Tag: Elbert County

A Lost Chapter: The Reverend Thomas L. Kennedy

I delight in finding lost chapters. These are the stories from the past that for one reason or another have been shoved into the dark, dusty corners of history where important pieces of the truth often lie. There to await the search for a related piece of the past to perhaps shed a little light their way. So it is with the story of the Reverend Thomas L. Kennedy.

The reverend emerged as a supporting character in the story of the eccentric political maverick William Patrick “Binks” Henry published on this website a couple of weeks ago, but he has a story in his own right that’s worth the telling. As in the case of Henry, the reverend isn’t mentioned in John McIntosh’s Official History of Elbert County published in 1940, and likely both omissions stem from the same two key reasons. For one, as valuable as his book is in some respects, McIntosh generally − not always, but generally − either glossed over or ignored entirely happenings that might not reflect well on the county. The stories of Henry and Kennedy wouldn’t, to be sure. Second, as is the case with myself, McIntosh was related by both blood and marriage to the then politically powerful Mattox-Allen-Heard family web that had opposed both Henry and Kennedy at various times. His telling the stories wouldn’t have reflected well on kinfolk. For better or worse, I have no such reservations. The facts are what they are, each a brushstroke that helps paint the true portrait of the past, warts and all.

Details about Kennedy’s past, particularly his exact age and place of birth, have defied ready discovery. We know, however, that he was still an active minister and educator in the late 1920s, so a year of birth possibly as far back as the mid to late 1860s or maybe the very early 1870s seems a good guess. He first emerges like a bombshell in the news in Elbert County in August 1895.

“T.L. Kennedy, a negro school teacher who had figured prominently in the affairs of the colored people of Elbert County for a year or so past, had his license revoked by Commissioner Wall last for immoral conduct,” related the August 8, 1895 edition of the Elberton Star.

The school commissioner, James Nunnellee Wall, who was also a farmer and Methodist minister, based his decision on a finding that Kennedy had “made a speech at Hull’s [Hulme’s] Chapel, a negro church near Ruckersville, which the commissioner claims was incendiary in character and calculated to engender strife and bad feeling between the races, and that will, if its injunctions are heeded, cause trouble and bring incalculable injury to the negroes of Elbert county [sic].”

The newspaper didn’t elaborate on the specifics of what Kennedy reportedly said, but according to the paper he denied his remarks fit Wall’s description. Wall held that he had solid evidence to back his claim, and according to the Star’s account when the substance of Kennedy’s alleged comments became generally known “a body of representative men from the city and county” gathered at the courthouse and endorsed Wall’s action and affirmed that the schools should not be used to foment racial discord.

It’s worth noting here as well as anywhere that James Wall belonged to a branch of the Mattox-Allen-Heard family and was a cousin by marriage to William Henry Mattox. A former state senator, Mattox in these years had seen his political power wane in proportion to his declining economic fortunes. His investing heavily in a textile mill on Beaverdam Creek in eastern Elbert County in 1888 and 1889, and the subsequent loss of the uninsured mill in a fire, was the beginning of the end his empire that had included four grist mills and nearly 4,000 acres of cultivated land where a great deal of the physical labor was done by convicts leased from the state. But enough of his kinsmen remained in various positions that the remnants of his political machine still had some juice to jolt local affairs, sometimes, as with “Binks” Henry, resorting to physical intimidation.

Following his firing, Thomas Kennedy didn’t simply pack up and leave town looking for a new teaching position. He continued to preach, and he founded a weekly newspaper, the Progress, aimed at the county’s black community. Elbert County’s black community was already served by one newspaper, the Golden Age, edited by another minister, E.J. Bell, but Kennedy’s Progress staked out a more radical and confrontational course. It evidently developed a readership, at least enough to give Kennedy a base of support for his causes. His first major cause involved an attack on segregation in the county courthouse.

In 1893-94, Elbert County built a new courthouse, the courthouse still standing now on the west side of the town square. Included was a balcony in the rear of the large courtroom where blacks were to sit. In March 1896, Kennedy launched in the editorial page of the Progress his campaign for free access to seating on the courtroom’s main floor. A petition addressing the issue was presented to the county commissioners, who passed it on to the presiding state court judge −who passed it back to the commissioners. Kennedy then trumpeted the editorial call that redress of this grievance would be sought at the ballot box.

