“Oh, that my words were now written! Oh that they were printed in a book!
– Job 19:23
I admit it. There were times when I wondered if the Columbia County history book I began writing nearly 15 years ago would ever be published. But today, if you are reading these words, the dream my friend local artist Lynell Widener and I had more than 25 years ago has finally come true. “You do the words,” she said, “and I’ll paint the pictures.”
We had many things in common, Lynell and I. We were neighbors, our boys – her David, my Andy – were classmates at Bel Air Elementary School, and we each wrote a column for The News-Times – hers on art, mine on the topic du jour.
Our boys grew; we lost touch for a while, but re-established contact when the book opportunity came up. Her lovely painting of the diversion dam behind the Savannah Rapids Pavilion graces the cover of the book we call As Long As the Rivers Run. The title refers to a phrase used by Native Americans to signify how long they expect to honor a treaty they had just made with their new white neighbors.
What began as a thumbnail sketch of Columbia County from 1750 to the 21st century soon evolved into a more detailed but select account of the people and events in county history from her first known inhabitants, circa 4,000 BC to the end of the 19th century, with an overview of the more recent years. Also, the more I learned, and the more I realized how quickly history in general is fading from all our lives, the project acquired another purpose: relating Columbia County history to what was going on in the region and the world at the same time.
But this is more than a county story, much less that of just one Georgia county. Our settling and settlers, challenges and achievements, are but a microcosm of all settlements, her record part of the fabric of all places and the people who migrated there. It also is a specific story with outstanding players, including state and national leaders, Georgia’s only (two) signers of the US Constitution, and the founders and first presidents of all three major universities in the state: Emory, Mercer, and the University of Georgia.
But how could I, a Yankee author, write this Southern tale? How could I follow the advice of those who say, “You cannot write history as a spectator; you must become part of the story?” The answer came with time, perhaps time enough to absorb the words of Georgia historian Charles C. Jones Jr., that “Writing history is less a delay than a growth.” However, there were pivotal moments during that growth when I realized that I, too, was part of that fabric of all places, even a county south of the Mason-Dixon Line. One moment stands above all the rest.
As a member of the Augusta Genealogical Society, I had just attended a lecture about some of the early settlers of this part of Georgia. The program, held on a summer evening at the Augusta Museum of History, was especially interesting to the descendents of those settlers, but from the beginning of the evening my spirits began to sag. Other than to gather information for my history book, I had no connection to any of the stories I heard, no smile of recognition to match those around me who could say with pride, “That was my family; this is my heritage.”
I left at dusk, drove west on Greene Street toward the Calhoun Expressway and glanced to the right. There, in the darkening sky, loomed the unmistakable silhouette of a massive, 168-foot chimney towering over the Harrisburg section of the city, the only remaining structure of the expansive Confederate Powderworks that lined both banks of the Augusta Canal during the Civil War – and I remembered.
Back in my home town of Milo, Maine, in the front row of the town cemetery and facing another thoroughfare, stand three weathered grave stones bearing the names of my own ancestors who fought in the Civil War. They might not have fought for the Confederacy and they were not among the 360,000 Union soldiers to die in battle, but they endured the same conflict, experienced similar horrors and hardships, and fought as hard for what they believed as their temporary enemy to the south.
Suddenly I knew: This war, all wars, are uniters as much as dividers. The Confederate chimney, the Union graves, the passion of belief on both sides all scream to the passer-by: “We were in this together!” And today as I pass that magnificent monument several times a week, I’d like to think we also say, “Let’s not do this again!”
One story of many: war and peace, settling and upheaval, heartache and victory. The fabric of all stories, the substance of all times – including mine.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. This column is an excerpt from the preface of her just-published book, As Long As the Rivers Run: Highlights of Columbia County’s Past, available in hardback and paperback at The News-Times office. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)