R.A. BOYD, TELEGRAPHER-TURNED-BANKER, REMEMBERED
By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Georgia Historian
Charlton County Herald
February 18, 1987
A brass telegraph sounder drummed out its monotonous chatter in the tiny railroad tower near Folkston’s muddy Main Street. It was just after midnight, Thursday, July 6, 1911 and Russell Alphonso Boyd, 25, seated himself in the dilapidated swivel chair in front of the two wide boards that served as a telegraph desk. It was his first night as “third trick” operator in the little town’s railroad tower. A kerosene lamp’s pitiful flicker lighted the operator’s table.
The Folkston job was to be his first “permanent” position with the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Company, although he had begun telegraphing in his native Michigan six years earlier. In all of the previous railroad jobs he bounced around the entire rail system filling jobs. He was on the “extra board” of railroad telegraph operators. Now, finally, he landed a permanent telegraph job. He was to remain in Folkston until his death on January 11, 1958.
The railroad job at Folkston offered the security Boyd needed to support his wife of fifteen months. Annie Lou Robinson Boyd, also 25, and their two-month old daughter, Marie, who was born while Boyd was telegraph operator at Hortense, just prior to claiming the Folkston position. The Boyds had married fifteen months earlier, March 17, 1910, in Umatilla where he worked at the railroad depot. Her family, the Robinsons, were citrus farmers of the area.
In November of 1911, the railroader bought a small tract of land from Tom Pickren and built his home where it is still located today, 300 Third Street. Boyd was a young man of immense family pride and personal independence. Those traits were later to test him severely as he fought to support his growing family amid personal adversity. Boyd’s shoulders broadened and he carried the load silently.
On that July 6, 1911, Folkston had few buildings in its tiny business district. Jack Davis had recently opened his general store in his new two-story building near the railroad tower. Adjoining it was the town’s post office and William Marshall Olliff, a young lawyer was the town’s chief promoter. A content R.A. Boyd settled into his new job, comfortable with the job security the new position afforded.
The Boyd family grew. On December 15, 1913, another daughter, Wilna Mae, was born to the young couple. Four months later she died of a childhood illness. On December 17, 1917, a son R.A. Jr. was born and another daughter, Annie Lou, named for her mother, was born on April 28, 1925. Six months after the birth of their last child, the previously contented telegraph operator was without a job. A wife and three children looked to him for support and the economy of the nation was stagnant.
That fateful April began an agonizing period of private turmoil and unrest for the former talented telegrapher operator. With the Folkston job’s permanent assignment to Boyd came another responsibility. He was now eligible for membership in the railroad’s telegraphers union. He joined the brotherhood of railroad telegraphers, an industry wide collective bargaining group as soon as he became eligible.
Labor unrest in the ranks of railroad employees peaked on October 19, 1925. Collective bargaining had failed to resolve the differences. An industry-wide strike was called.
Management threatened not to allow the strikers to return to work. Nevertheless, thousands of railroad employees stayed off their jobs, the loyal Boyd among them. Many other Folkston railroaders were also involved…W,B. (Happy) Smith, who later became the county’s Clerk of Court; Shelton M. Howard, who became a prosperous landowner and postmaster at Racepond, Georgia were among them.
Strikebreakers, or “scabs” as they were called by those sympathetic to the strikers, went to work on the railroad jobs. The railroad “broke” the railroader’s union. The strikers were never allowed to return to their jobs, although many appealed hopelessly, including Boyd. His nearly twenty years of railroad service went down the drain.
The Boyd’s resources were meager. Jobs in Folkston were practically non-existent. For over three months Boyd sought employment, taking every part-time job he could find to support his family. The proud former railroader wouldn’t hear his wife’s pleas to allow her to hunt a job to help support the family. He believed firmly that it was the husband’s job to provide, and the wife’s place to make the home. Those virtues were never compromised.
Boyd’s tattered diary lists those troubled times. His employment record filled two hand written pages scribbled into the little notebook with short, part-time jobs…Citizens Bank and Passieu Motor Company…Citizens Bank and Mizell Mortgage and Finance Company…Pickren Motor Company…City Service Station…from October 1933 until November 1933, thirteen months, unemployed in the midst of the nation’s deepest economic depression.
Through all the adversity Russell Alphonso Boyd maintained his independence and pride. He and his family blended themselves into the activities of the community, loving and being loved. Boyd tended a small garden land owned by William Mizell to make the family’s vegetables. Never did he complain of his decision to honor his union’s call to strike in 1925. If he ever looked back, it was in the privacy of his own heart and no one knew of it.
