By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County Historian

He stood on the platform at the foot of the tower stairs. Held high in his right hand was a tower operator’s train order hoop with the green tissue-like train orders fastened with a metal clip. He was much too close to the swaying steam locomotive but in an instant someone on the engine had hooked an arm into the hoop and snatched it from the telegrapher’s grip.

Joseph Emmet Harvey had been doing this since 1903 for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. It is Tuesday, May 3, 1927, and he is just beginning his new job at the Folkston tower. He has worked in his hometown, Hortense, for twenty-four years. He will work another twenty in the Folkston tower before retiring, because of eye trouble, in 1947. A 44 year railroad career will be divided between these two jobs.

He was born in that part of Pierce County that later became Brantley, on the farm of his father, W.M. Harvey, a pioneer settler of the region. He learned the Morse Code at night, after working on the farm all day, and at age 13 quit school to take a telegrapher’s job with the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. He began as assistant station agent at Hortense. He took a regular job there in 1903, the same year Henry Ford began making his Model T Fords.

The weekly county paper heralded the family’s arrival in its personal columns: “Mr. J.E. Harvey and family moved from Hortense to Folkston this week. He will be the new third trick (midnight till 8:00 a.m.) operator at the Folkston tower.”

The news spread fast in the little town built around the railroad depot. Harvey’s family was his wife, Addie Bagley Harvey, whom he married in 1906; two girls, Grace and Margaret and five boys, Tyson, Leroy, Herbert, Harry and Joseph Emmett, Jr. The seven moved into a home just across the tracks from the tower. It had once been the Methodist parsonage, but now was owned by C.S. Buchanan. The Harvey’s bought the home on October 17, 1929 for eighteen hundred dollars. J.E. Harvey and his family quickly became a part of the town as they joined in the social and religious activities of the community.

Emmett Harvey knew his job well. The clicking of his telegraph sounder kept Folkston in touch with the rest of the world. Not only did the telegraph office handle railroad traffic, it was the town’s Western Union telegraph office. Important news, good and bad, was spelled out on Emmett Harvey’s typewriter. Soon his seniority would earn him the first trick (8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.) job at the tower.

A kind-hearted, jovial man, Emmett Harvey found satisfaction in helping others. In the early days of World War Two, a half-dozen youngsters, too young to enlist in the army or navy, sought jobs as tower operators with the railroad. J.E. Harvey and Morris Powell taught them to telegraph – without pay. Most of the students were hired by the railroad for good paying jobs.

J.E. Harvey gave his talents and energy eagerly to those in need of help. A frail, recently-widowed woman moved into a home near the Harveys in 1939. The home’s septic tank would not function. The kindly Harvey, his crosscut saw in hand, built her a new one of crossties. Such events were commonplace with the smiling telegraph operator.

The children grew up and left the home. Harvey and his wife became active members of Philadelphia Free Will Baptist Church and he joined the Woodmen of the World fraternal organization.

Harvey always enjoyed telling of his first visit to Folkston in 1904, and what he found here. He could recall only two stores, owned by Jehu Paxton and H.J. Davis. The county seat had just moved to Folkston from Traders Hill. Folkston’s post office was in the Price Robinson house which later became the Frank Smith home, along the east side of the railroad tracks.

At 4:30 Sunday morning, May 2, 1948, Addie Harvey woke her husband. She complained of chest pains. He took her to the hospital immediately but at 6:30 a.m. she died of a massive heart attack. She was 60. He had been retired less than a year. Emmett Harvey became a lonely man.

In December 1951, Folkston’s Justice of the Peace, W.E. Banks, died. A restless Emmett Harvey ran for the open post against V.A. Hodges. Only 167 votes were cast but Harvey had a 13 vote margin; 90 to Hodges’ 77. The retired railroader began his second career which made him friends all over the country. He married hundreds of couples in his home across from the telegraph tower. The other JP duties, collecting past due accounts, and issuing warrants, were done well.

The Justice of the Peace office furnished him additional income which he freely spent on the needy, especially little children. Emmett Harvey had a soft spot in his heart for little children.

He continued his activity at Philadelphia Free Will Baptist Church and became its Sunday School superintendent. He gave generously of his money and energy to those in need. But, in early 1965 his health began to fail and on September 9, 1965 death came to him. He was 76. J.E. Harvey was buried in Pineview Cemetery in Folkston beside Addie Harvey, the wife he loved so dearly, who had preceded him in death seventeen years earlier.

From its earliest days, Folkston revolved around its railroad depot and tower. Joseph Emmett Harvey, Sr., for a long time occupied center stage from his chair in the tower. His family, across the tracks, and the community they lived in, became interwoven. Those that knew and loved the Harveys will remember with fondness the family who lived and worked beside the railroad tracks from 1927 until 1965.

Charlton  County Archives