Tifton’s Love Story: Part Two

Mrs. Peeples is in the photo above. She was Tifton's first librarian. Bessie Tift, Mrs. N. Peterson, and other members of the Twentieth Century Library Club established Tifton's first library. These photos, along with other photos, historic documents and scrapbooks will be on display at the "A Century of Progress, Plus Ten" and "Faces" exhibit at Tifton's Museum of Arts and Heritage. See below for more information. 

Stained glass windows at the first brick church in Tifton, the church built by Henry Tift. 

In the 1860s Henry Tift came to Georgia from Connecticut to work for his uncle in Albany. Henry’s uncle, Nelson Tift, needed an expert machinist in his manufacturing company. Through hard work and as a result of the extensive knowledge and skills he had gained through five years working as a marine engineer operating between New York and Southern ports, Henry quickly became an asset to his uncle in Albany.

Henry had a vision though, and he imagined great possibility in the virgin pines in Berrien County, an area that is now Tift County. He crossed the Flint River to the wiregrass section of southern Georgia and built his sawmill. In those early years in this place we now call Tifton, Henry lived a rugged pioneer life with little comforts. His tenacious spirit and determination sustained him, and he became one of the most successful, wealthy, and beloved men in Georgia.

In the beginning, before Henry met Bessie Willingham, he named his new village growing around the Tift Sawmill, Lena, after a sweetheart he left behind up North. But later, one of his sawmill workers, George Badger, decided the village should honor its founder.  Badger nailed a sign that spelled out TIFTON on a pine tree, a combination of Tift and Town.

It was 1869 when Henry received the invitation from his uncle to come south; it was 1872 when he built his sawmill in what is now Tifton; and in 1885 he married Bessie Willingham, one of seventeen children born at a plantation in South Carolina, and all thoughts of Lena were forgotten. Bessie had attended school at Penfield Academy in Penfield, Georgia and at Madison University in New York. Records show that Bessie must have been an accomplished vocalist. She was the featured vocalist for many programs at the Bowen Opera House over the years.

As I stated in Part One of this series of stories, Henry was twenty years older than Bess. He was a handsome man, not tall, but he had the posture of a military officer and gentle blue eyes. Bess was a beautiful and accomplished woman. Both Henry and Bess were respected and loved in Tifton for their generosity and service to those less fortunate.

After Tifton struggled through suspicious fires and several wooden churches burned and were completely destroyed, Henry built the first brick church. Today that church is known as Tifton Museum of Arts and Heritage. In Part One, I described the rare beauty of the church with its virgin heart pine floors and walls, stunning stained glass windows, and vaulted ceiling built to resemble a ship’s hull. The residents of Tifton must have been in awe of such a beautiful building located in their community; it was a jewel among a growing sawmill town.

Another magnificent building in Tifton at the time was the Sadie Hotel, located where the Myon Hotel/City Hall is today.

Upon arrival, Bessie, a woman of faith, was disappointed to find no Baptist Church in Tifton. She and other Baptists joined together and held church in a frame house beside a cotton field. Bess and Henry owned the house and lot. This small framed building was initially used for four things: church, school, courthouse, and local meeting house. It was destroyed by fire in 1888, three years after Bessie arrived in Tifton.

In 1901 Henry purchased from the Methodists a church he himself had given generously to build, and renamed it the Bessie Tift Chapel. He moved the chapel to the cotton mill village where it remains to this day, though it is no longer in use and is on its deathbed. Henry wanted a church at the cotton mill for all denominations to worship.

If you remember, Bessie had initially refused Henry’s proposal of marriage because he didn’t attend church regularly, yet after their marriage Henry gave generously to guarantee that Tifton had places for worship. He built the first brick church in Tifton, now Tifton’s Museum of Arts and Heritage. And he later purchased the chapel for the cotton mill, moved it to the mill village, and named it for his wife.

To learn more about Bessie Tift, who served the longest term as president of the Tifton Twentieth Century Library Club, attend: “A Century of Progress, Plus Ten” celebration reception and “Faces” exhibit on February 7, 2015, 2:00 PM – 5:00 PM, at the first brick church built in Tifton: Tifton’s Museum of Arts and Heritage, 255 Love Avenue (beside the library) in Tifton.

The exhibit will continue to run from February 10 – 20, 2015.

For more information contact Shirene Daniell 229.382.7525 or Brenda Sutton Rose 229.386.1861.

