THE CHRISTMAS FIRE AT THE HOMELAND POST OFFICE
No doubt about it, teenager Geraldine Waughtel was acclaimed the Christmas hero when fire destroyed the little two story wooden building containing the Homeland Post Office. Smoke was swirling out of the upper windows when Miss Gerry glanced across the street on that evening of December 21, 1939. Quickly running from her home to the post office door, she grabbed the handle and literally wrenched the door from its frame.
“I ran there and just yanked that door right off! By myself!” she recalled later. “And I got all the gifts out, because at that time it was just before Christmas and everybody had sent their gifts there and Uncle Eli would keep them till Christmas. And I got all the mail out too,” she said.
“That was a little bitty small post office!” recalled Dick Mays who had spent much of his boyhood days living in Homeland.
Most of the equipment used by Postmaster Eli Waughtel was also saved, due to the fast work of neighbors and the Folkston fire fighters. However, two large incubators for hatching baby chicks were destroyed because they were too heavy to move. These belonged to Miss Gerry’s mother, Mrs. Minta Waughtel, who used the machines to supply biddies each spring for many families who grew their own chickens.
An old man and his wife lived in the tiny apartment above the post office and used a wood heater to keep it warm. She had cleaned the ashes from the stove that evening put them in a cardboard box and placed that on the floor. Hot coals burned through the box and soon the floor was on fire. They narrowly escaped with their lives.
Mr. Eli was not only the postmaster, he owned the building too, which had no insurance. According to his friends he was a “Prince among men” and was the most admired person in the little town of Homeland. Suffering from polio as a child had left him with a badly bent back, which would have nearly defeated many persons, but he overcame this affliction with his winning personality. In fact, the reason there were so many Christmas gifts at the post office on the night of the fire was that many packages arrived from northern states where some Homeland relatives lived. Miss Gerry recalled, “He would tell the people that there was a package and they would say, ‘Well, we will be here before Christmas.’ And Uncle Eli would be down there when they came for it.”
“Uncle Eli always wore a cap. One day he was standing in front of Thompson’s Drug Store with his cap in his hand and someone passing by put some money in it and it embarrassed him so,” recalled his niece, wiping a sympathetic tear from her eye.
For Homeland, Mr. Eli’s post office had been the most important building in town during the happy Christmas holiday times … it was Santa’s storehouse just waiting for December 25th. But when the fire destroyed this, Miss Gerry, with flames roaring overhead, single-handedly grabbed packages, flung them out the door and courageously saved Christmas for many of the Homeland children that year.
-Lois Barefoot Mays
Sources: Interview with Mrs. Geraldine W. Norwood, May 2, 1990;
Charlton County Herald, December 22, 1939.
Interview with C. Pearce Stapleton, June, 1990.