• Jimmy Williams' dulcimers will be on display all weekend in Louisville, band will play at Wrens Gourd Festival
By Parish Howard
In a cabinet shop just outside of Wrens, 66-year-old Jimmy Williams, along with some of his oldest friends, pick and strum a homemade music.
Friday night the group sat around an unlit woodburning stove and warmed the night with the curved instruments resting on their laps, creating haunting melodies that drifted out the shop door with the subtle, rich aroma of sawdust. The old folk songs and hymns rendered in a drone so familiar and sweet they could have made spring's first crickets hush their rustling chirps to listen.
For Williams, who over the last few years has built a number of the Appalacian mountain dulcimers played by him and his friends, the music is homemade in the truest sense of the word.
"I've loved the mountains all my life," Williams said. "Over the years while I was up there, I'd come across a band playing that mountain music and there was bound to be a dulcimer in the group. It's a unique sounding instrument. There's something about it that will make folks stop, sit down and listen. When you're done playing, people just run up to you and wantto know if you think they could learn to play like that."
He says sure, anyone can play the dulcimer. It was less than three years ago a close friend with a similar love of the music forced him to sit down, lay a curved instrument across his lap and give it a strum.
"Faye (Jones) and I grew up together between Avera and Stapleton," Williams said of the strummer who introduced him to the dulcimer. "We played together, went to school together, throwed cotton boles together. She's always been something like a sister to me."
It was in October of 1999, Williams and his wife Nelda were visiting Jones at her family's mountain house in Dillard. She had been playing the classically Appalacian mountain instrument for about three years, he said. If he bought one, she told him she'd teach him how to play it.
"She convinced me to buy this kit that you put together yourself," he said. "So I bought it and brought it home and put the thing together."
And when he was done, he noticed that something was wrong. There was a buzz in the strings he knew shouldn't be there. When he laid a rule across the fretboard, he saw that it had a bow in it. So, he took it back.
"I showed the man the bow and he told me I'd built it on a crooked table," Williams said. "Well, I told him that I'm a cabinetmaker, I don't have any crooked tables."
In the end he wound up with a new kit, but got to keep the already assembled dulcimer too. Like any artisan who hates to see a product come out flawed, he took the warped instrument back to his shop.
"You know what I did? I took the frets out and sanded the bow right out of it," he said proudly. "When I was done, that instrument was one of the finest sounding instruments I've played."
That is when he figured, he could do a better job himself, from scratch.
Since then he has molded, shaped, sanded and pieced together around 15 dulcimers of his own design.
"I still run my cabinet business off and on," he said. "I usually work on dulcimers while I'm working on something else. There are a lot of stages. The wood has be dried, and bent and shaped. I'll do a little, walk off and work on something else for a while and then come back. Some people might tell you that isn't the best way to do it, but that's the way I do it."
He has seen a variety of styles, including the rustically simple "plain, straight boxes" he saw some North Carolina musicians strumming, to the banjo-shaped dulcimer, the "banjamo" he and his brother created in his wood shop.
"I build hour-glass dulcimers," he said describing the instruments' shape. "There are two main types, the teardrop and the hourglass."
He has learned that every dulcimer is going to have a different sound. The type of wood, the thickness of the walls, it all plays a part. He has seen them made of walnut, mahogany, maple, cherry and a lot of other, more exotic woods that are harder to come by, but he's preferable to walnut and Nicaraguan mahogany.
The look of the instruments, the long curves and the grain of wood is almost as enchanting as the music they produce.
One of his prize instruments, one his wife laid claim to and forbids him to sell, is made of a unique light-caramel mahogany that he says is hard to find these days. This one, this special instrument, he made from bed rails he saved from a bedroom suit he built for their wedding in 1961. Williams believes the wood was old then.
"We slept on that bed for 10 or 12 years," he said. "I had since sold all of the suit except the rails and then one day I came across them in the shop. They sure made a beautiful instrument."
Most of his instruments he makes, plays for a while and then sells. The first went to a neighbor. Another went to a Wrens native and music major Shirley Palmer, who now lives in Kentucky and named the dulcimer "Mr. Jim" after its maker.
