John A. Gaskins Thrown by a Mule

John A. Gaskins (1854-1926)

John A. Gaskins, a son of Harmon Gaskins and Melissa Jones and grandson of Fisher Gaskins, was born September 8, 1854 in Old Lowndes, now Berrien County, GA.

John A. Gaskins, son of Harmon Gaskins, born 8 September 1854, died 22 June 1926. Image courtesy of

John A. Gaskins, son of Harmon Gaskins, born 8 September 1854, died 22 June 1926. Image courtesy of

In 1905, when John A. Gaskins was a gentleman of 50 years, the Tifton Gazette noted as a human interest item that he had been thrown by his mule. He was treated by Dr. Pleasant H. Askew of Nashville, GA.

John A. Gaskins thrown by a mule.

John A. Gaskins thrown by a mule.

Tifton Gazette
April 28, 1905

A mule threw John A. Gaskins Tuesday afternoon and broke his collar bone on the right side. He was out feeding hogs in the woods when his mule became frightened and threw him to the ground. Dr. Askew dressed his wounds and he is getting on as well as could be expected. -Herald.

The item was newsworthy in part because the Gaskins  were prominent Wiregrass land owners and cattlemen.  They were one of the early pioneer families of Berrien County.  The patriarch, Fisher Gaskins,  and  his sons  Harmon, William and John, had originally settled on the west side of the Alapaha River,  near present day Bannockburn, GA.,  about 16 miles distance from today’s Ray City, GA location.  Harmon Gaskins, and his brothers William and John, were among Captain Levi J. Knight’s Company of men who fought in the Indian Wars of 1836.

Just a year before John A. Gaskins’ mule bolted, in 1904, the papers noted that he had closed a big timber deal. The transaction was for 3,400 acres of timber to be cut at a sawmill on the Ocilla, Pinebloom & Valdosta railroad.

John A. Gaskins sells timber, 1904

John A. Gaskins sells timber, 1904


Tifton Gazette
February 19, 1904

Gaskin Sells Timber.

Nashville, GA. Feb. 12. – Messrs. Barfield and Brewer, of Unadilla, Ga. have closed a deal with John A. Gaskin, by which they come in posession of 3,400 acres of timbered lands, buying the timber only. The price paid was $34,000.
The purchasers will erect a splendid mill two miles out on the O.P. & V. railroad at an early date.

 About John A. Gaskins

John A.  Gaskins grew up at his father’s homestead near Five Mile Creek, about six or seven miles northeast of present day Ray City, GA..  John’s mother died when he was about 10 years old,  and his father remarried to  Mary McCutchen Jones, widow of Matthew Jones.

In 1877, John A. Gaskins married Mary Elizabeth Bostick. She was born 1859, a daughter of Sarah Ann Knight and Jesse S. Bostick . When Mary was about three years old  in 1862 her father  enlisted in the Clinch Volunteers, which mustered in as Company G, Georgia 50th Infantry Regiment.  His Regiment was involved in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Civil War at the Battle of  South Mountain and at the Battle of Cedar Creek.  He was taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in the POW camp at Point Lookout, along with fellow POWs John T. Ray, Benjamin Harmon Crum, Benjamin T. Cook and Aaron Mattox.  Just a year after Mary’s father marched off to the Civil War, her mother died of measles.  When the War ended and  her father returned home, he married Mrs. Nancy Corbitt Lastinger. She was the widow of James G. Lastinger, who served in the 29th Georgia Regiment (with the Berrien County Minute Men) and died in a Union hospital in 1864. Thus, Mary Elizabeth Bostick was raised by her step-mother Nancy Corbitt Bostick.

Children of John A. Gaskin and Mary Elizabeth Bostick are:

  1. William M Gaskins  – born April 3, 1878; died August 26, 1905
  2. Lucious Butler Gaskins  – born January 17, 1880 in  Berrien, GA; married Lessie L. Parrish, February 21, 1904; died April 13, 1934
  3. Reason Batie Gaskins – born May 23, 1882 in Berrien County, Georgia; married Blanche P. Giddens; died December 24, 1912
  4. Jesse Swinson Gaskins  – born 1884 in Georgia; married Florence Courson
  5. Laura M Gaskins – born June 15, 1887; died November 15, 1898
  6. James Henry Gaskins, – born February 18, 1890;  married Hattie M. Roberson; died December 25, 1979
  7. John Bullock Gaskins  – born July 9, 1892 at Weber, Berrien County, GA;  served in WWI with US 1st Division; died December 3, 1954 at Miami, FL

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Preacher Shaw and Susie Ray

Preacher Shaw and Susie Ray

Preacher Shaw, circa 1926. Image courtesy of Bryan Shaw.

