Firebrand Editor, Tom Wrench, Sought Town's Progress
By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian
The rains had caused laborers to stop work on Ben McDonald’s new white brick hotel going up on the town’s Courthouse Street. The workmen, gathered under a giant oak tree on the railroad depot’s grounds, had noticed a young stranger come out of the office of the town’s weekly newspaper, The Charlton County Herald. It was September 1914. The stranger whom the workmen had seen was the newspaper’s new owner and editor, 43 year old Tom Wrench. In the next 35 years, before his death on September 25, 1950, Tom Wrench wrote a flamboyant chapter into the county’s history book as he sought to lead others to his ideas of progress for the small county.
Although a newcomer to Folkston, the often controversial Wrench had lived in St. George for nine years, since February 14, 1905, buying and selling real estate in that booming south Charlton community. In St. George he served on the town’s council as its mayor and as Justice of the Peace. His interest in government affairs continued to grow. He was no stranger to the county and he had his own deep-set ideas of what was necessary for the county to grow and prosper.
Wrench’s first wife, Mary Lou Wheeler Wrench, died of childbearing in St. George on November 7, 1907, a week following the birth of their first child, a son, James. In 1909 Tom Wrench married Florence Wheeler, a sister of his first wife. To this union was born three daughters, Agnes, Jeanette and Billye, and three other sons, Thomas, Ralph and Howard.
Wrench, who was born in Huntsville, Alabama on December 28, 1871, was the son of a newspaper publisher, Henry A. Wrench. The Wrench family moved to Dalton, Ga. when Tom Wrench was only three years old. In Dalton the elder Wrench bought and published a weekly newspaper.
In 1892 when Tom Wrench was only 21, the family moved from Dalton to Brunswick, Ga. where the father-son team published a daily newspaper, the Brunswick Advertiser for several years. In 1898 Wrench, a deeply patriotic man, volunteered to serve in the United States Army during the Spanish-American War. In 1905 young Tom Wrench decided to strike out on his own and gathering up all his belongings, caught the train from Brunswick to Jacksonville and then on into St. George.
In the early 20s, Wrench, who also had a burning interest in agriculture, sold his Charlton County Herald and built up an extensive agricultural business in Folkston and Homeland, buying and shipping sweet potatoes and other local farm products. During this period he served as chairman of the county school board and as mayor of Homeland.
In 1927 he re-acquired his Charlton County Herald and continued to run it until his retirement in 1935. It was during this latter ownership of the county weekly that Wrench acquired the nick-name of “Hot Tom” Wrench, alluding to his penchant for meeting controversy head-on and giving no quarter. His flaming editorials won many plaudits from his fellow newspapermen and several top awards for excellence from press associations to which Wrench belonged.
One such head-on confrontation occurred in May of 1933, when Wrench had gotten wind that the town’s only lawyer, Colonel Alex S.. McQueen, who was also the lawyer for the City of Folkston and Charlton County Commissioners, had taken offense at some of Wrench’s editorial criticism of the two governments and that McQueen was planning to start his own newspaper, which he did…The Folkston Progress. Wrench, never one to run from a fight, typically faced the issue head-on.
In his editorial columns of May 19, 1933, Wrench alluded to the conversation he had heard concerning another newspaper for Folkston. He said “This is presumably because the Charlton County Herald does not meet the requirement of the business or political interests of Folkston. That is, we presume the reason, for none other should be considered in the face of the depressed condition under which we are living today.”
Wrench’s blazing editorial continued that he would sell his newspaper if he could be compensated for his investment, but apparently his would-be competitor thought he was on his last financial legs and had made a ridiculously low offer “which no gentleman worthy of the name would have made.”
Then Wrench got right down to the meat of the coconut, continuing “When we fail the buzzards will be picking up the bones of the one that sits by awaiting that moment. We despise anyone who wants to take advantage of one seemingly in distress, and luckily for past years’ foresight, this newspaper will only cease functioning when the editor sees he has a bad job and seeks the solitude that, worthy or unworthy, editors lay down the pen to secure.”
Wrench continued “It is not any of our business who starts a paper in Folkston, but we would cheerfully admonish the one contemplating the act to remember this, that when he starts it, he will have more worries than we. If you would know it, instead of having the effect of intimidating this editor, it only tends to brace up the back and stiffen our spinal arrangements, and we would think that from the experience some of our good people have had with us, they would realize that when they buck up against a proposition to bulldoze, browbeat and cajole this old thinly-clad wielder of the pen, they have a job cut out for them that needs plenty of tobasco sauce to make it palatable.
“So we say, brother, when you are ready, fire, and if you have as good staying qualities as we have, there will be a merry old time of it,” the editorial concluded.
The tone of the editorials escalated, the rhetoric heated up and when Tom Wrench’s Herald and Alex McQueen’s Progress hit the streets, all the townspeople were waiting at the post office to get their copy and read what one editor had said about the other.
Fortunately, for the sake of everyone, after a near-disastrous confrontation between Colonel McQueen and Tom Wrench in the small Standard Oil station near the courthouse, when Colonel McQueen went to his home and allegedly armed himself with a pistol and returned, the editorial feud between the two editors subsided. McQueen closed down his Folkston Progress, and in 1935 Wrench sold his Charlton County Herald to R.Ward Harrison.
Wrench retired to his picturesque stone home in Homeland where he lived in complete happiness, tending his garden and reading while his health allowed it.
The people of Charlton County sent Tom Wrench to Atlanta to represent them in the General Assembly. There too, the firebrand from Charlton caught the fancy of his colleagues. The Atlanta radio stations sought his acid-tongue comments on the issues of the day, and the Atlanta newspapers headlined the remarks of the “Gentleman from Charlton”.
In 1945 Wrench fell victim to a crippling arthritic condition which confined him to his bed for almost five years before his death on September 25, 1950. Funeral services were held from the Homeland Methodist Church where Wrench had been an active member. Rev. L.W. Walker, a retired former local Methodist minister and Rev. Freddie Wheeler officiated.
Interment was in the Palmetto Cemetery, Brunswick, Ga. with comrades in arms from the Spanish-American War serving as honorary pallbearers. Active pallbearers were his four sons, James, Howard, Ralph and Thomas, and two sons-in-law, Merle Wade and Harold Browning. The other honorary pallbearers attested to his interest in local government; they were J.S. Taylor, W.D. Thompson, E.B. Stapleton, C.E. Stroup, L.E. Mallard, John Zarfos, Oscar Raynor, Don McQueen, Ward Harrison, Edgar Allen, William Mizell, Jr., Joe Prevatt, W.R. McCoy, John S. Tyson, W.J. Schneider and Leo J. Miller..
Tom Wrench’s strong determination to do what was right, his burning desire to see Folkston and Charlton County move up the ladder of progress, and his deep-rooted patriotism, often placed him face to face with others who shared the same ideals but differed on how to achieve them.
Men like Tom Wrench made America great, and the native of Huntsville, Ala. who settled in St. George in 1905 wrote a colorful and indelible chapter into the history of Folkston and Charlton County. Those who remember him, recall the wild shock of flowing white hair, his deep penetrating eyes and a disarmingly gentle manner of this one who gave so much to Folkston and Charlton from 1905 until 1950.