George W. Fender, Pinders and Piney Woods Rooters

George W. Fender farmed in the Ray City area for more than 50 years.   He was born in 1854 in Clinch County, GA but came to Berrien County around 1877.  On December 29, 1878 he married Mary E. Gaskins, daughter of  Sarah Knight and Gideon Gaskins

Even at 22,  Fender was an accomplished farmer.

Valdosta Times
Saturday, March 4, 1876
To Editor Times

The following will show the result of Capt. J. W. Staten and Mr. George W. Fender’s experience in fattening pork in Echols County:    Capt.  Staten killed four, fourteen months old, that weighed 217 ¾ pounds. Mr. Fender killed one of the same stock, two years old, that weighted 457 pounds.  This shows what can be done in raising our fattening hogs in Southern Georgia.  I have never seen fatter hogs in Kentucky, or in any other State in the Union. It is a stock that the captain has improved by crossing the common piney woods rooter with others and selecting the best pigs for breeders.  Ex-Governor Brown said in a lecture before an agricultural committee, in 1868, that pork could be raised cheaper in Southern Georgia than in Cherokee, by sowing rye for grazing, and pinders for fattening.  Will not our people profit by this example.  R.W.P.

Perhaps George W. Fender followed the advice of Governor Brown to fatten his hogs.  It wasn’t long before pinders, also known as peanuts, were widely recognized as prime feed for fattening hogs.

 Beyond a doubt, the peanut is the coming crop for the hog farmer. An acre of peanuts will produce as much pork as three acres of average corn. No trouble about gathering the crop. Just mow the tops for hay and let the hogs gather the nuts themselves.    ~  Modern school store. (1917). Chicago.

Annie B. Sirmans Once Owned Ray’s Mill

Image detail: Ann Sirmans Matheny, circa 1915. Image courtesy of http://berriencountyga.com/

Image detail: Ann Sirmans Matheny, circa 1915. Image courtesy of http://berriencountyga.com/

Annie B. Sirmans was the granddaughter of Anne Donald Clements and General Levi J. Knight, and the daughter of Elizabeth Knight and Hardeman Sirmans. About 1931, she inherited Ray’s Mill which had been founded by her grandfather and her uncle Thomas M. Ray almost 70 years earlier.

Annie B. Sirmans was born on Christmas day, 25 December 1872 in Berrien County, GA.

In 1880, seven-year-old Annie Sirmans was living with her parents and eight brothers and sisters in the 1144th Georgia Militia District, the Ray’s Mill district. Also boarding in the Sirmans home were two young girls, Eliza and Mary Hays. Annie’s father was a farmer, and her older brothers assisted with the farm labor.

In 1890, her brother,  Hardy Sirmans, Jr. purchased Ray’s Mill, the grist mill originally constructed on Beaver Dam Creek by his uncle Thomas M. Ray and grandfather, General Levi J. Knight.  Assisted by Mitch Fountain, Hardy Sirmans, Jr. operated the mill until his death in 1931.

As Annie grew older, she continued to live on her parent’s farm. On Sept 21, 1896 her father died leaving her brother, Thomas Hardeman “Hardy” Sirmans, to become the head of the household. The census of 1900 shows Annie Sirmans was still at home in her brother’s household. Her mother and siblings, Bellaria and Joseph, and nephew Daniel Walker Sirmans also shared the house.

In 1905 while in Tennessee, Annie’s brother Joe Sirmans married Olive Pearl Matheny, the daughter of Judith L. Craft and James W. Matheny.  Joe Sirmans brought his bride back to make their home in Willacoochee, GA about 20 miles north of Ray’s Mill.  No doubt it was through this family connection that Annie Sirmans came to know John Chilton Matheny, brother of Olive P. Matheny.  John C. Matheny was thirty-something , with blue eyes and dark hair, average in height and build.  He was a farmer and since age 22 when his father died,  head of the Matheny family, responsible for his mother and siblings.

Four years later, On October 5, 1909 Annie B. Sirmans and John Chilton Matheny were wedded  in Berrien County, GA.  She was 37, he 35.  It was the first marriage for both.  At first, the newlyweds made their home near the Ray’s Mill community (now Ray City, GA) on the Sirmans home place, now the farm of Annie’s bachelor brother, Hardy Sirmans.  Annie’s mother was still there  at the Sirmans place, as well as her Aunt Mary Ray and nephew Daniel Walker. The census of 1910 shows Hardy Sirmans and John C. Matheny both farming on their own account.

Infant son of Annie B. Sirmans and John Chilton Matheny, grave marker, October 7, 1912.

