THROUGH MOUNTAIN MISTS
Early Settlers of Union County, Georgia
Lifting the Mists of History on
Ethelene Dyer Jones
The poor man's
(A story of Christmas past)
The wind whipped
around the side of the boxcar as Cyril Townsend jumped from the open
doorway. He hoped none of the railroad workers at the Blue Ridge,
Georgia depot would see him as he alighted. He had boarded the
northbound train in Atlanta under cover of early morning darkness
without benefit of ticket.
In fact, if he had been caught as
a stowaway, he might have been immediately returned to state prison
where he had spent the last three years of his life. He did not
want another prison sentence, especially one not deserved.
Because he would not turn state's evidence, he had been blamed for a
crime he did not commit. Three years of convict labor was enough
to do him for a lifetime. But then again, loyalty to friends was
a long suit he wore with pride, even during the burning days of summer
and the frigid days of winter as he worked on the chain gang.
was 1910. The time was December 24, Christmas Eve. Cyril
Townsend had lost track of time, but he learned the date as he read the
headline of the paper in the Atlanta depot. He was eager to get
back to the mountains of North Georgia. Maybe there he could find
refuge and some work that would help him to get readjusted to his
moved nonchalantly through the regular passengers that alighted from
the train in Blue Ridge, he could not help but note their apparel, warm
and appropriate for the winter weather that even now threatened
snow. Most of them had trunks that were unloaded from the baggage
cars. Black porters from the local hotels and some servants from
the more notable residences in Blue Ridge were there with carriages to
meet the travelers.
waited to board the train for its journey on to Murphy, NC and into
burgeoning towns in Tennessee. "Coming home for Christmas or
going away for Christmas," Cyril Townsend said to no one in
particular. His main aim was to keep away from public notice and
gain a little perspective about his next move.
hungry. And cold. What would he do for food? Steal
again? He did not relish the recollection of stealing from a
clothesline down in Georgia the overalls and shirt he wore or the coat
he had found hanging across a seat in the Atlanta depot. He was
too near home to risk arrest from stealing, a practice his upbringing
had always taught him was wrong. Even the dire circumstances he
had been in did not calm his conscience from the thefts he had
decided to go to the back door of the Blue Ridge Hotel. Maybe
there they would have a handout of leftover food for a starved
traveler. As he approached the rear of the hotel, he was met by a
large black man. Dared he ask him for food? He hoped he
would not get the porter into trouble by doing so. Cyril devided
he wouldn't lose anything by asking.
come a long way and I don't have any money to buy food," Cyril Townsend
said. "Do you have any leftovers in the hotel kitchen that you
could give to a poor, starving traveler?"
just had a big banquet," the hotel worker said. "Wait a
minute. Sit here on the porch and I'll bring you a plate."
minutes the porter returned with a steaming plate of ham and yams,
cranberry sauce and beans, bread and hot coffee. Cyril Townsend
bowed his head in gratitude and thanked the Lord for such
provision. This act o fkindness was restoring his faith in
mankind. Maybe life on the outside of prison wouldn't be such a
hard road, after all. He thanked the porter for his
kindness. After eating, Cyril decided to wander back to the
sooner had he walked to the rail yard than he saw a farmer with a
covered wagon. The farmer was unloading gallons of sorghum syrup
onto a boxcar and still had sacks of grain in his wagon to
unload. A clerk on the boxcar was keeping a record of the produce.
Cyril said to the farmer. "Could you use some help transporting
your goods to the boxcar?"
matter of fact, I could," the farmer replied. "Grab these and
begin to tote," he said, pointing to the produce remaining on the
men worked, soon warming to the job in the cold December wind.
When the task was finished and the farmer had settled with the clerk on
satisfactory bill of lading, the farmer turned to Cyril Townsend.
leavin' on the train?" he asked.
