Last week, The Press-Sentinel published a photo of the uncovering of Cracker Williams Recreation Center’s original pool. That unearthed this thought: How many current Wayne County residents know who Cracker Williams was?
Many people consider Arthur Gurvaze “Cracker” Williams to be the grandfather of Jesup’s organized recreation. The World War I veteran and one-time postmaster was a “cracker jack” catalyst for making things happen. He was a driving force in getting the tiny American Legion Hut built on Cherry Street, but recreation was his passion.
There are so many Cracker stories. As I was making a list, I called Dr. Lanier Harrell. He is my “Google” on a variety of subjects. We realized that we couldn’t recall every person who was involved in these stories, so slights were not intended.
§ In the 1930s, Cracker helped organize a fundraiser to build the Community House, on property formerly known as the Woman’s Club Park, bounded by Orange, Brunswick, Bay and Wayne streets. Cracker was behind the infamous “dogfight” that included a purported wolverine. Jesup High’s gym—the old red barn—was packed. The money-making prank wasn’t funny to some patrons, but the money was for a good cause. In my early youth, I remember Tom Howard was the log-cabin Community House’s chaperone.
§ Cracker was a practical joker. James Harper once told me how Cracker helped spoof his friend, E.T. Youngblood, a prominent wholesale grocer. Both were avid quail hunters. When Cracker heard E.T. was spending big bucks on a fancy birddog, he contacted his buddy, Eddie Joe Nix, at the freight depot. When the high-priced dog arrived on the train, they switched it out with a mutt from the pound. When E.T. saw what he bought sight-unseen, he pitched a hissy fit. After friends worked the hijinks for about a week, they brought the high-dollar dog out of hiding. I imagine bridge partners Cracker, Ben Park, Kinky Fender and E.T. talked about that one for a long time.
§ Cracker’s wife, Lucille, taught social studies at Jesup High. She was a “legend,” too, especially as it related to her driving. The story goes that she never looked back. She just honked her Buick’s horn and shifted into reverse.
§ After World War II, Cracker organized a men’s fast-pitch softball league. They played near today’s farmers’ market on the Savannah Highway. Doc rattled off these names: Jimmy Sullivan, Buck Murphy, Jack Davis, Jim Sosebee, James Warren, John Wolfe, Bob Miller and John Donaldson. I never saw Coach Donaldson pitch, but I remember seeing Dr. Miller hurl blurs from the mound.
§ Cracker, Randall Walker and Ben Park were instrumental in Jesup’s first-ever bond referendum for recreation. In the segregated days, the new tax dollars funded Hall-Richardson Recreation Center for the African-American community. The buildings and a pool were constructed at Cracker Williams Recreation Park.
§ As a teenager, I learned to dance on the terrazzo floors of the Cracker Williams Center. King David and the Slaves were cranking out the tunes. Band members Randall Bramblett and Lee Riggins were in our Class of 1966. “King” David Harris was a year ahead of us at Jesup High.
§ Uncle Billy Vines taught me how to keep from drowning in Ichauway-Nochaway Creek at Hoggard’s Mill in Baker County. I got formal swimming lessons in the original pool, the one pictured in the newspaper. One summer, I had a brief lifeguard stint at the new Cracker Williams pool. Leroy Dukes was my boss, until Jimmy Sullivan offered me a 16-year-old boy’s dream job at S&R Men’s Store.
§ After the University of Georgia and Army training, I came home to the Wayne County Press. To introduce me to business leaders, Doc took me to Kiwanis Club meetings on Friday. It was there I last saw the namesake of the recreation center. Lindsay Grace, Gene Ammons and Cracker were enjoying a shuffleboard game.
That’s what I know about Cracker Williams, but how did he get his nickname?