Billy's Island Holds Insights Into the Lives of the Pioneers
Charlton County Herald
By Lois Barefoot Mays
May 9, 1979
A small group from Folkston walked on an island in the great Okefenokee last week and caught a glimpse of the ghost of a short-lived village which once thrived there. Mr. Harry Chesser, Sr. and two boatloads of his friends walked on Billys Island and found remnants of a village which had prospered from about 1912 until 1927.
The Hebard Lumber Company had bought the Okefenokee Swamp and around the turn of the century began hauling magnificent cypress trees out to make lumber. Billys Island provided the perfect spot on the western side of the swamp for a village of about 500 people - Hebard’s people who cut and hauled the timber. This island, fifteen miles into the interior of the swamp is firm high ground about four miles long and one and a half miles wide.
After docking the boats at a wooden ramp built by the state, Mr. Chesser led his friends up on the island, going first to the wire link fence enclosing the Lee Cemetery. He told them of the Lee family, who homesteaded on the island from 1853 and who had to leave their cabin and cleared land when the cypress company bought the swamp. The Lees had lived a self-sufficient life miles from civilization, and had raised a large family without benefit of the institutions of government, schools, hospitals and stores that we now take for granted. Two very tall sycamore trees dominate the small cemetery, obviously planted years ago near a loved one’s grave.
Mr. Chesser had worked for the Hebard Company as an independent timber-cutter and he lived on the island several years while the large trees were cut and removed from the swamp.
The Folkston group roamed over the island finding roads nearly grown up in young trees, rusty bath tubs left behind when the houses were removed, the remains of an old car which offered only its rusting steel frame, axles and fenders as a token to the past.
A railroad bed extended in to the swamp from Waycross to the island and remains of the built-up tram bed are still visible, as well as several metal box cars left when the village was dismantled and the railroad irons were taken up.
Mr. Chesser told of the six rows of houses, ten houses to the row, where some of the timber workers had lived. A poke of his walking stick here and there soon established the remains of a chimney and then pacing a straight line he found where each chimney stood for a whole row of houses. Each house had three large rooms, one big fireplace for heating and one chimney flue for the cookstove. The size of the house could be clearly seen in many instances for the old lightwood foundation blocks still stand as sentries denoting the lines of the house wall.
Three of the Chesser children were born on Billys Island - Bernice Chesser Roddenberry, Lois Chesser Bryant and Tessie Chesser Knowles. Mr. Chesser led the group to the home place his family occupied which was across the road from the cattle-dipping vat and next door to the church. The concrete remains of the dipping vat and part of the old fence is still visible. One of the earliest memories of Bernice Roddenberry is when, as a very small child she fell into the dip-vat. A doctor was summoned from Waycross to tend to her and he came to the island on the train.
The group found a concrete foundation where the electric generator for the island’s store was located. Remains of wells are still visible, especially the large square well near the tram road bed. Water taken from this was used in the locomotives.
Mr. Chesser pointed out where the blacksmith shop was, where the turpentine still and mule lot was located and where the boarding house, school and tavern were. Footpaths and tram road beds brought back many memories of his life on the island.
He remembered tragedies too, such as when the train killed a small child who lived near the forks of the tram tracks, and the unprintable scandalous conduct of some of the villagers.
After a picnic lunch, which was shared with a nearly tame raccoon, the group explored more of the island, finding a head-high Indian mound, the metal remains of a buggy, a rusting bedstead, fencing that once kept animals from a garden, a tall citrus tree growing at the foot of a decaying chimney, all mute evidence of a bygone village.
The group had taken a different route to get to Billys Island than Mr. Chesser had taken over fifty years ago. Three cars traveled about eighty miles through St. George, Moniac and Fargo to bring the explorers to the island last week. Fifty years ago, Mr. Chesser left his home on the eastern edge of the swamp and paddled his boat through the wilderness to get to Billys Island.
Everyone agreed as they left, that they had spent an unforgettable day with Harry Chesser, a member of one of Charlton County’s pioneer families, in a place that now lives only in the memories of those who once lived on Billys Island.
Those making the trip included members of four generations of the Chesser family which were Mr. Chesser, his daughter, Bernice C, Roddenberry; his two granddaughters Judy Roddenberry Drury and Betty Roddenberry Owens and his two great-grandsons, Scott and Brian Owens. Others on the trip were Layton Mizell, Sidney Southwell and Richard and Lois Mays.