This was no idle threat, as it turns out, given the times. Almost without fail since the days of Reconstruction, southern blacks had been inclined to vote Republican when there were Republican candidates to vote for. But “Binks” Henry’s painful (literally) experience voting Republican in the presidential election of 1888, elaborated in the previous column, illustrates how weak and hollow such a threat might have been under the same conditions, but conditions had changed since 1888. As noted in the earlier column, the rise of the Populist Party to become a force by the election of 1892, with the Populists initially courting a voter base of both rural whites and blacks (mostly small farmers), now actually meant that the Democratic Party’s grip on county and state politics was not as firm as in times past. In Elbert County, as in nearly all southern counties, the courthouse was both the totem and the temple of the political party that held local political power, housing the actual offices of the local overlords and the figurative coffers of the patronage by which they kept their minions happy. With the white vote now divided, enough black votes for Populists might indeed cast local Democrats out of their temple. That was especially true since the elections of 1892 and 1894 when the state Republican Party, which generally had no chance of winning elections in rural counties, in a move to weaken the Democrats had quietly thrown support behind the Populists.

The Star, firmly a Democratic organ (and few papers in those days even claimed to be nonpartisan), lost no time in denouncing Kennedy’s editorial. Any desire to change the seating arrangements in the courthouse was “impudent,” read the Star’s editorial page. “[The blacks] should remember,” the editorial continued, “that and [sic] appeal to the ballot box is sometimes followed by an appeal to the cartridge box.” But as the Democratic primary played out in succeeding months, the Star softened its tone. Because even though Kennedy was a longtime Republican Party organizer, it was the dynamics of the Democratic primary that gave him some real leverage.

The Democratic primary for state representative was a close race between Thomas Swift and Ira VanDuzer. VanDuzer was a local attorney, viewed as something of an upstart, whereas Swift was as about as close to local aristocracy as one could be. With roots deep in the county, Swift was a cotton gin and cottonseed oil mill owner who had made hay of William Mattox’s misfortune, obtaining in a bankruptcy sale the site of Mattox’s and his partners’ destroyed cotton mill on Beaverdam Creek and building the three-story Pearl Mill (which itself would burn in 1929).

Swift was an old-school Democrat. VanDuzer, though running as a Democrat, had been endorsed by the Populists. Kennedy seems to have had little trust in the Populists despite the party’s reaching out to Southern blacks, so when Swift’s supporters looked to bring Kennedy into their camp, he parlayed his influence to advantage. Over a week before the election, Kennedy spoke at the White’s Chapel church and he had asked that both Swift and VanDuzer be invited to attend. Five days before the election, the Star ballyhooed the result: “Kennedy made the first speech, and it was a good one. He put forth his reasons why the colored people should support Col. Swift, and he was cheered by both the white and colored people.”

Swift won the primary handily, but the comity with Kennedy didn’t last. As we saw in the story of “Binks” Henry, came the November general election voting day, it was business as usual all way round.
Kennedy’s later claim on the editorial page of the Progress that the “standing army of democratic ruffians” led by William Parks Clark, a member of the extended Mattox-Allen-Heard family, had kept 1,000 to 1,500 Republican votes from being cast in Elberton is probably a bit of hyperbole (as there were only about 3,100 registered voters in the county in 1896), but there is little doubt as to the rest of his claim. He had been “roughly handled by a crowd of rowdies led by W. Parks Clark and Bob Almond,” Kennedy wrote, “and had it not been for the timely intervention of Policeman Irvin and several other white men, no doubt [I] would have been murdered outright. This fellow Parks Clark is characterized by his rowdyism and seldom, if ever, a fuss occurs that he is not the leader. … We hope and sincerely do we ask that the better class of white people in this county will rebuke such devilish work as was done here Tuesday. …”

