public address system kept going out. From the back of the room my grandfather, Herschel Grice, spoke up and said, “Perry Lee add another penny and buy you a new PA system.” It brought down the house and the rest is history.
Down the way a little more, as we approached Railroad Avenue, I could see Aunt Louise Craft and Aunt Hazel Stubbs house where I could smell that freshly picked, fried squash cooking and remember the hours spent on the cable pulley in the back yard.
On the left, is the “new” locations of Nesmith Funeral home and Ace Hardware. What sports Murray and Calquet were? It was always hard to understand why these two men were always so jovial. They had a great time no matter what they were doing. But did they really enjoy dead people that much? Ace is the place with the helpful hardware man indeed. No matter what your problem was they had the part to fix it and could explain to you in great detail how to fix it. They were our Google.
Now we are passing the Mayor Perry Lee DeLoach Municipal Building and I wondered what it must have been like for Perry Lee to enter heaven from his favorite place on earth – the Mayor’s seat at city hall. Senator Joe Kennedy, called him the master of “fruitcake politics.” Joe would spin tales for hours about how Perry Lee could leverage more political favors with a case of fruitcake and his dogged determination and inability to understand the word no, than the mafia could in New York City with truckload of cash.
Beside the current city hall is the footings for a new City Hall. A place I spent as much time as anywhere. It was the location of Herschel and Gary Tippin’s shop, The Claxton TV Center. It was definitely a center of activity. After school, all the businessmen and a few farmers would gather at William Futch’s Barbershop right next door. He had one of those old bottle Coke machines and a big jar of lance crackers. They would all get a coke and a pack of crackers, then play some game where you threw a quarter against the wall. Whoever was closest bought the drinks. Then they had a US map on the wall with a pin – pinned into Claxton on the map with a string. One by one, they would read off the city where their Coke was bottled and Mr. Futch would measure it with the string and mark it on the map.
Coming into view now, was the TOS Theater, which I am not old enough to recall actually going to a movie there, but I do have many wonderful memories of the Claxton Fruitcake. Every morning on the way to school we would pass by early and Mr. Albert Parker, dressed in his Sunday best, would be sweeping the sidewalk in front of the bakery. Then every afternoon, as the bused passed back by, he would be sitting outside drinking a coke with his employees, black and white. What an impression that made on me. This was a time, when things were so strained and people didn’t mingle like that. But he was no ordinary guy. He always seemed to live above the fray and in a quiet but powerful way. What an amazing life he lived, setting the bar for each of us to aspire to follow.
My how wonderful the Courthouse looks. With brand new paint and landscaping. It is great that the leadership has continued to make this the centerpiece of downtown. I am most thrilled that through the renovations and restorations, they have left the “O” “O” on each side of the words “Evans County Courthouse” so every child, at the unstoppable questioning of all things age, can ask their parents why are the “O”’s there?
Across the way is Aunt Francis Laws home. Even though few of us were directly related to her, we all called her Aunt Francis. She was the first Woman I recall having any position of power. She always managed to have a voice and a say about most anything.
To the right is the old Sears and Roebuck store. The place in town to buy your appliances. I remember it most as the place where you met Santa each year. We would stand in line, in the cold on the sidewalk outside the store for hours, just to spend a few minutes with Santa (David Stephens the store owner in a Santa suit.)
A block or two over is the old Griffin Hospital where I was brought into the world by Dr. Griffin. He, Dr. Thompson and Dr. Hames took care of all of us back then. Most of the time accepting some fresh produce or some other favor for payment.
On the right was Kemp’s Jewelers. It was the place to get your drugs, jewelry and guns. I remember Mr. Harold many times telling my parents to just take this medication or that one when things were a little short and instructed them to pay him when they could. Try that at CVS today.
On to the parking lot in the center of town which is about half or a quarter of the size it used to be. This was the gathering spot for the City Christmas events. The entire town would show up. There would be singing, food and door prizes. It would kick off the Christmas shopping season.
To the left, down the hill, I could see cars lined up at Lowell Coley’s Gulf Station. The place where no matter how many times you would stop by, they would top it off for you, clean your windshield, check the tire pressure and every fluid level would be checked and topped off. Maybe a yarn or two would transpire in the process.
