Fargo, GA – Population 250 not counting numerous dogs, feral cats, and nearby gators. Set along the banks of the Suwannee River, Fargo is known as the western gateway to the Okefenokee Swamp.
I don’t remember a lot of detail about our trip to Fargo. I must have been about 10 at the time. In fact, I’m sure that most of what I remember comes from decades of listening to Dad tell stories about the trip.
Someone asked me about my stories the other day. “How do you remember so much about so long ago?”
My reply. “I take real memories, and real photographs, and scattered words of real conversations of which I can recall bits and pieces, and I make stuff up that fits.”
I hope this does not disappoint you. I don’t think of it as fibbing or deception. I think of it as craft. Taking as much of the memory as I know and giving it details that fill in the gaps, making it as close to the truth as I can imagine it was at the time.
Dad got it in his head that we needed to spend a few nights camping in the Okefenokee. He read an article in the AJC about a fella down there that owned a fish camp and who told outlandish stories about gators and birds and the old ways of the swamp. His name alone inspired adventure.
Elemuel “Lem” Griffis. Born June 1896. Died June 1968. Same age as my Uncle Clem, which is phonetically sort of similar to Lem.
Dad, himself, was known for telling a few yarns. I still run into folks who comment about Dad and his story telling. He had two categories. The kind that “could preach” and the kind that probably shouldn’t be mentioned from the pulpit. He was never famous like Lem Griffis, but I think meeting Lem was more motivation for this trip than fishing.
It was early November when we loaded up the old ’58 International truck with our gear. Whenever we headed out to camp or hunt and fish, Dad believed in left-over biscuits for breakfast and getting on the road while the stars were still out. That was the rule. Anything less would have been a mortal sin and a sign of laziness.
There were likely a number of reasons to wait for November for a trip like this. One, I-75 was not complete, which meant traveling US 41 to Macon and shooting across the gnat line to US 441 somewhere around McRae, then straight down to Fargo. Cooler weather made long trips more enjoyable.
Add to that the hope that in cooler weather the bugs and flesh chewing critters might be a tad slower if we happened to get a frost by then. November made sense.
Fargo is just a shadow of the town it used to be. Founded by the timber companies in the late 1800s, it was once three times its current population. Hungry industrialist were after the old growth timber of the swamp.
The town gets its name from William Fargo, Director of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and co-founder of Wells Fargo Express. The same is true of its sister town at the other end of the railroad line in Fargo, North Dakota.
It was late afternoon as we rolled into town. A café, a gas station, a small country store that doubled as a post office, and a motel were about all that you could see of a town. It struck me odd that there were no red-dirt roads here. Everything was sand and crushed seashells. A few tall pines, sad old pecans with Spanish moss hanging like tattered shirts on the clothesline.
Entering the fish camp was like driving into a cavern of live oaks with a blanket of palmetto bushes spread out in every direction. The main building was a wood clapboard structure with steps up to a porch that ran across the front. Rusty tin roof. A yard full of dogs, mostly coon dogs. Inside you could buy tackle and worms and crickets and soda crackers and peanuts and a cold Co-cola out of the cooler.
I didn’t know it then, but Lem was only about two years from leaving this world in 1966. He wore a Dick Tracy hat, the kind that Mr. Tom Steele used to wear to church on Sundays. Bibbed overalls, a short-sleeved shirt and a pipe hanging out one side of his mouth set off by a slow southern drawl.
By evening, a handful of campers like Dad and me, were sitting around a campfire with Lem. He talked about his life of 70 years in the swamp. Two tired old blood hounds laying beside him on the ground.
“A lot of folks come here worried about getting lost in the swamp. Maybe drowning. Well, don’t let that bother you, not one bit. We ain’t never had anyone drown around here. Not sir. If you fall out of the boat, the gators’ll get ya before you drown.”
This was why my daddy wanted to come here. The wit of a yarn well told. He asked Lem about the local bird hunting.
“Well sir. The bird hunting is pretty good. The most sporting bird we got is what we call a flip bird. They say he’s good eating, but ain’t nobody ever really cooked one.”
He had us. “Why’s that?”
“For one thing he’s fast. And for another thing, just when you pull off a shot, he flips over and flies along upside down. Strangest thing I ever did see. And if you hit him, he falls straight up. No chance of finding him in this swamp.”
Dad came away from that trip loaded with ammunition. And unlike me, he could remember every line.
Mr. Lem talked about the old days when they farmed with mules. “We had us a patch on the other side of the Suwannee back then. The hardest thing was getting the mules across the river. Daddy would cut two big watermelons in half and clean ‘em out. Nothing left but the skins turned up like little boats. It took him a while, but you know he taught those mules to step in those watermelon rinds so’s we could float ‘em right across the water.”
I remember the black swamp water more than anything else. Black like coffee and just as still and smooth as a billiard table. What seemed like miles of channel water with a cathedral of cypress and vines and moss draping down to touch the surface.
If you got out of the boat, the ground moved under your feet. Thick peat islands that have floated in the swamp for thousands of years. “Land of Trembling Earth” they say. That’s what the Indians called it. Okefenokee.
The Georgia-Florida line gets a little murky as it goes through the swamp. Defined only by the longitude and latitude of the Orr-Whitner Line as far back as the Civil War. Nearly 700 square miles of ancient swampland that is home to a national treasure of wildlife like nowhere else.
A place where storytellers are born.
And where no one ever drowns.