Preacher Shaw, circa 1926. Image courtesy of Bryan Shaw.

Preacher Shaw was a son of Ray City, Georgia. He was a popular baseball player, sometimes politician, and salesman of Berrien County. His given name was Fondren Willie Mitchell Shaw, but at a young age he acquired the nickname “Preacher,” a moniker that stuck for life. As a boy, Preacher Shaw attended Pine Grove School and the Kings Chapel School, located just across the county line, in Lowndes County. His parents, Jesse Shelby “Dock” Shaw and Susie Bullard, had attended the same school in their youth.

From Bryan Shaw’s family newsletter comes the following:

 It was at the Kings Chapel school that Preacher Shaw met his life-long companion, Susie Ray, daughter of Charles M. Ray and Maggie Hutto Ray. She had finished her educational training by attending Georgia State Womans College [now Valdosta State University], and had been teaching at Pleasant Vale and Indian Camp  schools. She had just started teaching at Kings Chapel when she met young Preacher Shaw.  It is not clear if he was finishing his formal education of if he was attending a function there and made her acquaintance.

The only automobile that the couple had to court in was the rumble-seat coupe that belonged to Susie. But it was adequate and they were mar- ried on November 13, 1927 in the home of Susie’s parents by Elder Aaron Knight. The couple set up house for a brief time with Susie’s parents, where their first child, Latrelle was born July 14,1928. They shortly thereafter moved into the Martha Carter place just off of the Old Valdosta Highway near Barker Road. Here their second child Lawanna was born March 26, 1930. During this time, Preacher was farming the property of Susie’s parents. The family then moved into a small home on Indian Camp Road about a mile west of the Ray homeplace. It had been the old White Pond Church, which had been moved to the Ray property by Preacher and Susie’s brothers, Henry and Buck. By November the following year 1931, Preacher and Susie had moved over to the “Dock” Shaw place, helping on that farm. They lived in the log house that Preacher had been born in 25 years earlier. Their third child, a son Otis was born on November 16, 1931. Early the following year in 1932, Preacher suddenly suffered an attack of appendicitis, and was rushed to the Little Griffin Hospital in Valdosta. His recovery was slow, and Susie stayed at the home of Preacher’s sister, Cora Shaw Griffin. Susie visited Preacher daily while walking to the hospital and back carrying baby Otis.

Preacher worked the Ray property until about 1937, when he went down to Jacksonville, Florida to work for his brother-in-law, Lewis Ennis, Mary Idell’s husband. Lewis owned and  operated a service station and oil company in Avondale, Florida. Preacher would drive back and forth from Jacksonville to Ray City about once a month, while Susie worked the family farm. The children were attending the New Lois School about this time, walking the four mile distance each way, daily. One of their fondest childhood moments was when Preacher brought home a used girl’s bicycle from Jacksonville. With the birth of their fourth and last child, Gerald on April 5, 1938, Preacher found employment a little closer to home, working on a construction crew, building roads near Thomasville. However this opportunity turned into tragedy, when one of the construction tractors turned over on top of him. He was hospitalized in critical condition for sometime before finally recovering. He carried scars from that accident the rest of his life. All during the months and years that Preacher was working out of town, Susie was home, raising the children and working the farm. She was also an accomplished seamstress, sewing all of the children’s clothes. She was often sought after for seamstress work by many of her neighbors and her work was well known throughout the county. When Preacher recovered from the accident, he returned to work the farm, and the family moved in and lived with Susie’s widowed mother. About 1940 Mrs. Ray deeded the Ray homeplace and 100 acres of the farm in the 134th land lot to Susie.  Maggie Ray died August 2, 1942.

About 1945, Preacher went to work in Nashville for Jake Rutherford in the fertilizer business. This began a long venture in the feed, seed, and fertilizer business that lasted over two decades. He worked at the Leah Stallings Feed and Seed, Perkins Warehouse, and John David Luke at the Nashville Mills. He was a “drummer”, a natural-born salesman, selling seed and fertilizer, then traveling through out Berrien and the surrounding counties, buying back the farmers’ crops. Then he would sell them seed for the next crop year.

