Updated: Feb 1
Around 30 years ago Buford Witherow called and said he wanted to drop by the office and talk about something. I said come on.
Buford was a retired enforcement officer with the former Game & Fish Division (now Wildlife Resources Division) of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and his father, Grady, was a lumberman who worked in the Cohutta mountains “back in the day” of the 1920s and '30s.
The dad told his son of a tree they'd cut whose stump was so big “you could turn a team of steers around on it.” Of course, such a stump would dwarf the Gennett Poplar that was spared during logging operations around 100 years ago, and can still be seen near the Bear Creek Campground in northwestern Gilmer County.
Buford, with a trademark toothpick sticking out of his mouth, shared that he felt a story needed to be told. So began one of the most fascinating true tales I've had the privilege of writing – “The heyday of logging in the Cohuttas” – first published in the Times-Courier in 1993 and later in The Chatsworth Times and Daily Citizen-News of Dalton.
When my late father learned of the project, he found a book titled, “I've Had a Millionaire's Fun” by Mose Painter, who started his career in logging with the Conasauga Lumber Company in Polk County, Tennessee, then migrated to Dalton where he was an innovator in the nascent carpet industry. Many of his inventions were never patented, and colleagues told him he missed out on becoming a millionaire. His stock answer: “Well, I've had a millionaire's fun.”
Last week, I met Mose's brother, Ralph Painter, in Chattanooga, and his great-nephew Brad Lewis sat in with us after setting up the interview. Brad is the nephew of Marvin Lewis of Dalton, who was my “go-to guy” when writing about the Vietnam veterans from Whitfield and even Murray counties who died during the war – much like Robert Westmoreland did in Ellijay. Marvin first mentioned Ralph to me and got me introduced to Brad.
Ralph is 100 years old, and was involved in the second wave of D-Day in World War II (on June 8 after the initial assault on June 6, 1944). He was a mechanic on the D-7 “Priest” 105mm howitzer that lobbed long-range shells in support of combat operations. Ralph told me he and his crew could change out a motor on that beast in 1 hour, 45 minutes, and probably helped save a lot of infantrymen's lives by getting the artillery piece back in action so quickly. At least, that's what his Bronze Star commendation letter states.
Ralph's memory is sharp for a centenarian, and it only took slight prodding from Brad for him to recall stories all the way back to his childhood. A career TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) man, he also helped Mose in his Dalton carpet business for awhile after the war.
We thought we'd found a quiet place for our interview in the fairly busy retirement home where Ralph hangs out now. But after 90 minutes, the cafeteria was filling up with nurses and staff members and began to get noisy. They settled in for a meeting with what appeared to be a motivational speaker, and by that time we were laughing harder by the minute at Ralph's stories and getting some stares.
We got the message and shut the interview down, with me thinking if you guys want a motivational speaker you've got one on campus here with 100 years of unique stories, ups and downs (his feet were frostbitten during the Battle of the Bulge and he became 100% disabled) and encouragement just to be in the presence of his zest for living. I'd never met either Ralph or Brad before last Thursday, but we had a great time talking about Ralph's exploits and some of the same people we knew. It's not often you get to sit down with someone who took part in regional and world history. Trying to tell the stories of our veterans with space constraints is sometimes a challenge, but it's a job I wouldn't trade for the world.
By the way, on Monday Ralph celebrates his 100th Fourth of July. However, it's the one in 1944 on the wartime soil of France – with thousands of fellow soldiers just trying to stay alive – that he remembers the least about.