JAMES VERNON GOWEN ENRICHED LEGEND OF TRADERS HILL
By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian
Darkness still covered the workers’ homes that dotted the countryside. Not a light could be seen shining through the windows of the houses. But on the hill, lights glowed brightly from the kitchen window of the home of JAMES VERNON GOWEN.
Mary Agnes Dean Gowen was busily cooking breakfast for her husband and the children. Two of the small boys, Dean and Clyde had the morning chore of ringing the bell that stood out front of their home, to awaken the hands for the day’s work.
James Vernon Gowen and his Georgia-Florida Investment Company were Traders Hill. He had been born nearby to Andrew Green Gowen and Jane Vernon Gowen on March 6, 1878. Andrew Green Gowen had settled in Traders Hill, migrating from South Carolina, shortly after the Civil War which saw him severely wounded while fighting with the Confederacy near the James River in Virginia.
Now it was in the 1920s, but the years in between had been filled with hard work and anxiety for James Vernon Gowen. He had become a school teacher shortly after completing his own schooling, and taught in the Prescott School in the north end of thecounty.
When Jim Gowen, as he was called by his friends and family, was just 20, and teaching school, his deep patriotism surfaced. February 15, 1898, the US battleship Maine, which had been sent to Cuba as protection for US citizens there during insurrection on the island, was sunk in Havana Harbor.
President McKinley asked Congress for authority to intervene, and a formal declaration of war was voted against Spain on April 25. James Vernon, Jesse Vickery and Joe C. Allen all left Charlton County at the same time, volunteering their service to the US Army in the Spanish American War. The war was a brief one. Spain signed papers of unconditional surrender on July 16 of that year. The three Charlton County veterans returned home to the acclaim of their neighbors, uninjured. Other young men who also enlisted from Charlton County were George W. Anderson, William J. Dinkins, Joseph H. Gainey, Charles L. Mattox and Owen K. Robinson. Future Folkston leaders included Dr. A.D. Williams who enlisted from Jacksonville, Marion G. Davis from Harris County, Ga., and Thomas W. Wrench from Brunswick, Ga.
Young Gowen chose not to return to teaching school. Instead he took a job as a carpenter, working in Jacksonville, Fla., helping to restore some of the hundreds of homes damaged by the disastrous fire that nearly destroyed that Florida city. Later, he accepted a job with the A & B Railroad Company as a crosstie inspector. The county site of Charlton County in the meantime, had moved from Traders Hill to Folkston.
It was while working at the railroad job that Gowen met L.T. McKinnon at Fendig, Georgia. This was to be the turning point in young Gowen’s life. McKinnon operated turpentine stills and saw mills in addition to cutting crossties and firewood for the railroad. Gowen’s new job paid $20 a month, plus board. McKinnon took note as his new employee performed his work like a veteran.
On Wednesday, November 7, 1906, James Vernon Gowen and a young school teacher, Mary Agnes Dean, were married at Traders Hill by Rev. Erake. She was the college-educated daughter of a Methodist minister and his wife, Emory Franklin Dean, Sr. and Maybelle Pope Godley Dean. Jim Gowen and his bride returned to Gowen’s job sites on the turpentine settlements, running McKinnon’s naval stores businesses. Gowen’s salary had been increased to $50 a month.
On September 16, 1907, a son, Dean, was born to the couple while they lived at Rhoden, Georgia. Later, April 7, 1909, at nearby Fendig, Ga., another son, Emory Clyde was born. Both of the little turpentine communities were beside the tracks of the A&B Railroad between Hortense and Waycross.
In 1910, Gowen got the chance to return to Traders Hill. A turpentine operation there, of Joe Mizell’s, was for sale. McKinnon and Gowen got their heads together. McKinnon was to buy the business only if Gowen would run it. Gowen’s work was to earn him an interest in the business. Georgia-Florida Investment Co. was born. Gowen was the president and general manager of the operation. Soon, he was to buy McKinnon’s interest, and own the entire operation.
James Vernon Gowen, his wife and two boys, moved into a home at Traders Hill near the turpentine still and began a business that grew to be one of the county’s largest employers and most successful businesses.
In 1912 Gowen bought the Lem Murrhee farm at Traders Hill and set about to improve it. The Georgia-Florida Investment Co. operated a saw mill, turpentine still and related timber products, as well as a commissary at Traders Hill, on the banks of the St. Marys River.
Gowen, a relaxed and likable man, built barges and tugboats, necessary for the Traders Hill operation. John Harris’ “Historical Notes”, published in 1972, said of the episode, “the shipping of these products to market created a major problem, since the nearest rail siding was at Folkston, some five miles away.
“So, it was decided to use a method right at hand, the St. Marys River. This necessitated the building of barges and a tug boat. The building of the boat created much interest among the people in the community and Mr. Gowen assured all the neighbors that he would announce the launching by shooting off some giant firecrackers. The boat was christened “Hazel” named after his three-month-old daughter.”