He has built a number of them for friends. Linda Irby, of Stapleton, often plays a instrument he built. She plays along with Faye Jones, Williams and his brother Gene Williams and other friends from the Garden City Strummers, an Augusta-based dulcimer group.
For now, Williams is calling the group that gathers in his shop weeknights to practice and play the North Jefferson Strummers.
"I don't play as well as the girls do," he admits. "They've both been playing longer than I have. I'm a whole lot better at building them than playing them."
If asked, he will strum a few bars of a folk tune or the first few lines of an old traditional hymn, but Williams said he prefers to play with a group of friends who are also strumming their own four-stringed instruments.
"As long as you have two or three with you who can play really well, then people like me can mix in and try to keep up and you can still have a pretty good sound," he said grinning. "Most people start out just playing the melody string. It doesn't take long before you're moving on to the others. It's so much prettier when you play all the notes."
He's been to dulcimer school in Cullowee, North Carolina, where he said he studied under world-renowned dulcimer players. But he'll tell you, he didn't learn what he knows about picking and strumming and pressing the tips of his fingers into the unevenly spaced fret boards from any school.
"The little I know I learned from sitting down with other players and playing it myself," he said. "And you don't have to know anything about music. Me, all my life, I could hardly play the radio."
His group plays regularly in local churches and for small crowds, but he said that they do not accept any money for their performances. They do it for the love of music, for the love of the effect it has on the people who hear "You Are My Sunshine," or "Wildwood Flower", the way they tap their toes and grin. They do it for the way they glance at each other, these friends, when one picks up the melody of "Bile the Cabbage Down" or "Little Liza Jane" and speeds up the tempo on each verse. Their grins widening into smiles as their hands work, fingers sliding along the fret boards, right hands strumming out the dum-dittys on those four strings.
"We'll start slow and go through the verses a couple of times," he said. "Then they'll speed it up, then speed it up some more, then again, and some more. They'll look at me and smile and I'll be trying to get it. Then, when we get to the close, my right hand will be worn out."
The group welcomes anyone interested in the music or the instruments to sit down with them, strap the dulcimers around their waist and try their hands at strumming.
The North Jefferson Strummers will be playing this weekend, downtown Wrens at the city's Third Annual Gourd Festival Saturday and four of William's instruments will be on display at the Arts of Jefferson County show at the Magnolia House in Louisville Friday, from 6-9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 1-4 p.m.
Location of graveyard debated
• Has construction disturbed a pre-Civil War cemetery, residents ask
By Ben Nelms
A disagreement has arisen between county government and north Jefferson County residents over whether construction of two houses has disturbed a Civil War-era cemetery on Deerwood Circle off SR 88 near Wrens.
At odds are the recollections of longtime residents of the area suggesting that a significant portion of the 4.55 acre property contains the gravesites of between 15 and 50 individuals and the Jefferson County commission's position that the burial ground has been undisturbed by the construction.
Questions about the number of graves at the site, grave markers and headstones currently missing and the portion of the property believed to contain graves surfaced recently when 80-year-old Wrens resident Alda Farmer contacted the county commission office and provided Marshal Alan Wasden with her concerns about the site. She also contacted longtime friend Robert Clements who brought the matter to the attention of the Concerned Citizens of Jefferson County, Inc.
At the property site Monday, Farmer said she recalled walking past the "Betsy Brown graveyard" many times as a child. She said that at that time, the cemetery was considered quite old and was believed to be the gravesite of both whites and blacks, including slaves.
Farmer said she recalled 40-50 graves with various sized markers in an area that includes portions of the rear of the property, where two headstones are still in place, and extends to the front of the property in close proximity to where the two houses are being built. Jefferson County Historical Society member Lee Lewis later estimated the number of graves to range from 15-40.
Property owner Emily Rabun said Friday that she and her husband had only learned of the problem that afternoon and that they were willing to donate the area determined to encompass the cemetery and an access easement to either the Jefferson County Historical Society or the county. Rabun purchased the property in January, at least two years after it's timber had been harvested and the earth was graded. She has only recently begun construction of the houses.
