"Saint of the Okefenokee" Brings Back Old Memories

By Martha Davis, Staff Writer

Waycross Journal-Herald

July 13, 1990

It’s been more than fifty years since the federal government turned the Okefenokee Swamp into a wildlife refuge and the number of Ware County residents who remember making a living hunting and fishing in the swamp is dwindling.

Luke Thrift is 85 now, his wife Sarah Martin, 81, but their memories of the way of life in the Swamp are more vivid to them now than things that might have happened last week.

Luke’s father, “Uncle Lone” Thrift, was a well-known swamper – a man sought for his wisdom about nature and spiritual things, even though he didn’t attend a regular church.

Lone Thrift was dubbed “the saint of the Okefenokee” and compared to St. Francis of Assisi in the volume “Okefenokee Album” produced by Francis Harper and Delma E. Presley and published by the University of Georgia Press in 1981.

Lone was a “skilled hunter, crafty fisherman, steady boatman and a sure carpenter,” wrote Harper, who devoted 12 pages of his book to an interview with “the saint.”

Lone Thrift died in 1951 at age 81. He was born four years after the War Between the States ended. He told the interviewer his paternal great-grandfather came from Ireland and changed his name from “Flanagan or something like that” to Thrift.

His birthday dinner each August 16 was the occasion for people to come from counties all around the area to talk to “Uncle Lone” and hear him talk, son Luke said.

“I’m satisfied that me and him fed more people than anybody else in the swamp,” Luke said. “Some men would come and stay two to three weeks with him.”

Uncle Lone built boats and houses and supervised boating and fishing activities at Suwannee Lake, where he spun yarns about life in the Swamp and talked about religious matters.

“He had a little farm where he worked seven acres with a grubbing hoe. Hawks didn’t bother his chickens. He said he talked to the Lord about it,” his son said.

People would come to Uncle Lone for healing. “He talked to them and some got healed and some didn’t. He gave the credit to the Lord,” Luke said.

Uncle Lone cut cypress in the Swamp for the Hebard Cypress Co. for about ten years and “tended the Suwannee Lake for about ten years,” his son said.

Luke remembers the oxen the family used to pull the wagons when they moved to Suwannee Lake from the Hickox community of Brantley County that was formerly in Wayne County when he was six years old.

“It was slow going,” he said, laughing. Sarah, who was born in a part of the swamp in Charlton County, also remembers the oxen used as beasts of burden in those days.

Before the government closed the swamp to hunters and trappers, Luke made more money with these activities than he could make hiring out.

“We always had plenty to eat. Plenty of fish,” said Sarah, his wife of 65 years. “We had good neighbors and we have good neighbors here too.”

Luke was the ninth of 14 children. His mother died in 1927, leaving several young children, including Pat Thrift, a Ware Countian who gained quite a reputation as a fisherman and collector of snakes.

“Pat used to have boxes of snakes, including rattlesnakes, and used to sell them all over Georgia and Florida,” his older brother said. “Pat like to hunt and fish but his health is not too good now.”

After his mother’s death, Luke bought some land from his father, who came to live with Luke and Sarah.

Sarah remembers their wide back porch, where she set up a quilting frame. “The children stood around and watched us quilting. They played jackstones and swatted flies.”

The flies and mosquitoes could be fierce in the Swamp. “We would make smoke pots with some dirt, some dry cow fertilizer or some rotten wood, things that would take a long time to burn and produce a lot of smoke,” Luke said. “Sometimes we put some sulfur in it. That smoke would run ‘em off so they wouldn’t kill us.”

Uncle Lone lived with Luke and Sarah until 1948. He spent his last three years with a daughter who lived at Richmond Hill.

“He was respected as an honest man, a man of his word,” his son said. “He didn’t worry. He wasn’t afraid of anything. He was a plain-spoken man.”

Luke and Sarah bought their modest country home on Minnesota Avenue (Valdosta Highway) in 1948. World War II had given Luke the opportunity to work for the railroad for good wages, since so many men had gone off to war.

After the war, the railroad gave his job to a returning serviceman and Luke went back to the woods to gather turpentine and later worked for the Ware County Road Department.

Sarah worked at the Spatola shoe factory for 15 years until her health declined. Later she went back and worked irregularly at the factory for a few years.

Luke and Sarah are proud of the garden he put in this year. “We had some nice corn,” Sarah said. “but we need rain for the peas.” She insisted on giving the newspaper reporter some garden tomatoes, in addition to serving Coke over ice.

Their only child, Ardith Thomas, lives on Glenmore Avenue. They have four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, at latest count.

[One picture accompanied this article with the following cut line: Luke Thrift and his wife Sarah reminisce about his father “Lone Thrift.” Mrs. Thrift holds “Book of the Thrifts” produced by nephew and Brantley Printing Company.]

Charlton  County Archives