We concluded our enjoyable visit to the Suwannee Canal and Recreation Area. We followed Cathy and Keith yet deeper into the “Land of the Trembling Earth”. They had told us that much walking was in store for us. The remainder of our trip would be mostly walking along primitive trails.
Big Red was anxious. The narrow winding trail was holding him back and he didn’t like it. He wanted to kick up his heels and sprint.
In time, Cathy pulled her van into a parking area. I reined Big Red up beside her and let him cool. A sign at the beginning of a trail read Chesser Home. An arrow pointed the direction. We headed along the trail that led us deeper into the woods.
Cathy and Keith, lifetime residents of the area, filled us in on some of the history of the Chesser family as we moved along the trail.
In the late 1800s, W. T. Chesser and his family settled a small island on the eastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. The Chesser’s were a rugged family, carving out a life in the often-harsh conditions of the area. Their history is typical of many area settlers; they ate what they could shoot, trap, catch and grow on the sandy soil. They lived simply, worked hard, and played hard, when possible. W. T. Chesser came from the Tattnall and Liberty County area to settle on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. He settled the area currently known as Chesser Island filled with forests and longleaf pine, slash pine and pond pine in low areas, and an occasional oak hammock.
The original homestead was south of the current buildings. W. T. Chesser had six sons. Son Robert Allen Chesser married Lizzie and had 13 children. Son Sam Chesser married Sara and had nine children. Tom Chesser, the youngest son of Sam and Sara, built the current homestead in 1927, with his wife Iva.
The home is built of yellow pine and reportedly cost $200 to build. Originally, the building had four rooms and it featured an indoor kitchen. Bathroom facilities were outside, but a bathtub was located on the back porch. Two bedrooms were added as the family grew to seven children. Outbuildings include a smokehouse, syrup shed, chicken coop, corncrib, and hog pen. The yard retains its original character—it is free of vegetation, as was the custom of the time to reduce fire danger and increase the visibility of snakes.
For the little cash they needed, they grew corn, tobacco, and sugar cane; they also tapped pine trees for turpentine. Work and play often came together—hog butchering, cane grinding and syrup cooking were times when families got together to visit, work and play.
Typical of families of the time, they told stories, attended church all day on Sunday, and played with toys made at home. The Chessers were fond of a distinctive type of music—four-note or sacred harp singing. Chesser descendants continue to sing these primitive a capella harmonies today.
Most of the Okefenokee Swamp became a national wildlife refuge in 1936; slowly the Chesser family located to other areas. Tom and Iva Chesser were the last family to leave the island in 1958. Many members of the Chesser family remain in the local area. They are involved in ongoing maintenance and interpretation of the Chesser Island Homestead. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service employ some of the family in various capacities.
It was fun and educational visiting the Chesser Homestead and listening to the lectures and taking oodles of pictures, including one shot of an ancient Indian mound just outside the Chesser’s yard.
Following our tour of the Chesser Place, Cathy led us onto another trail that ran for two miles through the swamp to the boardwalk that went for another two miles through alligator infested swamp to a 75 foot observation tower. B. J., Keith and I did the boardwalk hike to the tower while Cathy and Sara retrieved our vehicles and brought them closer. That way we would have to walk as far to get our cars. Moreover, Cathy got her chance to take Big Red for a spin.
Visiting the Okefenokee with the Daniels family had been fun. We vowed to return, especially in October for the great Okefenokee Festival, part of which is at night. Therefore, I guess we will have to plan for an overnight in the swamp.