Thursday, January 8, 2015


The Story of Mattie Hester

Mattie Hester was a combination of Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane and a pony express rider. A headstrong woman in a male dominated world, Hester could hold her own with the strongest of brutes. This is a tale of one remarkable woman and her brief moments of fame. Martha "Mattie" Hester was born about the year 1868. Her parents, John and Mary Hester, lived in the southeastern part of Laurens County on the east side of the river in what is still known as Smith's District.

Mattie grew up in an era when mail delivery was intermittent and slow. Condor was established as a post office in 1878. Two years later, an office was established further south along the River Road at Tweed. Most of the mail coming into Laurens County first came into Dublin for distribution to other places throughout the county. It was about 1890 when Mattie was given the job of carrying the mail from Dublin to Condor where she began her route. From Condor, she traveled south three days a week along the Old River Road to Lothair in what was then Montgomery, but which now lies in Treutlen County.

Female mail carriers were rare. The forty-five-mile route was often isolated. Any miscreant looking to steal cash or a valuable document could easily rob a carrier along the road. But Mattie would not be deterred. She hitched a Texas broncho to her small road cart to allow her to outrun any thieves. Her horse, faster than a hemidemisemiquaver in a John Phillip Sousa march, never failed Mattie.

She always got the mail to its destination on time or well ahead of its scheduled arrival. If she was accosted, Mattie was as fearless as anyone. To insure her safety, she carried a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver in her side pocket. Mattie was considered a crack shot, and no one who knew her would ever contemplate trying to take any mail or in anyway impede her delivery schedule. Lacking no doubt about her ability to defend herself against any highwayman or tramp in her path, Mattie Hester held little respect for members of her own sex who feared to venture out into public without an escort.

A prime example of Mattie's determination occurred during a winter rainy spell. After nearly a week of constant rainfall in the summer of 1890, the creeks and streams along the mail route had swollen beyond their banks. Messer's (Mercer's) Creek, which serves as the boundary line between Laurens and Montgomery (now Treutlen) counties had become a raging torrent. The long bridge, usually dependable for most crossings, was in danger of being swept away at any moment. Its abutments were already gone. Upon her arrival at the bridge, Mattie surveyed the perilous situation. Recognizing the danger ahead, but acknowledging the necessity of the mail being delivered, Mattie decided to plunge ahead. "If there is any possible chance to cross, I intended to cross, even if I have to swim," said Mattie. Mattie whipped the hind of her trusty bronco and plunged into the turbulence. Her horse found itself tangled in a patch of vines in five feet of water. Instinctively Mattie cut the helpless horse from its harness. Battling shoulder deep raging currents Mattie persevered, all the time dragging the cart until she could reach the bridge which by then was cover with water itself, but still standing. She managed to make it across and did her pony. After a moment or two of rest, Mattie hitched the drenched horse to the wagon and resumed her journey, albeit she excusably took nearly an hour to travel the remaining seven miles to Lothair.

Mattie's duties at home and the pittance of a salary she received from the Postal Service led to her resignation as a postal carrier. One might think that this fiercely independent, pistol packing and hard charging woman might have a manly image. To the contrary, Mattie was described a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution as "a beauty of a real southern type, wavy black hair, deep blue eyes, beautiful figure and complexion with the whitest teeth imaginable." "Her jaunty air and pretty face never failed to attract the attention of strangers, as she rattled swiftly by in her cart, never looking to the right or to the left, but attending strictly to business," the reporter continued. I

n addition to her admirable qualities of dedication to her work and striking beauty, Mattie was considered to be an astute businesswoman. Following her father's death at a relatively young age in 1890, Mattie took over the management of the family farm. Mattie took part in all phases of the farming operation, from cultivation to planting and from harvesting to marketing to the highest bidder, the latter of which were among her greatest talents. Always looking for a way to improve the income from her home place, Mattie ventured into the woods behind her house and saw money in the trees. She cut some of the trees and personally assembled them into a raft. In the process she had to wade throughout the swamp, sometimes with water up to her waist. Mattie's brother took over at that point and piloted the timber raft down the treacherous waters of the Oconee and Altamaha rivers to the port city of Darien, where the logs were sold at a handsome profit. The venture became so lucrative that Mattie saved a few of the trees and invested some of the income into constructing a split rail fence around the Hester farm. By the best count available, Mattie cut about five thousand rails during her first five years of managing the farm. Mattie spent her spare time teaching young people how to shoot. She also a talent for penmanship and drawing.

Mattie's marksmanship came in handy when someone needed defending. On an early December evening in 18906, a Mr. Palmer was giving a dance party in his home in the Martha community near Tweed. Mattie's entrepreneurial abilities included the sale of spiritous liquors. It was said she sold her stock freely among the male party goers, many of whom found themselves under the influence of Mattie's liquor. As more and more whiskey was consumed, tempers began to flare. Mattie found herself engaged in a heated argument with Henry McLendon. Maggie drew her pistol and shot her antagonist. Mattie's brother rose to her defense, but was brutally beaten about the face with a pair of brass knuckles. Alfred Shell, a steam mill owner, was also shot and seriously wounded.

