A Natural Born Citizen: How The West Was Won and Where It Got Us

Blood from a stone

Water from wine

Born under an ill-placed design

A stroke of bad luck,

Wrong place, wrong time

This flier is out of the lime

The story is a sad one, told many times

The story of my life in trying times

Just add water, stir in lime

How the west was won and where it got us

–R.E.M.

Forts like Fidius and the 1797 west bank Fort Wilkinson on the Oconee River evolved into townships and communities with cool, unique names like Blood Town, which was near Fort Wilkinson. When whites dared establish structures outside fort walls, the west was won. Houses ranged from plantations to shotgun shacks. In Milledgeville’s early days, there were public springs. There were taverns, hotels, and public toilets. There was at least one “whorehouse,” which Mulford writes in 1809 on a map, “these [houses] are plenty, and make money out of the adventurous old Bachelors of this town” (Mulford Map). Before the bridge across the Oconee was built that Sherman will burn, there were ferries across like Fluker’s, Holt’s, and Bolan’s.

Milledgeville was born a capital in the fading light of an Indian war dance,” says Nelle Womack Hines, historian and writer. “It died a capital city in the fading light of a burning bridge as Sherman passed on. (Perkerson 65)

Mulford Map of Milledgeville 1808
Mulford Map: 6 July 1809

When the Oconee water level stages low, ruins of the old bridge are a common sight, sitting like an island of rubble mid river. The pylons were made of brick, and they wash when it floods. On occasion, I find a white brick one with Dixie imprinted and fired into its center.

Emma Johnekin was shot three to four times in Oconee Heights, which would’ve been near/ if not Blood Town. The place with its many names is on the way from Milledgeville to Midway where Central State Hospital is located, which, again, was once called the Georgia Lunatic Asylum.

Naturally, some of Milledgeville’s first communities appeared along the Oconee River. Stembridge Road is the main road through a community once known as Salem, which was/is east of the Oconee River on the way to Deepstep. Much of the land Stembridge Road traverses had been in Marion Wesley’s family for years. Marion’s grandfather is listed on a Baldwin County, Georgia census as far back to 1870 as a farmer in the Salem Community within Baldwin.

Stevens Pottery is/was somewhere in southwest Baldwin. Less than five miles downriver from the vacant and overgrown historic site where there’s no fort at all, Fort Wilkinson is just a notorious open spot in the woods where people sell and use drugs, directly across the highway from Central State. Wilkinson is particularly directly across the highway from the building that houses US war veterans. Fort Wilkinson is nothing more than a historic marker posted on Vinson Highway and a place to turn around if the fallen tree didn’t block the lot. What was bought and sold there doesn’t much matter these days. The site is not maintained by the state of Georgia, the county of Baldwin, or the city of Milledgeville. If it’s supposed to be maintained by anyone, it’s not.

Hamp Brown Bottom is where the Greenway is now. No one calls the places these names anymore unless he/she studies too much history then one begins to see ghosts almost and call things names that others don’t. A person begins to imagine things that aren’t there, or aren’t anymore. Hamp Brown Bottom used to come alive at night with juke joints along the river’s edge just like Alice Walker writes about the joint in The Color Purple. Although she’s from twenty mile away Eatonton, Alice Walker lived in Milledgeville for about a year when she was young. As I understand it, it was here where her eye was blinded by her brother’s BB gun.

There was Sand Town near the plantation Mount Nebo on Lake Laurel Road, which was once Route 22 just six miles from Milledgeville. Nothing remains of Mount Nebo besides its dual white pillars and the likelihood that it was named after the mountain where Moses was shown the Promised Land over the River Jordan. There was Dovedale in northwest Baldwin. Dog Town, on Fishing Creek, is/was where the first governor’s house was located when Governor Irwin and his wife arrived in a caravan shortly after Milledgeville was named capital.

The most forgotten of the towns is Old Oconee Town where Indian Island is that’s a native burial site. I hear people go dig around there from time to time with shovels, which is sad. Old Oconee Town is near a road that’s still called Indian Trail Road. Most of these places are within a ten mile radius if one drew a big circle, and the Oconee would cut through the middle as a line as crooked as a snake.

Salem Community: 1892

Late August 1892 on a summer day in Georgia on the Lower River Road across the Oconee River from Milledgeville, twenty-five year old Mary L. Stembridge delivers a son into the world. It was, most likely, typical August heat. Mary saw her baby boy’s face for the first time wiped with blood and crying. Mary’s skin must’ve beaded with sweat after childbirth. Mary’s husband, John Wesley Stembridge, was no doubt a proud father that day as a gentle breeze might’ve gifted itself through open windows. As the day became night in a time before air conditioners and electric fans, Mary and John Wesley Stembridge will say the baby boy’s name: Marion Wesley.

Saint-Miels, France: 1918

By June of 1917, Mary’s baby, Marion Wesley Stembridge, has grown up to be a young man. Civilization is modernizing, and the Stembridge family farm has endured for generations in the Salem Community just across the river from Milledgeville. In the nights for perhaps generations, they might’ve dreamed of becoming merchants and growing a business in downtown, leaving the farm.

In the year America enters its first World War with America’s first transatlantic offensive soon to occur in Saint-Miels, France, Marion is described as “a natural born citizen” with “blue” eyes and “brown” hair. Marion is “tall” either describing himself or is being described by the United States Army registrar who is officially enlisting the “slender,” “single,” and “Caucasian” Marion into the military. By 1917, Marion is near his mother Mary’s age when she birthed him, sweating and bloody. But, by the summer of 1917, Mary’s baby boy may go to war dressed as a soldier in the classic tan uniform of The United States America’s doughboys.

Almost summer, the Georgia sun must have beat down on Marion as he signs his life over to the Army, knowing he’d be going to Georgia’s newly established Fort Gordon.

Almost two years prior to Marion’s draft, a German U-20 had torpedoed the British luxury ocean liner, Lusitania, as she approached the British Isles after her transatlantic return from New York, but she never made Liverpool. She sank in 18 minutes in sight of the Irish coastline as 128 Americans died among the 1,198 passengers and crew who either drowned or had died by the torpedo impact and subsequent explosions. It will take a year for young America to stand next to Britain who’d been at war with Germany for several years before 1917. Only a few months after America declares war on Germany, Marion Wesley Stembridge is called to serve.

Germany’s second decision to re-implement unrestricted submarine warfare against civilian ships, declaring the waters around the British Isles a war zone, spurred young America to finally come to Britain’s aid two years after the Lusitania faltered—her hull penetrated, sinking to depths that remain unexplorable. She had been christened at her 1906 launch: Mary Lady Inverclyde. Marion Wesley wasn’t yet six years old when Mary Lady Inverclyde made her maiden voyage upon the Atlantic’s waves instead of deep into the Atlantic near ten years later.

 

 

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References:

Handwritten Map: Mulford. Milledgeville, GA: Mulford, 6 July 1809.

Perkerson, Medora Field. White Columns in Georgia.Crown Publishers, 1952.

Registration Card. 5 June 1917, Selective Service Act of 1917. Georgia.

Registrar’s Report. 5 June 1917, Selective Service Act of 1917. Georgia.

R.E.M. “How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us.” Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Michael Mills, Michael Stipe. New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Warner Brothers Records. 1996.

 

 

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