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QUEEN OF THE OKEFENOKEE
Contributed by Robert Latimer Hurst.
(First Appeared in Sunday Magazine,
Florida Times-Union, February 26, 1967.)
By Robert Latimer Hurst
Lydia Stone inherited a dream and built an empire from it; that's how she came to be known as...
Some people inherit dreams and do nothing; other build empires. Lydia A. Stone, known as the "Queen of the Okefenokee," built an empire on a dream left her by her father.
William Smith felt it his duty to join the other men from Coffee County, Georgia, in volunteering for active duty in the Indian wars being fought in South Georgia and North Florida.
Smith had heard that an encampment was near the "Great Swamp" in Southern Georgia. So the school teacher closed his books in 1836 and traveled to the cypress wasteland, supposedly infested with cornered red savages making a fierce last stand. His assignment was direct: "Capture as many Seminoles as you can for transfer to the Western Reservation."
But the volunteer, at this time, did not know that he would become one of the permanent settlers at the small military outpost, later to be named "Racepond."
The "wild" ones, as the Creek name for Seminole is interpreted, occupied the Apalachee and Timucua territories in North Florida. These people, living in lush country, could not understand why they must be removed to Indian Territory beyond the Mississippi River. They revolted.
Pressure was placed on Congress and President Monroe to have these warriors immediately removed and North Florida and South Georgia thrown open for white settlement. By the early 1830s, the treaties of Payne's Landing and Fort Gibson received the chiefs' agreement to exchange their Florida lands for equal acreage in the West.
Many tribesmen resented leaving the green, alive country for a barren, dead prairie. When the United States attempted to enforce the removal entente, the Second Seminole War, which became the most costly of the three conflicts, flared forth in 1835. The renowned warrior Osceola is credited with adding fuel to the already smoldering flame. He and a band of rebellious braves murdered Chief Charlie Emathla, who was preparing his people for emigration, and General Wiley Thompson, the U.S. Indian agent at Fort King.
For the next two years, American troops tried to crush Seminole opposition. Withdrawing into the Okefenokee and finally the Everglades, the Indians began using guerilla tactics to harass the soldiers. It was during this time when such men as William Smith were assigned patrol duty on the wilderness borders.
By 1836, however, the attacks were few in the Okefenokee Swamp. The soldiers, whose duty was guarding the Southeastern marshland margin from insubordinate Seminoles who happened to venture out of the dense jungle, had plenty of time on their hands. Only one occasion, it is recorded, had sparked action; one of the militia was attacked by Indians. He later died and is buried on the old campground.
But all else remained quiet. To avoid boredom, the few men, stationed just north of present Folkston, Georgia, constructed a packed-sand race course around the cypress pond. Racing became an anticipated event; hence the "race pond" in later years would become Racepond, and William Smith's daughter would inherit her father's dream of a land productive and not a swamp laid waste.
"Lydia" is not an unusual name, but this is as far as the adjective, "unusual," can be used negatively in describing the colorful character called "Queen of the Okefenokee."
After the Seminole conflict in 1849, the former educator purchased two 490-acre lots from the government for the total sum of ten dollars, and Smith and his young wife, Sarah, settled on Cowhouse Island on the edge of the great Okefenokee. Besides making strides toward taming the wilderness, they managed to rear five children, without realizing that one of them was to become a legend in her own time.
Lydia Smith was born on the "Cowhouse," June 17, 1864. The most important thing in her life would be the dream: to mold from this marshland something to be proud of, to erect a living monument to man's (or perhaps more properly woman's) conquest of nature.
And conquest could be Miss Lydia's keyword. How many other women (or men) who were given only a cow and a sow to begin adulthood could amass a million-dollar fortune from a swampland?
In an interview in 1928, the simple-living millionairess told her formula for success: "When I was a girl, my `pappy' gave me and my sisters a cow and a sow apiece and told us if we would look after them we could make some money. Before the year was out, I made a few dollars off mine and had saved every penny of it. After another year I made enough to buy 45 acres of land. I got it dirt cheap. And as soon as I could save little money ahead, I would buy some timber land; until now, I own nearly 30,000 acres."
