Cordele Dispatch, Cordele, GA

August 12, 2006

Crisp County history highlights

Special to the Dispatch

(Editor’s note: The Cordele Dispatch recently attempted to do a feature for our Sunday Accent front on the history of the Titan missile at exit 101 on I-75 and how it got to its location. Our attempts were unsuccessful, however, because the scrapbook containing most of the information couldn’t be located. However, while searching for the scrapbook, John S. Pate Jr. (who was instrumental acquiring the missile) came across the following article he wrote several years back on the rich history of Crisp County. Pate gave his permission to have this article published as many in this area will remember some of the events.)

I want to thank the Cordele Dispatch, my old employer when I was a teen-age delivery boy, for asking me to furnish this writing. It is always a joy to talk about our community and it’s history.

I want to walk you through some history, a few observations and collections of things that have happened in Crisp County over the past 100 years. Some of this will be humorous and some will be chilling. I hope it will be interesting.

The event that first affected my life was the GREAT TORNADO. We have all feared that it might happen again, but thank God it hasn’t.

When I served as Crisp County Administrator I was involved in helping to develop the contingency plan. I can tell you with much assurance, that your community is well-prepared for emergencies.

Sheriff Donnie Haralson and his staff have done an excellent job of emergency preparations, starting with securing a grant to build the emergency center. The disaster mitigation committee, under his direction, put together a very comprehensive disaster plan. As a result of that, we are not in nearly the danger that we have been in the past.

This comes from the reports of the Crisp County Tornado of 1936: “The rip-roaring mighty rushing winds of the tornado angrily descended upon the sleepy, peaceful town of Cordele at 7:07 a.m. on April 2, 1936. From out of the southwest, headed in an east, northeast direction, the tornado lost no time in devastating an area about two miles long and several blocks wide, leaving destruction in its wake. That dark and gloomy Thursday morning will long be remembered by local citizens who survived Cordele’s tornado of ’36.

As the clock ticked away, the swirling clouds outside were a major concern to the few citizens who were up and about early in the morning. Some were eating breakfast and many were still in bed, perhaps dreading to get up and begin the day’s work.

Without warning, except for dismal clouds, the tornado came in the path of a downpour. It had the sound of a freight train, coming head-on. It began its wrath on Southwest 22nd Avenue and continued to 12th Avenue East and leveled everything in its path. Both 13th and 14th Avenues received unbelievable damage. Houses were smashed into kindling wood. Debris was scattered for miles around. There were 16 citizens killed instantly. Property damage was severe, around two million dollars. This was when a pound of coffee sold for 15 cents.

Fortunately, school had not begun. The O’Neal Grammar School and annex were rendered useless. The roof of the high school was ripped off and carried away with the wind. Some 300 buildings were demolished and hundreds of people were left homeless.

I was inside one of those houses at the corner of Third Street and 14th Avenue. Damage to our home was not extensive, but I can vaguely remember, even at four years of age, my father pushing my mother and me under the bed just before bricks dropped onto the floor as the chimney collapsed into our bedroom.

Four men were killed in a brick store at the corner of Eighth Street and 16th Avenue. Mrs. W.T. Harris lived next door to the store, and she and her five little girls were trying to pull the door open to get out of the house and into the brick store to be safe. A witness said, “You know this shows the Lord’s got power. The wind was so strong she couldn’t get that door open, and her and them little girls was all right.”

Mollie Murray commented on the damage left behind. “Well it come like a hurricane, and it struck Crisp County, and it really tore Crisp County up! Yes sir, it tore the school house down. I was in the tornado. It tore the house down, and it killed 23 people, I think it was.” Mrs. Holt Walton said there was no water or lights for several days.

There are many, many stories of people helping neighbors before and after the tornado. Mrs. Walter Calhoun told how people helped each other in the early days.

“People didn’t have no such things as nursing homes then. People took care of the sick and the ailing. They’d take turns. The neighbors would go in and cut wood and cook for people that were down sick, and somebody would stay there and look after them; then another would come in.

My mother, she’d bundle us children up, her and Pa. Pa would tend to things; Mama would cook and wait on them. She’d stay there a couple of days and nights, but they needed help for a long time. I saw people lay bedridden three or four years, and people in the neighborhood for miles around would come in and take care of them.”

