WALTER HOPKINS BECAME A LEGEND IN HIS OWN TIME
By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian
The nylon ropes of the funeral director’s tent, driven by gusty winds, snapped in rhythm against the frail metal poles holding the sagging canvas. Torrents of rain fell upon the mourners unable to crowd under the protective awning while many remained in their cars. Walter Colquitt Hopkins, one of the region’s truly great leaders, was being buried in Folkston’s Pineview Cemetery. He had died two days earlier, on February 25, 1964. He was 81.
Forty-nine years had passed since 33-year-old Walter Hopkins and his 25-year-old bride of three years, Lula Shepard Hopkins first called Charlton County their home, on January 1, 1915. A paragraph in the St. George news columns of the January 15, 1915 issue of the Charlton County Herald told of their arrival: “Mr. Hopkins of McKinnon, Georgia has purchased an interest in the Toledo Manufacturing Company and will move to Toledo with his family and take charge of the work. Mr. Ray will go to Brunswick to take charge of a still for the same company.”
Hopkins was a native of adjoining Camden County, born at Midriver, Burnt Fort, Georgia on May 16, 1882. His wife, Lula, was born in Wayne County, near Jesup, Georgia, daughter of J.C. and Mary Harper Shepard of that county. Lula Hopkins possessed a then-rare college education, having attended Valdosta Female Institute and taught school at McKinnon, Ga. before her marriage to Hopkins on March 19, 1912.
Hopkins had worked from 1903 for L.T. McKinnon and Company, both at McKinnon, Ga. and at the company’s general store in Burnt Fort. In 1911 he bought into the McKinnon Company.
The Hopkins’ new home county was just beginning to show signs of life after the coming of the railroad through Folkston. H.J. Davis was chairman of the county commission and his four-year old store stood prominently on Courthouse Street. The city fathers, after considerable public pressure, had agreed to move the city’s unsightly water tower out of the middle of the town’s main street, Courthouse Street. Also promised was the building of wooden sidewalks on each side of that street.
At that time there were few automobiles in the county, but tourist autos were finding their way through the county’s wagon paths with increasing regularity. The automobile age was beginning.
Walter Hopkins and his wife came into a county that was crying loudly for changes. The coming of the automobile held promise of a better way of life for the people and many wanted to share in it. County prisoners under their warden, “Big John” Roddenberry, moved from stockade to stockade about the county building roads to accommodate the automobile.
Hopkins and his wife settled into their home at Toledo, a little turpentine community between Folkston and St. George where he was in charge for Toledo Manufacturing Company, a turpentine operation. Right away Hopkins became interested in the economic plight of the county, often voicing the opinion of what was necessary for the county to prosper.
In January of 1915, there was strong talk from Nahunta to form a new county from parts of Camden, Charlton, Wayne and Pierce. The new county was to be named “Wilson County” in honor of President Woodrow Wilson’s just-deceased wife, Ellen Louise Wilson, a native of Rome, Georgia who died on August 6, 1914. Before the new county was formed however, on December 18, 1915, President Wilson remarried and the sentiment to name the new county for the first Mrs. Wilson gave way to naming it Brantley County.
After living in the county for three years, in 1918, Walter Hopkins was elected to the Board of County Commissioners. The voters returned him time and again, until he had served twenty-four years in that office, most of the time as chairman. He led the commission powerfully for the nearly quarter-century he served. Neighboring counties sought Hopkins’ counsel as they attempted to emulate the smoothly-operating county government he had fostered. Hopkins last served on the board in 1947.
The hard-driving Hopkins turned the turpentine community of Toledo into one of the county’s busiest workplaces while prudent business practices enabled him soon to be able to buy out his former partners in the naval stores corporation, Toledo Manufacturing Company.
Thus began years of accumulating lands. One of the state’s pioneers in reforestation, Hopkins built an empire of pine trees in Charlton and Wayne Counties. He became a charter member of the American Turpentine Farmers Association and a member of the Board of Directors of The Citizens Bank of Folkston. His leadership was sought eagerly.
In his first days at Toledo, Hopkins, who drove himself just as hard as he drove his workers, was Postmaster at Toledo. The small company commissary there which Hopkins was responsible for, afforded him an audience for his tales. In the late 40s, Hopkins could often be found in the afternoons, sitting on the floor of the commissary porch, leaning against a post, spinning yarns to the enjoyment of his listeners who had gathered around.
Walter and Lula Hopkins had no children of their own. The couple raised a niece, Ann, and two nephews, Alva J., Jr. and Colquitt D., children of Hopkins’ brother, Alva J. Hopkins, Sr., of Wayne County, Ga., in their home at Toledo after their mother, Ethel Shepard Hopkins, who was Lula Hopkins’ sister, died in 1927.
After World War Two ended and building material became available again for the domestic market, Hopkins built a new home for him and his wife on Folkston’s Martin Street and moved from Toledo while continuing to operate Toledo Manufacturing Co. and add to his timber holdings, until it contained nearly 40,000 acres of the county’s pine forest.
The venerable Hopkins promoted the interest of commercial pine forests at every opportunity, and served on the county board of the Georgia Forestry Commission until the time of his death.
Hopkins, who had a keen insight into the future, was well ahead of his peers in recognizing the commercial value of pine trees for purposes other than turpentine.
When Hopkins and his wife first settled at Toledo on New Years Day 1915, war clouds hung over Europe and President Woodrow Wilson was trying desperately to keep America neutral. St. George and Folkston were in friendly competition for a first-completed bridge over the St. Marys River; St. George won when a bridge between there and Jacksonville was finished months ahead of Folkston’s. Nassau County, Fla. however, delayed the construction of their portion of the road leading to the St. George bridge, allowing Folkston open their part of the road first which infuriated the leaders from St. George.
Hopkins’ advice was sought on most county and municipal matters. Never one to shy away from controversy, Hopkins usually offered his opinion in no uncertain terms when asked. He was usually right.
When Hopkins and his wife first settled in Toledo, Charlton was a growing county. Uptonville was an incorporated community and C.W. Waughtel, later to become a prime mover in the development of Homeland, was elected Uptonville’s mayor while L.S. Waughtel was elected to the Uptonville city council. Walter Hopkins saw many changes in Charlton County – many of which he generated.
On July 20, 1962 Walter Hopkins was saddened by the death of his wife, Lula, whom he called “Miss Polly”. She died in a Jacksonville, Fla. Hospital after a lengthy bout with cancer. She was 72. Two years later, on February 25, 1964, Walter Colquitt Hopkins died of a heart condition. They are buried in Folkston’s Pineview cemetery.
Few men have the drive and determination that Walter Hopkins possessed. Folkston and Charlton County were enriched by years of his dynamic and colorful leadership and the social and cultural values embraced by his family.