FOLKSTON’S FORGOTTEN PIONEER BENEFACTOR, WM. M. OLLIFF
By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian
The six men staggered under the weight of the heavy cypress casket as they walked with it to an open grave in the Folkston cemetery. They placed it on a massive wooden table near a mound of dirt which had been removed from the gravesite and backed away to listen to the preacher.
Inside the coffin was the body of William M. Olliff, a handsome young attorney who had moved to the embryo town of Folkston from Statesboro in 1894, before Folkston was an incorporated town. He was just thirty years old. The little town then had only a few dirt streets and a handful of buildings. It was now twenty-three years later, Friday May 25, 1917 and 3:30 in the afternoon. Olliff had died just hours before.
Death had come to Olliff twelve hours earlier, at 2:40 a.m. in his home, which he and his wife called their “happiness hotel” only blocks from the cemetery. The funeral had been hastily arranged and held in the Olliff home at 2:30 on the same afternoon, because of the day’s heat. The temperature reached into the 90s that day.
The mid-day sun baked down on the mourners clustered near the grave, many fanning themselves with newspapers. Others held papers over their heads for shade; the burial would soon take place. They listened earlier in the Olliff home to the preacher, B.A. Thornton, as he told of the young attorney’s twenty-three years of leadership to the city and county. “Here lies a man who will never be forgotten by the people of Folkston” he had asserted. History would prove who wrong he was to be.
The six pallbearers, Ben Scott, Donald Pearce, Jack Davis, Ben McDonald, W.E. Rogers and E.S. Strickland, all members of the city-county power structure, wept unashamedly. One of their own had passed away and they would miss him.
Dressed in black, sitting in a chair near the casket was Olliff’s strikingly beautiful widow, Josephine, seated beside their teen-age son, Alton; her nephew whom the childless couple had adopted as an infant. Josephine Proctor Olliff was the 50 year old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. M.M. Proctor of Waycross. She was just 27 when they moved to Folkston.
The city was emotionally destroyed by news of the death. “Colonel” William Marshall Olliff had been its most outspoken leader for nearly a quarter-century. He had led a bruising three-year fight to move the county seat from Traders Hill to Folkston, finally succeeding in 1901.
A state senator in 1913, once the town’s mayor, he was a member of the Board of Aldermen at his death. He had also served as a county commissioner and solicitor of the county court, and as a trustee of the 11th District Agricultural College at Douglas.
The prime organizer of its chamber of commerce in 1912, Olliff had started Folkston’s first newspaper, The Charlton Enterprise in 1896, predecessor of The Charlton County Herald, just two years after arriving, and was the city’s only practicing attorney from 1894 until his death in 1917. He led the drive for Folkston’s first electric system, and its first public artesian well. Olliff was perhaps the town’s chief architect of progress during its early years.
The city’s business houses closed for the day just as soon as the merchants learned of “the Colonel’s” death. The flags were lowered to half mast. At the gravesite, Rev. Thornton recited the fallen lawyer’s accomplishments. “Folkston will never forget Colonel Olliff. His widow and son will forever cherish the love they had for each other” he repeated himself.
The weekly newspaper, edited then by Mrs. Pauline Thaxton Robinson, in its obituary cited Olliff’s resolve to get a bridge built across the St. Marys River near Folkston, a dream he realized when the Georgia half of the bridge was completed just months before his death.
The newspaper praised him for his work in getting the Dixie Highway routed through Folkston, and his eloquent plea for the voters to approve a massive $100,000 bond referendum to build its roads for the nation’s newly popular automobiles. Olliff himself bought his first “machine”, a Ford, in 1913. His nephew, L.E. Mallard, the county’s school superintendent, opened a Ford dealership in Folkston in 1917, the year of Olliff’s death.
The Charlton voters roundly approved he bond issue, six months after Olliff’s death, partly as a tribute to the popular pioneer. The county’s first system of hard surface roads followed, leading the way for the Dixie Highway to be routed through Folkston. Now the casket would be lowered into the grave; the funeral had taken less than an hour.
Olliff’s widow and young adopted son made their way from the cemetery back to their home; a home Colonel Olliff had built in 1901 on a lot he bought for $25.00 from Chat Houston on September 25, 1900. His friends, remarking about the size of the home called it a “hotel”. Olliff, going along with the joke dubbed it his “happiness hotel”. The name stuck. The couple and their young son had been the picture of happiness to their neighbors in Folkston.
They were at every social event, every cane grinding, box dinner and candy pulling in the county. Olliff liked to fish and hunt and he and young Alton never let a week go by without pursuing their hobby. Josephine, radiating happiness, found joy in carrying vegetables from their garden to the neighbors. Few people make it through life without enemies – Colonel Olliff and Josephine had none.
Olliff was ill in his home for three months prior to his death of typhoid fever. The weekly newspaper reported on his progress. Just two weeks before his death, it speculated he would be “back in his office in the courthouse in a couple of weeks.” He never returned to the office.
It was a trying time for Josephine. Her mother, Mrs. Proctor, was seriously ill in the home here and young Alton had just been released from a Waycross hospital where he had been treated for a piece of broken glass that imbedded itself in his left eye while he worked in the Folkston bottling plant. Josephine’s world was falling to pieces. Their “happiness hotel” had opened its doors to sorrow.
On the huge front porch of the Olliff home, with scores making their way there to comfort the widow, some speculated that she could never seek more happiness than she and the colonel had known together. Others, including Tom Wrench, a former newspaper editor, publicly praised the dashing young lawyer’s dedication to the city’s growth and development. Wrench too, in a letter to the editor, wrote that Folkston would forever remember Olliff’s deeds.
Today, few recall the name “Colonel Olliff”. His widow Josephine, sold their “happiness hotel” in 1918 to Pauline Robinson, the editor of the county’s weekly newspaper, and left Folkston to live with her parents in Blackshear. The Olliff home still stands at the corner of Cherry Street and Sixth Street. It was moved there from its original lot in 1949 to allow the Okefenokee Motel to be built on the site.
Olliff’s beautiful widow married again, at 51, fourteen months after she thought her world had ended. On July 17, 1918 she wed W.H. Bowen in Blackshear. He owned massive farmlands in Coffee County. The couple later made Waycross their home and raised several children.
On June 10, 1958, a widow again, Josephine died. She was 91. She had outlived her first husband by 41 years. At her earlier request, relatives arranged for her burial beside William M. Olliff in the Folkston Cemetery, just two blocks from where their “happiness hotel” stands today. Among Josephine’s survivors was a niece, Mrs. Glenn Gibson of Folkston.
Olliff, for whatever reason, was soon forgotten in Folkston. His quarter-century of leadership and charisma earned him only a brief paragraph in the county’s histories. His name is engraved on only two monuments – his tombstone and a granite marker in front of the county courthouse, for his work as a “road builder”.
The grave markers of Colonel Olliff and the Josephine he loved so dearly now stand side by side in Folkston’s Pineview cemetery, facing east; their heads pointed toward their former home, the happiness hotel, together again after 41 years.
Engraved on Olliff’s stone cemetery marker is the phrase “We shall rest beyond the river”. William Marshall Olliff earned the rest. His earthly tributes being only records of pen and ink in the official manuscripts of state and local governments and the improvements of a young community which he helped to create and move in the right direction from 1894 until 1917. But, one which quickly forgot him.
Lew Wallace wrote “The monuments of the nations are all protests against nothingness after death; so are statues and inscriptions; so is history.” William Marshall Olliff is history.