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Remembering the Oaky community
Swimming at Oaky
A look at swimming at Oaky. - photo by Photo provided

The Oaky community, once a thriving place, is located on Springfield Road in the northern part of Effingham County south of Mizpah United Methodist Church. Oaky was the home of James Wilson (born 1740 in Benholm, Scotland and died in Effingham in 1825).  He was a Revolutionary War veteran and served as captain of the 2nd Battalion of North Carolina Militia and later as soldier on the Continental Line. Receiving a Revolutionary Land Grant in 1793, he settled in Effingham County naming his place Oak Lawn Plantation. James Wilson served as a member of the Georgia House of Assembly serving his adopted Effingham.

One of his sons, Elihu Wilson, (born 1796, died 1856 in Effingham) was a large-scale planter during the 1830s, who added land parcels to the original. He married twice. He had nine children who lived to adulthood by his first wife Catherine Tullis and none by second wife Mrs. Ann Warren.

Stephen Albert Wilson (1829-1897), sixth child of Elihu, married three times. Neither his first wife Jane Lavina Dasher nor second wife Laura S. Davis had any children. He and his third wife Tabitha Ann Edwards had six children: Walter S., Horace E., Frances K., Frank Cheatham, Elizabeth who died at age 4 and Mary Murchison Wilson.

Stephen Wilson enlisted in March 1862 and served as second lieutenant, Co. 1, 11th Battalion of the Georgia Infantry in the Civil War. Leaving a wife, three children and a large farming operation behind, he advanced to Captain of what became Co. 1, 47th Regiment of the Georgia Infantry in February 1863. Wounded at Kennesaw Mountain he recovered and returned to duty.  He surrendered with his command at Greensboro, N.C., on April 26, 1863.

Capt. Wilson built a small wooden store on his property when he returned from war.  This was one of the few stores between Savannah and Sylvania, a distance of over 65 miles, on what was then a route from Savannah to Augusta. Trading at the Wilson Commissary was a good convenience since transportation then was by horse, stagecoach, horse drawn wagon or on foot.

Stephen Wilson was appointed U. S. Postmaster at Oaky in May 1889, serving for a few months.  Oaky had a postmaster off and on with other postal locations in the community over the years with final closing of postal service at Oaky in 1907.

Capt. Stephen Wilson died in 1897, a prominent farmer as one of Effingham’s wealthiest men.  The property was divided among his five heirs. Walter was a professor; Emmett an attorney; Frances married Lewis M. Ryalls and moved to Savannah; Mary still lived at home; and apparently Frank Cheatham Wilson inherited most of the actual business holdings (“River to River history of Effingham” by Betty Renfro).

Frank Cheatham Wilson, DDS in Savannah, born in Effingham, married Sofie Dunham. Oaky was a large, thriving farm with King Cotton as its main crop. It had its own meat and dairy products, vegetables and its own mill making it practically self-sufficient. A 167-acre lake provided waterpower to three generators for the operations of a sawmill and grist mill. The lake water was controlled by an earthen dam and gate locks, which controlled the elevation of the water. Not only was the lake useful for power, it was used for recreation. Boating, fishing and huge dove hunts were hosted by the owner. During this period the pavilion over the mill was a money making dance hall (more to come about this in future issues).

In 1934, Frank deeded several parcels of land totaling over 1,500 acres to the United States of America for conservation of natural resources of its wildlife and bird sanctuary to be named Wilson National Wildlife Refuge. Apparently no real actions were taken beyond the Wilson family except for a few otters released on the property, so he petitioned the government, due to his displeasure in the lack of their efforts to develop the refuge, and the land was successfully returned to the Wilson family. This action by the United States with the returning of the land was one of the few instances that this ever happened in our country.

Frank’s sister, Mary Murchison Wilson (1872-1930) lived on the property. She married Charles LaFitte in 1900. They had two sons, Montague (1900-1901) and Stephen A. Wilson LaFitte (1901-1996). Stephen Lafitte, her only son, legally changed his name to Stephen A. Wilson to carry on the family name.

Stephen worked in the company store, attended the U. S. Military Academy at West Point and the University of Georgia from which he graduated with a journalism degree. At Yale Law School he won the coveted Wayland Debating Prize and graduated in the class of 1927.  He married Frances Young and returned to Georgia practicing law with his Uncle Horace Emmett Wilson in the firm of Wilson and Rogers in Savannah. Stephen then took a three year position with the Federal Land Bank in South Carolina. Following this he moved to New York City and joined the firm of Dyer and Taylor practicing corporate law. He later transferred to Oakanite Cable Company as general counsel and later also served as Vice-President and Secretary retiring in 1962.

Frank C. Wilson had willed the property to the Forrest City Gun Club in Savannah. The Gun Club quit claimed the property to Stephen A. Wilson and O. L. Williams in May of 1951 as sole surviving heirs of Frank Cheatham Wilson and Mary M. Wilson LaFitte. Stephen gradually restored and rebuilt many of the buildings and farming operation. He was one of the first in Effingham to recognize the importance of planting pine trees as a commercial crop. He encouraged others to invest in commercial tree farming to replace a failing agricultural system.

Stephen gave his wife Frances a large portion of the property in 1951. She died in 1957 in New York. As part of her will some acreage was given to Joseph and Yolanda Toth Bota. Mr. and Mrs. Bota lived at Oaky and she opened an antique shop in the old store. With more space needed, they purchased and moved the Old Turkey Branch Baptist Church, built in 1903, and relocated it to the property adjacent to the original store. The Bota family hosted the Oaky Arts and Crafts Show annually on the third weekend in September for many years. The store buildings were destroyed in a fire later.

The property was maintained as a beautifully landscaped showplace famous for over 2000 azaleas in a mostly natural setting. A lodge house and other buildings were on the main complex. Stephen A. Wilson married Mrs. Elizabeth deCravioto Campbell in 1973. The widow of portrait painter and art scholar Orland Campbell, Elizabeth had two children Elizabeth and Orland, Jr. of Manchester, Vermont. After the death of Stephen Wilson, the property was left to Mrs. Wilson.  They had no children and some of the land was sold as parcels. The Botas had the living quarters at one time and their home was lost to fire. Tragically the only buildings remaining are one outbuilding at the main lodge site. The pavilion was destroyed rather than repair the damage by the owners. The heirs still own the majority of the property and it contain huge timber tracts. The lake is there but is overgrown. A concrete spillway in the earthen dam replaced the gates at the old mill.

When I was about 8 years old, I was invited to a birthday party on the Oaky property for Louise Bota, while her parents lived there in the main house. The party consisted of games in the pavilion, boat rides on the lake and food served picnic style by domestic help in black uniforms with white aprons. I remember the large tan and dark brown two toned bean pots with “Boston Baked Beans” along with burgers and hot dogs and of course cake. I went to the main house and remember being impressed by the oil paintings on the wall and the exquisite wooden furniture and decorations. The grounds were spectacular and it was memorable. Mrs. Bota was rearing Louise as a young lady by enrolling her in Girl Scouts and school activities that I was also a part of and Louise and I were classmates throughout school. Joseph, Yolanda and son Bobby Bota have died. Louise lives in Screven County the last I knew.

Bobby has a son who now lives in Springfield with his wife and family.

It is indeed ironic that this once thriving settlement is now nothing but two run down buildings on opposite sides of the road and a huge wooded lake, less than a fitting testament to its illustrious past.

This was written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society. The information came from “River to River, the History of Effingham County” by Betty Renfro. If you have photos, comments or information to share, contact Susan Exley at 754-6681 or email her at: