EASTMAN -- William J. Billy Steele sat in a swing beneath a magnolia tree planted in 1887. He took a sip of water from a plastic cup and leaned forward against his cane.
The sun was setting over his right shoulder. The air was crisp and cool. It would soon be dark.
No, he was not the owner of the majestic tree. It was not a Steele Magnolia. But he has always felt a kinship with the tree and its surroundings in the cemetery.
Out on U.S. 341, those who notice the sign for Orphans Cemetery but do not know its story must sometimes take pity on the poor souls buried beneath the cedar and cypress trees, standing straight as sentry.
They must think its some forgotten, thrown-away place, Steele said.
An interest in history and the tug of curiosity lead some to the magnolia, where the Georgia Historical Society has placed a sign with a Historical Landmark designation. Steele is a retired brigadier general, the cemeterys unofficial historian and has been a member of its board of trustees since 1976.
Next to my home, this is the place I love the most, he said. I have more of my relatives here than are alive in this world.
Some of Dodge Countys most respected residents -- among them Confederate soldiers, physicians and state representatives -- have been laid to rest in the company of paupers, farmhands and the children of sharecroppers in one of Georgias most pristine cemeteries.
Not one dollar of government money has ever been put into this place, Steele said. This is a point of pride, along with the cemeterys large endowment and distinction of being the first entity in the county to fly an American flag 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Steele comes to visit the graves of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. He will be the fourth generation in his family to be buried here. He has a cousin, Verna Lee Hardy Ragan, who served as a trustee for 60 years and has one of the cemeterys narrow streets named in her honor. She lived to be 100 and is the only centenarian buried at Orphans.
The cemeterys most prominent feature is the statuary of Albert G. Williamson, his wife Martha (Maggie) and their nephew, Jay Gould Williamson. The three statues were carved in 1912 from Italian Carrara marble, the same kind used by Michelangelo for many of his great works. The figures sit atop a mausoleum, beneath a 3-ton Georgia marble canopy, and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Only a handful of the more than 700 residents interred here were orphans, and the story of the six Williamson brothers has become part of local lore. (Among the Williamson progeny was W.S. Stuckey, who founded the Stuckeys roadside convenience store chain and transformed Eastman into the one-time Candy Capital of Georgia.)
The Williamson brothers were from Bladen County, N.C. Their father died before the Civil War, and their mother died in the years following the war. A.G. was 19, the oldest son and had been away at boarding school. He boarded a train with five brothers, ages 8 to 17, and left to pursue opportunities in the timber and turpentine business in what was known as the Wiregrass region of Georgia.
William Pitt Eastman, a native of New Hampshire, was on that same train and was bound for the Dodge County community that would one day bear his name. He was curious about the six brothers and asked the conductor. He later helped them get settled into their new surroundings.
A.G. Williamson became a trader, keen businessman and one of the countys largest landowners. He married Martha Buchan, the daughter of a prominent local physician. They never had children of their own, but she became a mother figure to her husbands younger brothers, one of whom was mentally challenged.
In the spring of 1887, a neighbors 5-year-old son, George Paul Alexander Barnes, died of the measles. Williamson donated an acre of his land to be used to start a cemetery. He planted the now-famous magnolia a few feet from the headstone.
He must have wanted that boy to have some shade, and he got what he wanted, Steele said.
Williamson eventually donated another acre, and then another. (It is now up to 7 acres.) Among the earliest burials were babies and children. Paupers graves are scattered across the grassy areas, some of them unmarked. Two farm laborers, W.E. Posey and John Roberson, are buried parallel to a road near the tree, but one of the graves is positioned at an angle. The story goes that they loved each other like brothers but constantly bickered.
So thats the way they buried them, Steele said, laughing. Close, but at odds.
Many locals referred to the Williamson family as the Orphans, as if it was their last name. A.G. Williamson amassed a fortune in land, timber, stocks and bonds. He built a warehouse close to town near the railroad tracks. He was a city councilman and served as the county ordinary.
When he died in December 1925, his funeral was attended by more than 1,000 people, one of the largest services in county history. For more than a dozen years before his death, he was able to admire the statue of himself, wife and nephew at the highest point in the cemetery.
In 1912, a traveling salesman got off the train in Eastman and began inquiring if anyone in town wanted to buy a statue. He ended up at Williamsons front door. Williamson told him he would like to have a monument in the cemetery but did not have time to pose for it. His nephew fetched a photo of the three of them, and the statues were commissioned.
The name of the sculptor and the cost are unknown, but Williamson reportedly was outraged when his statue was unveiled wearing a necktie.
The sculptor could have never imagined a man of A.Gs means not wearing a tie, but he never did, Steele said. He had to come back and take off the tie.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.