"We didn't mean to cause any problem and we weren't aware that we did," she said. "We didn't know that any of this controversy was going on until 4 p.m. today (March 15). We will allow anybody to check things out; we just want it to be done by a professional."
Rep. Charlie Norwood became involved in the issue last week, requesting that the county commission respond to concerned constituents of Jefferson County. In a March 15 letter to Commission Chairman Gardner Hobbs, Norwood said his Augusta office had been in contact with county officials and had received reassurances that the county is taking all the appropriate steps to resolve the matter properly.
"I understand that the local government has the responsibility of handling this matter in accordance with the federal and state statutes governing unmarked burial grounds," Norwood said. "I am only contacting you because of constituent complaints that construction has not ceased and that the county government is not handling this matter promptly or properly."
Concerned Citizens President Kay Heilig raised the issue triggered by Farmer at the March 12 regular session, requesting that the county act on the matter. He maintained that the county was responsible for complying with state law that addresses the permitting, archeological and genealogical site remediation processes associated with the disturbance of burial sites. He also referenced Wasden's report to commissioners at the March 4 work session which included photos, a copy of the plat and building permits, a letter from the Historical Society and copies of state law pertaining to burial sites that have been disturbed.
In response, county attorney Mickey Moses stated the county's position. He referred to the property having been clear-cut and graded some time prior to the current owner taking possession, and stated his belief that no disturbance of gravesites has occurred during the ongoing construction at the front of the property. Without any evidence of disturbance to the property the county had done all that state law requires, he said.
"The photographs do not show that the burial ground is being disturbed where the buildings are being built," he said. "From the photographs I see as to where the houses are being built, it is some distance from where the headstones are. It is misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature to disturb a burial ground, as I understand it. To my knowledge there has been no burial ground disturbed by this construction."
Coroner Johnny Nelson said Tuesday he had been informed of the matter by Sheriff Gary Hutchins and county attorney Mickey Moses. Nelson said he basically supports the county's position and the decision not to ignore the issue.
Heilig said Friday that the Concerned Citizens cannot say if the gravesites have been disturbed, but only that he believes the current state law effecting gravesites has not been appropriately enforced by the county.
"We will not take a position on whether any of the individual graves have been disturbed or not," Heilig said. "Our position is that the law requires a specific process in this matter and that law has not been followed."
Rabun said timber on the property was clear-cut and the lot was graded prior to her purchasing the property. Evident Friday was result of prior work, with only a handful of trees, and virtually no other vegetation on the property. The largest assemblage of trees on the acreage is the small clump of a half dozen hardwoods at the rear of the parcel. Nestled between the trees are two headstones and several small broken pieces of what appear to have been grave markers. What appeared to be a piece of a marker was found approximately 50-feet away at the rear property line.
Former property owner Janet Cobb said Tuesday that she purchased the land in March 2000 and had noted the cemetery listed on the plat from a 1994 survey. Having been previously clear cut, Cobb had the lot cleaned up and graded, leaving intact the two existing headstones located inside the clump of trees at the rear of the property. She said the area of the trees and headstones was encircled by a small fence, which she also left intact.
Contacted Monday, Wrens resident Ernest Clements said during his survey he recalled very few graves that could be distinguished on the property. He did remember several instances of earth sinking, possibly from old graves and one headstone with the name Brown inscribed on it. All evidence he found of a cemetery on the property was contained in the area he specified on the plat and labeled "very old cemetery," he said.
Last week, Lewis said that the issues surrounding the cemetery deserve to be remedied for the sake of its historical significance and out of respect to those buried there.
"This issue is a matter of defending people who cannot defend themselves," said Lewis. "It was the slaves who tilled the soil so someone else has to speak for them and defend them now."
Joe Rabun, husband of the property owner, summed up his experiences with the controversy Tuesday, questioning why, after several weeks had passed since the concerns over the cemetery first surfaced, he was not contacted by the county until March 15.
As of Tuesday afternoon the question of who is legally responsible for the investigation of the site remained unresolved, with the county maintaining its position and residents such as Alda Farmer seeking what she called "justice."