Reprint courtesy of Bryan Shaw.

Rossie O. Knight and Ehrenbreitstein Fortress

Rossie O. Knight. Image courtesy of Bryan Shaw and the Berrien Historical Foundation

Rossie O. Knight. Image courtesy of Bryan Shaw and the Berrien Historical Foundation

Rossie O. Knight

Rossie O. Knight was a son of Sovin J. Knight and Ann Eliza Allen of Ray City, GA.

In the years from 1913 to 1917, Rossie was engaged in America’s preparation for the coming conflict, in military service with the Coast Artillery Corps at Fort Hancock, NJ, and working to produce war matériel at the Nixon Nitration Works.

On April 6, 1917, the United States Congress formally declared war on Germany and its allies. By  August 7, 1917 he was serving overseas with the U.S. First Division . He received the Victory Medal with five battle clasps for his service with the 1st Division Ammunition Train in France during WWI.

After the Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918  Knight served in Germany as part of the Army of Occupation. On August 6, 1919 he was transferred from the 1st Division Ammunition Train to Company B, 7th Machine Gun Battalion, and on September 17, 1919 he finally got his sergeant’s stripes back.   For the next 18 months, Sergeant Knight was stationed with his company at Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, Koblenz, Germany.


First American flag to fly over a German Fort across the Rhine, Ehrenbreitstein Fortress


Ehrenbreitstein Fortress (German: Festung Ehrenbreitstein) is a fortress on the mountain of the same name on the east bank of the Rhine opposite the town of Koblenz in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Ehrenbreitstein was built as part of a strong ring of fortifications around Koblenz, the largest military fortress in Europe after Gibraltar. When the Koblenz fortifications west of the Rhine were dismantled in 1890-1903, Ehrenbreitstein Fortress remained as the main defense of the Rhine crossing.  After WWI it was occupied by the US Army as their headquarters during the Occupation of the Rhineland.

American Flag over Fortress Ehrenbreitstein, Koblenz, Germany, circa 1919

American Flag over Fortress Ehrenbreitstein, Koblenz, Germany, circa 1919


In the 1920 census, Rossie O. Knight was enumerated at Fortress Ehrenbreitstein, Koblenz, Germany with Company B, 7th Machine Gun Battalion.

1920 census enumeration of Rossie O. Knight while stationed in Germany

1920 census enumeration of Rossie O. Knight while stationed in Germany at Fortress Ehrenbreitstein, Koblenz, Germany


Review of the American Forces in Germany
On February 14, 1921, the 7th Machine Gun Battalion ceased to exist pursuant to War Department orders.

According to family historian, Bryan Shaw,  “Rossie Knight returned home after the war and was plagued with the effects of multiple gas exposures.  Rossie remained single the rest of his life. He died November 16, 1963 at the age of 71. He is buried at the Pleasant Cemetery in the Lois community.”

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Remember the Maine, Aaron Cook and the Spanish American War

Aaron Cook, of the Watson Grade community near Ray City, GA, was 30 years old when the  USS Maine sank in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898.

Grave of Aaron Cook, veteran of the Spanish-American War, Empire Church Cemetery, Lanier County, GA

Grave of Aaron Cook, veteran of the Spanish-American War, Empire Church Cemetery, near Ray City, GA.

Born June 23, 1867 in Berrien County, GA , Aaron A. Cook  was the youngest son of Lucretia Sirmans and John Jasper Cook. His parents’ farm was in the Watson Grade community just northeast of Rays Mill, GA.  His sister Charlotte married William Jackson Boyette, and sister Mary Ellen Cook (1876-1939) was the wife of Reverend Orville A. Knight.

Just weeks after his birth, local South Georgia papers observed that a rebellion was underway in Cuba, wryly noting that the U. S. government seemed to be more supportive of rebels in other countries.  The Cuban rebels founded the “Revolutionary Committee of Bayamo” in July 1867 and the period of Aaron Cook’s childhood and young adulthood coincided with Cuba’s long struggle for independence from Spain.   The people of Wiregrass Georgia were largely indifferent to the Cuban rebellion, although there was some U. S. desire for  the annexation of this “Queen of the Antilles” where American commercial interests were heavily invested.    In Cuba, the rebels quickly initiated an all-out military uprising against Spanish rule,  starting the  Ten Years’ War and unleashing contention with Spain which spanned a period of thirty years.