Right next door is the landmark of the south as far as restaurants go, Mrs. Roger’s Restaurant. A popular destination still for locals and travelers alike. It was and still is a fun gathering place to catch up on the latest gossip and educate a stranger traveling through about all things good in Evans County. I still don’t know how they exactly “broast” that Claxton chicken? But it sure is good.
At night, once a month, twice if we were really lucky we would head across the street to the Cherokee for some of the best seafood anywhere. It was a destination, folks would come from miles around just to sample their legendary fare.
Off in a distance, I could see the tower at WCLA, the place for breaking news and follow all the high school sports. I can hear Don Sports, breaking in to “regularly scheduled programming” to give us an update on a car wreck, house fire or some other “pressing” emergency of the day. No matter what, however business stood still at exactly 11 AM every morning. That was the most important time of the day, because that was when they would read, live on the radio the admissions and departures at Evans Memorial Hospital.
There is Nelson’s Auto Parts still operating. Mr. Charlie Nelson somehow had every part you ever needed or wanted in stock. It might take him a little while to find it. But nine times out of ten it was there. And if it wasn’t, it would be on the grey hound bus the next morning.
You can smell the tobacco in the sheets packed in the warehouse and hear the piano music as Mr. Paul Draughn tickled the ivories in that upright piano in the back of his pickup truck. It was the carnival like feel that sounded the biggest economic event of the year, the opening days of tobacco season.
For a weekend every March, both warehouses would be packed with arts and crafts, beauty queens, musicians and the star attraction, rattlesnakes. Thousands would walk through the saw dust scattered floors in what become THE social event of the year, the Evan’s County Wildlife Club’s Rattlesnake Round Up – now it is called the “Wildlife Festival?” The Strickland family would donate the use of the warehouses and Danny and Brenda loved handling the VIP snake hunts filled with squeamish beauty queens to be and skittish politicians.
On a little farther, we would pass C. Hern’s home and recall the many times we would see him circling the city in his airplane before landing it on the dirt strip behind his house.
Passing through Daisy, I thought of Tommy Palmer’s wonderful book, “The Daisy Boy’s Club” where he described how special this place has been and continues to be to so many. It is the benchmark for all things good in growing up in small town America.
Powerfully the train pulled us on to our destination, the Ogeechee River. How many days have we all spent on the banks of this great river, fishing, swimming, boating and camping? In childhood, this was the destination for recreational fund. It was our IPad, High Definition TV and X-Box all bundled into one incredible adventure. The pinnacle was spending a Thursday afternoon on the banks of the Ogeechee.
Now the train reversed course and we could pass along once more on this voyage thorough time, relishing in all things good with a community we all love.
I walked through the train cars greeting folks I have not seen in years and marveled as I watched their expressions one by one, knowing they too are reminiscing about all things good.
Up and down the aisles of the train cars were generations of citizens who provided the opportunities of my child hood and many more childhoods to come.
Loren Waters, THE Sheriff of Evans County, Henrietta and Jimmy Rogers, who was my first grade school teacher, Patsy Rogers whose family has given and continues to give so much to this community, Adam Kennedy, son of one of Claxton’s most famous son’s Joe, the past and current clerk of court, Kathy Hendrix and Gail McCooey. A few seats down is Brad, the son of Gail and the fourth Mayor of the City of Bellville. Every seat was filled with someone who has made or will make a special contribution to Evans County.
As the train rocked gently back and too, headed to our beginning and now final destination, they played the famous Tom T. Hall song, “When God Came Through Bellville, Georgia” I could picture Alvin Blalock and Bobby McCoy elbow deep in the engine of his bus repairing it better and with more skill than had ever touched it before for a fraction of the price.
Back now to where it all began, home of the Anderson’s, Daniels, McCoy’s, McCooey’s and so many more in Bellville, who opened their hearts and doors to make this special day possible.
As I walked back away from the train, I saw a tent giving away Free Hot dogs, Cokes and a bag of chips. I looked around for Martin Nessmith, but he was nowhere in sight.
Isn’t it wonderful how the smallest gestures can bring back the most incredible memories? Thank you to the Evans County Centennial Steering Committee and the City of Bellville making this one incredible day for so many of us. You have allowed us the opportunity to remember everything that is good about the place we call home. It was truly one of the best trips I have very taken thanks to you!