“Roughly handled” may be a politic understatement by Kennedy, as from later statements and his later actions one can infer that he was beaten. In the next edition, the editor of the Star took issue with the whole of range of Kennedy’s claims. “Not a single voter of any party was hindered or intimidated in any way from casting a ballot for any candidate he chose,” went the editorial. As for Parks Clark, “there is not a more peacable [sic] and law abiding citizen than he.” The Star in the same issue also reported that Kennedy had been confronted by a “committee” that had laid 200 lashes on his back and ordered him to leave town. There is some reason to doubt this, and not only because Kennedy struck back with a letter to the editor of the Star, denying the report and also telegraphing his effort apparently then already underway to carry the fight to higher jurisdictions.

“Elberton, Georgia November 14, 1896
Your editorial of the last issue is false to the core. I have not been interviewed and neither have I received a lick from any man or set of men since election day. I did not leave Elberton under fear of being whipped for my editorial, as not a single white man has said anything to me contrary to its publication. I went to South Carolina on business Friday night and returned on the 4 o’clock train Saturday evening and kept on through to Atlanta. I was in Elberton again Monday and went to Atlanta on the same train that Parks Clark left on for Mexico, and when he got to Atlanta I had an officer waiting to arrest him. …”

Kennedy went on to say that Parks Clark had avoided arrest and further threatened to have the Star’s editor “indicted for perjury” if word of his being beaten and threatened continued to be circulated. “Libel” was of course the word that eluded Kennedy in his account, not “perjury.” The claims of trying to have Parks Clark arrested can’t be verified, but that may explain Kennedy’s frequent trips to Atlanta following the election. In any case, Parks Clark was never arrested. Kennedy posted his letter on November 14. Two days later, Monday November 16, he was again on the train bound for Atlanta when his life took a hard turn for the worse.

The Georgia, Carolina and Northern Railroad train from Elberton to Atlanta was pulling into Carlton, in Madison County, when Presh Mattox entered the car where Kennedy sat. Henry Presh Mattox, twenty-two, was a kinsman of the now bankrupt William Henry Mattox (but not his son, as some later accounts held; William Mattox had only two sons, Clark and Singleton). What happened next depends on whom one believes. Probably the truth lies somewhere between the two. The next week the Star carried Presh Mattox’s version: Kennedy had “cursed one of our citizens, Mr. Presh Mattox, and when the insult was resented with a blow, drew a pistol and followed him off the train at Carlton with a drawn pistol, cursing and abusing him in a manner intolerable to Anglo-Saxon pride and patience.”

For his part, Kennedy never denied pulling a gun on Presh Mattox, but he claimed that Mattox entered the car and struck him, further threatening to have a crowd of men pull him off the train in Carlton. He had pulled the pistol, he said, when he felt his life was in danger. Mattox swore out a warrant for Kennedy on the relatively minor charge of carrying a concealed weapon. Kennedy was arrested and carried to the Madison County jail. His bond was soon posted by Monroe B. “Pink” Morton, the wealthy mulatto businessman and Republican political organizer in Athens (and eventually Athens’ first black postmaster). Morton found Kennedy a place to stay in Athens, but within a matter of days Madison County issued another warrant for Kennedy, this time for the attempted murder of Presh Mattox. Kennedy was arrested in Winder, but was eventually lodged in the Clarke County jail after his benefactor Morton petitioned the governor. Morton feared for Kennedy’s safety if he were held in Madison County. He remained in jail until his trial in Danielsville the first week in March of 1897. Morton had retained two attorneys for him, Samuel Tribble and former Athens mayor, H.C. Tuck.

Kennedy had been indicted on both charges, carrying a concealed weapon and attempted murder. The defense’s strategy rested on establishing self-defense, and for that the attorneys would rely on the testimony of a white woman, Lula Watson, who was supposedly in the railroad car at the time of the incident. She did not appear in court, however, and when bailiffs visited her home they found her in bed, apparently ill, and according to her husband, unable even to rise from the bed much less leave the house. Judge Seaborn Reese accepted her husband’s secondhand testimony that his wife had told him nothing of witnessing any incident involving Kennedy and Mattox. Kennedy was found guilty and sentenced to two years hard labor. Tribble and Huck immediately requested a new trial on several grounds, but mainly on the inability of getting Lula Watson to court and that Reese had not instructed the jury to consider any of Presh Mattox’s alleged actions as justifying self-defense. Reese denied a new trial but stayed the sentence while the attorneys took the appeal to the state supreme court.