At press time Tuesday the county commission had not responded to requests for possible updates other than the position taken at the March 12 regular session.
Wrens hosts gourd festival
By Parish Howard
Wrens Better Home Town Inc. is gearing up for Saturday, March 23 and the city's third annual gourd festival.
"We're really excited about it," City Administrator Donna Scott Johnson said Monday. "It's looking like its going to be a great day and we're hoping for a big turnout."
This year's festival is expected to last throughout the day, with special additions to the usual crowd of arts, crafts and food vendors.
Charlotte Durrence, membership secretary for the Georgia Gourd Society, said that her organization plans to bring several booths to this year's festival.
Among them will be their usual handmade gourd crafts. They also intend to sell supplies commonly used in creating similar crafts from the the dried fruit.
"We'll also be giving demonstrations throughout the day in painting, leather dying, weaving, carving and woodburning," Durrence said. "We should also have a booth exhibiting gourd crafts from all over the world."
Attendees can take part in this year's "Fashion with Gourds" contest where entrants compete with original gourd-made jewelry, hats, clothes, shoes and more. Entry into the contest is $5 and a cash prize will be awarded.
"We're also asking local businesses and homeowners to take part in our gourd display contest," Johnson said. "We've had some great displays in past years and everyone looks forward to them."
Better Home Town Inc. judges will be looking for displays this week, preceeding Saturday's festival.
The Special event actually begins Friday night, March 22, with the Miss Gourd Princess Pageant being held at Jefferson County High School. This, the festival's second annual pageant, will begin at 7 p.m. and will feature participants who are in grades Pre-K through five.
On Saturday morning, the John Franklin Wren Daughters of the American Revolution will be hosting a homecooked country buffet of ham, sausage, grits, eggs and biscuit at Howard Manor at 105 North Main Street downtown. Plates are $7 a piece and the proceeds will go to further renovation of the house.
Talent presented on the main stage throughout the day will include a local bagpiper, Jefferson County High School Chorus, Wrens United Methodist's Walk of Faith, the Country Kickers, Kevin McDonald, Footloose and Fancy Free Cloggers, Praise Deliverance Youth and Step Group and The North Jefferson Strummers.
Also throughout the day, area pilots will be landing at the Wrens airport and showing their aircraft between noon and 5 p.m. Free airplane rides will be available for youth ages 8-17 from noon to 3 p.m.
"We just think the festival is a wonderful way to promote gourds throughout the state of Georgia," Durrence said, adding that the society's president and other members plan to be on hand to show their support.
Firm hired for new law enforcement center construction
• Commissioner Isaiah Thomas said the time for a decision had come
By Ben Nelms
The long awaited decision to build the Jefferson County Law Enforcement Center came to an apparent end March 12 as county commissioners 3-2 voted to hire Massee Builders to proceed with the beginning phases of the project.
The vote, identical to that of the March 4 work session, came with reservations expressed at that meeting by Chairman Gardner Hobbs and Commissioner Paul Boulineau.
Commissioner Isaiah Thomas spoke in favor of approving Massee and architect Rusty McCall for the job, stating that the time to make a decision had come.
Phase 1 of the contract includes a Schematic Design Study of the project to help commissioners determine the feasibility of Phase 2, which includes a Design Development Document, the contract said.
That document will fix the size and character of the project as to structural, mechanical and electrical systems, materials and other items essential to the project.
Phase 2 also establishes a lump sum price for the design and construction of the center. The cost of Phases 1 and 2 is approximately $100,000.
Approval of the construction phase of the center, currently estimated at more than $5 million, must be voted on by commissioners after the completion of Phases 1 and 2.
Once completed, the facility will house a 120-cell jail, Sheriff's office, Magistrate Judge's office and 911 Center.
At the work session, Hobbs said he had understood that the county would be dealing with McCall and was recently surprised to learn that Massee was now the primary contractor with McCall working under the builder. Hobbs and Boulineau also expressed concern that, under the scenario of Massee holding the contract and McCall working under that contract, the commission would have no one looking out for the county's interests and accountable to the county for the work performed. Boulineau added that the commission might consider hiring an independent project manager to track the contractor's performance.
