With back-to-back holidays cutting short the recent work weeks, this column’s author asks readers to join him in checking in with St. Simons Island’s most able 19th century correspondent.
That would be Dr. J.R. Massey, who ran a medical practice on the island in the 1880s and sidelined as a newspaperman. As the island’s roving reporter for Brunswick’s weekly, the Advertiser and Appeal, Massey did not miss much if it happened on St. Simons. The island was a rough-and-tumble sawmill community when Massey filed the dispatches contained in “Pages From the Past: St. Simons Island 1880-1886,” a book printed by the Sentinel Press in Jesup and given to me by a reader.
In addition to news on the ups and down of the sawmills that fueled the island’s economy, Massey documented an array of happenings, from petty crime and loose livestock to social functions and notable acts. As sadly might be expected from those days, Massey’s treatment of the island’s many black residents during this time is often condescending and at times downright cringeworthy.
On still other occasions, however, Massey wrote with amazement and accolades of his black neighbors. Such was the case of a woman who would not take any guff from a white man accusing her pigs of wreaking havoc on a nearby property. The woman stared the man down, assuring him she would not abide such unruly swine, Massey reported in April of 1882. Those were, in fact, “stranger hogs,” she told the man.
She then pointed to a passel of well-behaved hogs further down the road. “My shoats come when I call ‘em,” she asserted. Reported Massey: “uttering a peculiar cry, she brought the whole pack grunting and squealing around her.”
She then recruited a boar among them “with bristles on end and showing his ugly tusks” to shoo the offending pigs off the neighboring property. “Turning to a large ugly grizzly fellow, she exclaimed ‘Go drive dem strange hogs away.’” Forthwith, Massey reported, the hog “sent them squealing down the road, returning after to receive the caresses of his mistress, like a well-trained dog.”
The man concluded, “it was very well to keep on good terms with the old woman, and safe to have the fence between us, or she might set a shoat on us.”
Massey also attended year-end ceremonies of the island’s school for black children. When county money ran short to keep classes opened for a full school year, the children’s parents pitched in to keep the school in operation, he noted June of 1883.
“We were pleased to improve an opportunity for attending the closing exercises of the Edgewood (colored) School on St. Simons Island, Thursday morning,” he wrote.
The school was “under the superintendence of Mrs. Dora Holzendorf, a graduate of Atlanta Colored College, assisted by Miss Wallace, a graduate of Hampton Colored College, of Virginia ... ,” Massey noted.
“The comfortable school building, neatly and appropriately fitted up, has afforded the children of the ‘south end’ an advantage which they have not been lax in improving ... “
He wrote with heartfelt sympathy in December of 1884 on the passing of Tom Ash, “one of the best known colored men on the island.” Massey eulogized Ash as an “honest and reliable man, and possessing an unusual degree of kindness and intelligence. He was much beliked by both colors.”
It has been said that newspapers are the first rough draft of history. Proof of that comes from the reporting of Massey on the doings of one Anson Greene Phelps Dodge Jr. The Advertiser and Appeal was certainly among the first to report on the Dodge-family scion’s ties to St. Simons, which would help build the Christ Church we know today and inspire Eugenia Price’s best-selling novel, The Beloved Invader.
“Rev. Anson G. Phelps Dodge, Jr., has in contemplation rebuilding and refitting old St. Simons Church, on the commons of old Frederica,” Massey reported in the paper’s March 24, 1883 edition. True to the plot line of Price’s novel, Dodge “has given the island a passing call, spending most of the time at the old church ... The whole Island joins us in commending Mr. Dodge’s enterprise.”
In March of 1884, the Advertiser and Appeal reports on Dodge’s plans to build the parsonage that later would become the Anson Phelps Dodge Home for Boys.
“We were more than pleased to note that Rev. A.G.P. Dodge has decided to erect a dwelling at Frederica to be used as parsonage for the church at the place,” Massey reports.
After traveling abroad, Rev. Dodge was back to tending his flock in May of that year. “Rev. A.G.P. Dodge, Jr., recently from England, and now permanent pastor of the new Frederica Church, preached from the Union Church pulpit last Sunday. He will continue to preach every other Sunday at this Church.”
By July of that year, the good reverend was displaying the kind of devotion to his calling that was detailed in Beloved Invader. “Rev. A.G.P. Dodge, Jr., preached at Waycross last Sunday week; last Sunday at the mills in the morning, and Frederica in the evening.”
He showed no signs of slowing his pace any by September of 1886. “Rev. Mr. Dodge baptized three persons at service last Sunday,” Massey reported. “Through Mr. Dodge’s labors his church here is rapidly gaining in membership.”
On a final note, Massey reported early in 1881 about an unlikely alliance between island anglers and the local dolphin population. “Glorious times for trout fishermen and porpoises,” he wrote. “The porpoises find a shoal of trout and chase them to shallow water near the shore where the St. Simons fishermen makes his appearance and bags them in his net by the bushel.”