We should all pray that our community never has to go through that again.

A GARBAGE PROBLEM: Dr. Lee Williams Sr., at a city commissioners meeting seems to sum up the state of Crisp County during the Great Depression of 1929. The subject of this meeting was garbage. When asked how it was possible that people during that period did not have garbage, he simply replied, “Cause we eat it.” Nothing was wasted during those hard and trying times.

EARLY SCHOOL DAYS: Charlie Greer, when asked what they did in school, replied, “Well, I did everything wrong, but it was a good time. We went barefoot, walked, rode a horse to school part of the time.

MARJORIE ROYAL’S CABIN: In the yard of the home of Marjorie Royal, there stood an original log cabin built around 1845 in the Pateville Community in Dooly County, which, of course is now Crisp County. It was built on his farm by Simon Royal, Marjorie’s great-grandfather.

She found the cabin and moved and restored it to near original condition. She deeded the cabin to me upon my promise that I would find a way to preserve it. The cabin is a treasure to see. We have donated it to Agrirama in Tifton, so that it will be preserved and the public can experience a bit of how life was around the time of the Civil War.

My great-grandfather, John S. Pate, settled in Crisp County, then Dooly County, just prior to the Civil War. At the age of 16 he fought in a battle east of Macon where his unit charged the enemy three times up a hill that was held by the Union Army. They were driven back each time.

When the Union forces advanced over the hill the next morning, they found 600 old men and boys, their enemy, in attitudes of death and agony. My great-grandfather was fortunate to live through the battle and return home.

He was a strong believer in education and we think that he moved to Cordele to be sure his children got a good education. This was after a fire destroyed his home in Pateville, several miles west of Arabi. He also had a cotton gin, saw mill, general store and operated a post office there.

He contributed much to starting the school system in Cordele by donating the city block for O’Neal school. He also helped in paying the teachers’ salaries until the community could afford to do so. J.S. Pate Elementary School was named in his memory. When I see the wooden plaques advertising supporters as “Friends of J.S. Pate,” I get a really nice feeling.

EARLY FACILITIES: Even well after the turn of the century there were as many as eight mule barns in Cordele. Frank Williams was a mule barn owner. He also built the swimming pool on Fifth Street, which is still in existence today. There was a mule barn on North Seventh Street where the old Wells Hardware is located. The Nesbitt family had one across from the train station. There was another where the Extension Service is now located, behind the Court House.

One of the main community blacksmiths, whom I dearly loved, was Genus Cullen. He had a mule barn and blacksmith shop at the north end of the block where Harris Press is located. He used to shoe our mules I would go by there with what I called “my” mule and wagon, along with Charlie Lee Mercer or Shorty Mercer, with a wagon load of watermelons as we peddled them all over town, sometimes for five cents apiece.

Another thing that I remember happened at Mr. Williams pool each year. At the start of the swimming season, he would call everyone out of the pool and throw rolls of nickels into the water for us to dive for. Then he would blow the whistle for us to dive in. We all looked forward to that day.

Now I want to walk you through the area and point out some landmarks.

The castle-like water tower on Ninth Avenue is reported to be one of only two in the world, with the other built in the Hapeville area. They were built in between 1890 and 1900.

What was the community’s first water source? It was Seven Springs at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 15th Street. It is said that the guano plant poisoned the water at some point and a new well was dug adjacent to the water tower. It served Cordele until it was closed in 1970.

What was our first electric power source? A wood fired steam generator on the site of Cordele Concrete Co., by the railroad on Ninth Avenue. When they had church or county commission meetings at night and the light flickered, someone would have to go and put more wood in the furnace to make steam to turn the generator so the meeting could continue.

Many may not know that Cordele had a street-car re-built as a diner. Where was it located? Between Seventh and Eighth Streets on the North side of 12th Avenue.

The first fast-food establishment in the whole United States of America was located in Cordele! They were first called “Grab Joints” at amusement parks, because people were expected to grab their food and eat it somewhere else.

