The Americus Rotary Club: In the beginning.
by Alan Anderson, Archivist Sumter Historic Trust, Inc.
In 1918 four corporate presidents, five corporate managers, two corporate secretary-treasurers, a newspaper editor, a lawyer, a realtor, an insurance broker, a stationer, a pharmacist, a den- tist and the city school superintendent joined together to form our community's oldest service organization, the Americus Rotary Club. The Kiwanis in 1920, the Lions, originally in 1921, then reorganized in 1934, and the Jaycees in 1931, the latter by Rotary alumni George R. Ellis, Dr. Robert C. Pendergrass and John W. Sheffield, all followed. In the intervening years there has been a veritable explosion in the number of service clubs, too numer- ous to mention here. Charter Day for the Americus Rotary Club was Sept. 17,1918, making it the eighth club in Georgia. Representatives from each of its predecessors made the trip to our fair city. In order, the first club, Atlanta, sent 12, Augusta sent 2, Macon had the largest delegation with 40, Albany sent 25, Columbus sent 30, while Savannah and Rome sent 2 each. Arrivals met at the Windsor and were then escorted to the Elks Club on the third floor of the Bank of Commerce (now Wachovia Bank). A six c'clock parade up- town included all the visitors, twenty local autos and a truck with the Americus members on it. They went out to Souther Field where they were treated to an air show by Maj. Carlisle Wash's stunt flyers. Afterwards, they returned to Elks Hall for a sup- per catered by the ladies of Calvary Episcopal Church, under the supervision of Mrs. Frank Harrold. Music for the festive occa- sion was provided by the Souther Field jazz band. Dignitaries attending were International Rotary First Vice-President Fred or Bert Adams, of Atlanta, district organizer John A. Davis, of Al- bany, and presiding over the whole affair, District Governor John H. Gay, of Jacksonville, Fla. The program was entitled "Anybody can speak, but nobody is compelled to listen." The speakers were I.J. Hofmayer, of Albany, Rev. J.A. Thomas, of Columbus, Gus E. Paine, of Macon, Malcolm Jones, the Macon Dist. Gov., Willis Tim- mons, of Atlanta, Henry T. McIntosh, president of the Albany club and Franc Mangum, of Americus. Presentations of the ballot box by Columbus Rotary and the gavel by Albany Rotary capped off the evening's ceremonies. On the club's twentieth anniversary Dr. and Mrs. R.C. Pendergrass donated the "Rotary Bell" as a memorial to her father, George R. Ellis, Sr. Americus Rotary's first president, Franc Mangum, was the edi- tor of the "Times-Recorder", then headquartered in the former Merritt Bldg. opposite the Presbyterian Church. He resigned both positions in November to enlist in World War I, and was replaced by Vice-President Frank P. Harrold. Scion of one of the city's most prominent families, the latter gentleman dealt in coal at the Harrold Bros. commercial complex at the northwest corner of Cotton and Wheeler. Among his other contributions to Americus, Frank P. Harrold co-chartered the Americus and Sumter County Chamber of Commerce in 1920 and donated to the city in 1938 for a park, Magnolia Dell, at the Spring St. bridge. Rotary's first secretary, Joseph E. Johnson, was the light plant manager for the Americus Public Service Co., with offices on the west side of the Windsor. Rotarians chose wisely in their selection of John Shef- field as treasurer. A founder of the Bank of Commerce and presi- dent of the Sheffield Hardware Co., his business and financial acumen was perfectly suited to the task. The business block con- structed by his father in 1882-1883, yet stands at the northeast corner of Forsyth and Jackson. His son, John W. Sheffield was first president of the Americus Country Club in 1946 and his grandson, Johnny Sheffield, was mayor of Americus from 1974 to 1979. The only original officer to maintain his membership through the club's first quarter century, John Sheffield also served as its seventh president and, in 1926, as Florida-Georgia District Governor for Rotary International. Completing the offi- cers' list was Sgt.-at-Arms Davis R. Andrews. Longtime friend and business partner with Arthur Rylander, he ran the clothing department of the Rylander Shoe Co. at the northwest corner of Jackson and Lamar. In 1920, he and Albert Harris were formally designated Rotary's "handsomest" members. The palatial brick home he built in 1923 on Taylor St., will be recalled by older members as the home of fellow Rotarian J.T. Warren. Rotary's initial board of directors consisted of George R. Ellis, Sr., Arthur Rylander, Sr. and William E. Taylor. G.R. Ellis was president of the Empire Loan & Trust Co., dealing in farm loans, located in the then Planter's Bank Bldg., on the southwest corner of Forsyth and Lee (other Rotarians at the same location included W.W. Dykes, W.L. English and Herbert Hawkins). He had been the owner and publisher of the "Times-Recorder" from 1913 to 1917 and, shortly after Rotary's establishment, founded and became first president of the Americus Golf Club in 1921, forerunner of the current country club. Arthur Rylander descend- ed from antebellum Americus stock. His father, Maj. John Emory Rylander, had a boys' academy on Rees Park before he sacrificed his life in the Lost Cause of the 1860's. Arthur Rylander, as president of the Rylander Shoe Co., had for decades been in business at the corner that bore his name. In 1909, he and his son Walter had organized the first car dealership in the city, the Americus Automobile Co., selling Maxwells, Studebakers and Fords, originally located on the site of the park dedicated in 1998 and named for his family. In 1916, for the Ford franchise, he built the huge structure now renovated and occupied by Habitat for Humanity as their international headquarters . The third director, William E. "Dick" Taylor, city councilman from 1918 to 1922, was a dry goods merchant, the manager of Churchwell's Department Store in the large building dominating the south side of