THE MAN THAT FOLKSTON CALLED “MR. FOOTS”
By Jack Mays, Charlton County Historian
June 7, 1986
It was the bleakest months of World War II for the Allies, 1942 and 1943. The nation was on a frantic around-the-clock schedule to manufacture weapons of war and ship them to its fighting forces around the globe.
Troops that had trained with wooden rifles were being moved all across the country by troop trains. The southeastern states, with its dozens of training camps, came in for a disproportionately heavy share of railroad traffic over a fraction of the traffic it normally would have to carry.
William Lonnie Barefoot Sr. was chief dispatcher for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in Waycross; a job with awesome responsibilities during the World War II crisis years. The pressure was like the inside of a champagne bottle.
For endless months he worked at his chief dispatcher’s desk seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day, seeing that the rail traffic moved over the railroad’s woefully inadequate single track rail system.
Trains had to share the same track as they moved both north and south over it. The chief dispatcher’s task was to see that the high priority traffic moved over the overburdened rail system without delay. The nation’s future depended upon it.
All of this came with dozens of inadequately trained, 16-year-old telegraph operators who had been pressed into service, manning the railroad towers along the way. Barefoot handled the back-breaking job masterfully and without complaint.
But months and months of the killing schedule took its toll on Barefoot’s nerves. His friends and superiors watched as he aged quickly. The tragic death of a son, Chub, in a plane crash with the Air Corps in 1944 added to his burden. He found it difficult to cope with the loss of his young son.
Reluctant to leave his duty station, higher officials had to insist that he step down to less stressful duties to save his own health. He grudgingly complied.
After a short period of rest and relaxation at his home in Waycross, William Lonnie Barefoot came to Folkston as the station agent for the railroad. It was April 13, 1945, one day after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Barefoot succeeded retiring station agent H.C. Page as a job that Page had held since June 4, 1906, nearly forty years. Barefoot’s new friends, as his old friends had done, would soon refer to him as “Foots”.
Folkston had always considered postmasters and railroad freight agents as special people. There was no exception when Barefoot became the town’s station agent.
That week in April 1945, Barefoot and his family moved from Waycross into their new home in Folkston, the newly remodeled dwelling formerly owned by Rosa Robinson on Magnolia Street.
With Barefoot came his two young daughters, Lois and Inez, a grandson, Bill Schupp and his beloved wife, Helen, whom he affectionately referred to as “mama”. The Barefoots had another son, Bill, or W.L., Jr. and two daughters, June and Faye.
The 58 year old Barefoot, with his personal magnetism proving contagious, soon claimed a place among the town’s more popular and respected citizens. His family too, quickly earned the respect and admiration of the people in their new home town.
Barefoot became active in the city’s Lions Club and Masonic Lodge. He was a long-time treasurer of the Waycross Elks Club and a trustee of the organization’s Aidmore Children’s Hospital in Atlanta.
Barefoot, relaxed in his new job, found time to stop and smell the roses; something he had not been able to do in his previous job, and he cherished every golden minute of the newly-found joy. Folkston’s railroad depot soon became the place for other businessmen to go for a short break from the trials of the day.
They could always count on the outgoing Barefoot to brighten up the day--and sometimes—make them the object of one of his practical jokes. They liked it and kept going back for more.
Shortly after moving into his new home, the personable station agent became close friends with J.V. Gowen, Jr. one of the county’s prominent businessmen. Gowen lived just a couple of blocks down Magnolia Street north of the Barefoot home.
But right next door, south of the Barefoot home, was the dwelling of Col. Alex S. McQueen, the county judge, or Ordinary, as the office was called them.
Colonel McQueen’s home was busy at all hours of the night with countless couples from Florida making their way there to get married.
