Jesse Green Williams
One the most dynamic leaders to emerge from the second generation of Saints on the upper Satilla River, Jesse G. Williams was five years old when Mormon missionaries first visited the Williams home, preaching the Restored Gospel. His father, Calvin G. Washington Williams, began investigating the doctrines and practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, through discussion with the Elders, and in reading the Book of Mormon. Six months later, convinced of the truth in Mormonism's message, he led the family into the faith, becoming one of the founding figures of the community now known as Little Utah, and one of the Church's most enthusiastic supporters in the region.
Jesse, the fourth child (and only son) of Calvin and Sarah Ann Davis Williams, was born 5 April 1894 at the family's farm, overlooking the Satilla, a stone's throw from the site where Utah Church would be built, years later.
Like other children of local pioneer converts, his upbringing was considerably more comfortable than those of his parents, and with a drastically different perspective of life as a Latter-day Saint. Only outsiders (non-Mormons, and western Saints) ever sensed the oddity and uniqueness of a community of cradle Mormons in the rustic, and often intolerant Deep South. To folks from Little Utah, however, the otherness associated with their Church was not as aggressive as in other parts of the country. The Williamses, like other founding families of the Satilla Saints, had benefited from their conversion not just spiritually, but socially and economically as well. With the establishment of Coffee County's two congregations, or branches of the Church, the Mormons of the Upper Forks began to develop a stronger sense of community and mutual support. Such is typical in any cultural enclave, and especially among the Latter-day Saints. Congregants of Utah Church, though keenly aware of their minority, seemed to have been socially comfortable, and culturally confident in their insulated little colony on the Satilla. Being Mormon in Axson was, for all intensive purposes, relatively comparable to being Baptist or Methodist. Although not without its hardships, childhood in Little Utah was generally pleasant in the early decades of the twentieth century.
In a short memoir entitled: Life of Jesse Green Williams, his father's prominence and influence in the regional church is illustrated in his descriptions of guests at the Williams household, the likes of which included presidents of the Florida Conference (whose jurisdiction included South Georgia), mission presidents, and future Apostles of the Church, in addition to "hundreds of missionaries," who "ate and slept at my fathers home." Traveling Elders were always welcomed in, and Calvin Williams even built an additional room onto his house, accessible by the front porch, for accommodating missionaries.
Williams was first educated by fellow Mormons, attending school in the Satilla Branch chapel at Little Utah. Though educational opportunities were limited across the rural South, the Utah School seems to have been consistently staffed by highly capable teachers. Most of them either were at the time, or eventually became, professional educators. One of Utah's schoolmasters was Jesse's uncle, John Henry Williams, who in 1910 was elected county School Commissioner (equivalent to a modern Superintendent of Schools) and took up residence in Douglas, on Cleveland Street. Jesse, then eighteen years old and having only completed the sixth grade at Little Utah, nonetheless took the opportunity afforded by his uncle's new position and location to enroll in classes at the Georgia Normal College and Business Institute in Douglas, boarding first with Uncle John, and then with another uncle, Charlie Williams, who was employed by the Federal Government as a Rural Free Delivery (RFD) mail carrier. In between terms at Georgia Normal College, Jesse taught at several rural schools across the county, using the wages he earned to pay the next term's tuition. "When I was not in school teaching, I went to school," Williams wrote in his Life History, illustrating his lifelong love of education.
In August 1916, Williams, accompanied by a "Dan" Kirkland, boarded a train bound for the Wasatch Front. Earlier in the year, the Williams house hosted a multitude of missionaries as they traversed the area proselytizing. One of them was Elder Grover Clyde, of Springville, Utah. Clyde and Williams, being separated in age by just a year, had become friends during this time, prompting Elder Clyde's parents to offer their home to Williams and Kirkland during their visit to Utah. The South Georgians joined a "44-car trip" northward, to explore remote Cache County. After trekking up the valley to Salt Lake City, and northward into the Bear River Mountain Range, the expedition stopped in Cache Valley's de facto capital of Logan. From there, Dan Kirkland traveled to Oregon to see a Dyal Family, likely that of another missionary to South Georgia. Williams, and a number of others in the caravan, returned to Utah County, where he continued lodging with Elder Clyde and his family, paying his way by laboring on their farm, and other work. The Clydes were household names in Utah County, and had business interests throughout the state. They would gain even wider recognition in 1957, when Elder Clyde's younger brother, George Dewey Clyde, became the tenth Governor of Utah. Williams was making powerful friends in Zion.
While in Utah, Williams learned that his youngest sister, Mattie, had contracted typhoid fever. He was summoned home to help his parents on the farm, as they attended their critically ill daughter for almost a year before she recovered in 1917. That year, like many young men in America, Williams volunteered to enlist in the Army. Europe was in turmoil, the Great War (WWI) having consumed the entire continent. Americans had resolutely avoided entering into what they considered a European fight for three years, and had reelected President Woodrow Wilson for having "kept us out of war." Many eligible men rushed to enlist in the military, however, believing U.S. entry into the conflict was inevitable. By enlisting before the draft began, one was more likely to be placed into the branch of his choice. Sure enough, America did enter the war, after a telegram from Germany's Foreign Minister was intercepted, inviting the Mexican government to join the Central Powers, in exchange for the return of America's southwestern states to Mexico.
Williams, tall and lanky, did not meet the weight requirements for his height and was turned away, but placed into the A-I Special Limited Service. This made him available the following year, to take advantage of the opportunity that would define the rest of his professional life.
Williams had thoroughly enjoyed accompanying Uncle Charlie in his duties as a mail carrier with the Rural Free Delivery Program (RFD), and had harbored a desire to become a letter carrier himself. His opportunity to do so came in 1918, when Oliver White, a distant relative, resigned his position as the letter carrier for Coffee County's McDonald and Axson route, which was to be annexed into Atkinson County, upon its creation later in the year.
The modern community of Axson, near the eastern border of Atkinson County, was settled around the late 1880s or early 1890s, and called McDonald's Mill(s), after the large, twin saw mills of the same name, operated nearby. The name was typically shortened to McDonald. Although no exact date is associated with the change of names, it is clear that the newer name was meant to honor Ellen Axson Wilson, the Savannah-born first wife of President Woodrow Wilson, who died in 1914, just two years after visiting the area on Wilson's election campaign tour. When proposals for a new county to be created from parts of Coffee and Clinch Counties in 1915, one of the more popular potential names for the new county was "Axson." Ultimately, the county's name would become "Atkinson," and the former first lady's maiden name was given to the former McDonald community. The change became official on 5 November 1918, but "Axson" and "McDonald" were used interchangeably in newspapers and other documents from 1915 to 1918.
Williams, taking over from Oliver White, was appointed as the new, temporary carrier in 1918, and permanent regular carrier in 1919. He carried out the often difficult, and stressful duties of mail carrier for four decades in Axson, before retiring on 1 March 1959, with fourty-one years of service.
(To be continued soon)