Legend and lore tell us that the Ogeechee River begins at the foot of the Great Ridge, in a swamp, “a greesey Marle of various colours” known as Buffalo Lick. 1*
More precisely, it begins at the confluence of a North Fork and a South Fork in modern-day Taliaferro County, Georgia. From there the Ogeechee’s free-flowing black waters travel toward the Atlantic coast south of Savannah, where they ramify into salt marshes and are subsumed in the tidewater.
The character of the upper river is such that if you talk to an Ogeechee riverman (or woman) of a certain generation and ask them:
“If you had to tell someone who had never seen that river, how would you describe it to them?” you often get the same response: “Mine.”
“That’s the way I’d tell people,” says Cliff Thomas, Jr. “That’s my river. And I take pride in saying it, but anybody you meet on the river is going to tell you exactly that.” This is true in a figurative sense, and it is also true by law.
Thomas is 72 years old, a kindly man who was baptized on the banks of the Ogeechee and whose passion—setting aside his love for his wife, Beverly—is jack fishing in those same waters. “It was always just accepted as a public river,” he says, “but really it’s not. The Ogeechee River is different, in that if you own just this side, you own to the center run of the river…but if you own both sides of the river, you own the river.”
There’s no commercial easement on the Ogeechee. No hydroelectric dams. No levees. No impediments to the river’s will and no barriers to travel, save snags and stumps and the occasional sandbar—or, alternately, the unladen piers of disused railway trestles, or the wrack of somebody’s fishing camp, their deer stand, or some other once-hopeful, man-made structure, since swept aside by flood or the river’s constancy.
As for the public—you and me and other recreators of various kind and skill—we can access the Ogeechee at any number of river crossings, beaches and boat ramps and paved landings, which may be managed and monitored, derelict, or given to nature, but are never quite forlorn.
Among the busiest of these pull-outs is Morgan’s Bridge at Highway 204, which was formerly Morgan’s Ferry and before that Monroe’s Ferry, the riverbank there part of lands granted by the King of England to the forebears of Monroe “Brunson” Schuman.
Brunson’s father, L.M.H. Schuman (for the record), moved up on the river in 1949 and opened a fishing camp, where he had 10 paddleboats and five bateaus to let. Today, his son, our Brunson, now 81 years of age, owns three and a half miles of riverfront and 450 acres of swamp, “good for nothing but growing trees and hunting and fishing, and that’s the way we like it.”
1* As William Bartram (1739–1824) wrote in his Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, “The whole lick may take up an Acre & half of ground & some holes 5 or 6 feet deep. The land descends gradually & a little ways farther down becomes moist & springey from whence proceeds a gully, but this being a very dry Season found no water until We had gone near a mile down it. Passing by other small licking Pits, we come to a lively stream that made in from a cane bottom. This is said to be the head of Grt. Ogechee River.”
“It used to be very a clean river,” Brunson says. “When I was a kid you could actually drink out of it…say you were fishing and you were thirsty, my daddy thought nothing of getting a mouthful of water and drinking it, but you wouldn’t want to do it today.”
Today, the river is beset. In 2011 there was a fish kill at Dover below King America Finishing, Inc. (and just above Brunson’s home). King America produces flame-resistant fabrics and the plant, albeit subject to stringent testing, continues to discharge treated effluent into the river. According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, there are no fewer than 98 such active permits, industrial and municipal, belonging to wastewater treatment plants and other, similar facilities along the 254-plus miles of the Ogeechee’s run.
It is possible, if not probable, that Larry Lucas would have rescued one of Mr. Schuman’s boats back when he was a boy. “Everybody had bateaus, and they’d rent ’em out—you know—paddle or whatever you want, and every time the river would flood, boats would break loose. You’d find them floating up and down the river. So, me and my cousin, we’d catch the boats, and if it had a number written down, we’d call people up and they’d pay us a reward.”