Massee attorney Franklin Edenfield responded, telling commissioners that Massee and McCall would be accountable to the county and that accountability would be assured through Massee's bond. Massee furnished commissioners with a qualification statement, an audit report and a list of 26 previous and ongoing construction projects.
"If you have doubts about Mr. McCall and our ability to provide you the jail you need, regardless of how those contracts are written, you don't need us to do your jail," Massee added. "You should find somebody else to do your jail. But at the same time, if you have confidence in McCall and us, then we're going to deliver the best product that we can for you, regardless of whether you have a separate contract with (McCall) or not."
Thomas told commissioners at the work session that the throughout the months of conversation the issue ultimately boils down to trust.
"Either we trust these individuals or we trust an unknown contractor out there that we no nothing about," he said. "Either way, there has to be a level of trust. And to me, I think that's the question we are dealing with now. I think I'm at the point where I trust them. A contract is not going to keep anybody from stealing from us."
Also at the work session, Hobbs countered statements he said he had heard that not enough planning had gone into the project. He referred to the discussions on the law enforcement center over the past three years and the "homemade needs assessment" the commission had undertaken. He said the board kept its commitment to keep Sheriff Gary Hutchins involved in the process. Hutchins subsequently solicited the assistance of the Georgia Sheriffs Association's John Southern, Hobbs said.
"John has not delivered on all aspects that he should have delivered on," he said. "But he has delivered and I think we've done a decent job on doing some proactive planning for this facility. I just wanted to say that."
Hobbs then referred to a Feb. 28 letter from county attorney Mickey Moses and his own statement that the board would not enter into a contract with anybody without the blessing of the county attorney.
"That doesn't mean he makes the decision," he said of Moses. "But if he does not agree, this board deserves a good rationale for the disagreement. I've asked our attorney to read this contract, to apprise us of what we need to be concerned about with this contract."
In his letter, Moses outlined the chronology of law enforcement center-related meetings held by commissioners. He advised that while legal, the undertaking was a very treacherous process and strongly recommended that commissioners hire an architect to design the building, let it out for bids and award the contract to the lowest bidder.
Voting in favor of hiring Massee for Phases 1 and 2 were Thomas, Commissioner Tommy New and Commissioner Wynder Smith. Voting against the measure were Hobbs and Boulineau.
Rural metro gets bid for county ambulance service
• Contract includes addition that when duty ambulances are out of county one will come in from Augusta
By Ben Nelms
Rural Metro ambulance received tentative approval by Jefferson County commissioners March 12 to provide emergency medical services to the county for the next three years.
Rural Metro, Gold Cross and Emanuel Medical Center submitted bids in the process. Though a number of options and alternatives were offered by bidders, Rural Metro was the low bidder of the three providers for service nearly identical to what is currently being provided.
Commissioners opted for the proposal that provides two, 24-hour Advanced Life Support ambulances and an on-truck director/manager for a cost of $17,500 per month during the first year, $18,000 per month the second year and $18,500 per month the third year.
An addition in the new contract beginning in June carries the provision that when all duty ambulances are committed to calls outside the county an ambulance from Augusta would be moved into the north Jefferson/Wrens area.
Under the current contract the county pays approximately $15,000 per month. Talks with Rural Metro last year concluded that the cost requirements would increase significantly if a new contract with the company were approved. Rural Metro had not received a rate increase for at least six years.
Rural Metro offered bids ranging from $17,500-40,800 per month depending on the services provided. Gold Cross also proposed options ranging from $30,833-49,583 per month. Emanuel Medical offered a bid of $26,667 per month for services identical to those currently being provided by Rural Metro.
Rural Metro District Manager Ernie Doss told commissioners that additional services were possible under the new contract, once recognized and successfully negotiated.
The award of the contract is contingent on approval by the Region 6 Authority in Augusta that oversees ambulance services in the area.
County administrator James Rogers told commissioners that the county should not anticipate a problem in receiving the authority's approval because Jefferson County would have sole responsibility for funding the service.