In early June, the supreme court agreed that Kennedy should have a new trial, agreeing that the hearsay testimony of Lula Watson’s husband was no substitute for her own, and was in fact contrary to the law. The new trial was set for September. Neither Kennedy nor Morton could post Kennedy’s appeal bond, however, and he remained in the Madison County jail until his new trial with the exception of a few weeks in the summer when he was rented out as a laborer to James Smith of “Smithsonia,” Smith’s plantation of several thousand acres in Oglethorpe County that, like William H. Mattox in Elbert County, he worked with convict labor. (Much of the old Smith plantation would eventually become the Arabian horse ranch of country and pop music star Kenny Rogers.)

On September 9, 1897, Kennedy was tried again. Again the jury returned a verdict of guilty of attempted murder, but this time with a recommendation for mercy. He had already pleaded guilty to the charge of carrying a concealed weapon and been sentenced to a year of hard labor or a $50 fine. He had managed to pay the fine. The recommendation for mercy handed down meant that he had the chance to escape the two years of hard labor Reese imposed if he could pay a $300 fine. Neither he nor Monroe Morton could raise the money for the fine, however, and in October he was sent to the chain gang of the Fulton County public works department.

There is no record indicating that Thomas Kennedy ever came back to Elbert County after his release. Later years found him a minister in Jackson County, noted once in the local newspaper in 1908 when a young man requested that Kennedy accompany him on his walk to the gallows. He evidently spent his last years in Rockdale County. A February 1929 edition of the Rockdale Record notes that Kennedy had in years past been principal of the city’s black school and at the time of the writing he had been for six years principal of Bethany Academy, a black school associated with the Presbyterian church.

As for Kennedy’s adversaries, they faced their own trials after a fashion. Presh Mattox’s venture at establishing a cotton brokerage business failed, and in early 1901 he went to Texas to try to reestablish himself. He died in Texas in September 1901, allegedly of an overdose of laudanum (a tincture of opium in alcohol) to which it’s said he was addicted. He is buried in Elberton’s Elmhurst Cemetery. Even though he was in his forties, Parks Clark joined a volunteer military company at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, rising to the rank of captain and serving in the Philippines. He returned to Elberton and lived there the rest of his life as a civic leader, Masonic brother and man about town.

So there it is, the story of the trials of the Reverend Thomas Kennedy, a lost chapter no more.

Stepping In It

Stephen Heard, as he is depicted in a painting in the gallery of the Georgia capitol. Based on an early 19th century rendering supposedly accurate.

     It was bound to happen and I knew that from the start. I expected a good hiding, as it were, and courted it. When you challenge a bit of long held lore, a piece of local history so deep-dyed in the local community’s fabric that it’s been told, retold and recorded in the only “official” history of the county that’s been written, it can cause a ripple.

     It’s taken a while, but a couple of people have delighted in passing on to me a few murmurs from the gossip grapevine that amounted to “Did you hear about what he said?” As one of the informants chided me, “You stepped in it.”

     I’m just surprised it took so long. It’s now the fall and my crime was committed in the spring. Now comes the time to explain it to all who didn’t witness it.

     In April I was asked to speak on local history at the Elbert County Library. I chose to deal the legend of local American Revolution hero Stephen Heard’s rescue from a British jail in Augusta by his loyal slave woman “Mammy Kate” the night before he was to hang. She refused the offer of her freedom as a reward and she and her husband are buried near Heard in the family cemetery in the Heardmont community. It’s a nice story. It just doesn’t have the added virtue of being true.

The historical marker indicating Heard’s grave and outlining the legend of his rescue by his slave woman, Mammy Kate.