During President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s national recovery programs, the CWA, TERA, GERA…for three years, from November 1933 until September 1936, the unassuming Boyd worked in a variety of federal recovery programs in Folkston. The Boyd family’s fortunes, like the rest of the nation, began to improve.
On September 1, 1936 the one-time railroader began work at the town’s Citizens Bank as a bookkeeper. There he worked in the shadow of the bank’s strong-willed president, William, Mizell, Jr. His meticulous work as bookkeeper for the bank and for the Mizell Estate earned him a series of promotions. He soon became the bank’s Cashier and Vice President.
Daily the cigar and pipe-smoking Boyd could be found shuffling behind the ornate marble teller cages of the picturesque bank building built in 1926. William Mizell, Jr. had a reputation for an occasional emotional outburst. When this surfaced, Boyd went about his business unperturbed…although sometimes he walked out of the bank and around to the post office until the storm passed. If Mizell’s temper failed to cool after a reasonable time, the modest Boyd knew just what to say to bring the eruption to a halt.
Mizell realized the easygoing Boyd’s value to him and to the bank. He was careful not to tread on his soft-spoken vice president and cashier. The respect was mutual as Boyd had enormous respect for the temperamental Mizell, who had been his benefactor so many times through the years. Boyd was an avid fisherman, and often sought the solitude of the area’s rivers on his off-days.
Often Boyd’s job at the bank entailed smoothing the ruffled feathers of a customer who had run afoul of Mizell’s short fuse. The mild-mannered telegrapher-turned-banker, wearing his usual conservative gray vest-sweater and chewing on a cigar would take the rankled customer aside and sympathize with him. Mizell watched approvingly from his corner office as Boyd went through the peace-making ritual in the bank’s lobby.
Boyd, always cautious, owned a 1933 Ford when World War Two erupted. The war effort made it impossible for him to secure a new one. He babied the old Ford and made it last through the war years. In June, 1950 when the Korean War broke out, he vowed not to be caught in another with the same old Ford.
He bought a brand new Chevrolet Styleline from Passieu Chevrolet Company and parked it in his garage for the day the Ford Failed. The new-antique automobile is still in service, being used every day by his son who lives in the old Boyd home place in a neighborhood where many homes stand vacant as the owners have passed on.
Boyd and his family enjoyed their home and the neighborhood in which they lived. Mrs. Boyd, her deep auburn hair tied in a ball, often engaged in across-the-fence small talk with her neighbors while the Boyd children played happily nearby. History dealt kindly with the Boyds following the trauma of losing the railroad job. The children grew up and left home. All did well and visited their parents often as they settled into their middle years in their home at 300 Third Street.
R.A. Boyd, loved by friends and family, didn’t live long enough to retire from banking. He became ill and died within weeks, on January 11, 1958. Funeral services were held from the Folkston Methodist Church and burial followed in Pineview Cemetery. One of the nation’s earliest telegraph operators who turned to banking had provided well for his family. The community mourned his passing.
The daughter, Marie McElvey died on October 29, 1966 and Mrs. Boyd died after a lingering illness on January 7, 1970. She is buried beside her husband. The son, R.A. Jr. lives in Folkston and the daughter, Annie Lou Bertine, lives in Jacksonville, Fla.
Russell Alphonso Boyd and his family endeared themselves to the people of Folkston as they lived out their lives in a brand of happiness known only to those who have survived a major tragedy. The old bank building where he spent unnumbered hours now stands vacant at the corner of First and Main but the walls are alive with memories of the mild-mannered banker with the independent spirit who worked there for 22 years.
[Three pictures accompanied the above article with the following cut lines: R.A. Boyd, Sr., shown at left participating in his favorite pastime, fishing, often sought the solitude of the river when thing got hectic around the bank where he was Vice President and Cashier until his death on January 11, 1958. The photo at right shows the old telegraph tower when it was located on Main Street in 1911 when Boyd first began working there. He lost almost 20 years of railroad seniority in 1925 when he went out on strike, never to return to his railroad job. Boyd was equal to the task as he began a new career in banking to support his family. This photo shows the R.A. Boyd, Sr. family with the exception of the youngest daughter, Marie who was not present when the picture was made. Left to right, R.A. Boyd, Jr., Mrs. Boyd, The oldest daughter, Marie, and Mr. Boyd. R.A., Jr. lives in the old family home today. The youngest daughter, Annie Lou Bertine, lives in Jacksonville. Mr. Boyd died in 1958, Marie died in 1966 and Mrs. Boyd died on January 7, 1970.