A True Story of Love, Baby Doll, and a great turmoil in the Okefenokee Swamp
February 20, 2013
There is a strange, foreboding patch of earth that trembles down in the southern bosom of Georgia’s Colonial Coast, a great marshland of black water and giant cypress that hides back where the alligator and bear find refuge far from the intrusive and maddening crowds. The vast wilderness just may be one of the quietest, most peaceful places known to mankind, especially in those last, darkening moments before sundown. It is a jungle, a swamp. Primitive. Unfit for man or beast.
Jimmy Walker had always been a child of the swamp and when I met him, he was serving as the manager of the Swamp Park, located out on the shores of Cow Island. He oversaw a mysterious landscape that, at first glance, had no end, rolling far beyond the lily pads, across those brown prairies of sawgrass and hammocks, past stark cypress trees that were enshrouded with the gray drapery of Spanish Moss.
Jimmy Walker admired the swamp and those people who were tough enough and stubborn enough to carve out a living on the land that quaked beneath their feet. But, he said, even grown men who wrestled mules all day quaked at the sight of Miss Lydia. The smart ones stepped aside when she walked out of the mud. Her eyes were like embers in a bed of coals, and the men, God bless them, weren’t nearly as tough or as stubborn as she was.
Miss Lydia was a tall woman, well over six feet, and she weighed almost two hundred pounds. She wore a full-skirted dress with a white apron, kept a man’s felt hat pulled down low on her head, and rode a mule out across the swamp that was her own personal kingdom. Hard work certainly did not frighten her. On many occasions she was seen tramping out of the Okefenokee quagmire with a railroad crosstie thrown over her shoulder.
She had only been a little girl when her father gave Lydia and each of her sisters a cow and a sow. It wasn’t much of an inheritance, but it was all he had. He said, “If you girls look after them, you can make yourselves some money.”
Lydia did not have a lot of book learning, but she believed every word he said. It was no secret that she made a few dollars out of her livestock and saved every penny of it. A year later, she had collected enough money to buy forty-five acres of land. Swamp land didn’t cost much. She got it dirt cheap, and Miss Lydia said, “Every time I could get a little ahead, I bought some timberland.”
Not many wanted timberland down where the alligators prowled and the bears fought for dry land, but Miss Lydia did. It was home. By the time she bought her last patch of quivering ground, she owned nearly thirty thousand acres. She had become the queen bee of the Okefenokee. Men bowed when she walked past, but they kept their eyes fixed on the crosstie she had draped across her shoulder.
In 1928, at the age of sixty-three, Miss Lydia married her second husband, J. Melton Crews. He was only twenty-one, a mere boy, not schooled in the ways of either life or love, and she called him “Baby Doll.”
“Baby Doll got into a little trouble, and he wound up in the penitentiary, serving thirty years for murder,” Jimmy Walker said.
“Miss Lydia must have been a lonely woman,” I said.
“Not for long,” he said. Walker grinned. “She had plenty of money, and she was shrewd enough to know how to use it. Miss Lydia hitched a ride up to Atlanta and bribed a high state official to get Baby Doll released. She wrote him a check for a lot of money.”
“She must have had a bad case of true love.”
“I guess she did.” Walker shrugged. “She loved her man, she loved her money,” he said. “Miss Lydia headed down to the pen, picked up Baby Doll, promptly drove to the nearest bank, and stopped payment on the check.”
“What did the state official do?”
“There wasn’t a dadgummed thing he could do.” Walker’s grin widened. “If he tried to bring charges against her, he would have been admitting that he took a bribe and broke the law, too.”
Walker paused long enough to watch a gator slip beneath the black backwater, then told me, “He learned a damn good lesson that the rest of us have known for years.”
“Don’t mess with the swamp or any two-hundred pound woman who lives there, especially if she has more money than you do and handles her man as gently as she does a crosstie or a crosscut saw.”