"No. As a matter of fact, I came in on it." The farmer
didn't need to know that he, Cyril, was a free-loading passenger,
fearing all the way from Atlanta that he might be discovered in his
hiding place in a boxcar.
ya headin', then, on Christmas Eve?" the farmer asked.
hoping to go to Blairsville, Georgia," Cyril Townsend said. "I
used to live in a community near there several years ago."
climb on board," the farmer said. "I'm going there as fast as
these mules can take us."
feeling gratitude well up in himself at his good fortune, Cyril
Townsend climbed into the wagon.
name's Thomp Collins," the wagoneer said. "And who might you be?"
"I go by
the name of Cyril Townsend," the hitchhiker said.
to meetcha," Collins said. The two men did not talk much as the
mules drew the wagon along the narrow road that ran from Blue Ridge to
Morganton, through Hemp Town, and on toward Blairsville. All the
while Thomp Collins was trying in vain to remember where he'd heard the
name Cyril Townsend. And likewise, Cyril Townsend was trying to
recall if he had previously known Thomp Collins.
rhythm of the wagon over the bumpy road did not deter Cyril Townsend,
tired as he was, from falling asleep as they traveled. He
awakened after a long nap when he heard Thomp Collins saying "Whoa," to
his mules. Cyril took in the form of a substantial barn in the
dusk, and a short distance away on a rise a farmhouse with lights at
to my place," Thompson Collins said, his hand extended for a shake.
did not intend to come all the way to your house and make a nuisance of
myself to your wife and children," Cyril Townsend
Christmas Eve," Thomp Collins said. "Come and share our Christmas
Eve meal with us. Susie, my wife, always has plenty to
spare. And besides, I think you and I have something to talk
helped Thomp stable and feed the mules. All the while Cyril felt
a bit uneasy. Would this man know about his trial and
sentencing? After all, the trial did take place over three years
ago in Union County. As he pondered these questions, his tired
body seemed somehow to be drawn to the warmth and welcome of the nearby
farmhouse. What did he have to lose from sharing a Christmas Eve
house, Thompson Collins introduced his wife Susan and his children to
the stranger. The children, polite and quiet, were named Roe,
Virge, Joe and Bob. "And at Christmastime, we always remember our
little ones we lost at an early age, and we've placed a holly wreath on
their graves at Old Choestoe Cemetery," said Susan Thompson.
"Their names were Avery Cordelia, Charles Luther and Mary Rebecca."
Thomp Collins family did not seem at all surprised that a wayfarer
would share their Christmas Eve meal. Thomp showed Cyril to a
side room with a small bed, and asked the older children to bring him a
basin of warm water and fresh towels. Thomp himself laid out
clean clothes of his own for Cyril to put on after his bath.
Refreshed and clean, Cyril rejoined the Collins family. Soon they
were seated at a table laden with good food from the garm. All
bowed heads while Thomp asked the blessing. While they ate, the
question Cyril feared came.
returning from prison?" Thomp asked Cyril.
"Yes. Is it that obvious? How did you know?"
way from Blue Ridge to Blairsville, as you slept, I kept thinking that
I knew the name, Cyril Townsend. Then I remembered that you had
taken the rap for some of your friends and were imprisoned even though
you were not guilty of the crime for which you were charged. Your
case is similar to mine," Thomp Collins continued.
1875 I would not turn state's evidence. I was sent to Federal
Prison in New York. Upon my release and return two years later,
after a long, hard journey, I told Susie that as long as we had a house
and food and clothing to share, we would never again turn anyone in
need away from our door. That is why you are welcome tonight in
this house and at our table."
"Neighbors call my husband 'The Poor Man's Friend,'" wife Susie Collins
said. No matter the need, whether at Christmas or all year long,
he is quick to respond when he meets someone whose pain and suffering
he can relieve."
night on the clean bed in Thomp Collins' house, Cyril Townsend resolved
that as soon as he was on his feet again, he would adopt the same motto
as that of Thomp Collins: "The poor man's friend," and seek to
make it his life principle.
Jones; published Dec. 20, 2007 in The Sentinel, Blairsville, GA.
by permission. All rights reserved.
Jones is a retired educator,
freelance writer, poet, and historian. She may be reached at
phone 478-453-8751; or mail 1708 Cedarwood Road, Milledgeville, GA
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