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JUDGE HENRY JOHNSON INTRODUCED AUTO TO FOLKSTON

By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian

Folkston’s first look at a native-owned automobile came on May 23, 1912. The owner was thoroughly ridiculed by his friends and neighbors who honestly believed the automobile would be a short-lived fad. John Henry Johnson, dignified judge of the county court, the first recorded owner of an automobile in Charlton County, smiled back at his critics as they gawked open-jawed while his new Ford chugged lazily past them.

The Charlton County Herald of that day documented every event dealing with the newfangled machines. Jokingly, the social columns chided Johnson for an accident while the popular lumber man was learning to operate his new Ford.

Folkston at the time had a population of less than 400 people. Charred timbers from the just-burned Wainwright block on Folkston’s Courthouse Street painted an ugly picture of the business district. People were still talking about the sinking of the Titanic a month earlier, costing 1,502 lives.

Horses and buggies were the accepted mode of transportation, although Henry Ford had been mass-producing the Model T at Dearborn, Michigan since 1908 and they started out selling for $850.00 by 1926 they would have gone down to $310.00 and be within the price range of most Americans.

On that eventful May day in 1912 the Herald said “Mr. J.H. Johnson has bought a fine auto of the “Ford” brand and it is said that W.W. Tyler is contemplating filing suit against Henry for jumping the fence and ruining his cantaloupes. Henry has a nice machine alright and he’s enjoying it too.” Tyler was a former owner of the weekly newspaper and a popular farmer. Johnson’s Model T got away from him in deep sand and bolted into Tyler’s garden. Of course, the statement about suing was in jest.

In a further attempt to rub salt into Henry Johnson’s wounds with his new machine some wag took a classified advertisement in the next week’s paper. Since Johnson had the only automobile in the county, all the readers knew it was aimed at Judge Johnson. “Wanted – To swap horse and buggy for automobile. Will pay difference in cash. Box 47, care of Herald, Folkston, Ga.” Johnson brushed off the good natured ribbing of his townspeople and soon became an accomplished automobile driver.

For over a year no other natives were recorded as owning one of the machines. Johnson was kept busy joy-riding his friends through the county’s sand roads and demonstrating his Ford.

Johnson got his gasoline from the supply for his saw mill, but passing autoists often had to hunt gasoline where ever they could find it. Soon the Arnold Hotel, which played host to passing machines and their operators over the weekends, installed a hand operated gasoline pump right out in front of the hotel.

Folkston was beginning to spruce up its business district for the passing motorists. In October of 1912 Jack Davis painted letters all over his new two story store building and received plaudits from the local newspaper for his originality. Several auto parties stopped at the Arnold over the weekend. The editor quipped “We didn’t ask where they were from or where they were going for fear they might not think we were the thriving city we are.”

Folkston’s second machine was bought by another of Folkston’s prime movers of that day, Colonel William Marshall Oliff, on September 4, 1913. The Herald shouted “Senator Oliff is now the owner of a 6-seat Ford. He went to Waycross Saturday and purchased it from D.L. Keene. It’s a daisy.”

Olliff and Johnson, on Sunday afternoons would load up their autos with friends and head for the river landings for picnics. The autos and their owners were the envy of the county.

Those two Ford owners were soon to be joined by the racier machines of the day. On December 4, 1913 the newspaper chronicled “J.W. Rodgers and C.E. Love went to Jacksonville Saturday. Rodgers purchased a fine 5-passenger Warren-Detroit machine.” On March 5, 1914, the railroad agent, H. C. Page was noted in the news for “purchasing a splendid Warren-Detroit machine.”

The number continued to grow little by little. Soon the political leaders of the county became aware of the county’s pitiful inadequate wagon trails and sent the county convict crews about the county preparing roads for the new machines.

Many locals argued against building of the new roads. They argued that only a few machines were owned by people of the county and that the existing roads were completely adequate for such a small number of machines. Fortunately, the leaders had more foresight than their critics and the program of road building continued as more and more of the new machines found their way through the city and county.

Johnson, Olliff, Page and Rodgers were the bell ringers for automobiles in the small rural south Georgia county. They joined together to push for a network of good roads and for the establishment of U.S. Highway No.One through the county. Competition for the route through other sections of the state was fierce but ultimately the determination of the Folkston leaders prevailed.

Rodgers showed his ability to hedge his bets just in case the auto was a passing fancy. He bought out a blacksmith shop and livery stable to cater to the whims of those who called out “get a horse” as the machines got stuck in the foot-deep sand or foot-deep mud, depending upon the weather.

Homeland and Folkston began to prepare for the coming of the automobile age. Homeland’s Palmetto Hotel was completely refurbished as was Ben Scott’s Arnold Hotel in Folkston. More and more, the new fangled machines could be seen in front replacing the familiar horse and buggy. The McDonald Hotel put an air compressor out front to air up the tires of the horseless carriages.

On February 16, 1917 the Herald contained its first advertisement for an automobile service garage: Thomas Garage – Folkston, Georgia – cars repaired and stored – Ford parts in stock – satisfaction guaranteed. The Galvanized Iron Building East of Railroad. Soon the automobile became as commonplace as the horse and buggy had been. Skeptics who had joked about the horseless carriage went underground for a while and then emerged driving one of the newfangled machines.

Johnson, Olliff, Page and Rodgers got the last laugh and soon the merchants began complaining about the locals using their machines to go out of town to buy their supplies. The newspaper ads turned to pleas to trade at home.

One Main Street store owner suggested that the state not contribute any funds for the paving of the roads for automobiles. “It will just give our people a way to get out of town and spend their money someplace else.” His suggested isolationism fell on deaf ears as he, and the other merchants found ways to compete with the out-of-town business houses and Folkston continued to grow.

Rodgers’ livery stable and blacksmith shop business faltered. The wiry merchant put more emphasis on merchandising in his general store and sold out the livery business. Olliff died in 1917 in his forties and never fully enjoyed the automobile age.

Johnson took advantage of the new machines as he expanded his lumber business and Page’s business at the railroad depot reached panic proportions in the twenties as the people of the northeastern states discovered Florida and the railroad builders of the day laid steel rails to Key West to accommodate their desires to “Go south, brother.”

The coming of the automobile to the little town of Folkston was a time of excitement and adventure. Those living at the time recall the years from 1912 until 1920 as being a time when Folkston and Charlton County was alive and well. The people, eager for a part of the new adventure found little time to hate and lots of time to work together for a better tomorrow.

See also "Folkston Bottling Works"

Charlton  County Archives