This one in Cordele was also the world’s smallest hot-dog stand where Mrs. Carpenter served hot dogs. It was called the “Hole in the Wall.” It is still there, located on the east side of Eighth Street between 11th and 12th Avenues in the space between two buildings. You can still see wide serving door today.

Next door to the “Hole in the Wall” was Cordele Hardware, owned by Edgar Fletcher. James Palmer and Clinton Westbrook worked there. Later, Clinton Westbrook and Buck Hunt opened a hardware store on 16th Avenue next to Buck Hunt’s Grocery.

The building is now part of a series of stores. Clinton and Buck Hunt used to send some unsuspecting new employee to Cordele Hardware to pick up “pipe stretchers” or ”spotted paint.” Then they would call ahead to tell their buddies that a sucker was on the way and they would be sent on to Cordele Sash, only to be sent back to Clinton’s as part of their joke.

The “Greek Stand” was located on the corner of Wall Street and Eighth Street. It was run by a Greek family for many years. My dad and I used to go by for those grilled ham sandwiches from John-the-Greek before we went fishing early in the morning. They were open 24 hours to serve travelers coming in on trains to Cordele. The police, firemen from the station up the street, or the sheriff and his deputies would stop in at all hours, as would big-wigs and politicians to get information, or “chew the rag,” as they called it.

A lot of the social activity in Cordele centered around the train station and the dining room there. The contractor for building the station was my grandfather, William Harmon Little.

George Green served the postal system for many years. He told me that they had to walk to the station and meet passenger trains many times a day to pickup and send out the mail. They also had numerous freight trains every day, but probably not as many as we do now. Spot Raines was the mail messenger. Wiley Johnson was postmaster appointed by President Roosevelt. We are all aware that the beautiful train station was torn down a few years back.

President Roosevelt stopped in Cordele in 1938 and made a speech from the back of presidential car. I remember the thrill of seeing him. The president received a bouquet of flowers from Josie Greene’s sister and Mayson Thornton Bissell. The president made his speech with Senator Walter F. George from Vienna, in the party.

It seems that Senator George had opposed the president on several occasions so the president gave several compliments to Senator George’s opponent in the Democratic primary. One report said that Senator George came to the front and, addressing the crowd, said, “Mr. President I accept your challenge! Senator George won by a landslide.

On Eighth. Street was Malin Turton’s first grocery store and he didn’t have a door to lock, they would just pull a fence cover around the front of the building. I worked for him selling candy to the soldiers on troop trains on their way to World War II.

How many know that we had an Opera House in Cordele?

On Wall Street where Pridgen Brothers Company is now, behind the library, was the Opera House. It was built in 1896, and if you went there, you could see the gentlemen and ladies in their evening attire gathered to enjoy such operas as “Fra Diavola” presented by the Manhattan Opera Co.

There, too, one could enjoy the famous Shakespeare plays, “The Merchant of Venice,” “As You Like It,” or have an evening of fun with Coburn’s Minstrel show. One could almost imagine he was seated in the famous Diamond Horseshoe opera house in New York City, as he gazed over the plumed hats of the fair ladies and watched them gracefully spread their lace fans. All of this, in Cordele, Georgia.

I went to dances in the ballroom upstairs, as a teenager. The Opera house served later as the City Hall and jail, before it was torn down around 1970.

On North Seventh Street or Highway 41 at Sixth Avenue was the first farmer’s market.

Horace Musselwhite had a service station and parking lot where Cordele acquired the title “Watermelon Capitol of the World”. Of course it was later moved to North 41 and P.B.’s Drive-In was born.

Across the street was Mrs. Williams Drive In. Hot dogs with barbecue and pork skins. They were so good!

I was told a story that has to do with that corner where Highway 41 made a sharp left turn and went under the railroad and turned sharply right again where Zack Wade has his oil company.

It seems that Leo Mercer, an Air Force pilot was shot down in Europe during WWII. He landed safely and was captured. He was interrogated by a German officer for days on end.

Leo, of course would tell the German officer nothing but his name, rank and serial number. One day he came in and said I don’t need to ask you any more questions. I know all about you anyway. He then told Leo his unit number, how many planes were on the raid, how many had been lost. Then he asked, “By the way, did they ever straighten out those two sharp turns on highway 41 on the North end of Cordele?” The German officer had lived in the U.S. for several years and traveled through Cordele on Highway 41 on his way to Florida.

