Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ghost steps

Yesterday I played a little hooky and hunted the Crackerneck Wildlife Management Area along the South Carolina/Georgia border.  This is no ordinary managed public land - it's located on on the property of the Savannah River Site, more on this in a minute.

Walking among the tall pines it occurred to me that this very same land was likely hunted by my wife's grandfather back in the 1940s, avid small game hunter that he was.  While it's not unusual to hunt in the same places as family members from earlier generations, it is a bit unusual to come back after so many years and be the first in several generations to do so.

path of Cold War secrets
At the time he lived in Ellenton, SC, one of three small towns taken over by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1950 to build the Savannah River Site, a production facility for enriching weapons-grade nuclear material.  'Taken over' is a nice way of saying the government exercised its right of eminent domain and gave the people in these towns only one choice: leave.  The families were given a matter of weeks to find a new place to live, pack up everything they owned and move.  Even some of the graves were relocated.  And there was no going back.  I'm sure they were paid a fair market price for their real estate, but they weren't compensated for having to give up their life as they'd known it.  Many of the farmers found it impossible to start over in a new town.

I'm not anti-government by any means.  Every good, stable democracy needs one and yet at the same time it's virtually impossible for any government to please all its people all the time.  This site was picked for a variety of reasons one of which was surely that it would require displacing relatively few people, same as with sites picked for dams and power plants, but that certainly didn't make it any easier on those affected.

Gandy, as he was known to my wife, carried an LC Smith 12ga that my father-in-law still owns and has earmarked for my son.  I'll confess to a small bit of envy since I've never owned a shotgun that belonged to any of my ancestors.  The South Carolina DNR has done a tremendous job of improving the bobwhite habitat in the Crackerneck area and if their budget doesn't dry up and the government doesn't decide to repossess or restrict the property again, my plan is to close the loop when my son gets old enough to shoot that gun.

If you're a history buff or just curious about the story of Ellenton and the Savannah River Site, I'd suggest starting with the website of a documentary produced a couple of years ago, Displaced.  There's an interesting picture, the first one in Gallery 4, showing several hand-painted signs tacked onto the city limit sign of Ellenton soon after notice was given to the residents.  I'd post it here but I'm not sure about the copyrights, even though we have a copy of it in our home.  It reads: It is hard to understand why our town must be destroyed to make a bomb that will destroy someone else's town that they love as much as we love ours.  But we feel that they picked not just the best spot in the US, but in the world.  We love these dear hearts and gentle people who live in our Home Town. If that doesn't sum up the irony of the event I'm not sure what does.


  1. Man, you could substitute me for you, a little farmstead south of where I live for Savanna River Site, my wife's grandfather for your wife's grandfather, your wife's grandfather's field grade elsie that is now owned by your father-in-law and is slated for your son for my wife's grandfather's elsie that is now owned by my brother-in-law and is slated for one of my sons, and our stories could be identical.

    Minus the forced relocation and nuclear weapons angle, of course. But everything else is exactly the same...

  2. Almost the same. We're pretty sure my brother-in-law would pawn that gun or trade it for a new Ben Roethlisberger jersey if he got his hands on it.

  3. Mark,

    About a 100 miles SE of "The Bomb Plant" as folks in SE GA refer to the SRP as long as I can remember, is Ft. Stewart with a similar history of Federal condemnation as the TBP.
    289,000 acres were taken from families back in the run-up to WWII. I've known folks that were born on the lands prior to it becoming an Army base. Now, only a few relics and seemingly out of place reminders of its past exist--piles of rusted barrel hoops with the oak staves long rotted away with a ground depression and scattered bricks nearby are tip-offs of the fine art of making moonshine. Pecan groves flourishing in what would otherwise appear to be wilderness. Daffodils growing in woodlands, wisteria blooming in what would have been an old house seat are all signs of former habitation. A Model T chassis lies rusted out in the middle of impenetrable ti-ti bay. Fragments of terra cotta 100 year-old Herty cups, the predecessor of tin cups, used to collect the sap of long leaf pines to make turpentine are found scattered among 8' long "cat faces", the fat wood left behind after the tee bleed all of the sap possible and the tree cut down. The land was never worth much; sandy soil, palmetto and longleaf pine held together by tendrils of thick ti-ti bays and swamp runs. I've hunted with now gone Berle who was born on the land before it was Fort Stewart. He showed me where the turkeys were then and still are. The land was willingly sold by some out of patriotic motives but some of it was sold below market price, practically given away, to unscrupulous land agents with unwritten promises of return after the war as the base expanded. Almost 60 cemeteries exist with the earliest burial in 1820. In 1733, General James Oglethorpe established Fort Argyle 3 miles upriver on the Ogeechee from the intersection of the Canoochee and Ogeechee Rivers, all within Stewart. The towns and settlements of Clyde, Willie, Taylor's Creek and Letford were taken in by the present Fort. It is still a beautiful place with some of the finest old growth long leaf pine forests in the South. Both feathered and fur game abounds. It has been open to the public for hunting since the 1960s and the Army has been for the most part excellent stewards.
    However, all it takes is the stroke of a pen to change public access for hunting and fishing forever. Selfishly I hope it doesn't happen in my lifetime.

  4. Yep, still called the bomb plant by everyone in those parts. Now's the time to be increasing opportunities for public access, not decreasing them. Hope the guys with the pens see it the same way.