The Southern politician was a character unto himself. Often stereotyped in books and movies, the character extended into the 1900s. Portrayed with a quick wit, cigar and suspenders, he was a favorite with the rural electorate.
A man fitting this mold was Columbia County's jovial Oliver Hardy Sr. - the father of the famous comedian, whose family had migrated to the area from nearby Lincoln County in the early 1800s.
Hardy Sr. and his movie star son would share many similarities, even though Hardy Sr. died in his son's infancy. Both rotund, moon-faced men shared a love of food and a warm camaraderie with people, and each would marry three times.
At the height of his career, the elder Hardy was the consummate politician. He said that he was a candidate for life, until he got beat. Admirers said he was as debonair and nimble as a French dancer when politicking with the ladies for their husbands' votes. And it was frequently quipped among friends that "they did not know if Oliver ate to live or lived to eat."
Born in 1841, Hardy would become Columbia County's tax collector. It was jokingly said he knew everyone worth knowing in Columbia County. Come election time, he could be seen kissing babies and courting voters with much handshaking and back-slapping.
Hardy Sr. know how to play to an audience, a trait his son would later inherit. But above all, the elder Hardy realized where his power came from: his friends and voters.
The well-liked farmer and county official came along at a time when it was important to be known as a Confederate veteran, having served and been wounded in battled during the Civil War. As a former soldier of the "Lost Cause," he was looked upon as a folk hero, and that was an advantage in the political arena.
Another tradition of that era involved political rallies. These Democratic extravaganzas - with all the barbecue you could eat - were festive events eagerly awaited by the electorate during the campaigns.
The elder Hardy's uncle, S.C. Lampkin, a former state senator and representative from the area, many times held his barbecue in conjunction with Hardy at election time. Politicians knew that more than any other local cuisine, barbecue drew voters from miles around.
Hardy held his political posts in the 1870s and 1880s. His tax-collecting duties called for him to meet at a specified location in each tax district at two different times for residents to pay their county taxes. If a taxpayer did not appear at one of the appointed times, the sheriff would be sent to look for him.
Hardy's first wife died not long after their marriage. For a while, he lived around what was known as the Central community, between the Harlem and Grovetown area. His second marriage, to Cornelia E. Magruder, produced two children, George and Lillian, while living at this locality.
Subsequently, Hardy moved to the city of Harlem where he became a town councilman and a neighborhood salesman. With his likeableness as a leader and organizer, on many occasions he held literary meetings for the public at his home. Legend has it his home was near where a laundry now stands in downtown Harlem.
During this time, an unpopular law required farmers to fence in their grazing animals to keep them from roaming about on other people's property. The "fencing resolution" did not sit well with some voters. Hardy kept a middle-of-the-road opinion, not wanting to rock the boat. Some opponents used it to their benefit. Ultimately, the fencing resolution helped bring his downfall at the ballot box when he aspired for higher office.
After Cornelia Hardy's death in 1888, Hardy would later fall in love with widow Emily Norvell Tant and marry in 1890. Both brought ready-made families to the nuptials. The couple eventually moved to Madison, Ga., where they ran the Turner-Butler Hotel near the railroad station.
In January 1892, Emily Hardy returned to Harlem and gave birth to a son, Norvell Hardy, at her parents' home. A few months thereafter, his father, Oliver Hardy Sr., died suddenly and was buried at the Harlem Cemetery next to his second wife.
Emily Hardy and the children later settled in Milledgeville, Ga., where she became manager of the Baldwin Hotel and would marry once more. After a few years of college, the young Norvell Hardy changed his name to Oliver Hardy. He then left for a film colony in Jacksonville, Fla., before finding his way to the bright lights of Hollywood. His mother, Emily Hardy, lived until 1948, when she died at her home in Atlanta.
The Oliver Hardy name and tradition lived on in the comedic antics of the younger Hardy, who teamed with Stan Laurel on the silver screen. The legendary duo brought laughter to millions until Hardy died in Hollywood in 1957.
On the first Saturday in October, the city of Harlem annually opens its doors to the fun and festivities of the Oliver Hardy Festival along the downtown streets of his hometown. The crowd seems to increase each year, and the excitement is enjoyed by all. High above, painted on a water tank, a portrait of Oliver Hardy gazes down on the throngs of visitors and locals alike. Along the pathway the old Harlem theater has caricatures on its side of the famed actors of yesteryear.
Worldwide interest in the old Laurel and Hardy movies has grown in recent years, helping the comedy team's legacy endure. Many fan clubs, or "tents," have been established. Locally, the signatures of Oliver Hardy - father and son - share a place in the pages of Columbia County history.
Charles Lord, of Grovetown, is a Columbia County historian.
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