Saturday, July 18, 2009

For the Love of a River

A little over a year ago, Publisher Chuck Southerland of the Hawkinsville Dispatch and News had a vision to bring an Oral History Forum of the Ocmulgee River—a main portion of a living history of Pulaski County—to the historic stage of the Old Opera House.
His idea was to have citizens of our community, who had different perspectives, talk about how the muddy river has been a huge part of Hawkinsville and Pulaski County. The public was invited to hear first-hand accounts of how the river has played a role in various parts of our lives.
First on the agenda, was eighty-two-year-old Sam Way III, a historian extraordinaire, of no small amount of knowledge concerning the history of the river and our county. Way pointed out that the development of history follows the rivers and trails of the world. When the European settlers came to the shores of this new land on the southeastern coast of what is today the United States of America, they found tribes of Indians living on the coastal plains. As more and more Europeans came ashore, they began to push the tribes inland. The Indians followed the Ogeechee River first and as they were forced to move on, they took to the Oconee River and finally to the Ocmulgee River.
They settled in this area and finally the Europeans came here as well, forcing the natives further west onto what we know today as the Flint River.
Just east of the Ocmulgee River, a small settlement was named Hartford, and because of the river and the ability to cross it where some rocks made it easy to do so, coupled with this area being a heavy cotton producing region, the small community began to become of great consequence. As Way told us in his talk that day, transportation was practically all by river, and the Ocmulgee following northward to Macon helped our area become even more significant in the trade and supplies which were a result of river travel.
Today, people can drive right through tiny Hartford, the area which at one time was a border town, and as a matter of history, it was one of the communities which were nominated to become the State Capitol of Georgia—losing by one vote as history has recorded it. The area along the banks of the Ocmulgee River connected by rocks was later named the Uchee Trail after the Indian tribes who lived here and finally to the Flint River where it ended in Macon County.
Again, keeping in mind that rivers and trails developed the history of the world, it is important to know that other trails came through our area.

The second trail was known as the DeSoto Trail discovered and named for the Spanish explorer, Hernando DeSoto who was looking for gold. After exploring through Florida, he later became famous for discovering the Mississippi River.
The third trail was known as Slosheye and it traversed to Vienna, a city which has become famous for its cotton production and its barbecue contest annually known as the Big Pig Jig which brings in folks from across the country to compete.
The fourth trail was named after Jefferson Davis the President of the Confederate States of America. It was named after the political leader because he was making a desperate attempt to escape the Union forces which were hot on his trail. He was finally captured on the morning of May 10, 1865 in Irwin County in the small community of Irwinville. Speculation is that he may have spent one of his final nights of freedom in Pulaski County near the Ocmulgee River.
The fifth trail was named for the Chickasaw Indians. That trail runs from nearby Empire through Hartford, and is known today as the Chicken Road. Those trails along with the remarkable muddy river we know as the Ocmulgee were important in bringing five railroad lines into Hawkinsville during those historic times.
They were the Macon-Hawkinsville RR, the WT RR from Sandersville through Dublin to Hartford where it turned around and headed back eastward. The Hawkinsville and Florida Southern RR left here and headed south to Pineview-Pitts-Cordele and on down to Ashburn. The Hawkinsville & Western RR came in our direction from Browndale, and lastly, the Ocilla Southern RR came in from Irwin County and then left Hawkinsville en route to Fort Valley. Today, a railroad track is difficult to find in Pulaski County, most having been paved over.
John Calvin Hadden, Jr. a son of the last Riverboat Captain—who captained stern-wheeler steamboats up and down the Ocmulgee River—remembered the story of his father waving to a young woman who was fishing on the banks of the river, and she waving back in turn. The couple finally met and later married.
Around 1958, a group of men, approximately 200 plus, formed a charter of boat owners and some of the most fast-paced and exciting times ever took place on the muddy river as the boat club members raced for trophies to the enjoyment of many citizens who were celebrating the sesquicentennial of Pulaski County. Some of those who took part, other than Hadden, included Emmett Head, Ed Darsey and Mark Hall. How many people cross the bridges over the Ocmulgee River today without even a glance?

There is much history in our muddy river! Some men such as Thomas Herrington and the late George Slappey taught their sons the value and enjoyment of fishing and hunting from the banks of the river. Others like my brothers and I enjoyed the river of our youth while we were growing up within a stone’s throw of a splash.
Most of us who have been on the river have tried our hand at water skiing at one time or another as did my old friend, Wendell Greer, grandson of Railroad Station Master, J. K. Greer. On one occasion, with me pulling Wendell, my daredevil buddy spotted a water moccasin swimming across the river, but instead of trying to avoid him, he directed his skis on top of the deadly snake. Brave or crazy! Your guess is as good as mine! He enjoyed pulling me past where the sewer used to flow into the river and make a quick turn forcing me to sink right in there. Maybe he was just crazy.
This article would be incomplete without mentioning two things: floods and people who drowned. In 1994, we saw the river at its all-time recorded high when a good portion of old Hartford was underwater.
Through the years, quite a number of people have drowned in the Ocmulgee River because of a lack of respect for the swirling sink holes in it. If you want to hear first-hand knowledge of the danger that can lurk in our river ask Ed Darsey, a man who literally grew up swimming and fishing in the muddy waters and he has a true love of the Ocmulgee River.


Anonymous said...

I had already read it in the paper and thought it a real good and interesting article. Yes I spent many an hour on the banks of the old muddy river. Great memories.

Shannon said...

I have to say I have never set foot (or boat) in the river, and to be honest, these stories are probably as close as I will ever get. (Other than driving over the bridge)
enjoyed the stories, always do.

Anonymous said...

I remember as kids fishing with Grandmama and Grandpappy on the old muddy river when we would visit from Florida. I still say grandmama was the best fisherman I ever knew. She would keep every fish she caught whether big or small.

gigi said...

Enjoyed this alot. Great history for all of us.

Anonymous said...

Here's some thoughts of growing up by the by the old muddy river in central Georgia. In the rainy season the river would swell to enormous heights and cause the streams and creeks that flowed into it to rise way out of their banks also. When that happened, Mother and Daddy would get their fishing gear bait together and off we would go to one of those creeks.
Their gear of hooks, line, lead etc. were carried in a cloth bag that Mother had sewn, with a strap that hang from their shoulders. On arrival at the creek, each would put their bags on, share the bait and began wading out into the overflowing creek, fishing as they waded about. When the water was high the fish bit very good because of the abundance of food that washed in. They would wade out to at least waist deep and would catch strings of red breast and blue gill bream and many other kinds.

When they got home Mother began preparing in the kitchen while Daddy did the scaling and cleaning. Mother would cook a ho-cake of cornbread and fry up those fish even the very little ones that were unlucky to get on their hooks. Those little ones would be fried very brown and you could eat meat and bones. What a great supper that would be.

Oh what great memories of the old river that flowing only a hundred yards of our humble home.