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Tifton's Love Story: Henry & Bess

Bess Tift

Tifton’s first love story begins with Captain Henry Harding Tift and Bessie Willingham.

Henry came from Mystic, Connecticut to the South, first to Albany, and then to a wilderness of forested land, and bought acreage where huge virgin pines grew. He went on to set up a sawmill on the land. A village grew around the mill. Henry, later known as Captain Tift, continued to purchase territory until he owned more than 55,000 acres.

Henry met Bessie for the first time at the Episcopal Church in Albany. It was Easter. Spring. Southern Georgia was green and blooming with new life. Bess was wearing a stylish, modern hat belonging to her sister. Henry thought she was lovely with flawless skin and facial features, warm eyes, and thick wavy hair. 

Later, after a courtship, Bessie refused Henry’s marriage proposal. She was appalled that he didn’t attend church regularly and concerned about the twenty years difference in their ages.

Deeply in love, Henry swore to go to church with her, but he couldn’t do anything about being an older man. Determined to marry Bess, he explained that he came from a family with a history of longevity and he would probably live a long life. At that, Bess agreed to marry the handsome man with the soft blue eyes.

They spent their honeymoon in Mystic, New York, Saratoga, and Niagara. I picture the newlyweds at Niagara Falls in June of 1885, smelling the fresh cool air, listening to the thundering roar, watching the torrential crashing of the water spilling over the edge of the falls. I picture wisps of hair escaping from Bessie’s bun, hair licking over her face. I picture Henry with his arm around her. He is smiling, his eyes crinkled with happiness. Henry pulls Bess close, his face damp from mist. 

And then Henry brings his bride to live in Tifton. 1885. Life is a kaleidoscope of thrilling change.

I tell you these things to get to this— 

Imagine walking into a chapel, a sanctuary, an arts museum, surrounded by the rich heart of old pine trees from Henry Tift’s land. Imagine looking up to great vaulted ceilings and magnificent buttresses built by Yankee shipbuilders using the center of virgin trees, wood from first generation timber no longer available by the mid 20th century. Imagine a ceiling like the hull of a ship. 

The place I described exists. It is Tifton’s Museum of Arts and Heritage. 

Remember how Bess wouldn’t marry Henry unless he went to church? Well, Henry did more than attend church— after suspicious fires burned down Tifton’s wooden churches, Captain Tift supplied the lumber and brought in the laborers to build a brick church. In 1997, after extensive renovations, the church Captain Tift built was dedicated as Tifton’s Museum of Arts and Heritage. I imagine Henry built the church as much for Bess as he did for Tifton.

Inside this sanctuary turned arts museum the combination of wood and stained glass will give you pause. The wood seems reverent under the glow of stained glass windows made with colors of earth and heaven. The blues in the windows are as rich as those of Vermeer, the yellows van Gogh, the greens Monet, the reds Cezanne, and the fertile earth colors are as raw as Rembrandt’s. Imagine it. 

Henry built the church little more than 110 years ago. And Bess became a member of Tifton’s Twentieth Century Library Club during the same period of time. So what better place for a reunion of past and present? What better place for an anniversary of the Library Club that thrived under Bessie Tift, club president for thirty years? What better place to exhibit more than 400 photographs celebrating Tifton’s women?

Bessie’s club; Henry’s church.

This is a blog. And we all know that blogs shouldn’t be too long. I’ve already gone past my word limit. To be continued…

Tifton Twentieth Century Library Club 110th Anniversary
and Faces Make Places Exhibit
Opening reception will be February 7, 2015
2 PM - 5 PM with a program at 3 PM
Tifton Museum of Arts and Heritage
255 Love Avenue
Tifton, Georgia

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Vincent Keesee: An Artist, A Storyteller

This is a Keesee painting on our wall in the den.

Dr. Vincent Keesee and my husband, Richard, play bridge together every week. Their friendship began while I was studying art under the artist seven or eight years ago. Vince needed somebody to substitute and Richard was available. My husband and I agree that Vincent Keesee is a one of a kind artist and a man with a huge heart and a kind spirit.

Vince has deep southern roots and a sense of humor that smiles at you from the canvas. He depicts the beauty and drama of life in the South in his oil paintings and captures movement with little effort. His works embrace storytelling.

In this exhibit, Tifton’s renowned artist is revealing a personal side never before seen. You’ll not want to miss the painting of a young Vince and his twin brother on their family farm in Virginia. Another unique painting is of four men playing bridge. Richard refers to the work as The Bridge Game, and Richard claims he is one of the men at the card table.