     Local attorney and historian John McIntosh accepted it as gospel in his The Official History of Elbert County 1790-1935, published by the local Stephen Heard Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1940. The story has found its way into multiple histories and into the New Georgia Encyclopedia, though the writer of the entry gives some leeway for doubt by calling it a “local legend.” In October 2011, the story was given the imprimatur of a proclamation by the state chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, duly celebrated with a ceremony at the Heardmont cemetery.

     As a Heard descendant (great-great-great-great grandson), the story I grew up on always intrigued me. But it perplexed me that for such a celebrated hero of the Revolution, other than the fact that the Virginia-born Heard (and his extended family) was drawn to our area of northeast Georgia by the 1773 Cherokee land cession, had served some nebulous role as governor and was an intimate friend of George Washington (there is no evidence for that either), the rescue story was all anyone generally knew about him.

     Like many if not most historical figures who become cloaked in legends of some durable fabric, the truth turns out more interesting than the tall tales.

     To begin with, for the story of his rescue to be at all true there is one necessary condition that would have to be met: It would have to have occurred during a time when Augusta was occupied by either the British forces or their loyalist allies. Augusta was occupied by the British for a few weeks in early 1779 and by mostly loyalist forces from June 1780 until June 1781. In both cases we can, with primary sources, reliably place Stephen Heard elsewhere.

     The fall of Charleston, South Carolina, to the British in May 1780 precipitated a surrender of rebelling forces on both sides of the Savannah River. In June 1780, over 400 members of the Georgia militia surrendered to the loyalist forces that had recently occupied Augusta. The only exception was Lt. Colonel Elijah Clarke, second in command of the militia, and a handful of his veteran backcountry fighters. They crossed the river into upcountry South Carolina to join with other diehard holdouts and continue the fight. With Clarke were Heard and the refugee government of Georgia.

     Heard, serving on the Executive Council of the state government, had become the council’s president early in 1780 after the previous holder of that office had died in a duel with a political rival. (Georgia’s revolutionary government was factious and contentious enough to embarrass a banana republic. Heard, it seems, possessed a vital talent for avoiding any taint of partisan rivalry, resulting in his leadership by default.) In time, this made him the de facto governor for some months. He also did not surrender and take the British oath of allegiance. With the rest of the Executive Council, he joined Clarke in the field.

     Thus begun an odyssey leading him farther into upcountry South Carolina, into North Carolina (where Georgia’s state government records eventually ended up via another means) and finally to Virginia. In March 1781, he wrote a letter from Henry County, Virginia, giving a broad but fairly detailed account of the struggle in the Carolinas and Georgia since he had fled Georgia but nowhere mentions any capture by the British or loyalists. Neither do any of the considerable body of dispatches from the loyalist commander in Augusta, Colonel Thomas Brown to other loyalist commanders and even British General Cornwallis mention the capture of the head of Georgia’s revolutionary government.

     The first picaresque story of northeast Georgia’s other legend from the Revolutionary War years, the heroine Nancy Hart, did not see print until 1825, and that in a Milledgeville, Georgia, newspaper that evidently just printed a story the writer had heard. Others would follow, maybe only three plausibly based in fact, later ones obviously of whole cloth. The first written account of the rescue of Stephen Heard, however, does not appear in print until a September 1901 story in the Atlanta Constitution, one of several on a page devoted to stories from Georgia’s past by Atlanta’s Joseph Habersham Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The story even quoted Mammy Kate, as reportedly told to her grandchildren, in a dialogue that echoes 19th century minstrel shows. As with the stories of Nancy Hart, the rescue story does not appear in any historical account until it appeared as a newspaper feature with no cited sources. Then, like the Hart stories, it took on a life of its own.

     If the story isn’t true, it’s difficult to fathom how and why it might have been told. There is one vague mention − McIntosh’s Elbert County history − of Heard’s father and brother being imprisoned in Augusta in one instance, but not time is mentioned. Perhaps the genesis of the story, if it has any factual basis at all, grew from that.

