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Glynn County: History and Lore: Ed Green Book:
St. Simons History
VI. OLD MILL DAYS 1874 1908
Following the Civil War, life was very difficult on these coastal islands. The plantation owners had suffered financially. The Negroes had been freed, but had no
money to buy food and supplies. On St. Simons Island some of the owners gave many of their former slaves land upon which to build a simple cabin and plant gardens. For a while the government sent ships to the beach with food.
Fortunately, a new economic era began when New York financial interests decided to build a lumber mill on St. Simons Island. This brought a change in style of life here. New jobs were created as lumber mills and other buildings were built. Logs were rafted in, and ships came to new wharfs in large numbers to ship the finished lumber to various parts of the world.
In 1868, A.G.P. Dodge and other wealthy New York merchants saw a great profit in southern lumber and organized the Georgia Land and Lumber Company. They purchased large tracts of land and erected mills, and by 1874 had decided upon St. Simons Island as the center of their operation. Gascoigne Bluff and Hamilton Plantation on the Frederica river were purchased. In time there were four mills erected on the property, along with the buildings of the needed supporting community. Logs were floated on rafts from the interior by way of the Satilla and Altamaha rivers and their tributaries. There was a large holding basin into which they were floated until they could be processed. There was a large sawmill, a cypress mill, a planing mill, and one they called the lower mill. There were wharfs on the river for the ships which took the finished product to many parts of the world.
To support this operation many related buildings were needed. There were an office, a boarding house, a church, a school, and various homes. Mr. Anson Dodge, Sr. built a fine home for himself which was named Rose Cottage. This was later occupied by the superintendent of the mills, Warren A. Fuller. Thousands of roses of all kinds and colors surrounded the beautiful Victorian house. It was destroyed by fire in 1884.
St. James Union Church was built in 1880, serving the worship needs of the community until after the mill days came to an end. (In the 1920's the building was deconsecrated and used for a social hall; then in the 1950's was reconsecrated by the Methodists and renamed Lovely Lane Chapel. Today it remains a chapel, without a congregation, open occasionally for weddings and worship. On December 7, 1980, a 100th Anniversary service was held here, the sermon being delivered by Dr. George E. Clary, Sr., long time pastor and leader of the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.)
Mallon school was built in 1882. The plantation barn became the general store. Its wall may still be seen as part of the new Epworth dining room building. Some of the slave residences are still in existence, which were used for various other purposes during the lumbering days.
There was a great need for fresh water, so it was an important occasion when the first artesian well was drilled in 1885. They found a flow of water of 200 gallons per minute through a six inch pipe at a depth of 437 feet. The well was located in the lumber yard between the large mill and the planing mill. Water rose in a stand pipe 38 feet above the ground and was allowed to flow into a reservoir as high as the top of the mill. From here it was conducted into both of the mill buildings with a force aufficient to throw a stream to any part of either building in case of fire, and without the need of pumps. It also supplied water through pipes to the wharfs to supply the ships with fresh water, as well as to the various buildings of the mills. By this time the mills already had electric lights, elevated railways, and neat well-planned grounds.
Here was probably the largest establishment of its kind in the South. Besides owning 300,000 acres of pine land near Eastman, it made purchases of timber constantly from Darien and various points inland. A newspaper clipping reports at that time (not dated) the mill had on hand awaiting shipment no less than four million feet of merchantable lumber being shipped to coastwise ports and South America as rapidly as it could be loaded. The existing capacity of the mills was then about 125,000 feet per day. Sometimes no less than nine ships were at the wharf awaiting cargo. The mills were a major employer of the island. In 1885 a laborer was paid $1.00 a day for 11-1/2 hours of work. The population around the mills was about 300.
A little settlement down the road east from the mills developed when two merchants from Brunswick, Sig and Robert Levison, built a general store there. The mills, of course, had a commissary or company store, so this general store of the Levison's was set up in competition. The store owners tried to call their settlement Levisonton, but people found this name to be a tongue-twister and instead started to refer to it as Jew-Town. The settlement of mostly black residents has by this time largely disappeared, except for the Episcopal Church, which was begun as a mission outpost of Christ Church.
Two other events should be noted as belonging to this Old Mill Days era of history of the island.
The present lighthouse was completed in 1872, so it was there in time to guide the many ships into the harbour and the Frederica river in this important period of time. The first lighthouse had been completed by James Gould in 1811 on a four acre plot donated to the government for the sum of $1.00, by John Couper in 1804. This had served the plantation era of the island. However, when the Confederate troops were forced to evacuate the island in 1862, they destroyed the lighthouse to keep it from being used as a marking point by Federal ships blockading the coast. In the intervening ten years between lighthouses, the four story cotton barn of Retreat Plantation was often used by sailors as a marking point. The new lighthouse of 1872 was built alongside the location of the earlier lighthouse, which foundation ruin may still be seen there.
The other sign)ficant event of this era is the rebuilding of the Christ Church building in 1884. The organization of this congregation is old, going back to Charles Wesley and the days of Fort Frederica. The first building of 1820 did not survive its hard use by northern troops during the Civil War, when it was used for many purposes except worship. Thus after the war it stood derelict and abandoned, while the former members worshipped in homes, as they had no resources for rebuilding their church building. Anson Green Phelps Dodge, Jr. came to visit his father, one of the owners of the mills. Falling in love with the island, and searching in his own life for more meaning than his wealth had already brought him, a dream developed to become the pastor of Christ Church and rebuild its building. When his beautiful wife died in the Orient on their honeymoon, he returned her body to St. Simons Island and built a new Christ Church building in her memory. Here he served as a beloved pastor until his death.
It may be of interest that in this era the Hilton-Dodge Lumber Company of St. Simons Island sawed much of the timber used in the construction of the famous Brooklyn Bridge in New York City in 1878. So this era provided historic timber as did the early plantation days when much of the timber for the ship "Old Ironsides" came from this island and was shipped from this same bluff on the Frederica river.
As the years pass, times and circumstances change, one era turns into another. The best of the timber had been cut, markets changed, companies developed other interests. Gradually the mills slowed in activity and then were abandoned. It had been a great period from about 1874 to 1908, and it must have been with great sadness that people saw its passing. But a new era was at hand. Just as the Indians of old could not imagine the change in their way of life by the coming of the white man from Europe, so the person working at the old saw mill could little imagine the changes to come by the arrival of the automobile.