Many of us, at one time or another, have been associated with someone very old, whether it be a family member or a friend.
How often in our busy lives do we take time to sit and listen to them tell about the “olden times”? I admit I have had many older persons in my life I was close to, but was not really interested in their histories or the stories they could have told me.
That even applied to my mother and father. Just after each died, we thought of hundreds of questions we should have asked but didn’t, and now we’ll never know the answers. If you have a family member or friend who is getting up in years, ask them about when they were young. You’ll be glad you did.
Clay Sikes, a great writer who grew up in Liberty County and around the coast on Maxwelton Plantation, knew all the elderly people who lived there and made a living from the coastal waters. He wrote about an old buddy whom he had known from childhood, and I asked him to let me share his story, to which he graciously agreed.
I also found an interview about the man that one of his grandchildren probably did on him in 1976 for the booklet “Sand and Pine — Glimpses of Other Liberty Days.” This was printed in 1976, and Nan Flowers was the project director at Bradwell Institute.
The 1900 U.S. Census on June 1, 1900, showed that Jim Golphin, head of household, lived in the 1359 Militia District of Liberty County, with his wife Emma. Both were born in Georgia and were married in 1894. They had three children: Refus (Rufus?), 6; Patrick, 4; and Elijah 1. That puts the subject of our story, Elijah Dan Golphin, to be born in 1899.
The Sand and Pine interview was in 1976, when Elijah was 77 years of age:
“I have lived in Sunbury ever since Allen’s father was a little boy coming up,” Elijah said. “I have planted a garden ever since I was living. For an education, I never learned to read or write.”
“What about the rice fields?” Allen asked.
“Yes, I worked in the rice fields, but the only thing I had to worry about were snakes, because they were very bad back then,” Elijah said. “You all have it easy now because you don’t have to grow your food. In the rice fields, we plow a row — well, a good ways, then would take a hoe, dig a hole about a couple of inches deep, put the rice, which would be brown inside of a shell, into the ground. You would have to keep the grass out in order to have a good crop. The rice would grow about three and a half feet high. Then, you would let it dry in the sun for a couple of weeks until it turns dark brown; then, it is ready to cut. You get an object fixed almost like a sling but more sharper to cut it with. After being cut, you would ‘trash’ it in sacks so that the grains would fall off the stems; then you pour it onto a flat place and pick the stems out. Then, you take it to the mill where it is processed. Corn is done almost the same way. The rice which we planted was usually used for the house because the nearest rice mill was in Riceboro.”
“How did you make elderberry wine?”
“The berries grow wild in the woods or on the edge of the yard. You pick the purple ones, and then you would go and wash them. Then you drain the water off and put into a gallon jug. Let it sit about three or four days until it bubbles. Then, you add some sugar and some whiskey; then you drain it off.”
“What else do you remember about the ‘old days’?”
Elijah, scratching his head, with a faraway look in his eyes, said, “Back then, we used to work for 50 cents a day in order to support our family. We had to walk about 20 miles after we got off from work with a sack of groceries. Back in that time, $2.50 could buy a lot. But most people had a horse and wagon. Then there used to be wild horses, too. All we had to do was catch ’em and break ’em. We would go into the woods and rope some, and then bring them back and put them into a stable.”
This is Sikes’ story about Golphin:
“One of my unforgettable coastal characters was Elijah Dan Golphin, the grandson of slaves, who lived and died within a few hundred feet of his birthplace in eastern Liberty County. Born in an unknown year (1899), Dan worked on and off for our family on Maxwelton Plantation for as long as I can remember. Strong, wise and witty, this old man from another time introduced me to life on the coast as it once was — mules, wagons, kerosene lamps, basket weaving, crops and ‘food from the ribber: scrimps, crobb and de fishes.’ All told in throughbred ‘Geechee.’
“He was very old and I was very young when we first became friends. I admired his strength and energy, but another quality drew me to him ever more: his joy. He was the happiest man I’ve ever known. He seemed to never stop smiling. At the end of a long, hot day in the hayfields, manually loading bales of hay on a trailer, still smiling, as old as the hills, sweating like a dog, still joking and still laughing. I can see him now in that field, drenched from the August heat, grinning and glistening from the shiny perspiration, a ball of energy like I’ve never seen before or since. And those ugly boots!
“As the years passed, my friendship with him deepened. There were times when returning home from school that I would ‘hot-foot’ it to his house before going home. I so enjoyed our visits, which included hours of countless stories. Dan was known to make a little ‘shine’ and share it. And yes, we sipped right there in his backyard, sitting on Coca Cola crates. ‘Jar whiskey’ was what we called it as we sipped it from Mason canning jars.
“Dan died in the late 1970s, but before he died, I was able to convince Georgia Educational Television to do 13 hours of crucial interviews, which captured the story of Coastal Georgia in the post-Civil War Era. Recognizing that this part of living history was soon to vanish forever, I interviewed from the stories I had heard most of my life. Priceless! The great tragedy is that no one can locate these videos. (Clay has tried every avenue to locate this video, but to no avail. But he doesn’t give up on the search.)
“Elijah Golphin, ‘my buddy.’ Every time he would see me, he would address me as ‘my buddy.’ Not as Clay, in fact, never as Clay, but always as ‘my buddy.’ I miss him terribly!”
Elijah’s home was across Highway 38 from Annie Crawford’s store at Trade Hill. It was a two-room shack, the remnants of which still stand in the trees and bushes.
This is just a small glimpse of a man who knew, had seen and been through a lot of history in his lifetime around the coastal area of Liberty County.