But all was not as easy going, as the "Queen" relates. The Okefenokee could become devilish. Like her father before her, Miss Lydia knew the "Tremblin' Earth had to be harnessed. Bear and wildcat preyed on her livestock. Fertile fields had to be plowed tame. Timber must not remain idle.
And there were those who felt that they could take advantage of a "mere woman." So Miss Lydia Smith early decided not to be a "mere woman." Her sex would not hinder her from accomplishing the dream.
When one is truly dedicated, this devotion tends to erase all other interests. "I never went to school but six days and the pity of it is, I didn't learn anything in those six days. But a man ain't livin' that can outfigger me." All witnesses agreed that this woman's self-education in the fields of economics, business, timber and cattle placed her in as powerful position as the Indian chieftain Osceola, who once had roamed this area. Her loyalty to that childhood dream allowed the swamper very little time for anything else but her land, which she talked about constantly and expanded continually until the entire Racepond community was Miss Lydia's holdings.
Miss Lydia's "holdings" did not just happen. Everything was planned, from her "memorandum," a guide for calculating wages and prices, to her signature on a legal paper. Those who knew smiled at the amazed merchant when a supposedly ignorant woman came into Waycross to have her beef sold and told the shopkeeper the weight and price down to the penny before he had taken the produce off the scales. And her "figgerin'" was correct; honesty was a prime consideration in all the woman's dealings.
By 1895 timber was being overcut with no conservation measures being taken by many of the ambitious men who wanted quick wealth. The sawmill owners would have their workers cut the cypress from the lot; then they would abandon the plot. Miss Lydia, then 31, understanding the fault in the method, capitalized on it by purchasing the barren land for under $1 an acre and letting the timber grow wild. Sometimes she paid taxes on property deserted by other settlers. Some have falsely asserted that, a ruthless business woman, she homesteaded land by moving on an acreage and remaining there until it was legally hers. Sources indicate that Miss Lydia occupied only two homesites: one on Cowhouse Island and another at Racepond.
Not uncommon in the early part of this century was the woman --dark auburn hair securely bunned and bonneted in a man's black felt hat; long, black full skirt topsy-turvy over the back of a white horse; white apron clasped around her waist --riding over her island. Stopping here and there, she would survey her herd of over 600 head of cattle and, if necessary, round them up "better'n any cowboy" for shelter from a storm. Her booming commands to her many hired hands sounded over the countryside with much the same results as a marine sergeant drilling new recruits.
The year 1903 found a slight change in the forester. She had fallen in love with a Mr. D. Gordon Stone, one of her employees. But unlike Cinderella, she would not marry her Prince Charming and live happily in a castle in the clouds. Miss Lydia was more an Annie Oakley than a product of a fairy godmother. True, she was married in an iridescent silk dress, a creation painstakingly brought into existence by an expert seamstress, but it appeared that this was all the pomp the Okefenokee monarch desired. She did admit that she loved to dance the old squares, but she gave up dancing when she married because "Mr. Stone said he couldn't stand to see other men jerk me around the cotillion."
Progressing with the times, Mr. and Mrs. Stone set out to achieve that original dream. Miss Lydie's timber provided turpentine and resin for the naval stores; it became crossties for the new railroad snaking its way into Florida. This tiring work was to continue until she was past sixty.
Twenty-three years after her marriage to Gordon Stone (1926), Miss Lydia, 62, buried her husband in the High Bluff Cemetery beside William and Sarah Smith. An ordinary woman probably would have gone into retirement, but there was still that haunting dream of long ago.
Childless but a lover of children, Mrs. Lydia Stone must have wondered what would happen to her empire after she was gone. The next year brought the answer. She had been watching one of her hired hands, a diligent and conscientious worker, move about the land with the same forceful tenderness and understanding that she and her father had shown in creating their paradise out of the wilderness. His plowing was straight; his crossties were the correct length and weight; he knew how to face a "b'ar." J. Melton Crews, 21, became engaged to Mrs. Lydia A. Stone, 63; the next year they were married.
