“The past is never dead. It is not even past.”
I revisit that quotation because it simply is true and because it resonates with my personal experience. The world of my early childhood — mid-1930s and 1940s — had elements dating back into the 19th century, indeed into South Georgia’s 18th century frontier era. My parents and those around them still did some things the way they had been done a century earlier and longer.
Theirs was a subsistence-plus way of life. People lived on things they produced for consumption and things taken from their surroundings, like fish, game, fruits, berries and even wild honey. The plus refers to whatever they could sell to buy scarce items, like salt and flour, and perhaps profit.
My family and neighbors had “hog killing” days, which gave them a dependable foundation for meat and cooking oil. They grew sugar cane and processed it into syrup, the every meal dessert and important ingredient for candies. They grew sweet potatoes and saved them in earthen banks to be cooked in many ways, as much a staple in our diet as cane syrup. They grew white corn to be milled into grits and cornmeal. They planted big gardens — perhaps two or three a year — in quest of seasonal bounties. There were chickens for eggs and frying and baking and stewing. There were milk cows — always two or three in Daddy’s herd — for milk and butter. There were cash crops, but we also relied on traditional subsistence patterns.
In the pioneer era and most of the 19th century, cash options were limited and subsistence production more critical. Most people were herdsmen, rounding up their free-range cattle and hogs and driving them to market in port cities, mainly Savannah. Yes, there were cattle drives here long before anyone took cows from Texas to Kansas. Those familiar with the uncooperative nature of hogs might wonder how it was possible to herd them long distances. Well, herding dogs and catch dogs and a supply of corn to reward cooperation made it possible.
Livestock were also the key to subsistence. The staple protein in their diet was hog meat, salt-cured and smoked, augment in season by fresh pork. Lard rendered at “hog-killing time” was nearly as important as the meat. Hot kitchens and busy days made frying the chosen way to cook meat and bread over time-consuming methods, like baking or roasting. Lard was the cooking oil for chicken, fish, quail, hush puppies, lacy corn bread. Generally, that is not healthy eating, but hogs were there in forest and field and the only source available for cooking oil. Moreover, people who worked 12-hour days usually burned up those bad calories.
In that far back then, some people also sold timber. They cut pines, dragged them to a stream, bound them into rafts and floated them downstream to market. The most active timber port was Darien, the destination for rafts from the Altamaha River and its tributaries, notably the Oconee and Ocmulgee rivers, but smaller ones as well, like the Ohoopee, even Pendleton Creek.
There was limited trade in other things. One was wool. Yes, two of my great-grandfathers kept herds of sheep. Some farmers produced excess cured meat to take to market. There was always careful commerce in moonshine whiskey. Here and there naval stores operations (turpentine stills) were established about mid-19th century.
The enduring challenge was getting these products to market, meaning Savannah. In the best of conditions it was a long, difficult trip by horse, more often mule, and wagon. South Georgia is blessed with many streams, typically having broad flood-plains. Most could be crossed at fords in low water. Larger ones also had ferries. In times of heavy flood, the Altamaha was a mile wide in places. Even the ferries on the Ogeechee and Ohoopee could be out of operation or washed away.
Early in the 19th century, rivers became channels of commerce. Boats could be constructed upriver and floated down bearing things to market. Pole boats propelled upriver by crews of strong men took cargo as far as the fall-line and went back with items from the interior, but the Altamaha in flood was no place for a pole boat. These were replaced by steamboats, relatively dependable vehicles for commerce. Those who lived near enough to river towns and regular stream-side “landings” could ship away bales of cotton and barrels of turpentine. For them, living became cash crop plus subsistence. For others, those living too far from steamboat landings to benefit from this mode of transportation, older patterns persisted.
At the start of the Civil War, the basic railroad system in Georgia was the Central of Georgia line from Savannah to Atlanta, a line from Savannah to Augusta, a Macon to Atlanta link and a network of other lines from Atlanta north and west. The hinterlands of South Georgia had none until the last two decades of the century when a flurry of railroad building by entrepreneurs crisscrossed the area with rails. Some efforts failed aborning and others lasted only a few years, but others had a major economic impact.
The primary goal of some of the entrepreneurs was to harvest for profit the vast forest resources of the region. There were sawmills at most rail stops and out in the woods. Virgin forests were swept away, transported to the nation’s growing cities and to Europe, where most of the forests had been exhausted. North Carolinians moved their turpentine distillation operations from used up pine lands to untouched forests in South Georgia and north Florida.
Interestingly, many people who lived here saw little economic benefit. Timber sold cheap, more money than the landowners had seen, but few became plutocrats. Turpentine leases were also cheap, less by far than landowners got from timber sales. Those who drew wages for cutting timber never got rich and found themselves empty handed when the operation moved on. Naval stores operators brought workers with them from Carolina.
In spite of changes that should have greatly improved prosperity in South Georgia, many people — especially rural people — had to struggle for a living deep into the 20th century. Subsistence adaptation from the past persisted. Exploration of the “whys” requires another column. Stay tuned.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.