The land acquisition division of the Soil Conservation Service, Department of Agriculture, established an office in Hinesville to secure the land needed for Camp Stewart. The responsibility of assisting landowners with relocation was given the Farm Security Administration, Department of Agriculture. Leonard R. Payne was a member of the latter at the time, and it is to him that this writer is indebted for details about this most important time in the history of Liberty County.
Many problems were encountered in acquiring the land for Camp Stewart and relocating the people from the 280,000 acre area of Liberty, Bryan, Long, and Tattnall counties.
The government had technical problems such as making accurate surveys of the land to be bought from each owner and in establishing a fair value to pay for the land. Negotiating with the landowners for the purpose was also a problem. In a few cases where the owner would not accept the government’s price, condemnation proceedings had to be handled in the U.S. District Court at Savannah.
The landowners had to move out and into other communities and reestablish themselves as farmers or enter into other occupations. The tenants and laborers had to find new jobs in other locations, in many cases different from the type of work they had done all of their lives. Thus, perhaps the greatest problem was the social adjustment of residents to be relocated. The most difficult of this for most of the people was sentimental. They knew no other way of life. For them the small communities were their only world, and the place where their ancestors rested in numerous cemeteries. They were not too concerned with what went on elsewhere.
All of the residents of that part of Liberty County to become a government reservation were, of course, firmly entrenched in their community. Some of them moved away and became so homesick and unhappy that they returned to their old homes and stayed until they were forced the second time to move out for the military to move in.
It was not that these people were unpatriotic. Most of them fully realized the necessity of building up the military establishment and that their land was needed for that purpose. But they often asked the questions: “Why here? Why could the government not find suitable land elsewhere?”
The answers to these questions were, of course, that the land was strategically located and relatively uninhabited. And there is no doubt but that political intervention caused the government to select the site.
A survey was made by the government to ascertain the number of people living in the area, their plans for relocation, what they had to move, and what it would cost to make the move. Most of the residents had no definite plans about where to go or what to do. They seemed completely lost. Many of them seemed in a state of shock.
An effort was made by the government to establish resettlement projects for the purpose of providing homes and farming opportunities for displaced landowners who wanted to settle in such a project. Except for one project near Odum, Georgia, the project idea was not too successful. A few families moved to the projects and even they eventually moved elsewhere. The basic reason for failure of the projects was that they were located too far from people and places the landowners had known and loved all of their lives. The government finally sold the projects it established to other farmers in the area.
Funds for the relocation of the landowners were available to all residents of the area to be evacuated regardless of their economic status. The tenants and laborers, of course, had no land to sell and had to seek employment elsewhere at a time when jobs were still scarce. The process of getting funds from the government to the hands of the landowners was slow. Some of the landowners had not received payment for their property when they moved out. In a few cases of extreme hardship, the government made direct grants of sufficient funds for families, or persons, to subsist on for from 60 to 90 days while establishing new homes, seeking employment, or arranging for welfare assistance.
The government believed that about 300 or 400 families resided in the area to be occupied by the military reservation. Its estimate was far too low. It finally located about 1,500 families with a population of more than 6,000 persons.
Acquisition by the government of the land made a considerable impact on the economy of the five counties involved. Some of the best timber and farm land in the southeastern United States, and virtually all of the farm land in Liberty County, were in the Camp Stewart military reservation. The income of practically all of the people in the area came from the sale of crops, naval stores, and timber products, or the labor involved in the production or harvesting of them.
The government attempted to pay a fair price for the land and buildings. It did pay slightly more than the market value at that time. The price paid ranged from $15 to $65 an acre, depending on the productivity of the land.
Some timber owners did not believe that the government appraised their standing timber at a fair value. A landowner with a large and beautiful home stoutly maintained that the only reason the government wanted his land was to acquire a proper residence for the commanding officer of Camp Stewart.
Many farm owners reinvested their money in other farms in surrounding counties, or in neighborhoods not far distant. Most of the landowners and tenants remained close to Hinesville, Glennville, Pembroke, Richmond Hill, or other nearby locations. One farm owner drowned himself in his open water well rather than leave the place he loved so much.
Camp Stewart was activated as an anti-aircraft training and firing center on June 1, 1940. By the end of the year construction on post facilities was going well enough to accommodate an expected 16,000 troops. The post actually reached a peak strength of 55,000 troops three years later.
The construction of Camp Stewart was only half finished by the end of 1940, but troops began arriving on post in September of that year. Brigadier General Richard F. Cox arrived in November 1940 to become the first commander general of Camp Stewart.
Camp Stewart, by the end of 1940, was a sprawling city of tents and wooden buildings. Three thousand officers and men of the 214th and 70th Coast Artillery Regiment (Anti-Aircraft) were assigned to the post. The post contonement area was built during the three and a half months since six carpenters and six laborers built the first structure on the post, a small building used by a construction company timekeeper.
The population of Hinesville rose rapidly during the last six months of 1940. The city had no traffic lights and became so congested with motor vehicles and people that military police had to be called in from Camp Stewart to direct traffic. The city streets became a sea of mud during rainy weather. Hundreds of people trudged through the mud looking for a job and a place to sleep, and most of them found neither.
Thirty-four white teachers taught 474 white students in six county schools housed in one cement, three brick, and two frame structures. The value of the buildings and the land on which they stood was $91,000. Twenty-three black teachers taught 1,719 black students in 23 frame buildings and one brick structure. The value of these buildings and the land on which they stood was $24,401.
Total deposits in the Hinesville Bank on December 31, 1940, amounted to $325,577.81. If you shopped in a Hinesville grocery store, you could buy sugar five pounds for 21¢, pork chops 12¢ a pound, field peas three cans for 25¢, oranges 10¢ a dozen, ham 17¢ a pound, and soap for 5¢ a bar. You could buy a train ticket to New York, New York, for $14.10.
If you read the Savannah Morning News on the last day of 1940, you knew that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in one of his “fireside chats” on national radio the night before, had lambasted Germany for its relentless bombing of England. If you wanted to celebrate New Years Eve with strong drink, you could buy whiskey for $1.15 a pint, and beer 15¢ a bottle. in Liberty County.