Lamar between Forrest and Jackson. Two years after the club's founding, Dick Taylor was awarded the somewhat dubious distinc- tion of being Rotary's "tardiest" member. The charter members, alphabetically, were: 1) Charles H. "Dusty" Burke, manager of the Commercial Warehouse, next east of Churchwell's, who was cited by his fellow members for having "done most for the club", had been a city councilman from 1919 to 1922; 2) William W. "Bill" Dykes, prominent attorney and former state representative (1907-08), who would be Rotary's third pres- ident; 3) William L. English, realtor and maternal grandfather of actress Joanna Moore; 4) Albert J. "Turk" Harris, secretary- treasurer of the Buchanan Grocery Co. on the northwest corner of Cotton and Lamar (site of the infamous 1913 lynching), had been a city councilman from 1914 to 1915; 5) Herbert "Hawk" Hawkins, who would be the club's twelfth president, was the founder of what is now the Hooks Agency, Americus' oldest insurance brokers, and son of Col. Samuel H. Hawkins, who had built the only privately capi- talized railroad in state history; 6) John E. Hightower, later fourth club president, dealt in books, stationery and office sup- plies at the southeast corner of Jackson and Lamar; 7) Shelton F. "Doc" Howell, a druggist whose pharmacy was in the Allison Bldg. at the corner of Theo Baldwin Park, was voted the club's "least known" member; 8) Professor James E. "Fess" Mathis, Arthur Rylan- der's brother-in-law, principal of Americus' first public school and long time city school superintendent (1897-1903; 1912-1938), became the club's tenth president despite being voted its "grou- chiest" member; 9) Lucius L. McCleskey was secretary-treasurer of the Americus Oil Co. which had a massive processing center just beyond Shiver's Lumber Co. on W. Church; 10) Walter Rylander, the club's eighth president, had been a World War I veteran who was a model for "The Spirit of the American Doughboy" statue, then its owner/manufacturer, later becoming an original director of the Americus Golf Club and is best remembered for single-hand- edly financing the Rylander Theater; 11) Paul Westbrook, the club's nineteenth president, was for decades the manager of the Southern Bell Telephone Co., overseeing the move from what is now Kinnebrew's Women's Dept. to the present location on S. Forrest and the installation of dial telephones in 1940; 12) Dr. Matt H. "Doc" Wheeler, the club's "most bashful" member, was a dentist with upstairs offices across Lamar from the Municipal Bldg. Besides the aforementioned John Sheffield, W.W. Dykes, S.F. Howell and Paul Westbrook were the first charter members to at- tain quarter century status. By the club's twentieth anniversary the following, in order, had served as presidents: Franc Mangum, Frank P. Harrold, W.W. Dykes, J.E. Hightower, Frank Lanier, Carr S. Glover, John Sheffield, Walter Rylander, J.T. Warren, J.E. Mathis, W.G. Turpin, Herbert Hawkins, Arthur Rylander, Jr., Har- vey Mathis, Lee Hansford, Rev. John R. Joyner, Charles F. Crisp, Dr. E.B. Anderson, Paul Westbrook, Charles Lanier, John W. Shef- field, Sr., Dr. R.C. Pendergrass. All were pillars of the commu- nity. These men left a record of achievement that any organization would do well to emulate. It is interesting to note that the Americus Rotary Club's first three major projects are still ser- ving the community eight decades later. From January to June 1919, a joint city-civic group undertaking, with the city coordi- nating financing with the Rotary Club, was underway to build a first class theater and meeting hall. The committee was comprised of Mayor John E. Sheppard and three Rotarians, Arthur Rylander and city councilmen W.E. Taylor and C.H. Burke. Suddenly, on July 13, 1919, another Rotarian, Walter Rylander, announced his private capitalization of the effort. Originally an estimated $60,000, it eventually reached the then astronomical sum of $150,000 by completion! The Rylander Theater served Americus from 1921 to 1951 and, as of this writing (1998) rises, phoenix-like, to re- claim its faded glory. The Americus Rotary Club's second contribution was the deter- mination to boost the local economy by developing adequate roads to promote transportation. After several years of lobbying they succeeded in 1927 when Ga. Rte. 3 was designated part of the Ap- palachian Scenic Highway, stretching from Quebec in the north to St. Petersburg in the south. This, of course, is now U.S. Hwy. 19. The link connecting McGarrah St. to Muckalee Hill (now MLK, Jr. Blvd.), with the Forsyth St. extension past Cotton Ave. and the viaduct, took three years from 1934 to 1937 to complete. Recognizing the need for recreational facilities for the city's youth, the Americus Rotary Club sponsored construction of the Barlow St. ballpark and swimming pool in 1921. In April 1922 the "Georgia Peach", Ty Cobb, and his Detroit Tigers played an exhibition game there. During the 1923 season, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson played for the Americus Cardinals, putting on homerun demonstrations with his personal bat, "Black Betsy". Rotarians Frank Lanier and W.T. Warren had incorporated the Americus Ball Club in 1913. The ballpark was dismantled in 1942 but numerous generations of kids, including the author, have used, and others continue to use, the pool to combat the summer's heat. The special relation of Rotarians was summed up at the club's thirteenth anniversary on Sept. 15,1931 by Frank P. Harrold's "Big Question": "Are we really accomplishing anything with this thing we call Rotary? I have come to realize that of all things in the world of human beings, friendship is the most important. All men are brothers; we are all bondsmen for one another...Every club or society is cemented by friendship. Men might work toge- ther, fight together or pray together under other bonds; but we cannot possibly play together without friendship." Those bonds of friendship have made the Americus Rotary Club the success story it is and always has been.