Jimerson "Jimpse" Kennedy, an influential 19th century resident of what was then a larger Bulloch County, left several legacies south and west of Statesboro, including the name of Kennedy Bridge Road and, due to his efforts, along with those of several of his friends and relatives, the community of Excelsior.
"For about 30 years near the end, the latter part of the 19th century, he was the most influential single individual in western Bulloch County," Dr. Roger Branch told the Bulloch County Historical Society on Monday. "In some ways, he might just have been the most influential individual in all of Bulloch County."
Excelsior, now in Candler County, grew up around Excelsior Academy, which Kennedy helped establish in 1875 as the area's first high school. Also through his initiative, the town became home to the Excelsior News, Bulloch County's first known newspaper.
During his presentation billed as "A Man Called Jimps," Branch talked about how Excelsior briefly surpassed Statesboro as a business hub, and also noted Kennedy's connections to other historically influential people in the region. Branch taught at Georgia Southern University for 30 years, retiring in 2000, and chaired its sociology and anthropology department for 18 of those years. He is the author and co-author of five books and many professional articles.
Roads and a bridge
Surprisingly, Branch said that neither Jimps Road, which leads into Gateway Industrial Park, nor the historical Jimps railroad stop at that location was named directly for this Jimpse Kennedy, even though his nickname was sometimes spelled without the "e."
"It was probably named for his son or one of his six grandsons or his nephew, all of whom are called Jimps," Branch said.
However, Kennedy Bridge Road, with its bridge over the Canoochee River from Bulloch County into Evans County, is "the real deal," Branch said. He noted that Jimerson Kennedy owned a toll bridge "at the point where Burkhalter Road and various of several Savannah-Dublin Roads crossed the river."
Citing "Once Upon a Time in Tattnall County, Georgia," authored by the late Charles Edward Wildes in 1990, as his foundation source, Branch said he also drew from published histories of Candler and Evans counties. Those counties, created in 1914, both include sections that were previously part of Bulloch.
Wildes' daughter, Norma Wildes, also attended the meeting and offered copies of her father's book for purchase.
The book includes biographical sketches, including one of Jimerson Kennedy, and explains family connections.
Born in 1817, Kennedy had what in the 19th century was a long life, dying Sept. 27, 1893, less than two weeks short of his 76th birthday. He and his first wife, Nicey Collins, had eight children, and after Nicey died, he married her niece, Elizabeth, in 1863 and fathered seven more children. Two of his older children died in the Civil War, Branch said.
It was also from his mid-40s on that Kennedy began to make his mark in local history. Having previously raised herds of cattle and hogs on the other side of the Canoochee, Kennedy then bought much larger landholdings, and the toll bridge, previously Tillman's Bridge.
But what Branch called "Jimerson's most visionary venture" was his part in founding Excelsior Academy in 1875. He and his two sons-in-law, Remer Franklin and W.W. "Bill" Olliff Jr., donated land for the school. So did Dr. Jeff Williams and his son-in-law John G. Jones.
"The fact that all five owned land at the very same place and at the very same time suggests some prior planning and action," Branch said. "They also very soon laid out streets and lots, so they clearly expected to develop more than a secondary school there, and they did."
With the Rev. Washington L. Geiger as principal, the school flourished and drew students from as far as Savannah, Branch said. Students and teachers who lived farther away than daily travel distance boarded in a little local hotel or with residents of the community.
"The little town that sprang up around the school and the church that preceded it also flourished," Branch said. "It soon had a number of general stores, two doctors, two sawmills, a carpenter, a painter, two cotton buyers and a post office."
A couple of miles south, nearer the bridge, Bill Olliff operated the largest general store in several counties. Each week it received four loaded freight wagons from Savannah, Branch said.
The Bulloch Banner
In 1877, Kennedy bought a printing press, hired a printer and set up A.L. Geiger as editor of the Excelsior News. By 1881, it had a new owner, who renamed the paper the Bulloch Banner, which must have seemed like a challenge to Statesboro, the county seat, Branch observed.
"Excelsior in fact had eclipsed Statesboro economically," he said. "One wag wrote, 'If you have to go to court, go to Statesboro. For anything else, go to Excelsior.'"
But by the time of Kennedy's death, railroads were growing in importance in the area. Statesboro had a railroad link, and new connections were established, including one with the station ironically named Jimps. A railroad line planned for Excelsior never materialized.
"Excelsior then didn't get its railroad," Branch said. "Its merchants moved to Statesboro or Pulaski or Register or Metter. Statesboro profited most, and the town (of Excelsior) began to slip away."
Today, what remains includes a few homes and Excelsior Baptist Church. Jimerson and Elizabeth Kennedy share a tall, obelisk-type monument in the church's cemetery. Inscribed below his birth and death dates is, "Though dead, he yet liveth."
Monday's meeting was the Historical Society's last of the year. The next is scheduled for Jan. 25, 2016.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.