The smoldering Cuban insurrection re-erupted in the  Cuban War of Independence (1895–1898). In Wiregrass Georgia, the Cuban conflict was mostly marked by rising costs of coffee and sugar caused by the war, and a mild interest the Cuban rebels’ plans for emancipation of the slaves that worked the Cuban plantations.  A curious side note was circus promoter W. H. Harris’  offer of the man-killing elephant, Gypsy, to the Cuban insurgents.  In 1896, Gypsy had performed  before Wiregrass crowds in Thomasville, GA as a part of Harris’ Nickel Plate Show. Harris reckoned, “If Hannibal found elephants useful in battle, why should not [the Cubans] conquer with Gypsy.”  The elephant would be killed five years later after a murderous rampage in Valdosta, GA.

For the U. S., the war exploded with the sinking of USS Maine:

In January 1898, USS Maine, a second-class battleship built between 1888 and 1895, was sent to Havana  to protect American interests during the long-standing revolt of the Cubans against the Spanish government. In the evening of 15 February 1898, Maine sank when her forward gunpowder magazines exploded. Nearly three-quarters of the battleship’s crew died as a result of the explosion. While the cause of this great tragedy is still unsettled, contemporary American popular opinion blamed Spain, and war followed within a few months.

USS Maine as she entered Havana harbor, Cuba, on 25 January 1898. She was destroyed by explosion there some three weeks later, on 15 February. Image source:

USS Maine as she entered Havana harbor, Cuba, on 25 January 1898. She was destroyed by explosion there some three weeks later, on 15 February. Image source:

Following the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, the United States entered the conflict, allying with the rebels and declaring war on Spain on April 25, 1898.

No where was there greater war fervor than in Georgia.  “Georgia furnished according to population more volunteers than any other State of the Union,” and Wiregrass babies were  named in honor of the war’s heroes.

Aaron Cook was among some 3,000 Georgians  to serve in the Spanish-American War. He was enlisted on July 2, 1898, and mustered in at Macon, GA as a private in Company E, Third Regiment, U.S. Volunteer Infantry. Other Berrien countians s erving in the Third Regiment were Luther Lawrence Hallman and William F. Patten, both in Company B.     Company E was mustered in with  63 enlisted men and 23 recruits under the command of Captain Yancey Cade Carter, 1st Lieutentant John A. Sibley,  of Tifton, GA, and 2nd Lieutenant Edward Stevens. Of the Georgia units activated for the Spanish American war, only the Third Volunteer Infantry would see overseas duty, serving as an occupation force in Cuba during the first three months of 1899.

Aaron Cook, Spanish-American War

Aaron Cook, Spanish-American War

The U.S. War Department was fully aware that Yellow Fever would pose a major threat to U.S. military operations in Cuba.

Yellow fever begins after an incubation period of three to six days. Most cases only cause a mild infection with fever, headache, chills, back pain, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. In these cases the infection lasts only three to four days.

In fifteen percent of cases, however, sufferers enter a second, toxic phase of the disease with recurring fever, this time accompanied by jaundice due to liver damage, as well as abdominal pain. Bleeding in the mouth, the eyes, and the gastrointestinal tract will cause vomit containing blood, hence the Spanish name for yellow fever, vomito negro (“black vomit”). The toxic phase is fatal in approximately 20% of cases, making the overall fatality rate for the disease 3% (15% * 20%). In severe epidemics, the mortality may exceed 50%.

Surviving the infection provides lifelong immunity.

The Third Volunteer Infantry Regiment was one of ten that had been created by Congress as  “Immune Regiments” –  intended as special forces that could remain effective combat units even in tropical zones where Yellow fever was endemic.

New York Times  May 21, 1898;

 The Immune Regiments:

The first step toward the raising of 10,000 yellow fever immunes for the army of Cuban invasion was taken today, when the President sent to the Senate the nominations of Colonels for six of the ten regiments into which the special corps will be divided…No definite scheme for the enlistment of these special regiments has been settled upon.  It is not considered that it will be possible to get together 10,000 men who have actually had yellow fever, and that will not be attempted.  The recruiting will be done chiefly in the Southern Coast States, however, and the effort will be to take in men who, if they have not passed through a yellow fever epidemic, have been thoroughly acclimated to a hot climate and are accustomed to outdoor life. When so made up it is considered that these regiments will be far superior for rough and ready campaigning in Cuba to the ordinary volunteers, many of whom are young clerks or salesmen absolutely unaccustomed to outdoor life in a sultry clime.

