JOHN HARRIS, 1905 SETTLER IN ST. GEORGE CHOSE HIGH ROAD
By Jack R. Mays
Charlton County, Georgia Historian
Charlton County Herald
September 21, 1988
Three burly, unshaven settlers snickered rudely among themselves as small, well-dressed John Harris, 31, and his immaculately-dressed wife, Cora, stepped from the train’s dusty passenger coach at the tiny St. George, Georgia railroad depot. It was a sparkling January morning in 1905. In Washington congress had just admitted Oklahoma to statehood.
John and Cora Harris stood there silently for a moment, unsure as to just why they had left the security and tranquility of the Ozarks. Up and down the sandy main street carpenters’ hammers could be heard breaking the early morning stillness as eager merchants hurried to complete their store buildings in anticipation of record profits.
The three men who had joked about Harris earlier had no way of knowing that the well-dressed little man would become the boom town’s first mayor, editor of its first newspaper, The St. George Gazette, and a political influence to be dealt with in Charlton County for the next 80 years.
On February 24, 1905 John Harris, a determined and uncompromising man, walked into the clapboard real estate office of John P. Fitzgerald, founder of the “1904 Colony Company” who just three months before had bought 9,000 acres of land from the Georgia Southern and Florida Railroad at Cutler, Ga. (now St. George). Harris in a public drawing received nine of the town’s nearly 2,000 residential lots in exchange for his stock holdings in the new development at St. George.
Walking from Fitzgerald’s office onto a wooden sidewalk, Harris stood and eyed the fast-growing town. Already the wheels were beginning to turn in his head as to ways to make the town grow. The population of St. George had reached a thousand, now equal with Folkston which in 1900 had become seat of Charlton County government. In 1905, 1906 and 1907 every train brought new settlers bristling with enthusiasm into St. George. New businesses were opening at the rate of one a day until 54 businesses were eventually opened in the well-laid-out town.
Harris, who previously had published a weekly newspaper in Cuba, Missouri, in June of 1905 published his first issue of the weekly St. George Gazette which he ran until 1911.
On August 24, 1906, barely a year after John Harris’ arrival in St. George, and primarily at his urging through his newspaper, the Georgia General Assembly passed an act incorporating the city of St. George and an election was held for the new town’s first mayor and aldermen.
John Harris was elected mayor. Tom Wrench, who worked with Harris on the Gazette, was chosen city clerk along with a full board of aldermen, marshal, treasurer and assessor. The name on the town’s railroad depot sign was changed from Cutler, named for a traffic agent for the GS&F Railroad, to St. George. The town’s post office name had been changed from Cutler to St. George in 1905.St. George was beginning to come into its own.
Armed with his town’s brand new city charter, handsome, hard-driving Mayor John Harris started his own workmen grading streets, digging drainage ditches, building bridges and planting trees as the little town’s finances would permit. In 1907 the town spent $978.00, every penny of which was accounted for in John Harris’ Gazette.
In 1906, another Cuba, Missouri native, Mabel Johnson followed Harris to St. George to teach the children in the one-room school house until 1907 when it was replaced by three classrooms in the town’s Union Hall. Harris was drafted then to become the school’s new principal. In 1910, under St. George resident P.J. Osterman’s leadership, and prodding from Harris, the first brick school building was built. A new bank also opened that year. Harris and his newspaper grew along with St. George as the little town survived on its own growth.
The people of bustling, busy St. George unknowingly had aristocracy in its midst in the person of John Harris. He could trace his ancestry back to the lower peninsular of Cornwall, England where they were miners.
Before leaving England for the USA just after the end of America’s civil war, John Harris’ father, Jacob Harris had joined the Wesleyan Methodist Society. Shortly after arriving in southern Missouri the father of John Harris felt the call to preach and resigned his position as superintendent of the St. Joe Missouri Mine and entered Carleton Institute at Farmington, Missouri to prepare himself for the ministry.
Jacob Harris’ first ministerial assignment was Marshfield, Missouri, in the western part of the state near the home of the notorious outlaws, Jesse and Frank James and the younger brothers. It was there Jacob Harris met and on March 2, 1873 married Sarah Charlotte Wharton. The newlyweds then moved to Cuba, Missouri for Jacob Harris’ second pastorate, and on January 20, 1874, their son John Harris was born.
As a youngster, John Harris was given all the best education and training in public schools and colleges and received his Bachelor of Literature degree. Jacob Harris suggested to his son John that he go into the job printing business in Vichy Springs, Missouri in the Ozarks. This John did and in 1891 he moved from there to Marshfield, Missouri and established the Marshfield Mail, a weekly newspaper which is still being published today.
