The Natural Georgia Series: The Okefenokee Swamp

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Born On Billy's Island: Bernice Chesser Roddenberry

By Pamela P. Holliday.

Bernice Chesser Roddenberry, born in the Okefenokee on Billys Island in 1920, still lives near the swamp and shares her experiences and memories of swamp life as a volunteer at the Chesser Island Homestead. Today, she enjoys fishing in the Okefenokee, and canoeing through it with her children and grandchildren. "We fish along on the trips and usually catch enough to fry on Floyds Island when we get there for supper," Roddenberry says.

It was her great grandfather, William T. Chesser, who settled in the swamp on Chesser Island around 1858. Her grandfather, Robert Allen Chesser, was born on Chesser Island, and later built his home across the road from the standing Chesser Island Homestead. "In my dad's family, there were 13 born to them and they raised 12. There's two living today. One is in Folkston and the other is in St. George," Roddenberry says.Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com

"My parents were Harry and Neetie Chesser. There were 11 of us. I had 10 brothers and sisters. I had four brothers and seven sisters. I was the second one. I'm the oldest one since my sister passed away."

It was Roddenberry's uncle, Tom Chesser, who built the homestead open for touring today. She remembers visiting the current home and the log home before it although she never lived on Chesser Island.

Roddenberry was between five and six years old when her family left Billys Island. Her father worked to help saw the timber hauled from the island to Hebardville, and the family left when the work was done. Although she never went to school on Billys Island, she says there were as many as 96 children in school there at one time. One of her few memories of life on the island involves playing with those children and almost losing her life.

"I fell in the dipping vat once, where they dip cows for ticks," Roddenberry says. "Ticks used to be real bad, and they still are, but not as bad as they were a long time ago I don't think. I remember Mama putting me under a pump and rinsing me off good. There were a bunch of us playing the day after they dipped cows. They had it [the dipping vat] fenced in, and we were playing around the fence. So I fell in. They put a rake or a hoe or something down to me, and I grabbed hold of that thing. It was pretty deep. You know how big a cow is! Dr. Revis was the doctor and he came in on the trolly (or the train). He told Mama that if I hadn't vomited, I would have been a goner because I had swallowed some of that dip.

"I didn't go out of the swamp until we moved out from the island on the train," Roddenberry says.

After living briefly in Carbor, Florida, Roddenberry's family moved back to the Okefenokee, to Charlton County, when she was nine years old. Her father worked for Dan Hebard, guiding tours through the swamp and helping with hunting expeditions to Floyds Island.

"Mr. Hebard would come in the winter time and live at Colerain [on the Camden/Charlton County line], and my father would help put out corn for the ducks on the blinds out there. Mr. Hebard would bring friends and they would shoot ducks out there in the winter…Baiting the blinds is what they called it."

Roddenberry says, "To get to the island, you would leave the landing here [where the boardwalk and tower are on the east side of the swamp today], go down the canal, and there was a cornbox where you turned off to go the prairies. There was another cornbox at Floyds Island at the end of a boardwalk. They would store stuff in that cornbox - what they didn't take with them in a wheelbarrow to the island."

Roddenberry's husband, James, started working for Hebard in the swamp when he was 17 years old. "He was baiting the blinds, and if they killed ducks, he had to clean them," she says. "I was about 14 when we first met because he'd come by to get daddy to go out in the swamp with them."

The two were married in 1937 and had 11 children - four boys and seven girls. One daughter, Judy, works at the swamp, and another, Sheila, is a volunteer there. James, a retired surveyor for Union Camp, died in 1980.

Today, Roddenberry lives near the swamp in the Sardis District on the old Roddenberry place. She lives near Sardis Church, the oldest church in Charlton County, where her grandparents attended church each Sunday.

Judging by the number of places and objects named after the Chessers, the family must have played a prominent role in the cultural history of the Okefenokee. There is Chesser Island, Chesser Praire, and open for touring on the eastern side of the swamp is the Chesser Island Homestead. During their tenure living in the swamp, the Chessers welcomed one of the Okefenokee's most famous researchers, Francis Harper, who lived in a tent behind the Chesser home temporarily. And they worked for Dan Hebard, joining him in his timber operations and hunting expeditions.

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