Colonel Patrick Henry Ray

Colonel Patrick Henry Ray


President McKinley named Colonel Patrick Henry Ray as commander of the Third Regiment, and the unit became known as Ray’s Immunes.

The Third Regiment trained at Camp Price, Macon, GA.  Camp Price was located in Central City Park in the south part of the city, south of 7th street along the river. The  Macon Telegraph reported “Camp Price has been proven to be a healthy and an ideal place for a camp. There is an abundance of pure, clear water for all purposes and the forest oaks keep the grounds well shaded and cool.  The cottages and other buildings furnish splendid quarters for the regimental officers, and there is nothing lacking to make the place a complete success.”

Macon Telegraph
July 12, 1898

At Camp Price

The Soldiers Have Received Their Guns and Dog Tents

The soldiers at Camp Price drilled with their guns for the first time yesterday afternoon, and the sight was an imposing one, as they drilled in battalion in the race track enclosure.
The soldiers have also secured their dog tents, which they take as good evidence that they are soon to move to the front. The regiment is now complete and the boys drill almost like regulars. It is a fine body of men and can be counted on in any emergency.
The officers yesterday formed a mess, so that all of them will be together. This, it is thought, will be to their mutual advantage.

After this training the Regiment moved to Savannah, GA to embark for Cuba.  The Regiment left Savannah on Saturday evening, August 13, 1898, and arrived at Santiago de Cuba about 10:00am on Wednesday, August 17, 1898.  By the time they reached Cuba, an armistice  had been signed between the U.S. and Spain.  With the fighting ended, the Third Regiment assumed the role of occupation forces. After a few days at Santiago, the Regiment was transported by boat to Cameira de Cuba, then by train to Guantanamo, leaving garrison troops at each of these locations. Around August 22, the regiment arrived at Jamaica de Cuba, about 12 miles northwest of Guantanamo.

Aaron Cook’s unit, Company E, was assigned to maintain the garrison at Jamaica de Cuba and to man outposts at Los Canos, Santa Cecilla, San Carlos, Romila, and La Luisa.

The regiment served in Cuba until March 30, 1899 when it steamed for the U.S. The transport ship departed from Sagua de Tanamo and arrived at Fort Pulaski, Savannah, GA on April 2, 1899. The ship was sent to Sapelo Island for five days quarantine. Upon the return to Savannah, the troops were put aboard a train and sent to Macon, GA to be mustered out.

Aaron Cook received an honorable discharge on May 2, 1899.  Afterwards Aaron and his wife, Nancy Baldree Cook, spent the rest of their lives farming near Ray City, GA.

Aaron Cook died December 2, 1946 and was buried at Empire Church near Ray City, GA.  His widow applied for and received a headstone provided by the government to mark the graves of honorably discharged veterans. The upright marble headstone is inscribed in raised lettering inside a recessed shield.   The inscription encompasses the arched name and abbreviated military organization. No emblems of belief or additional inscriptions were inscribed.  While the dates of birth and death were allowed below the shield, these were not inscribed on Aaron Cook’s marker.




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James B. Griner Elected Nashville Police Chief, February 11, 1915

James B. Griner

In the 1940s James Benjamin “Jim” Griner served as the Chief of Police in Ray City, GA (see also A Christmas Wedding for Mary Catherine Hill).   But long before that he served as Deputy Sheriff of Berrien County, and in 1915 he was elected Chief of Police in Nashville, GA.   He was sworn in on February 11, 1915.

James B. Griner was elected Nashville, GA Chief of Police in 1915.

James B. Griner was elected Nashville, GA Chief of Police in 1915.

Since at least 1905, Jim Griner had been working as Deputy Sheriff of Berrien County, and in 1915 he ran for the office of Police Chief of Nashville.  The incumbent Police Chief was Richard McRae Rhoden.  The election was a close race, and Nashville Mayor F. M. Barker cast the deciding vote for Griner.



Tifton Gazette
February 19, 1915


Mayor Cast Vote Which Defeated Rhoden

Nashville, Ga., Feb 11 – Inauguration of city officers at council chamber last night was attended by a big crowd. After much discussion, it was decided not to lower salaries of any officials.

