MR. CAMPBELL’S GRIST MILL WAS PART OF TOWN FOR FIFTEEN YEARS
By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian
He came into Folkston almost unnoticed in 1940 and opened a grist mill just across the street from the city’s water tower on First Street. He was J. W. H. Campbell. Even the three-letter initials of his name set him apart from the natives.
The nation was in the grips of World War Two with the Axis powers, Germany, Italy and Japan. Patriotism ran high among the people in Folkston. Anyone who did not fit into the local’s notion of dress and life-style was marked for closer observation.
Campbell proved to be a fitting subject for further examination by the people of the area. He wore “short pants” long before that mode of dress was accepted for men in Folkston. As a consequence, most everything else Campbell did was looked on with suspicion.
The younger set, too young yet to enlist in the fighting, started a whispering campaign about this man. He spoke with a clipped dialect, therefore he must be German, they thought. If he is German, then he must be a “spy” they reasoned further. The notion swept through the small town. Everywhere Campbell walked about town, young anxious eyes sought him out so a report could be made to other youngsters of the town.
Campbell strode about town with long deliberate steps, adding to his mystique. He knew the young boys were “watching” him, and he was playing out his role in the make-believe drama, feeding the young boys’ appetite for intrigue.
The grist mill operator, with an obsession for neatness, went about his business, operating the small grinding machine, making corn into grits for his customers in the small wooden shanty off First Street. Few knew it but, J.W.H. Campbell was an accomplished horticulturist, with an aristocratic background before arriving in Folkston.
In the late 1930s he left Ohio to make Jacksonville, Fla. his home. He opened an automobile dealership in the Riverside area of that city where the business prospered, but sadness soon came into his life; death claimed his young wife and Campbell’s dreams began to crumble.
Distraught over his wife’s death, Campbell’s own health began to fail and his nerves collapsed. He closed the automobile agency and moved to Folkston seeking a more tranquil life. Literally, the grist mill was just what the doctor ordered.
Campbell had a double helping of community pride. He offered his services to his new home town looking after the city’s water tower across from his grist mill. The city fathers took him up on his offer and Campbell tended to the water tower with diligence.
Then, the water tank had no automatic controls, and when Campbell heard the water overflow and splash onto the ground, he rushed across the street and pulled the switch on the water pump until the tank’s water level receded. Then he turned the switch back on to fill the tank again. This went on for fifteen years.
Campbell, an ardent reader, took upon himself the task of beautifying his adopted city. He planted greenery at the rear of Dr. W.D. Thompson’s Folkston Pharmacy where a sandspur patch once thrived, and set out plants at the Baptist and Methodist parsonages. It was while setting out greenery at the Methodist parsonage when his zeal got him in deep trouble with the fairer sex.
The Methodist parsonage was just across Oak Street from the residence of Frank and Mary Davis. The Davis land had two huge oak trees on the north side of the lot, shading the south end of the parsonage lot and blocking out the sun on Campbell’s newly planted shrubbery on the parsonage grounds.
Campbell climbed the Davis oak tree and proceeded to cut some of the giant oak’s limbs to allow the sun to shine through the tree on to his just-planted cedar shrubbery. Mary Davis, going about her housework inside the home, heard the sawing and saw the limbs falling. She went outside to investigate. She couldn’t believe her eyes when she spotted Campbell in the tree, sawing limbs from her beautiful oak tree.
Grabbing up one of the fallen limbs, the steaming Mrs. Davis, with one hand on her hip, and the other brandishing the tree limb, ordered the cornered Campbell down from the tree. All the while, in a voice that could be heard blocks away, she dressed him down verbally as only an elementary school teacher could.
Campbell refused to come down from the tree until the simmering Mary Davis had gone into her home, taking the tree limb with her. Campbell was learning firsthand the rural south.
A sensitive man, in his mid-fifties, Campbell became exasperated with the failure of the city leaders to attempt to beautify the city. Finally Campbell’s frustration overcame him. He meticulously penned a seven page “letter of resignation” to the mayor and council.
The document, hand-written in sweeping longhand, upbraided the city fathers for the “absence of civic pride.” The tender of the water tower unloaded fifteen years of frustration with the city fathers in the epistle. Campbell spelled out in detail many of the things he had done to beautify the community. The letter left very little unsaid about the unsightly town and the failure of the city officials to do anything about it. J.W.H. Campbell finally unloaded on the mayor and city council.
Campbell concluded his letter with a resignation from his duties of tending the water tower. The letter was given to Police Chief Harold Barfield. Apparently Barfield felt the letter would serve a better purpose undelivered. Campbell’s health was failing and his friends knew death could not be far away.
Campbell’s illness continued. He was taken to a hospital in Waycross where he died. It was the mid-fifties and J.W.H. Campbell had been in Folkston for fifteen years. Still, he had no one close to him.
Hubert Laverne Clark, keeping Woodrow Pickren’s Service Garage open at night, would spend several hours some nights talking with the lonely Campbell. Campbell was a “night person” and rambled through the city after darkness.
Occasionally Campbell would eat Sunday dinner with Verne and Leila Pickren, talking very little about his personal life. Campbell’s friends were few.
After Campbell’s death a diary was uncovered. In it Campbell referred to the youngsters of the town suspecting him of being a German spy. He wrote of being falsely accused of taking a cake from one of the town’s grocery stores. The pages of the diary revealed that these charges troubled Campbell greatly, as did his failure to make the city officials realize how beautiful their city could look.
Campbell had a brother in Jacksonville, a senior executive with National Biscuit Company. The brother came to Folkston and arranged for Campbell to be buried in Jacksonville, beside his wife. The tattered pages of J.W.H. Campbell’s diary were given to the brother.
No one remembers exactly when he came, and no one recalls exactly when he died. He was just that sort of a person. Although a very private person, J.W.H. Campbell’s years in Folkston nominate him for prominence in the history of the town. He and his grist mill in the wooden shanty off First Street were a colorful part of the city’s past.