RIDING THE TRAIN TO BILLYS ISLAND
Interview with D.E. Sweat, November 2, 1989
By Lois Barefoot Mays
One of the most unusual happenings in the 150 year history of Charlton County was in full swing back in the 1920s – a village of approximately 450 people were happily living and working on an island in the middle of the vast Okefenokee Swamp. The Hebard Cypress Company had built rows of homes, several churches, boarding houses, stores, and even a moving picture theater for families and for the workers who harvested the great swamp cypress. It was a dangerous occupation, but men were glad to have full-time jobs and were especially pleased to have their families living on the island with them.
It was about this time,1920, when Mr. D.E. Sweat, a teenager, decided he would like to work for the “The Hebards”. His brother had been working there so young Dan joined him one day, riding for the first time on the train to Billys Island. The two brothers hopped aboard at Wildes Crossing near Waycross and sat down in the passenger car, known as “the doghouse.” In Mr. Sweat’s words….. The doghouse had two big doors on the sides. You could sit there and look out or hang your feet out if you wanted to. It didn’t have any windows. This old boy, he run over there and talked to my brother. He worked out there with him and oh, he was drunk! And he had a big old pistol there! We had come on through the 8-mile post and this old fellow down there, he was drunk too and they were having a good time!
My brother had done made him acquainted with me and he said “Well, you will be working with us tomorrow.” Then he pulled out that pistol and shot a hole through the top of that doghouse! It had bench seats all the way around the sides. I went under there! I thought they were playing checkers and it was my move!
They’d haul anything in there on the train, and use it. They run that doghouse from Billys out there to Hopkins twice a day, taking people and getting the mail and stuff for the store. That was a chartered railroad. You could ride from there right on in to Billys and not pay nothing. Just get on the doghouse and be one of the dogs!
Mr. Sweat did go to work for The Hebards, working mostly on their railroad. He recalled one job he had while working there. Again, in his own words….. They had a telephone on the railroad at Long-30. It was hanging on a tree with a little box over it. Me and a fellow named Cobb from Hebardville were working. They come in there and throwed a whole carload of lumber down and my boss said, “I want you to floor that whole thing.” We were to build a little phone house too.” That fell on me and Cobb to build that. We just floored that whole thing right there, about 20 by 20 feet. We put a little roof over that crank telephone but not over the flooring. There was water all underneath – we used the stumps for foundation!
Mr. Sweat worked at different jobs on Billys Island for about three years then began a fifty-year career as a machinist for the ACL Railroad. He, and many others, were an important part of the brief history of this almost unbelievable event when a wonderful little village prospered in the middle of the great Okefenokee Swamp.