In the desolate pine barrens south of Jesup, where Highway 301 shoots its arrow toward Okefenokee Swamp, the town of Broadhurst exists only in memory and revenants. It started as a turpentine camp about 100 years ago on the Savannah-to-Jacksonville rail line. Black men got work scarring pine trees until they bled, then dipping the raw gum into barrels, which were taken by mule and wagon to a rail siding. The mules worked by voice commands, moving without teamster between the dippers. The barrels were loaded into cars and taken to distilleries, where they became the substance turpentine, mostly used as a solvent but also in products like medicines and thinners.
I heard the history from Derby, who has a book about Broadhurst half written. “Many of these black families lived on-site in company shanties,” Derby told me, “depending on the commissary for food. Some of the workers came in on the chain gang, arrested for minor offenses and sent to hard labor. It was really slave labor,” he said, and he called the turpentine camp one of the last vestiges of plantation life.
By the ’50s the sun had set on turpentine, and the pine barrens began transmogrifying into plantation pines. “It’s gone,” Derby said. “Everything’s gone.” Part of a brick drying shed still stands, but otherwise Broadhurst is a stretch of pine flats speckled with low-income dwellings.
People say that the last person left in Broadhurst was a woman people called the “Broadhurst Witch.” Local historian Janet Royal told me about her. She was a thin, small African-American woman who lived at the main crossroads in the settlement. She dressed in ankle-length dresses and long sleeves and pretended to be crazy. She would dance out by the road with her hands over her head, holding a broom, muttering what seemed like curses directly at passersby. Nobody knows what happened to her or where she’s buried. In fact, nobody knows where anybody at Broadhurst is buried. “They moved the cemetery,” Royal told me.
Nowadays, Broadhurst sports an auto salvage yard and a game-processing facility beside a couple of trailer homes. The afternoon I poked around, nobody was home. The whole area looked sad and depressed, scattered with domiciles that were often dilapidated and sometimes trashy, and a few small but tidy houses. Old cars rusted in yards, and unpainted outbuildings and wheelchair ramps had been thrown together with the cheapest grade lumbers. After a crazily warm winter, real spring had arrived, and trees were budding out, photography in all chromas of green, sprayed with the red samaras of red maple and clouds of yellow jessamine climbing toward the sky. When a wind rose, pollen dispersed through the air like smoke and left its yellow dust everywhere, marbling the roadsides, dimming the windshield.
I saw a man propped in the door of his home, smoking, gazing out at a small human-made pond in his backyard. I stopped and, apologizing for my interruption of his quiet, asked what he thought about the coal ash.
“I don’t like it one bit,” he said. “Whenever they bring in cancerous material, it will kill everything. It ought to be treated like asbestos. Not dump it on us and our families and our grandchildren.”
His wife came out. She worked at the elementary school. I asked if they planned on going to the public meeting. “Naw,” the man said and fell quiet.
The man, who asked me not to use his name, had grown up in the pine barrens, wandering the woods hunting, fishing and playing. “Used to, you could walk through the woods. The trees were huge. Now it’s like that.” He pointed to the tangled, first-growth, impenetrable forest beyond his pond.
He remembered the Broadhurst Witch. As a kid, he was frightened by her, but he knows that her dancing and muttering was a defense mechanism. “She didn’t want to be messed with,” he said. “If she noticed people piddling around, she’d go out and start dancing. She did it to spook ’em off.”
He told me where the Broadhurst Witch had lived, and after I left his house, I drove there, thinking surely blue door photography savannah ga I’d find a bottle dump or some rotting pine timbers, maybe a pass-along plant that signified an old homestead. I fought my way through dewberry brambles and young pines, kicking at leaves and needles. Nothing. I saw something growing that could have been day lily, but when I stooped for a better look, found a naturalized spiderwort. That’s a weed.
Dump trucks occasionally passed, headed you know where. A couple of blood-red cardinals flew around in the leafless trees. The sun shone through tangles of gray-brown muscadine vines that made of the place a jungle, dusted yellow in the golden sun. The witch’s den was gone, completely gone.
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