One other interesting story was about Tom Elder’s Grocery. It was located about where Zack Wade has his oil company. It burned to the ground not many years ago.

Many of the ladies in town would go there every day to Mr. Elder’s to drink Cokes. They called them “dopes” at that time. He would bring ice cold dopes out to the car for them. The Coca-Cola Company later was reported as haven taken the coca beans out of their formula.

Most citizens know that Cordele was the capitol of Georgia for a short while. There is a brass plate in the sidewalk in Seventh Street in front of the Suwanee Apartments that tells the story.

There is a small building behind the new hospital adjacent to the walking track. It was the lunch room for Northern Heights School, which was located there and where many of our elder citizens went to school.

Judge Strozier was an early judge in the circuit. He had a big green Buick with wood spoke wheels that he drove. He had a tendency to drink when prohibition was repealed and according to one source, was slightly inebriated at one point and put his transmission in forward instead of reverse. He jumped the curb and tried it again only to do the same thing and ran right into a tree. He jumped out of the car, and seeing the trees on the court house lawn, He said, “Oh my God, I’m lost in the forest!” That story came to me from my dad, John S. Pate.

We also had in Cordele, Joe Lee’s drive-in. It seems that Joe Lee may have been engaged in some alcoholic activity, for which he was regularly caught and fined. He was at Jones-Pate Drug Store on Seventh Street and 11th Avenue when a bare-footed farmer in overalls came in and asked him what time it was.

Joe led the farmer out into the street and pointed at the clock on top of the courthouse, and said, “You see that clock on top of the courthouse? I’ve paid enough fines to the county so they could buy that clock and you dirt poor farmers would at least know what time it is.”

There were three drug stores on that corner at one time: Jones-Pate, Ryals, Jennings, and I think, McGahee.

Dr. McGahee was later across the railroad on Seventh Street. When I was sick, I was forced to drink orange juice mixed with castor oil from his fountain. Not a wonderful experience.

Many of the phones were party-lines and it was considered very rude to listen in, unless you wanted to know the latest gossip.

My cousin Marjorie Royal told me their personal phone ring was two longs and one short, so they would know to pick up and answer the phone. It seems that Nell Williams and Gloria Slade were talking confidentially and at great length one day when Bris Brisendine cut in and said, “Aren’t you ladies ashamed of yourselves for talking about your best friend that way!”

My best recollections and memories of my boyhood are Clements wash hole, and Ebeneezer, where we jumped out of a tree into the cold water of Cedar Creek, and a place we called Christmas Creek, out back of the airport. That water was also very cold.

There also was Greer’s Dairy, where Shoney’s and Capt. D’s are now located. I understand some of that land is worth over $100 an acre. Mr. Greer told me one day how proud he was when he sold the corner across from Ramada Inn. He said, “I always wanted to sell land for $1 a square foot, and I finally did.” Of course that land is worth many times that today.

The Cordele Rotary Club’s famous Titan missile is just across the street from there. There are a lot of true and untrue stories about the missile, but I’ll save that for another day.

I was president of the Rotary Club the year we took on the project of displaying the Titan II missile as a landmark for the community. Our slogan for the public was “Meet Me at the Missile!” It was pad one, Confederate Air Force. It was actually just a way to call attention to our community.

I worked for the Dispatch when I was about 11 or 12, delivering papers. That $5 a week bought me my motor scooter from Doug Wood.

I am excited about our community today. We have a rich history and I often think about how much of their lives, so many people have put into our community. We still need to give it our best effort to work together and make it better. We all need to do more of what has already been started at our tech school and at Darton College, training the work force so they will be ready. I believe we will.

Bruce Drennan and the IDC board are working hard to get industry here. They have landed the $85 million Owens-Corning plant and construction has begun. I understand there are more industries that are close to coming here.

I want to leave you with this: When Jesus was going to the cross he had a final word for his disciples. He said, “A new command I give you. Love each other as I have loved you. Then all will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

We must have that spirit of love in our community if we are to be successful.