On one occasion, legend has it, about two o’clock in the morning a marriage-bend couple mistakenly knocked on the door of the Barefoot home thinking it to be the home of Col. McQueen. Barefoot struggled to his front door to talk with the couple. When he found out they were hunting Judge McQueen’s home, he recalled that he “owed J.V. one” for an earlier joke Gowen had played on him. Barefoot pointed the young couple to J.V.’s home – down Magnolia Street in the opposite direction from Colonel McQueen’s home.
“That’s the house you’re looking for” he told them. Obediently, the couple found themselves knocking on the Gowen front door, waking up the whole household, just before three o’clock in the morning. Gowen sleepily answered his front door, according to legend. The couple told the angry Gowen that they wanted to get married. What happened next is anyone’s guess.
In self-defense, the young couple told Gowen of being sent there by Barefoot. The station agent never revealed what fate he later suffered at Gowen’s hands for the practical joke.
Barefoot, while giving the outward appearance of revelry, had a deep-seated seriousness about him, a love of life, and for his fellow-man, and unmatched patriotism. This inner light showed through during his years in Folkston.
He lived and breathed politics and was one of the state’s most ardent Talmadge supporters; both Gene Talmadge and his son, Herman. On one election day while he worked as a poll-holder at the courthouse when Herman Talmadge was a political candidate and was opposed by M.E. Thompson, Barefoot’s antics amused his fellow poll workers.
He had been sent into a voting booth with a voter who could not read or write, and who asked that a poll worker assist him in voting. The other election workers could hear Barefoot’s questions to the voter inside the booth. “Do you want to vote for M.E. Thompson?” Barefoot said almost inaudibly, “or do you want to vote for HERMAN TALMADGE?” Barefoot’s resonant voice boomed out.
The voter, almost afraid to do differently, told Barefoot to let him vote for Talmadge. Barefoot marked the ballot for Talmadge, as the voter had instructed.
Another incident of Barefootism occurred when he drove a group of men to Atlanta for a meeting of the Aidmore Foundation’s board of directors. He parked his automobile load of men outside a hotel, instructing them to remain in the car until he found out if rooms were available. Pretending his friends were deaf, Barefoot told the desk clerk that he would have to shout to make himself heard by his friends who wanted to register. He then went outside where his associates were huddled in the car and told them that rooms were available.
“But the desk clerk is almost deaf,” Barefoot added, and instructed them to shout, to allow the clerk to hear them during the registration ritual. The shouting and counter-shouting at the hotel’s registration desk which followed was a sight to behold. It proved highly annoying to the other lobby guests until Barefoot’s friends recognized the ruse. There in the corner was Barefoot; doubled over in laughter at the havoc he had created. Witnesses say that Barefoot was soundly tongue-lashed by his associates for their embarrassment. Actually, they were upset at being hoodwinked by the chuckling Barefoot. Barefoot braced himself for whatever was to follow at the hands of his fellow Elks. Tales of the colorful depot agent still circulate in the county and city, a quarter-century after Barefoot’s death. He retired after forty-one years with the railroad in 1952, the last seven spent in Folkston.
Barefoot and his wife then moved back to their Waycross home. He worked in Waycross as a radio dispatcher with the Waycross Police Department until his death on March 30, 1960. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery. His widow, Helen. Whom he married in 1917, still lives in Waycross.
The seven Barefoot years added a brightness to Folkston’s makeup. Over the years the railroad had done much to improve the City of Folkston. High on that list of improvements was its decision to send William Lonnie Barefoot Sr. to the Folkston depot in the dark days of 1945.
He came at a time when Folkston and its people needed sunshine, on the heels of Roosevelt’s death at Warm Springs. Mr. “Foots” furnished that light in Folkston for seven years.
[Photo of W.L. Barefoot, Sr. and the Folkston railroad tower with this cut line: “Folkston’s “Mr. Foots” had his own brand of humor. Railroad agent warmed hearts during, after frantic war years.”]
All sons and daughters of men everywhere should be as fortunate as the six children of Foots Barefoot, to have a daddy like they had. ….Lois Barefoot Mays