The city electrician gets an increase in salary. Chief R. M. Rhoden and ex-Deputy Sheriff J. B. Griner were tied for chief of police, until Mayor F. M. Barker cast his vote for Griner.

John T. Griffin was elected over R. W. Tygart. Horace Sikes was elected water and light superintendent, and Austin Avera was named night policeman.


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Rossie O. Knight and the Nixon Nitration Works

Rossie O. Knight (1892-1963)

Born of the World’s mischance,
Lair bade the newer toys of death,
Mortar, grenade and poison breath-
We smiths of Ordnance.

And none may see the arms we forge,
And laughing pass them by,
Nor do we think to show for sport,
Our ghastly armory.

-anonymous member of the Ordnance Department, WWI

Rossie O. Knight was a son of Sovin J. Knight and Ann Eliza Allen,  and grew up on his parents’ farm near Rays Mill (now Ray City),  before moving to Barney, GA.   From 1917 to 1919 Rossie O. Knight served  in some of the major European campaigns of World War I. He received the WWI Victory Medal with five battle clasps. But Rossie had enlisted in the service well prior to America’s entry into the Great War.  In the years from 1913 to 1917, Rossie was engaged in America’s preparation for the coming conflict, in military service in the Coast Artillery Corps, and working to produce war matériel at the Nixon Nitration Works.

Rossie O. Knight’s service records show he enlisted at Fort Slocum, NY on August 31, 1913. Other Berrien county men who entered the service via Fort Slocum included Carter H. Exum and Charlie Turner, both of Nashville, GA who enlisted June 22, 1914. John S. Shaw, of Rays Mill, GA enlisted at Ft Slocum on August 5, 1914 and went to bakers and cooks school at Fort Sam Houston, TX.

Rossie O. Knight WWI service record

Rossie O. Knight WWI service record

Fort Slocum, New York was a US military post which occupied Davids Island in the western end of Long Island Sound in New Rochelle, New York from 1867 – 1965. In 1913, it was a major Army induction center

Fort Slocum, New York was a US military post which occupied Davids' Island in the western end of Long Island Sound in New Rochelle, New York from 1867 - 1965.

Gun squad at Fort Slocum, New York. Fort Slocum was a major induction point for the U.S. Army during WWI.

After training at Fort Slocum, Rossie O. Knight was assigned  to Fort Hancock, NJ for duty with the Coast Artillery Corp, Third Company.  Fort Hancock, situated on the island of Sandy Hook, was a coastal artillery base defending the Atlantic coast and the entrance to New York Harbor. Fort Hancock was operated in conjunction with the US Army’s Sandy Hook Proving Ground, where newly manufactured artillery was tested.

Aiming a 14 inch artillery gun at Sandy Hook, Fort Hancock, New Jersey,

Aiming a 14 inch artillery gun at Sandy Hook, Fort Hancock, New Jersey.

It was in 1914, when Rossie was stationed at Fort Hancock that hostilities broke out in Europe.  Americans watched with interest, but President Wilson worked to keep the country out of the war; “While armies moved across the face of Europe, the United States remained neutral.”  The United States attempted to continue trade and diplomatic relations amid the rising world conflict, but the production of artillery and war matériel in America became critically important to the belligerents. America was just coming out of the Recession of  1913-14, and the business leaders and industrialists began ramping up their companies to produce the needed supplies.  Among these men was an industrialist and shipbuilder Lewis Nixon, who began construction of the Nixon Nitration Works to produce “gun cotton,”- for use in smokeless gunpowder.

Americans were largely ambivalent about the war in Europe. But on May 7, 1915 a German submarine torpedoed and sunk the RMS Lusitania in route from New York to Liverpool, causing the death of 1,198 passengers and crew. Reports of the sinking were emblazoned across newspaper headlines in the U.S. and caused a storm of protest, as 128 Americans were among the dead.

Lusitania Torpedoed

Lusitania Torpedoed May 7, 1915, banner headline in the Thomasville Daily Times Enterprise, Thomasville, GA

On May 8th, the day after the sinking of the Lusitania, the Nixon Nitration Works began production of gunpowder. Lewis Nixon announced he would turn his full attention to the completion of the plant.