Gowen’s business operated smoothly and Traders Hill became the busiest place in the county. In the company’s commissary was a much greater selection than could be found in the stores in Folkston. Workers moved busily around the work area.
Young men that were later to become outstanding businessmen of the county got their training under James Vernon Gowen. Some were woods riders, while others worked in the busy commissary, or drove trucks hauling the turpentine to market, or worked at any of the other dozen or so jobs necessary in the business.
The profits from the operations were lean for the first few years after Gowen returned to Traders Hill, but he was earning a reputation for fair dealings and hard work. Then, in 1917, World War One began. Turpentine prices quadrupled on the nation’s markets, and Georgia-Florida Investment’s earnings soared. Activities at Traders Hill were busier than ever.
Gowen began to acquire what would ultimately be nearly 30,000 acres of land. He was a pioneer in reforestation, and the first in the county to transplant slash pine into the county. During the depression years, to give his turpentine workers jobs, he would have the men transplant native pine seedlings to barren fields. He was a leader in forming the county’s Timber Protective Organization, a pioneer cooperative group designed to protect the pine lands from forest fires.
In 1918 Gowen offered for his only elective office. He ran unopposed for County Commissioner from the Traders Hill District. At that time the Commission was composed of five members. He served in 1919 and 1920. Others on the board with him were Jack Davis, Folkston; J.C. Baughner, Gaineyville; W.C. Hopkins, Toledo and J.A.Johns, Winokur.
In 1920 legislation changed the board to a three-member board and Gowen did not offer for re-election. He served on the Charlton County Board of Education for 27 years; a director of the Citizens Bank and a director on the Forestry Board. In 1922, he built his family a new home on a hill overlooking the road between Folkston and St. George.
In 1926 he and a brother-in-law, Guy Dean, built the Dean & Gowen Building, now occupied as a Western Auto Store. In 1927 Gowen built a building on Folkston’s West Main Street to house the Folkston Grain and Grocery store and an office for his Ga.-Fla. Investment Co. He had bought out McKinnon’s interest in the corporation and became involved in several retail businesses in Folkston.
The nation sank into its deepest economic depression after the stock market crash of 1929. The naval stores business suffered along with the other industries of the nation. Gowen tightened up his operations to weather the bad years and weather it, he did.
The Gowen family grew. The children were Dean, Clyde, Hazel, J.V., Jr., Donald, Albert and Harold. Two other sons died at age seven; Willard was born in 1911 and died in 1918; Lacy was born in 1921 and died in 1928. James Vernon Gowen loved his family. He worked hard to give them the better things in life. His sons grew up working in the family businesses.
In the mid-thirties Gowen leased his farm on the St. George Highway at Traders Hill to a wealthy Long Islander, George Robbins. The northerner had made a fortune in New York real estate and made Gowen such an attractive offer it couldn’t be refused.
Robbins hired a caretaker, Lacy McKinnon, to oversee the leased farm, and make sure the game being hunted was in good supply. Each year, before Robbins arrived at the Gowen place, McKinnon would give a supper in the home, and invite many of the community’s young people. While Robbins’ lease was in effect, Gowen and his family lived in their Folkston home on Main Street.
Later in the 1930s pine trees became more valuable. Pulp mills were developed that could make paper from the tree. Many located in South Georgia and north Florida. Gowen’s vast timber holdings increased in value.
In 1941 Gowen leased and later sold his timber lands to Union Bag and Paper Co. a forerunner of Union-Camp Corporation. He retired from active business but maintained a keen interest in community affairs and timber conservation measures, and farmed his lands at Traders Hill.
A generous and sincere man, James Vernon Gowen supported activities of the church. He gave land for a Methodist church at Traders Hill. His family had earlier given the land for the Prospect Methodist Church and cemetery. Mrs. Gowen was one of the earliest members of the Prospect Methodist Church.
James Vernon Gowen and his family continued the prominence of the earlier Gowens and Deans; the ancestors who were so important in the formative years of Charlton County. They became involved in countless ventures that enriched the community and the county.
Tuesday morning, November 27, 1956, James Vernon Gowen died in the Folkston hospital. He was 78 and had been seriously ill for several weeks before his death. Funeral services were held at Prospect Methodist Church the following Wednesday and burial was in the church cemetery. Mary Agnes Dean Gowen died on January 11, 1981 at 99, after a lengthy illness. She is buried beside her husband.
Today the signs of Traders Hill’s busy past are few. Many of the magnificent trees remain. The banks of the St. Marys River is quieter now. No barges or tug boats ply its waters. The remnants of the turpentine still have long ago vanished. But, today the rich history of the James Vernon Gowen family can be felt among the trees at Traders Hill where the home place once stood and the work bell rang out to break the morning stillness.
Charlton County was created in February 1854. Ten years later Andrew Green Gowen from South Carolina, planted the Gowen flag in the soil at Traders Hill, Georgia. Since that time, the descendants, proud and honorable people, have continued to enrich the pages of Charlton County’s history and have added to the proud heritage of the Gowens of Traders Hill.