     If the Heards were imprisoned in late 1780, they wouldn’t have been alone. After Elijah Clarke’s first failed attempt to attack Augusta in September 1780, many suspected of rebel sympathies were held prisoner. The British also issued orders expelling from the area upriver from Augusta relatives of those known to or suspected of having joined with Clarke. An estimated 100 farms were burned. The line of expulsion ended at the Broad River that now forms Elbert County’s border. (If the stories of Nancy Hart dealing with marauding loyalists are true, they likely stem from this time when loyalist troops prowled north of the river.) An estimated 600-700 settlers from the area sought refuge in the mountains of western North Carolina, traveling en masse under Clarke’s protection. (All of this noted in Heard’s March 1781 letter from Virginia.)

     The revolution brought a hard time to this corner of northeast Georgia in those months, when life could be more “nasty, brutish and short” than life on the 18th century frontier already could be. Perhaps both the Nancy Hart story and the story of the Heard rescue, if they did in fact originate from this time, were part of a picaresque mythology that grew up to mask what must have been some starkly unpleasant memories.

     In the case of Heard, if Mammy Kate and her husband “Daddy Jack,” are actually buried near Stephen Heard in the family cemetery (and their grave markers were not placed until the mid 20th century), it could be the story was told to mask something that embarrassed the Heard family. That Kate might have been Heard’s mistress must at least be considered. It is established fact that Heard’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Heard, fathered children by at least one of his slaves. And having a mistress buried near the master wasn’t without precedent even within Heard’s own extended family. The brother of Heard’s son-in-law (my great-great-great grandfather) had his mistress buried between himself and his wife.

     This possible relationship, of course, can be nothing more than speculation, a stab at explaining why.

     Even if this speculation is true, it doesn’t genuinely diminish the man Stephen Heard who was in everything known about him a man of his time, and who should be judged in that light.

     Freed of the rescue story, in fact, he emerges a more interesting and more important figure. He refused to surrender in the face of what must have seemed hopeless odds, and kept Georgia’s revolutionary government alive, if on the run. By accounts, he was just a shade over five feet tall, but he stood much taller in the face of the direst adversity.

     Legends and mythologies have their place, even when they involve people who actually existed. They are part of the cultural story and tell more about the times that spawned them than they tell about the figures at the heart of them. But one must overshadow the other, and let that one be the truth. As in the case of Stephen Heard, it’s usually much more interesting.


“I’d Climb The Highest Mountain”: Then and Now

     The controversy over the recent opening of the reportedly extremely violent movie “The Joker” reminds us once again that controversy over what movie audiences want, don’t want, will accept or won’t is an old one.

     For movie studio executives to want more action and violence in a movie project is hardly a new trend. That very thing almost killed one of the first major films ever made in Georgia, largely in White County but with an Elbert County connection.

     About eight years ago, White County writer Emory Jones snapped up a chance find on Ebay, an original script of the 1951 release “I’d Climb The Highest Mountain.” The movie was filmed in White County in 1950 − starring Susan Hayward, William Lundigan and Rory Calhoun − but was based on the 1910 novel “A Circuit Rider’s Wife” by Corra Harris, born in Elbert County in 1869. Included with the script were appended notes from movie executives that showed the uphill battle Atlanta native screenwriter Lamar Trotti had between 1947 and 1950 getting anyone interested in bringing the story to the screen.

On the set of “I’d Climb The Highest Mountain” just outside of Helen in 1950. The church is the Chattahoochee United Methodist Church, founded in the 1820s and still going strong.
Star Susan Hayward is front and center as the an interior shot at the church is rehearsed.

     Trotti’s story of the often heartbreaking travails and seemingly too small triumphs of a Methodist minister and his story narrator-wife in the north Georgia hills of the early 1900s did not attract a lot of enthusiasm.

     According to a story about Jones’s find that ran seven years ago in the Gainesville newspaper, 20th Century Fox studio heavyweight Darryl Zanuck’s script readers reported to him that it was “too preachy,” in their view a box office killer. Another studio executive, Samuel G. Engel, wrote Zanuck that “It falls short on too many vital counts for it to merit being considered for production.” Yet another executive thought the script too similar to the 1941 film “One Foot In Heaven,” starring Fredric March as an itinerant minister. Zanuck himself thought the script needed more conflict and violence. His own verdict to Trotti was, “I cannot find one person who liked it.”