May 8, 1915 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced the beginning of gun cotton production at the Nixon Nitration Works

May 8, 1915 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced the beginning of gun cotton production at the Nixon Nitration Works

The Brooklyn Eagle
May 8, 1915

Huge Nixon War Plant to Turn Out Guncotton

Lewis Nixon has decided to abandon his political activities to give his undivided attention to the huge war plant which he is erecting near Metuchen, N.J. With but a small part of the 400-acre gun cotton plant completed, the manufacture of explosives began today. Contracts have been made with France and England which will take the output of the plants for the next two and a half years, regardless of the duration of the war, delivering at least 100 tons of gun cotton each month during the life of the contract.

The Fatherland, a pro-German newspaper based in New York, reported in August 1915 that Nixon had closed a contract with the British War Office for 1,000,000 lbs. of gun cotton to be manufactured at the plants at Metuchen, N. J. The shipments were to begin April 15th and to be continued at the rate of 20,000 lbs. a day. The Nixon concern receives 70 cents per pound. Mr. Nixon, when interviewed, refused to give any details of his contracts, but intimated, said the New York World, that they called for much more material than was reported. Within six weeks, according to the New York Sun, the Nixon Nitration Co. erected three big structures in Millville, N. J., for the manufacture of gunpowder and other war materials. Seven smaller buildings were erected. Three shifts of men have been kept working 24 hours a day. The Sun reported that three times as many buildings would be constructed, and that the number of employees would be increased from 500 men to 2,000.”

Although men came from all over the nation to work in the Nixon Nitration Works, the company  struggled to find enough workers for the massive gunpowder works.  At one point labor relations were strained to the point of a strike. After two fires occurred  the plant let go a number of foreign nationals who had been employed there, although Lewis Nixon denied that espionage was the cause of the blazes.

Rossie O. Knight took a job at the Nixon Nitration Works in September, 1916 although his service record does not indicate any break in his enlistment. It appears that the U.S. Army was helping out with the labor shortage by placing soldiers on reserve status so they could be employed at the Nixon plant.

According to the National Archives, Woodrow Wilson was elected  for a second term as President on November 7, 1916 , “largely because of the slogan ‘He kept us out of war.’ Events in early 1917 would change that hope. In frustration over the effective British naval blockade, in February Germany broke its pledge to limit submarine warfare. In response to the breaking of the Sussex pledge, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Germany.”  On top of the resumption of U-boat torpedoing of passenger ships came the revelation of German communiques with Mexico intimating the countries were conspiring for the invasion of the United States.

Mexican-American relations  had been tense since revolution broke out in Mexico in 1910, leading the U.S. to engage in several intrusions into Mexico’s internal affairs. The American Ambassador to Mexico was implicated in the 1913 coup in which General Victoriano Huerta assassinated the President and Vice President of Mexico and seized control of the government, throwing the country into violent civil war. Because of the civil disruption in Mexico, the U.S. began garrisoning troops along the border.  At least two Ray City men served on the Mexican Border. Owen Leonard Clements was stationed with the 4th Field Artillery at Progreso, TX, and Owen Adrian Knight served in Company M, 23rd Infantry. The U.S. Navy occupied Vera Cruz in 1914 to protect U.S. interests in the Tampico oil fields. There was a series of subsequent territorial encroachments on both sides of the border. In a comparatively trivial border incursion by U.S. troops in January 1916, Sergeant Clements  was drowned while crossing the Rio Grand. Following Pancho Villa’s 1916 raids  into New Mexico, the U.S. Army launched the Mexican Punitive Expedition, led by General John Pershing, in a futile attempt to track down the Mexican rebel.

“In January of 1917, British cryptographers deciphered a telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German Minister to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, offering United States territory to Mexico in return for joining the German cause. ” News of the Zimmermann Telegram was published in the American press on March 1, 1917.

A few weeks later, Rossie Knight wrote home to his brother Leland Thomas Knight (family referred to him as
T.L.). The letter was written on March 28, 1917 from New Brunswick, NJ, while Rossie was working at the Nixon Nitration Works. It expresses Rossie’s anticipation that the United States would declare war on Germany, and that he would be called back into active duty.

Letter of March 28, 1917 from Rossie O. Knight to his brother Leland Thomas Knight.

Letter of March 28, 1917 from Rossie O. Knight to his brother Leland Thomas Knight. Image courtesy of Bryan Shaw.