Mattie seemed to disappear after that. Was she forced to leave the community? If so, where did she go? Did this beautiful and fiercely independent woman ever marry? Maybe one day we will know. 


A Pioneering Politician

History was made in Georgia 60 years ago this week.  The State of Georgia could claim that two women had served the state in the United States Congress.  Moreover, Gov. Thomas Hardwick, a one time resident of Dublin, had appointed Rebecca Latimer Felton to a seat to fill out the remaining term of the late Senator Thomas E. Watson  in the United States Senate in 1921 as a show of support for the rights of women to vote.

Florence Gibbs was elected in the fall of 1940 to fill out the term of her late husband, Congressman W. Ben Gibbs.   Helen Douglas Mankin won a special election in 1946, with strong support from African American voters, who voted en mass for the first time.

But it was on January 3, 1955 when Iris Faircloth Blitch, took her seat in the Congress as the first woman from Georgia to serve in Congress after being elected in a regular election.    This political activist from the railroad village of Normantown in northern Toombs County had already made her mark in Georgia politics.

Born in the southeastern region of East Central Georgia  on April 25, 1912, as the second youngest of the eight children of James Louis Faircloth and Marietta Rigdell Faircloth, Iris was forced to live with her older sisters when she became an orphan at the age of nine.  Her father's family were natives of Emanuel County.

Blitch graduated from a high school in Hagerstown, Maryland before returning to Georgia to attend classes at the University of Georgia.  She left school to marry Brooks Blitch, a pharmacist from Homerville, Georgia.

With a passion to educate herself, she immersed herself into reading about history and current events and taught herself to become a newspaper writer.    Blitch found her niche in politics and joined the Democratic party, the only viable party in Georgia at the time.

Blitch suffered a narrow defeat in her first political campaign in 1940, losing by slightly more than 25 votes for a seat in the State House of Representatives.  She won her first election in 1946, capturing a seat in the Georgia Senate.  Senator Blitch switched to the other chamber of the Georgia legislature when she was elected to the Georgia House in 1948.  After failing to win reelection in 1950, the attractive, brunette legislator returned to the Georgia Senate in 1952.

Iris Blitch's being a woman led to her being named as a National Committeewoman  from Georgia from 1948 to 1956 to the Democratic National Committee. Blitch also served in a similar state capacity from 1946 to 1956.

In the off-year election of 1954 during Dwight Eisenhower's first term as president, Blitch decided to do the unthinkable - to run for Congress in the Deep South, where women were systematically excluded from nomination by the Democratic party politics.  And she won,  defeating the incumbent, William M. Wheeler.

As the first female in the history of Georgia to win a regular scheduled election for a seat in Congress, Blitch,  entered office on January 3, 1955 and served for ten years, representing the 8th Congressional District, which encompassed counties from Southeast Georgia.  While in the Congress, she served on the Public Works Committee and the National Resources Advisory Council.

Because of her debilitating arthritis, Representative Blitch retired in 1964  and moved to Saint Simons, Georgia, repeatedly turning down repeated requests to run again primarily because of her husband's illness.

A congressional web site writer wrote, "Representative Iris Blitch of Georgia embodied a peculiar mixture of progressive feminism and southern conservatism during her long political career, which included four terms in the U.S. House. As a Georgia state legislator she pushed women's rights concerns. In the U.S. House, while displaying considerable legislative ability, she hewed to more traditional lines, advocating on behalf of agricultural interests in her rural district while denouncing federal efforts to enforce civil rights in the South. Over the span of her career, Blitch earned a reputation as a quick tongued legislator who enjoyed the give and take of debate."


Iris Blitch on "What's My Line?

Majority Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma remarked, "I have never known anyone more persistent in her devotion to duty. I have seen her sit here on the floor attending to every item of duty when she was ill and in pain. She is a real soldier."

Iris Blitch shocked her colleagues in 1964, when she changed her party alliance and joined the Republican party.  Of the party's 1964 Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, Blitch remarked, "In my political lifetime only one leader has come forward to give the American people a choice between a more centralized state and the complete dignity of the individual."

Originally a supporter of segregation as were nearly all members of her party in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, Iris Blitch became more tolerant of the rights of African Americans in supporting Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, who became the first Georgia governor to do so in the 1970s.

In 1988, Iris Blitch, who once remarked that she always had politics in her blood,  moved to be closer to her daughter, in San Diego, California, where  Iris  died on August 19, 1993.  She is buried in Pinelawn Cemetery, Homerville, Georgia.

As much as things have changed in national and state politics in the sixty years after Iris Blitch took her seat in the United States House of Representatives, the more things have stayed pretty much the same.  Georgia, with her fourteen seats in the House and two seats in the Senate,  is without a female representative.   Since Congresswoman Blitch left office fifty years ago, only Cynthia McGivney and Denise Majid have been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.  The total number of women who have served Georgia in the House of Representatives and the Senate is six, second in the Deep South only to Florida (no longer considered the Deep South by many) which boasts of 11 women.  So the question remains, when will another Iris Blitch step forward and change the face of politics in Georgia?