The Willie Community
by Harris D. Mobley
In the northern part of the county, clear springs feed lazy creeks which flow southeastward to form the big Canoochee. In this beautiful land of cypress and pine a proud community once flourished for awhile but abruptly fell to the needs of a nation preparing for war. That was the summer of 1942.
Before long artillery practice and bulldozer blades had brought to naught what a hearty people had labored half a century to build. Homesteads, churches, schools and businesses were leveled. The community that once boasted of its cotton gins, turpentine stills, sawmills and railroad disappeared for all time. But its people had not. And the community was reborn in the hearts of the dispossessed in the annual meetings of the Willie Community in exile. Begun in 1961, twenty years after they had said goodbye to their native soil, the living community met at Marcus and Eleanor May's home near Pembroke. There the past was rehearsed and good times recounted.
The Willie Community existed well before the turn of the century, but the extension of the railroad from Lanier to the Old Sunbury Road marks the birth of the town.
Born at the intersection on a humid day in June 1911, Willie, named for the new railroad owner's daughter, was christened with proper ceremony. The citizens brought a brass band from Cobbtown, served barbecue, Brunswick stew and lots of cool lemonade, not to mention the discreet nips of harder stuff. Streets were laid off and lots surveyed; sales were heavy. The people were proud of it all, including their new tennis court.
No longer would they have to horse-and buggy to Groveland or Pembroke to catch the train. And Bill Tuten could ship more yellow pine and cypress to lucrative markets in Savannah and Atlanta. Eventually, the line went to Glennville, a depot was erected and a local post office opened. Homes went up, churches built, schools consolidated, all around the growing town of Willie. Small farmers with big hearts had high hopes of it all enduring forever.
But the Willie settlement would need more than cotton, lumber, turpentine and a railroad to endure. Not even the good will of its pioneer people could insure its survival. Its virgin forests cut over, cotton gone sour, and naval stores there for the few at the sweat of the many hands in "the quarters", the proud native sons left for jobs in Florida and beyond. The depression was deepening.
But the last two decades of Willie's life were not really that grim. During the twenties and thirties there were the picnics on the Canoochee, cane grindings at the Bacon's and peanut boilings at the Mixon's. Camping trips to Belfast, Colonel's Island and Shellman Bluff were common. The people and the times were well served by these social events.
No sketch of Willie and its people would be adequate without mention of churches and the grip they held on the community. Unlike the small one-teacher schools which began to consolidate after World War I, local churches never gave it serious consideration. Bethany Baptist was one such church. Located on Canoochee Creek just a few miles west of Willie, the congregation formed in the 1890 sand ministered to the area until the last citizens left. It was the end of an era.
Founded by the early settlers to serve the folks along the creek, several families joined those of John Mobley and Richard Ray to erect a meeting house and clear a cemetery. Diseases were taking their toll. Before the building was up, Ray's daughter died of diphtheria, the first burial at Bethany. Mobley's granddaughter, Grace, would follow, and the list lengthens. This dreaded disease of the young took many lives, while pneumonia and the flu plagued the elders. Bethany cemetery stands as mute testimony to the harsh realities of those times.
The religious fare at Bethany, indeed that of all the scattered meeting houses of the community, featured hell-fire preaching, and stormy revivals.
A long line of able ministers served the congregation. Among others were the Reverend J. A. J. Smith, the Reverend Reuben Johnson and the Reverend J. Benton. During the earlier years baptism was regularly held at Tan Trough Lake at the Richard Ray landing. Sunday School was a must for every member's life every Sunday. Worship services were scheduled for every third Sunday, and revival meetings were held quarterly at which time communion was served.
The Methodists were equally served by the Soules Chapel Methodist Church. Established about the middle of the 1800s, the earliest members included David B. M. Sheppard, 1844; Caroline Rustin, 1836; Jane L. Girardeau, 1853; W. A. Sheppard, 1860; Mary E. Darsey Zorn, 1865; J. E. Grice, 1867; and Wesley Rustin, 1866.
Ministers who served the Soules Chapel congregation before 1900 were the Reverend William Watts, 1865; the Reverend William G. Booth, 1871; the Reverend John Marshall, 1874; the Reverend John Wardlaw, 1877; the Reverend Thomas Armstead, 1880; the Reverend A. A. Ellenwood, 1882; the Reverend J. J. Giles, 1883; the Reverend J. Rorie, 1886; the Reverend W. D. McGregor, 1889; the Reverend George B. Culpepper, 1891; and the Reverend J. P.Dickinson, 1892. Three ministers - the Reverend M. A. Phillips, the Reverend John E. Sentell and the Reverend Hansford Andrews filled the pulpit between 1892 and 1899. Church records list the Reverend R. B. Ross as pastor in 1899 and the Reverend H. C. Fentress in 1900.
Still another Methodist church was Harmony. Located in the Strumbay area, several members were transferred from Soules Chapel to Harmony in 1888, probably the year Harmony was organized. Among others, the Floyds, Joneses, Lowthers, Richardsons, Smiths, and Laniers were members of the Harmony church.
Education was highly valued by the early settlers. They built small one-room schools, staffed usually by one teacher, in the various settlements. Among the prominent schools were Salem (later Long Branch), Soules Chapel, Strumbay, Thomas Hill, Corinth and Bethel.
An early post office had opened at Oneida in June, 1887, in the home of Samuel B. Giradeau. Giradeau was appointed postmaster and served in that position until 1899, when James S. Darsey was named to succeed him. Darsey then moved the post office to his home, and was succeeded by his son, Everett O. Darsey, in 1904. Two years later this pioneering postal service closed and the Willie area was placed on a rural route out of the Groveland office. Mail carriers on this route were J. A. Grice, George T. Darsey, W. T. Gooden and Samuel Denmark.
Other post offices serving the early settlers included Strumbay, which operated out of the home of Seaborn E. Jones who acted as postmaster. Lyman J. Sheppard was also postmaster at Strumbay. McCann was located in the Ryon settlement. When these two offices were discontinued, the mail for the area was handled through the Hinesville post office.
Old timers insist that Willie was more than the sum of its churches, schools and farms. It was a community where stalwart people, black and white, loved life, pursued peace and maintained integrity with one another. That was the way I remember it. For a few childhood years our nearest neighbors were blacks: the George Fraser farm on one side, the Tom Deloach place on the other, the Shelly Anderson house just up the road. A more understanding group of "aunts" and "uncles" could not be found. "Aunt Dolly" Fraser, in particular, was more than a beautiful lady whom a growing boy loved dearly. She was an institution - folklorist, doctor, nurse, psychiatrist and tease. And, oh those playmates of mine! - Friz and Roscoe Anderson come quickly to mind. Together we worked, laughed, wrestled and wept. Such innocent days cut deep to form such a vital part of us.
Intensely proud of this heritage, natives keep telling their children and grandchildren about life in that now obscure and almost forgotten place. We will go on reminding them, as we do each other, how great it is to trace one's roots to such a rich heritage.
Willie died well before maturity, giving birth to only four generations at best. Born in good times, hanging on during the difficult twenties and thirties, the economy had just begun to recover when the end came. The first graduation at the new high school occurred only four years before the final commencement.
Now that we are older and presumably wiser, we think we understand more clearly why it was our homes and heritage that had to go: Willie did not possess the political clout to defend itself. The decision was directed at our loyalty, love of country and freedom, sensitive areas for folks from Willie. The verdict stood.
This sketch of Willie, brief and biased as it is, is dedicated to all those stalwart settlers and their thousands of descendants who first created and now uphold its character. Otherwise Willie might quite properly be relegated to a historical footnote.