Nixon Nitration Works
New Brunswick, New Jersey
March 28th, 1917

Mr. T.L. Knight,
Dear Brother, I will write you a few lines to let you
know that I am still living and to find out how you ar gitting along
I am getting along fine exspecting to haft to go to war every day I am
exspecting to be called back to the army.
Congress will meet the second of april which is next monday and I
think that war will be declared and if it is I will be called back to the
service if I am called back I am going home for a few days before I go
back to the army. so you need not be suprised to see me coming to your
house in a few days. I will only have a few days there but that will be
better than not going at all.
say do you remember how we ust to scrapp. I often laugh about it that
was the happiest days after all wasant it.
when we would get off saturday at noon. and all day sunday off I tell you
that is the best life after all back on the farm for mine after this yea
r. I have been working here seven months and I havent lost a day not one
and I have worked seven days a week no sundays off. I am alowed one day
a month off and that is all I get. and I get that off with pay that is
why I say I havent lost a day.
and I have just ben making a good living and that is all if a man is
making a living any where these days he is doing fine I think but
I am getting in a position now that I think I can save a little money
if I stay here.
If I am called back to the army and dont have a chance to go home
I will let you hear from me.
Give my best regards to all the people I know.
(signed) Your Brother

Transcription courtesy of Bryan Shaw

Rossie O. Knight was correct in his predictions. On April 6, 1917, the United States Congress formally declared war on Germany and its allies. By  August 7, 1917 he was serving overseas with the U.S. First Division .

The Nixon Nitration Works continued to produce war matériel,  throughout the war. The Nixon Nitration Works which included a number of plants, covered about 12 square miles on the Raritan River, near New Brunswick, in what was then officially known as Raritan Township (later changed to Edison) and unofficially known as Nixon, New Jersey. The company manufactured some two hundred million pounds of  smokeless powder for the Allies and the United States Government during WWI. As a collateral activity, it manufactured military pyrotechnics for the army and navy and at the armistice was the largest single producer of such pyrotechnics in the United States.

With the coming of peace, the company converted to manufacturing plastic materials of the cellulose derivative type. Nitrocellulose was a highly flammable plastic used to make film and x-rays, among other things.  One of the buildings at the Nixon Nitration Works was leased to the Ammonite Company, which disassembled artillery shells and reprocessed the gunpowder contents into fertilizer.

1924 Nixon Nitration Works disaster

On Saturday morning, March 1, 1924, an explosion destroyed the Ammonite building. The 11:15 a.m. explosion touched off fires in surrounding buildings in the Nixon Nitration Works that contained other highly flammable nitrocellulose  materials.  The disaster killed twenty persons, destroyed forty buildings, and demolished the industrial town of Nixon, New Jersey.

Special thanks to Bryan Shaw for contributions of content and images.

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How Preacher Shaw Got His Name

Preacher Shaw (1906-1972)

Preacher Shaw was a son of Ray City, Georgia. He was a popular baseball player, sometimes politician, and salesman of Berrien County.

Fondren Willie Mitchell Shaw, most commonly known as F.W.M. “Preacher” Shaw, son of Jesse Shelby “Dock” Shaw and Susie Bullard Shaw. “Preacher” also served as a Berrien County Commissioner. This photo was most likely what prompted his life-long nickname.  Courtesy of

Fondren Willie Mitchell Shaw, most commonly known as F.W.M. “Preacher” Shaw, son of Jesse Shelby “Dock” Shaw and Susie Bullard Shaw. “Preacher” also served as a Berrien County Commissioner. This photo was most likely what prompted his life-long nickname. Courtesy of

From Bryan Shaw’s family newsletter comes the following:

Fondren Willie Mitchell Shaw was the seventh born child of Jesse Shelby “Dock” Shaw and Susie Bullard Shaw.  He was born May 13, 1906, in a log home on the west bank of Possum Branch in the New Lois community near Ray City, Georgia.  Two years later the family moved into their new home up on the knoll west of the log home, where Preacher spent the rest of his adolescent life. His formal education was formed in the one-room Pine Grove and two-room Kings Chapel schools.

The earliest known photograph of Fondren Willie Mitchell Shaw depicts him at “about 6 or 7 years-old, dressed in a jacket and nickers with a flourished neckerchief, posed in a stoic stance, holding an open book. On the back of the mounted photograph was written “Preacher Boy.” And from this photograph most likely came the moniker that followed him the rest of his life – “Preacher.”

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