Infant son of Annie B. Sirmans and John Chilton Matheny, grave marker, October 7, 1912. Empire Church Cemetery, Berrien County, GA

Annie may have married late, but within  couple of years she was pregnant.  On October 7, 1912 she gave birth to a baby boy. Sadly, the child died the same day.   The infant was buried near his grand parents, Elizabeth and Hardeman Sirmans,  at Empire Church cemetery, Berrien County, GA.

The following year Annie was again pregnant, and on May 23, 1914 she presented  John C. Matheny with a son, Thomas Hardeman Matheny. The image detail above is from a photograph of Annie and the boy (view the full image), probably taken around 1915, and clearly portrays her great affection for  the child.  But tragedy struck the family again when Thomas died at age two on September 15, 1916.

Thomas Hardeman Matheny, 1914-1916, Empire Church Cemetery, Berrien County, GA

Thomas Hardeman Matheny, 1914-1916, Empire Church Cemetery, Berrien County, GA

Perhaps  the loss was too much for John Matheny to bear;  A notation  on the bottom of his 1917 draft registration written by Perry Thomas Knight observed that John had just returned from the insane asylum.  Annie and John would remain childless for the rest of their lives.

At that time the draft card notes, the Mathenys were making their home in Nashville, GA 10 miles above Ray City, but by the census of  1920  Annie and John Matheny were back at Ray City where they owned a farm on “Settlement Roads” that John worked on his own account.  Annie’s older brother, Hardy Sirmans (Thomas Hardeman Sirmans), lived with the couple and also farmed.  The farm next door was rented by  Annie’s nephew, Daniel Walker Sirmans and his young family.

In the census of 1930,  the Mathenys were still living in the Ray’s Mill Precinct, the 1144th Georgia Militia District.  They owned a home valued at $1000.00.  John continued to work the farm on his own  account: Annie assisted with the farm labor. Annie’s brother Hardy, now 70, still resided with the couple but no longer worked.  The Mathenys had also taken in a boarder, Matthew F. Fender, who worked as a farm laborer.

But the 1930s brought hard times in the life of Annie Sirmans Matheny. Annie’s brother, Hardy Sirmans, died on July 27, 1931.  In 1932, Ann lost her husband: John Chilton Matheny died December 15, 1932. Both men were buried at Empire Cemetery, Berrien County, GA.

After the death of Hardy Sirmans, Annie inherited ownership of her family’s gristmill, Ray’s Mill.  Later, the widowed Ann Matheny sold Ray’s Mill to Pollard Fountain, the son of Mitch Fountain who had operated the grist mill with her deceased brother.

Ray's Mill, Ray City, Berrien County, GA

Ray’s Mill, Ray City, Berrien County, GA

Annie Sirmans Matheny died in 1963 and was buried next to her husband at Empire Church Cemetery.

Grave marker of Annie B. Sirmans and John Chilton Matheny, Empire Cemetery, Berrien County, GA

Grave marker of Annie B. Sirmans and John Chilton Matheny, Empire Cemetery, Berrien County, GA

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Ray City Soda Jerk

When Ray City, GA became incorporated in 1909, among the earliest businesses to be established was the drug store. In those days,  the soda fountain was an essential element of the drugstore trade.  The  National Druggist trade magazine, in 1911, published The Practical Soda Fountain Guide  in which they advised drug store owners, “you have a soda fountain, because every druggist is supposed to have a soda fountain.”

In their heyday, soda fountains flourished in pharmacies, ice cream parlors, candy stores, dime stores, department stores, milk bars and train stations. They served an important function as a public space where neighbors could socialize and exchange community news. In the early 20th century, many fountains expanded their menus and became lunch counters, serving light meals as well as ice cream sodas, egg creams, sundaes, and such. Soda fountains reached their height in the 1940s and 1950s. With the coming of the Car Culture and the rise of suburbia, they began to decline. Drive-in restaurants and roadside ice cream outlets, such as Dairy Queen, competed for customers. North American retail stores switched to self-service soda vending machines selling pre-packaged soft drinks in cans, and the labor-intensive soda fountain didn’t fit into the new sales scheme. Today only a sprinkling of vintage soda fountains survive.

The  1910 census of Ray City  shows seventeen year-old Lutie Fender working as a “soda fountain salesman” – a soda jerk. Lutie was the son of Ray City hotelier, Wilson W. Fender, and nephew of Lon Fender, turpentine operator and builder of the Patterson Hotel in Valdosta, GA.

The Fender Hotel was was one of the historic businesses of Ray City. It was located in a wooden building on the northeast corner of Main and Paralleled Street in Ray City, just across the track from the train depot of the Georgia & Florida Railroad.  The hotel was operated by Mrs. Lena Fender. This building was destroyed by fire in 1913 or 1914.