In November 1894 John Harris moved to Cuba, Missouri, the town of his birth and revived the weekly newspaper, the Crawford County Telephone. In January 1895 John Harris at age 21, married Cora Lewis, 20, of Cuba. Their marriage lasted until her death in June 1950 in Folkston.
In St. George in 1907 the principal of the St. George school failed to show up to teach his classes at the St. George school. John Harris filled in as a substitute for the principal and became interested in education and teaching, a vocation which he followed for the next 37 years.
But without the industry to give employment and without agricultural development of the surrounding lands in St. George the bubble there began to burst. Two new rail lines scheduled to go through St. George failed to get financial backing, attempts to grow cotton, peaches and cantaloupes all failed. Hundreds of settlers became discouraged and left, many returning to their home land in the north and Midwest.
The community’s developer, P.H. Fitzgerald, who also colonized Fitzgerald, Ga., was indicted by a federal court for his participating in an illegal stock scheme through the mails for the development at St. George. He subsequently plead guilty and paid a $1,600 fine. Jesse Vickery of Folkston was appointed receiver for the 1904 Colony Company lands at St. George and disposed of the balance of the land at public auction, using funds received from the sale to build a brick school house in the town.
In 1912 John and Cora Harris moved to Folkston where Harris was to begin his duties as school principal. He served as Folkston school principal until 1924 when he was elected County School Superintendent, a position he held until 1945 when he became City Clerk for the City of Folkston, and soon additionally Clerk of the Board of County Commissioners, another office he held for 24 uninterrupted years.
Perhaps the most rewarding years for John Harris in Charlton County were those when he headed the public school system as its superintendent which began on January 1, 1925 when he succeeded Lawrence E. Mallard in the county’s top school position.
New building were built, a teacher’s dormitory constructed and a list of long-term objectives for the system was implemented. For 19 years the schools expanded in all areas under his direction.
Harris was criticized by some for his seemingly autocratic approach to school management. He meticulously outlined every small detail of his school programs and then vigorously pushed them to completion. Those who stood in his way soon learned of the resolution of purpose embodied in the small man from Missouri.
Harris refused to allow married women to teach in the county’s school system until the outbreak of World War Two when he could not complete his staff without them. He was respected by his teachers and loved by his students. The county’s schools prospered and grew under the dynamic leadership.
The Charlton County school system under Harris became a model for other counties of the state to follow. National and state school organizations named Harris to high level study groups as his renown became known throughout the south.
On December 19, 1952, John Harris, whose wife Cora had died in 1950, married one of his former teachers, Mayme Askew. The couple had known each other since 1912. They lived a happy and peaceful life at their home in Folkston.
In 1954 when the county was 100 years old, another long-time dream of Harris came true. He convinced the leaders of the county and city governments and the people to participate in an ambitious centennial celebration. Harris was named to head up the celebration.
Harris won plaudits far and wide for the success of the venture. A week-long celebration was held in February with every person living in the county who could walk or ride in a wheel chair participating. It is today remembered as one of the most successful undertakings attempted by the county. Practically all of the fund originally set up as “seed money” to finance the centennial, $1500.00 raised from 100 people at $15 dollars each, was returned to the 100 investors. The celebration had paid its own way.
The Cuba, Missouri native who arrived in St. George, Ga. in 1905 became one of the county’s outstanding educational, community, church and civic leaders and one of the south’s foremost authorities on education. He found time to teach a men’s union Sunday School class and time to grow exquisite flowers in his garden and he found time to share with others.
John Harris, whose life span began on January 20, 1874 when Ulysses S. Grant was president, and ended on August 12, 1979 at age 105 when Jimmy Carter was president, was truly a vibrant part of that history.
Charlton County, its people and its schools were the focus of John Harris’ time, energy and talent. His foresight and determination paid monumental dividends to the people of Charlton County. With a boyish grin he told his “Bobby Squirrel” stories to the children in his schools. With keen foresight he led his friends and neighbors along a higher road.
John Harris died peacefully on August 12, 1979 and is buried in Folkston’s Pineview Cemetery alongside his first wife, Cora, and his father and mother, Jacob and Sarah Harris. Engraved in the plain granite slab is simply “John Harris – January 20, 1874 – August 12, 1979.
[Photograph of St. George Railroad Depot and of Mr. Harris was included in this article. The cut line read “The 1905 St. George railroad depot greeted John Harris, right, when he stepped from the train after arriving from Cuba, Missouri. From that day until his death at 105 the influence of John Harris could be felt in every sector of life in Charlton County. He went on to become printer, educator, historian, political and church leader.”]