When she was questioned about her wedding trip, she answered with a remark so typically hers that it possibly explains the secret of her wealth: "You know I'm not the kind makes four or five dollars, then gets on the train and rides it out," she said. "I am coming back after the wedding and attend to business."
And business was two thousand acres north of Racepond, two large farms, a tract of land south of the community, and the nine-mile-long, mile-wide Cowhouse Island. "My land ain't idle either. The railroads are always after my crossties, and I get a good price for my turpentine and resin. I will have a fully six hundred head of cattle this year, besides crops enough to feed a whole army."
"Figgerin'" she regarded the most important part of her business. She finally allowed others to do work requiring brawn; but when it came to estimating costs and profits, that was her own task, and she declared she "wouldn't trust it to a livin' soul." Her aim was to leave an estate worth a million dollars.
Her young husband, whom she lovingly called "Doll Baby," understood her desire for exactness in business. He did not find it strange for the woman, now approaching seventy, to want to go to Jacksonville to market her crossties, to Brunswick to sell her naval stores, or to Waycross to dispose of a load of beef. After all, she had created her dominion from a swamp, claimed by many to be completely primitive and unable to be civilized. She was not fully satisfied until the entire project had been marked "finished." But as time passed, Crews took more of work on himself, though Miss Lydia was never fully absent.
Tragedy struck when Melton was accused of killing Layton Hendrix. Crews maintained that the death was an accident. He had seen a man breaking into the house next to his; so he shot him in the side of the hip. The young man added that he did not know that Hendrix was trying to get into his own house. It sounds like a matter of a man protecting his neighbor’s property, but “Doll Baby” was not believed by the community. They saw a man who drank too much and “Hell! He’s jest plain mean!” And, anyhow, Hendrix had not died from the bullet; he had bled to death.
Added to the murder charge, as it was now termed, was another dilemma. Those who could give witness on behalf of this man found that something called “greed” prevented them from coming forth. Miss Lyddie was a rich woman. If she wanted her man freed, she’d have to be a great deal “more giving.” Lydia Stone Crews’ reaction was a flamboyant burst: “The truth will out, an’ you can go t’ hell ‘cause I’m gonna be generous and buy you a ticket!”
The trial in Charlton County’s Courthouse ended with a 20-year conviction to hard labor on the chain gang for the slim, muscular new convict. No matter the expense, the swamp queen would free this red-haired husband. In the meantime, she visited him regularly, bringing with her catered lunches: “Gang food ain’t fittin’ fer man ner beast, so, at least, he’ll eat good vittles now.” But her patience ended when, on one of these days during her visit, she noticed that J. Melton had removed his shirt and was trying to rub his back. Then she saw the marks. They were scars caused by a whip and insect bites across his once smooth shoulders. “Fighting,” explained the warden. “All that man wants to do is fight.”
A few days later, the warden disappeared; no one could account for what happened to the man after his being shot. Of course, whispered remarks indicated that Miss Lydia’s kin might have had something to do with this act.
With her lawyer, the determined woman journeyed to Atlanta. Ten thousand dollars was the price she would pay a high official for “her boy’s release.” A meeting was arranged for all parties involved, and a check exchanged hands, with the stipulation that “Doll Baby” would go home with her. Seven months of a twenty-year sentence was recorded for the time served for murder as the smiling child-husband got into the car with Mrs. Crews and her lawyer. The next move was simple: she cancelled the check.
The people of Southeast Georgia have not forgotten the tempestuous woman who inherited a dream, conquered a swamp, and live 74 years to see her work completed.
The "Queen of the Okefenokee" died at her Racepond home on January 4, 1938; she was laid to rest beside her parents, a sister, and a former husband. And the tallest monument in the cemetery was erected to the unschooled woman who, once, very simply, stated the chief rule of finance: "I always said I could make $5 out of every $1 I could get my hands on. I believe anybody can if they're careful and not afraid to work." And her estate of over a million confirmed her philosophy.
Copyright© 2002 Robert L. Hurst
All rights reserved!
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