“We were kind of poor,” Larry says. “Weekends, my father would drop us off in the swamp up on 204. He’d leave us with, you know, maybe a pot and a pan, maybe a bag of potatoes—whatever we could scramble up—and then he’d come to get us two, three days later. I learned to survive like that.”
In part because of this, Larry is a badass. 2*
He got drunk when he was 18 and joined the army, where (he says), “I told them things they didn’t know about the swamp.”
These days, Larry is a habitué of Steel Bridge—a river landing just a little bit upriver from where he would go as a kid. He spends his afternoons there in the shade, among a circle of friends and passersby, and whosoever’s off the river. It doesn’t matter to him. “It’s one thing about the river,” he says.
"It's a natural bond. Man needs help—go help him. Man needs anything—he don't have to ask.
“We always help each other. We don’t lie to each other, and damn sure don’t steal. Nobody—nobody—on the river likes a thief. If you’re ever branded a thief, you’re not welcome on the river. And word spreads fast.”
2* Larry Lucas served as a scout (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) during the Vietnam War. As he tells it, “If we knew we was going on a mission, we wouldn’t shower, wouldn’t bathe for two or three days, and all we would eat is what they eat. Never use underarm or aftershave lotion, or shaving cream. None of that stuff. We’d eat dried minnows and rice, just like they did. The kimchi. Lot of garlic in it. Shoot, I used to love that. I love kimchi.” To this day, you can see the scar at his neck where once “they” tried to cut off his head, and his head has a slight, quizzical wobble to it when he’s talking to you.
Where the law leaves off, life on a privately-owned river that is at once publicly-accessible relies on common courtesy and commonplace etiquettes. Rosemary Stokes and her family have been living on the river since before she was a little girl. The Ogeechee is a place where cousins grow up like brothers and sisters, because everybody always comes back to the same place, and she remembers days when she would sit with her cousins all in a circle on the bottom of the river, hosting underwater tea parties. The water was that clear.
Rosemary explains property rights on the river thusly: “If a man comes up the river in a boat and he’s floating free in the lake (which everybody in the world does) he’s fine. I can’t tell him he’s got to go—”
“Even though we own all the way around it.” (Her mother, Nell Stokes, has a dry humor.)
“—But if he anchors out or if he ties up, I can make him untie, which we wouldn’t do—
“Well,” Nell confesses, “I have felt like doing that once or twice. Used to be years ago, I’d be sitting on the porch, and there’d be plenty of places to fish everywhere, and they’d come fish right in front of my porch.” So on the Ogeechee there’s the law qua law, and then there’s the court of public opinion.
Cliff Thomas tells a story about a man, “I’m guessing he owned two to three thousand acres of land, and he owned both sides, so he could physically put a fence across there and restrict any kind of traffic… but he couldn’t enforce it. Someone jumped up in court and said, ‘Yeah, he might can put it up, but it won’t be there in the morning!’
“You see,” Cliff says. “Everybody has fished in there so long, and there’s so many of us, that it was a touchy subject. Any kind of threat—contamination going in there like that fish kill—people here, they’ll do some bodily harm.”
Rosemary and her sister, Doris, talk of worms and crickets, of the different smell of a river cabin (that could just be the smell of childhood), and of the smell of the river itself back when.
“You know when you’re near it,” Rosemary says.
“It’s like smelling fresh rain,” Doris suggests, and pretty soon they are talking about the rope swing at Cason’s Landing…or how if you were looking for somebody in the county on a weekend in the summer, you could be sure they’d show up at Steel Bridge sooner or later… and about Dasher’s Landing, where you hardly ever had any trouble, but every once in a while there’d be a live band and that’s when things would get rowdy.
But at some point, no matter who you speak with, talk will pass to how the Ogeechee has changed and how it’s deteriorated.
“It used to be the cleanest river in Georgia, a long time ago,” Nell says, having listened to her daughters’ reminiscence, “but not anymore. It used to be so clear and all, and through the years it’s got crud all in it.”
“The river was clean on up into the 1950s,” Brunson Schuman insists, “but they really messed it up.”