     That wasn’t exactly true, as the notes accompanying the script show. One of Zanuck’s subordinates, Julian Johnson, penned him this note: “I think it has a great deal of what we need in the theatre today — simple, downright humanity, as opposed to the abnormalities, the crimes and the ‘isms’ which seem to possess the world almost to the exclusion of all the more normal impulses.”

     That over seventy-year-old observation could have been written yesterday.

     By early 1950, for reasons not altogether clear − maybe he sensed a changing market, or maybe he had taken Johnson’s note to heart − Zanuck bubbled with enthusiasm for the movie. “I want to do this story and do it as quickly as we can get it ready,” he wrote. “I can get very excited about this.”

     Even then it wasn’t clear that the movie would be filmed in Georgia. The Blue Ridge area of Virginia and the Ozarks of Missouri were rejected before Trotti was successful in pitching the north Georgia hills where the story was set as the actual filming location. The movie premiered in February 1951 in Atlanta’s Paramount Theater.

Corra Harris’s real life marriage to a Methodist minister was far from the happy one portrayed in her novel.

     Today, of course, there are many reasons why the movie likely wouldn’t’ be made. Most would probably echo the notes from the naysaying movie executives of 1947 and after. One would certainly focus on Corra Harris herself. She wrote two dozen books in all, fiction and nonfiction, nineteen of which were published in her lifetime (she died in 1935), and was a well known journalist for over half her life, including as a war correspondent during World War I. But today she would be a pariah. Her start in journalism came in 1899 when she wrote a lengthy piece to a New York newspaper, The Independent, defending a lynching near Newnan, Georgia, that the paper had attacked. On the strength of her writing, the paper’s editors asked to see more of it. Despite that beginning, her writing has merit in the study of her times. The best of her fiction has the literary bone and muscle to stand on its own. Like everyone else, she deserves to be judged by the standards of her own time, not through the purblind prism that produces perverse modern notions of “political correctness.”

     By itself, “A Circuit Rider’s Wife” as a story is hardly autobiographical. Aside from the young Corra Mae White actually marrying a Methodist minister and educator, Lundy Howard Harris, the story’s main turns bear little resemblance to Harris’s own life. (Though as in the film, she and her husband did lose a child.) In fact, her husband abandoned her a few years into their marriage before finally returning to her, along the way him making public confessions of adultery. As a result he lost his teaching position at Emory University and the Harrises faced years of poverty relieved in greatest part by the proceeds of Corra’s writing. Lundy Harris bore almost no resemblance to “the Reverend William Thompson” of the novel and committed suicide in 1910, the year “A Circuit Rider’s Wife” was published. If he ever read the manuscript, and it’s most probable that he did, maybe he couldn’t live with the comparison. The novel’s narrative, which has been described as “a spiritual journey,” perhaps tells the life story Corra Harris had hoped she would have. If Hollywood executives were at all interested in Corra Harris these days I suspect it would be her real story that would interest them and not her “spiritual journey.” But those are the times we live in. (And if future generations judge us by our times’ standards, I hope it’s with mercy. Not that that should be expected.)

     Darryl Zanuck and his minions were right in that “I’d Climb The Highest Mountain” wasn’t a huge blockbuster success on its release. But the film endures and gains fans while many others have been forgotten. Nostalgia movie channels have practically granted it immortality. Some latter day discoverers of it even seek out the 197-year-old Chattahoochee United Methodist Church on Ga. Alt. 75 in the Robertstown community just north of Helen. The church was used extensively in the filming. The nearby Stovall Covered Bridge, also appearing in the film, is another visited site.

     The film endures because its story of life’s gains and losses, troubles and triumphs, all met with faith and fortitude, that Lamar Trotti distilled from Harris’s best known book is timeless. And its endurance is testimony that even though the values it espouses are under attack, and as Julian Johnson’s note indicates have been for a long time, they are far from dead, and still sought.

     I suspect Julian Johnson foresaw that in 1947, even if right way the mogul Darryl Zanuck did not.

The Chattahoochee United Methodist Church as it appears today.