City Drug Co., Ray City, Georgia circa 1912. Image courtesy of Berrien County Historical Society, http://berriencounty.smugmug.com

The soda fountain became a long-time fixture in Ray City,  as in small towns everywhere.   By 1916,  C.O. Terry was in business as a retail druggist in Rays Mill, GA (nka Ray City).  It may be that he had assumed operation of the City Drug Co. at Ray’s Mill by that time.  He later operated Terry’s Drug Store in Quitman, Ga., which became known locally for its soda fountain, among other things.  In his  book, My Whole Life and 48 Years of Small Town Family Medical Practice, Paul Tanner Jr., MD describes the work of a typical soda jerk, working in Terry’s Drug Store around 1940:

 “I went to work at… Terry’s Drug Store, down the street. I was a full fledged Soda Jerk, working in afternoons after school, and Saturdays. They had sandwiches made from ham boiled in the back of the store, boiled peanuts, boiled in the back, pimento cheese mixed in the back, with lettuce and tomato. I went to work after school each day and left after closing at 9 PM. All the soda fountain was my specialty, too. On Saturday I worked from 10 am until closing at 11 PM. I was paid $2.50 a week.  I continued working at Terry’s Drug Store off and on until I graduated from high school.”  – Paul J. Tanner, M.D.

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Sarah Knight Gaskins ~ Confederate Widow

Confederate Widows PensionSarah Knight, daughter of Ann D. Clements and General Levi J. Knight,  was born 06 April 6, 1831 in Lowndes, Co., Ga.  Her husband, Gideon Gaskins, died during the Civil War. He was a son of  Polly Barrow and John Gaskins.

On September 19, 1863, Levi J. Knight applied to become guardian of the children of his deceased son-in-law, Gideon Gaskins.  The required legal advertisement ran in the newspapers at Milledgeville, GA then serving as the state capitol.

Milledgeville Confederate Union, Oct. 13, 1863.
GEORGIA Berrien County.
Whereas Levis J. Knight applies for letters of Guardianship of the person and property of the minor heirs of Gidieon Gaskins.
All persons interested will file their objections if any in my office by the first monday in November next orterwise letters will be granted.

     Witnessed my official signature.
H.T. PEEPLES, Ordinary.
Sept. 19th 1963.      Paid $3    19 5t

With the death of her husband, Sallie was left a widow with six children, one a newborn, to raise on her own.

Children of Gideon and Sarah “Sallie” Knight Gaskins:

  1. Polly Ann Gaskins –  born March 10, 1849;   married Daniel J. Jones, September 28, 1863
  2. John Brinson Gaskins – born April 8, 1852;   married Fannie Lankford January 18, 1874
  3. Elizabeth Gaskins –  born June 28, 1854;   died sometime before 1860
  4. Mary Evelyn Gaskins  –  born January 14, 1858;   married George W. Fender, December 29, 1870
  5. Levi J. Gaskins  –  born 18 Nov 1860;   married Mary Strickland,  February 24, 1878
  6. Jonathan Wade Gaskins –  born 28 July 1862;   married Mary Corbett, February 28, 1896

In 1891, Sarah “Sallie” Gaskins applied for and received a Confederate Widow’s Pension of $100.00. Her claim was based on the fact that Gideon Gaskins had died in the army of disease contracted while in the service. Henry Harrison Knight, John G. Knight, and John W. Hagan all signed the affidavit  attesting to the service and good standing of Gideon Gaskins.  She continued to receive the yearly pension payment through her death in 1903.

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Turpentine in Wiregrass Georgia

Turpentine and naval stores industry became an economic engine for Ray’s Mill, Berrien County and the other counties of Wiregrass Georgia.

Turpentine Still in Thomas County, GA circa 1895

Turpentine Still in Thomas County, GA circa 1895

An  1881 news item sums up the Wiregrass workman’s appraisal of the original growth pine forests.

Columbus Daily Enquirer-Sun, Jan. 15, 1881. Pg 3

— In regard to “The Turpentine Industry,” the Berrien county News says: “This comparatively new industry is attracting much attention in our vicinity.  The people of this section, who in a great measure, own the timber, have allowed it to lie idle and undeveloped, notwithstanding the turpentine is a great source of revenue.  This timber has stood upon the earth for centuries, and it may stand there as much longer, and the owners will derive no more benefit from it than from an equivalent sum of money locked up in a safe for the same length of time.”