“I don’t respect the fact that they are blatantly violating the law with no punishment," Cliff Thomas says.
"And these politicians in Atlanta, somebody should beat their behinds for permitting it."
Below Morgan’s Bridge, the Ogeechee flows past Dasher’s Landing and beneath I-95 to King’s Ferry, where you’ll find Love’s Seafood. Its proprietor, Obadiah “Fulton” Love, grew up on the river and made his living in the fishery. “There used to be a large shad-fishing industry here,” Fulton says. “You would have between 75 and 100 shad fishermen during the run, and we used to ship an 18-wheeler twice a week to New York. That would be 25 to 35,000 pounds of shad that went out of this river up that way.”
Fulton and a man named J.M. Sikes were the last two catfishermen on the river, when the so-called broke nights—nights when they wouldn’t be fishing—were few and far between. That changed in 2011 with the fish kill: “We quit,” Fulton says, “because we didn’t want to make nobody sick.”
His friend and colleague, J.M. Sikes, is a “character” as people around here like to say. 3*
He is a beekeeper now, and his tupelo honey is much sought after, being the product of a species of tupelo, Ogeechee nessa, which is particular to the region and the river.
“For years and years it was nice for everybody,” J.M. says of the lower river. “But it done changed a hell of a lot. That water was messed up long before the fish kill, I can tell you. Killed all them baby shad and everything else spawning in there. They ruint that river.”
Fishermen are by nature a hopeful lot, and so in the very next breath, J.M. says, “I believe if we can control the damn chemicals going in that river, it will come back. It will definitely come back. Might take ‘em a little while, but they will. Fulton can tell you… ”
“Boy, I tell you,” Fulton says. “Sturgeon is making a comeback.”
He sits there on his patio, below a sign that reads LIFE IS BETTER AT THE RIVER, enjoying its breezes as he reminisces about the days of Ogeechee caviar, once prized in New York City in the years before they shut the fishery down. “We see ’em jump out there all the time now. Good-sized fish, too. Two-hundred-pound fish. The other day they caught one six-foot down next to the mansion.”
Fulton is referring to Henry Ford’s Vallambrosa Plantation just downriver, where Ford and Thomas Edison and George Washington Carver once hoped to discover a source of synthetic rubber. 4*
There was industry on the Ogeechee long before that, of course, and as more than one developer is wont to say, “The river has always sold itself.”
Nell Stokes will curse the jetskis that ride too close to her dock and she knows well enough that they are laying pipes for a new wastewater plant in Guyton, situated in the floodplain just a few miles from her longtime home. Even so, she says, “Most people that live on the river are pretty generous people. Because the river is for everybody.”
A river is a hard thing to share.
3* Dinkie Minor tells a story about when J.M. Sikes got audited by the IRS. “J.M. gathered up everything he could find—every grocery receipt—and put it in a greasy brown paper bag. He put crab bait in his jacket pockets before he went to meet with the lady downtown. (He said he knew he had her when he walked in the office and she got out a handkerchief, poured perfume on it, and held it to her nose.) Turns out that if you’re illiterate, if you can’t read or write, by law they have to help you with your taxes. So J.M. dumped that bag of receipts on the table and told the lady he was illiterate and that he needed her help. He said, ‘Ma’am, now, I want to cooperate, but the next time we meet I want you to come down to my office on the river where I’m crabbing.’ She agreed to do it, and J.M. has never heard from the IRS since."
4* As recounted in Quentin R. Skrabec’s The Green Vision of Henry Ford and George Washington Carver: Two Collaborators in the Cause of Clean Industry: “Ford believed that the project would energize an aging Edison. Mrs. Edison noted in the late 1920s, ‘Everything has turned to rubber in our family. We talk rubber, think rubber, dream rubber. Mr. Edison refuses to let us do anything else…’ Henry Ford started to build an extensive new rubber laboratory for Edison in Ways, Georgia [since re-named Richmond Hill], but Edison would die before completion.”