V.A. HODGES LED RAILROAD’S GLORY DAYS INTO FOLKSTON
By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian
The cab lurched, the engineer’s calloused hand reached toward a sweat-stained cord and the blast of a steam locomotive’s whistle split the air…it was a long…a short…and another long…just one railroad man’s way of saluting another. It was January, 1942, in the early morning. Only a month earlier carrier-based planes from Japanese aircraft carriers had nearly destroyed the United States Navy in their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, starting World War Two.
The locomotive engineer in the cab had spotted the small put-put motor car of Road Master Vinson Archibald Hodges sitting beside the track near the St. Marys River bridge…Hodges’ motorcar had been put off the track to let the southbound passenger train pass, and Hodges and his crank hand, Buck Pollock, waved back as the big 18 hundred series steam locomotive hurtled southward, snapping 20 passenger cars behind it.
The engineer in the cab of the locomotive knew what most other railroad men knew…the tracks in Cap’ Hodges’ division would always be found in good shape. The railroad men’s lives depended on the condition of the rails and its roadbed, and Hodges’ reputation for near-perfection on his division had circulated through the system, and earned him the respect of his fellow railroad men.
Hodges, a tall, lanky man who stood erect and proud, was wearing his customary dark gallowses. His black trousers were hitched high above his waist and the black felt hat was sitting at a jaunty angle atop his head as he chewed on a match stem, watching the southbound passenger train go by.
The engineer could tell from a mile away that the man beside the track was…he turned to his fireman as he took the whistle cord and said, “It’s Highpockets.” The name “Highpockets” was other railroaders’ nickname for Hodges, they used it affectionately, although they were careful never to let Hodges hear them use the nickname. They were alluding to Hodges’ custom of wearing his trousers fastened unusually high at the waist.
Morris Powell in the telegraph tower…J.E. Harvey…the section foremen, all knew and respected…and a few of the section hands feared Hodges. Hodges insisted that the men under his supervision be among the system’s best workers. The war effort was demanding more and more from the nation’s railroads as troop trains and trains loaded with weapons of war passed through Folkston. Hodges was going to be sure his division didn’t come up short.
Hodges had seen lots of changes since he arrived in Folkston and took over the Road Master’s job. It was February 15, 1918 and another World War was being waged then too, demanding Hodges’ ability to keep up the railroad tracks. The county’s weekly newspaper said “Mr. V.A. Hodges, Train Master for the A.C.L. is permanently locating in Folkston with an office in the B.F. Scott Building. He will move his family here as soon as a dwelling can be secured.” Hodges moved to Folkston from Jasper, Fla. with his family, his wife, Maggie Peagler Hodges, and three daughters, Ruth, Gertrude and Goldia, and two sons, Edward and Roy.
The town at that time was just beginning to grow, installing a new gasoline powered water pump for the municipal water supply, and talk was circulating that H.P. Bishop of Jacksonville was in town to ask the city council for a franchise to build a telephone system in Folkston.
In May of that year, 1918, carpenters for the railroad completed a new building for the Roadmaster. The office was built on a lot owned by the railroad and was in the rear parking lot of Folkston Post office. Hodges’ successor, R.L. Guy, moved the office building to his home on Cypress Street when he retired and the Folkston Roadmaster position was phased out. The building was later moved to South First Street near Charlton Printing and Office Supply.
Hodges, then 39, spoke plainly, he didn’t attempt to “butter up” people when he talked to them. This candor soon earned him many admirers …and a few enemies, but the employees under him knew when “Cap’ Hodges said something…he meant business.” He didn’t have to tell them but once.
Hodges, along with his crank hand, Dick Burgin or Buck Pollock, spent long days riding on the small gasoline driven put-put motorcar over the sprawling district. Section foremen turned to Hodges for help when problems arose they could not handle themselves, and the lanky road master’s experience showed through.
The Ware County native went to work for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1889 when he was only 21 years old. The railroads were rapidly expanding into the south then and rapidly replacing water transportation along the rivers.
In Folkston, Hodges and his family blended into the life of the community and made many friends. His business judgment became known to the people of Folkston and they elected him to the City Council and on to the Mayor’s office in the late 30s. An active Baptist, he was a member of the Board of Deacons of Folkston’s First Baptist Church and a member of the Folkston Masonic Lodge.
During the hectic days of World War Two, Hodges worked day and night seeing that the railroad tracks in his division would continue to carry the record freight loads needed for the war effort. His efforts were noted by the railroad and the War Department and the veteran railroader was commended for his efforts.
Hodges came to Folkston at a time when the railroad was the area’s chief employer and the steam locomotives stopped in Folkston regularly to take on water in their tenders. Before Hodges’ retirement in the mid fifties, the railroads had made many changes. Diesel locomotives were replacing the steam locomotives and centralized electronic train control had done away with many of the smaller depots and telegraph offices. Railroads had lost a lot of the romantic attractions they possessed when Hodges hired out. Automobile travel was replacing the passenger trains as a favorite mode of transportation.
On Monday, September 12, 1955, Hodges, 77, died in a Jacksonville, Fla. hospital. He was buried in Folkston’s Pineview Cemetery. Survivors were the widow, Maggie, his three daughters, Gertrude Hodges, Goldie Stewart and Ruth Barnes; two sons, Roy and Edward and a sister Ella Duncan of Waycross, Ga. In 1957, two years later, the widow, Maggie, followed her husband in death.
With Hodges’ retirement from the railroad an era ended. He had hired out in 1889, a time when the steel rails had just been laid through Folkston and the town’s four-store business district revolved around a small railroad depot. The glorious period of railroading was just beginning. Hodges was a part of that exciting and colorful chapter of the nation’s history when the great iron horse carved changes into the lifestyle of America, and changed a nation’s way of life. During that period Hodges wrote a vivid and colorful chapter into the history of Folkston and Charlton County.