Lizzie Roddenberry, County's First Elected Female
By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County Historian
There was the usual evening crowd gathered around Folkston’s railroad depot to “watch 21 come in”. The big black steam locomotive breathed heavily as it slowed to a stop just beyond the depot. Cinders fell everywhere, the acrid odor of coal smoke filled the nostrils. It was 7:25 in the evening, November 1907. The train, No. 21, was on time. The crowd buzzed with excitement.
Among those nearest the flashing wheels of the passenger coaches was one of the town’s school teachers, Alice Welker. She pushed the others aside, straining to see those standing in the train’s doorway, waiting to get off. She grinned from ear to ear. There, in the doorway, stood her cousin, Lizzie, who had come all the way from Gambiel, Ohio to spend the winter in Folkston with her.
The porter got off the passenger car first. He placed a short stool on the rocks near the tracks, and wiped the car’s handrails with his towel. Sarah Elizabeth Welker. Alice’s cousin, stepped off, first onto the stool, and then onto the ground. The two women embraced, oblivious to the others gathered around. Alice had been teaching in the town’s schools as an assistant since August. It was now November. She was anxious to have company for the winter in the quiet little town.
Elizabeth, who would come to be known as “Miss Lizzie”, looked around, but could see very little. It was dark and the depot’s lights were all that could be seen, but Folkston was growing. Dr. A.D. Williams had just opened an office in the Paxton Building. The county commission had recently voted to begin meeting once a month, instead of once every three months and a public road was being opened across the branch to The Colony (Homeland).
Elizabeth Welker, too, was excited about spending the winter “in the south”. The Ohio winters could be so severe, and Alice had written her about the mild climate in Folkston.
The just-arrived Elizabeth Welker could never have dreamed that Folkston, one day, would become her home, and that she would wed one of the natives, John M. Roddenberry, and serve the deep south Georgia county as its Tax Collector for fifteen years. She had three obstacles to overcome to win elective office. She was a devout Catholic, a northerner and a female. The people of this section of South Georgia would never accept such a combination as one of its elected officials, or so they thought. After all, Georgia’s women would not even be allowed to vote for another 13 years.
Nevertheless, in 1925, she became Charlton County’s first female elected official; this in spite of her Catholic faith, sex and northern heritage. She ultimately won election after election until she chose to retire undefeated in 1939.
While visiting with her cousin Alice that winter, Lizzie met and courted one of the eligible bachelors of the local Roddenberry clan, John M. Roddenberry.
Johnny, as he was called by nearly everyone, was a genuine charmer, he had all the credentials of a true southern gentleman. His father John Wilcher Roddenberry had owned the town’s popular Roddenberry Hotel on Courthouse Street east of the depot. A disastrous fire leveled the wooden structure in 1905, just two years before Lizzie arrived in town.
On April 30, 1908, the two cousins, Alice and Lizzie Welker left Folkston for their home in Gambier, Ohio. Lizzie’s father, Dr. A.D. Welker, and her stepmother were well-thought-of leaders of that Ohio town. Her father was a surgeon with a thriving medical practice there. Lizzie had attended posh Gambier College near their home.
In August of 1912, Johnny Roddenberry, 31, who was serving his first year as the county’s Tax Collector, could stand the separation no longer. He and Lizzie had exchanged letters, but he wanted to marry the rapid talking beauty from Ohio. He proposed by mail and she accepted.
Johnny borrowed a suitcase from relatives and caught a train to Gambier where he and Lizzie were married on Thursday morning, September 5, 1912 in the Rectory of St. Vincent, St. Paul Catholic Church. The weekly newspaper of nearby Mt. Vernon, Ohio reported the marriage of the happy couple.
The two returned to Folkston and moved into a home that Johnny had bought from J. W. Swearingen in 1908 at the northeast corner of First and Martin Streets. While Johnny worked at his job as Tax Collector, Lizzie stayed in the background, helping her husband with his tax collector duties. She made many friends.
On January 12, 1925, at age 44, Johnny died suddenly from a heart attack. He had been the county’s tax collector for 12 years and had become unusually popular with nearly everyone in the county. Lizzie’s marriage into the Roddenberry family had melted away any prejudices the people of the county might have had toward her. Instead of a northern female Catholic, she had become a Roddenberry.
Three weeks after Johnny’s death, Lizzie announced for election to his unexpired term. Some of her closest friends thought her foolish. Instead of running unopposed, she was challenged by Taylor L. Pickren, son of one of the town’s most popular merchants. She defeated him soundly, and became the county’s first female office holder, only five years after the state had ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution allowing women to vote.
Lizzie’s father died and was buried in Ohio. The aging stepmother came to live with Lizzie. On April 18, 1935, the stepmother died at 82. She was buried in the town’s Pineview Cemetery between Lizzie’s late husband, John M. Roddenberry who died ten years earlier, and Lizzie’s deceased sister-in-law, Genia Roddenberry O’Cain who died the year Johnny and Lizzie were married.
Lizzie Roddenberry ran the Tax Collector’s office well. Her cousin, Alice returned to teach school in the county again. In addition, voters of the City of Folkston chose “Miss Lizzie” as the town’s Treasurer in 1924. She became close friends with Scott Johnson, the son of Judge J.H. Johnson, who, before his marriage to Gertrude Wildes, often drove Lizzie and Alice back to Ohio in Lizzie’s 1928 Ford, to visit their relatives. After Johnson married Gertrude in 1935, the newly-married couple became closer to the Ohio-born tax collector.
Lizzie Roddenberry, a well-educated woman, was sought to help with all of the community activities. She always obliged. She had no fear of the “man’s world”. To her it was just another challenge to be met and conquered. Although a member of the Catholic Church, she often attended the Folkston Methodist Church.
Sarah Elizabeth Roddenberry lived only four years after giving up the tax collector’s job she had held for 15 years. She died on September 17, 1944 at her home in Mt. Vernon, Ohio where she had been taken by her cousin, Alice several months earlier. The cousin, who had married a man she met in Florida, took care of “Miss Lizzie” in Ohio after her health declined.
Lizzie Roddenberry’s death in Ohio had come in the midst of World War Two. Folkston had no funeral director at the time and transportation to and burial in Folkston presented an insurmountable problem.
Sarah Elizabeth Roddenberry, in her 70s, was buried beside her father in the cemetery at Mt. Vernon, Ohio. She had come to Folkston in 1907 and made friends of everyone she met. The 37 years she spent in Charlton County earned her a place in the history of the county and in the hearts of her relatives and friends.