Search This Blog

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Theory on the place name "Relee"

Growing up in the north Coffee County, Georgia, area in the 1970s, I always wondered where the name of a small community which lies on GA Hwy 107 came from. The church and graveyard there both bear the name Oak Grove, but locals call the community "Relee".

Two things tell me that the name of this small community, and others around the South, have an interesting, and often obscure, history.

First, an old gentleman by the name of Elbert Walsh, a "Woods' Scholar" if you will since he was very much in-tune with and knowledgeable about the woodlands around him, had a sign, hand-painted, in his barn which, at first glance, read "RELee". He grinned as he took it down from the nail on which it hung and casually blew the dust off of it when I asked him why he had it. The dust had hidden two periods (.) following the 'R' and the 'E'. "Aha!", I thought; it was a political sign for the old Southern general Robert E. Lee. "Close", Elbert told me.

Elbert said that a lot of people throughout the South, although I'm not sure exactly how far his knowledge about the South extended, who sympathized with the old Confederacy but didn't want to be blatant about it would paint a sign with the old Southern general's name on it, and nothing else. They would then hang this on a tree in their lane or on their porch to slyly signal to passersby where their political loyalties lie. It was a subtle way of saying, "Yes, I too am a true Southerner, not a Carpetbagger Yankee".

To date, I've only seen one other such sign that showed any signs of age and that was in the antique mall in the tiny, far north Georgia community of Dillard. I should have bought it, and now I kick myself for not doing so as it would help provide provenance for this theory. After Elbert died, his family threw away or burned huge piles of items that are irreplaceable for their historical value. He had collected old signs, political posters, railroad memorabilia, steamboat memorabilia, wooden tools, other tools, and assorted oddities that he had found. His family apparently saw no value in his collection. I was gone, in the US Army and stationed abroad, and learned of the loss of both the man and his collection only when I returned to the States.

The second thing leads me to believe that these small, usually all-but-abandoned communities were named not "Relee" but took on that name when people mistook a sign showing a family's or perhaps even an entire community's political leanings, is another sign that I saw in southwestern Virginia while on my way to New York.

I was driving up Interstate 81 through the beautiful country comprising southwestern Virginia when I saw in the distance a sign that jolted me out of my driving daze. It was tall, read vertically instead of horizontally, and said "RELEE". Except that it didn't. Only when I got right beside the sign could I read the two small periods (.) after the 'R' and the 'E', just like on Elbert's old sign in his barn. I could instantly see why someone passing quickly by it or viewing it from a distance might mistake it for one word rather than two initials and a surname. And that's when it fully hit me that Elbert's story about his sign, the accepted current name of the community in north Coffee County, Georgia, and this new sign I had just driven past could be confused over time to meld into a single word - Relee.

Robert E. Lee > R.E.Lee > RELee > Relee. And here's the last thing that sums it up for me: Elbert told me that the once-thriving community of Oak Grove was never named Relee, but once the riverboats stopped plying the Ocmulgee River on their way to and from the inland port of Macon out to the seaport of Savannah, and the railroad spur was shut down which had connected the riverboat landing with the main line in the county seat of Douglas about 20 miles to the south, the community died leaving only a scant handful of people, a church, and a cemetery. No signs were erected declaring any name for the community whatsoever. Over time, what was once Oak Grove began to be known by the sign(s) of Confederate sympathizers which read "R.E.Lee".