There’s another side to Vince, too—the side that brings to life Biblical scenes. This exhibit will feature several familiar stories from the Bible painted in a style that is signature to Vincent’s works.

The Georgia Museum of Agriculture in Tifton is partnering with ACT (Artisans Community of the Tiftarea) in hosting the opening of a one-man exhibit showcasing his work this Thursday evening from 6 to 8pm. Many of these paintings have never before been shown.

The opening reception and exhibit will be in the GMA Lobby. Come mingle with old and new friends while enjoying light refreshments and an art lecture by Dr. Keesee. The opening reception is free and open to the community. The doors will open at 6:00. See you there!

We cherish the Christmas cards Vince and Marianne send every year. This one, sitting on my old Underwood typewriter, is called "Christmas in Virginia."

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(I wrote this poem about my mother, after her death.)

With red clay between my toes,
and the sun setting over my head,
the ghost of my mother blows in,
riding on a honeysuckle breeze, oh lord,
riding on a honeysuckle breeze.
Her teeth, the keys of a piano.

I play her grinning ivory notes
with cadenced fumbling fingers,
splattered with paint, textured with scars.
A song rises up from the belly of my past
and rocks me in the bosom of buried memories.

My mama’s dress bears the stains of her life:
blueberries, blood, bleach, and breast milk;
She cradles in her arms a lifetime of love and sorrow;
Its brilliance nearly blinds me.

My fingers tire, 
as though I've played this song for years.
The tune swells red, 

dying around the edges of a setting sun.
A magnolia breeze blows in strong, 

a heavenly taxi sent to carry my mother home. 
She will not say goodbye.
For there is no truth in spoken farewells.

I am pregnant with a poem,
my life lost in its stanzas.

My mama steps out of her dress
and drops it, an inheritance falling to my feet.
She stands alone: bathed, blooming,
burdened with nothing of this world.
Her body is naked and beautiful,
her wings gray and scorched,
her brown eyes piercing the brown of mine.

I watch her departure, her flapping wings:
She doesn’t look back, not even once,
not even to whisper my name: Brenda.

I lick the teeth of my piano mouth.

With a painter’s hands,
with a writer’s hands
with rusty wrinkled hands,
with hands soaked in the joys,
the sorrows, the spills
of my mother’s life,
I pick up eighty-one years of stains
And pull her dress over my head.

Her stains look good on me.

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A Poem: Road Trip to Snow

Road Trip to Snow
published by Flycatcher Magazine.

I swear we will never find the place. A right off
Highway 41 South. South, you tell me, nearly 
pleading, softly praying, always south.
We cruise past corduroy fields,
freshly plowed,
grooves, ridges, rows,
pressed, creased,
like brown school pants across a summer landscape. 
And I ask you
when will we arrive.
    Too late, you tell me,
                        too late.

Take a right on this dirt road,
Curling into a day splattered among four colors
and no sign of a mailbox.
By startling the crows
we paint the sky black.
This is the place,
oh God, this is the place.
Look at the birds, you say,
look at the birds.
      I look, I stare,
                        I shudder.

I follow your footprints
to the back yard and watch
you peer inside where
a door is torn away
to reveal your childhood.
Floors collapsing, boards rotting:
A room, red as liquid guilt.
A boy, a brother. A father.
A pair of brogans.
A sister (you),
a daughter (you)
praying under this starving,
broken porch.You. You. You.
The 1930s turned into the 1940s, you whisper,
    The depression
                        wouldn't let go. It wouldn't let go.

You tell me it snowed one day
and you tasted the miracle of the color white,
a handful, scooped up,
melting like hope in your mouth.
You called for your brother
who pulled himself from the silence of death,
snow dripping from his warm mouth,
a smile lifting his face, and came to
you one final time. He told you,
his little sister, a secret:
Angel's wings melt into snow.
Together, you ate handfuls of the stuff.
You tell me,
             I never tasted snow again.
                     It would never feel as good as it did that day.

Did you feel hope melting icy in your mouth
when I dampened your dying lips?
Did your son's voice cool your fevered flesh?

Did you dream of a snowy day in the 1940s
before you wore gray in your hair, and did you
savor the color white as you drifted away?
These thoughts come
storming at me like falling
angel wings after we
blanket you in the ground.

I brew, knowing the answers will not be found here.

I slide my car into reverse
but I can’t turn around;
                   I am stuck in a snowstorm.

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