As in other Wiregrass communities, turpentine and naval stores became major industries in Ray City, GA.  Robert S. Thigpen, a wealthy resident of Berrien County, GA,  owned a turpentine plant in Ray’s Mill.  The plant, sold in 1898 for $13,000, would have valued at more than $10 million in 2008 dollars.

Among  other Ray City and Berrien County residents who prospered in the industry was Walter “W.D.” Brown, who had a turpentine operation near Ray’s Mill in 1904. Wilson W. Fender  was in the turpentine business, as was Lorenzo D. Carter.  Arthur Shaw and brother-in-law, William Clements,  operated a turpentine still at Willacoochee, Georgia, Brothers Chester Shaw and Lacy Lester Shaw were also involved in the turpentine business.

John Whitford worked for one of the turpentine and naval stores concerns in the area.  His neighbor, Brass McKnight, was employed as “stiller” in the turpentine industry.  Another area turpentine barrel maker was William Watson.  Men like Jessie Norris, Elbert Thomas, John Fox, Levey Jones, Jack Jackson, Harrison McClain, Jessie Williams, Tom Thompson, Jim Stripling, George Taylor, and Daniel Holden and others worked on turpentine farms.  Many of these men may have worked one time or another for Lorenzo D. Carter, a naval stores operator and employer in Ray’s Mill (aka Ray City), GA in the early 1900s.

The firm of Sapp & Fender also conducted turpentine operations in Ray City.  David Asa Sapp was the manager; among his employees in 1917 were Leiland Scott, Si Randolph, Elisha  Graham, George Greene, James Hodges, Ellis Jenkins, Barney Johnson, John Jones, Robert Jones, Ruther Golden Jones, Ira Little, Will Mitchell, John Sam Robinson, Ernest Singleton, Arthur Stripling, Anderson Walker, John Waters, James Wooten, Turner Wooten, Willie Barnes, Arlie Brown and Handy Simpson. The company chauffeur was Henry Groover Page.

The Y. F. Carter Naval Stores concern began operation in Ray City about 1916 and by the 1930s it was the largest firm in the community, where approximately fifty men were employed.  This firm operated over ten crops of boxes, a “crop” consisting of 10,000 trees.  The turpentine rights for these trees were typically leased from local land owners..

Disputes over valuable lumber and turpentine rights sometimes ended up in court.  One such case was that of Shaw v. W.L.  Fender et. al., where the timber on land owned by Francis Marion Shaw  was being worked for turpentine  operations. William Lon Fender was a local turpentine man and in 1905 was treasurer of the South Georgia Turpentine Operators’  Association.

Collecting the turpentine was hard and sometimes dangerous work. The working conditions could be grueling and the pay was  meager.  But the vast, untapped pine forests of the Wiregrass provided abundant employment opportunities for those who could take it.  African-Americans, many sons of former slaves, came to the area to find work in the turpentine and sawmill operations. Other turpentine woodsmen, like Benjamin F. Morehead and Lewis Hudson, were born and raised in the local area of Ray’s Mill, Georgia.

Fire was a constant threat where the highly combustible turpentine rosin was present.  The March 22, 1905 Pensacola Journal related the disparaging ruminations of a Valdosta turpentine man about the low paid laborers and their risky work.

…I sent a negro with a team into the wood some time ago to haul drippings and the negro let the  wagon burn up, even the tongue. He was ‘totin’ the rosin up in a bucket, and I guess threw a match down on a dead pine top. When he looked around the pine top was in a blaze and the rosin-smeared wagon was catching. The negro tried to put it out and finally started the team toward a cypress pond but the wheel became locked against a tree and it was all the darkey could do to save the mules.”

As in other industries, African-American turpentine workers at the turn of the 19th century were subject to poor treatment by their employers. Violence could be the result. One such case was that of Joe Willmont.  Willmont was arrested while working turpentine at Ray’s Mill in May of 1911, where he was hiding out under the alias Will Nelson. Willmont/Nelson had arrived in Ray’s Mill after fleeing an alleged double murder at the West Bay Naval Stores Company in West Bay, Florida.  The killings occurred when supervisors at the Florida company attempted to ‘whip’ Willmont for quitting the company.

According to A. P. Malone, author of Piney Woods Farmers 1850-1900: Jeffersonian Yeomen in an Age of Expanding Commercialism, most black laborers who came to the Wiregrass to work in the sawmill and turpentine operations did not acquire real estate here.  Many lived in turpentine or sawmill “camps,” and moved on to other areas after the available timberlands had been exhausted.  “However, some – perhaps as many as one-fourth – married locally and stayed in the area, often because they had some skills which enabled them to purchase town or farm property. Examples in Berrien County of such individuals are Neil Shipman, Cap Taylor, and Nathan Bridges.”

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