|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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