Bryan County Emergency Services Director Freddy Howell has roots that run deep in Ware County.
It turns out they run even deeper in Bryan County, something Howell said he was unaware of until his wife Kathryn began doing family genealogy.
“Who’d have thought after about five years of my being here in Bryan County, I find out I actually come from Bryan County, on my mother’s side,” Howell said. “My roots are here.”
To explain, here’s a bit of Howell’s family history. He was born and raised in Waycross, not far from the Okefenokee Swamp where his maternal great-great-great grandfather, Obediah Barber, was a legend.
Howell knows the most famous Obediah story by heart.
“He was in the woods when a black bear got after him,” Howell said. “Obediah ran, then picked up a lighter knot, turned around and threw it at the bear, killing him.”
Barber “was a larger-than-life character,” according to Okefenokee historian C.T. Trowell. “Physically, he was a big man. His reputation as a successful farmer and herder, fearless hunter, daring explorer and renowned storyteller lingered long after his death.”
Barber moved to the edge of the Okefenokee in 1854, where he and his first wife, Nancy, bought 490 acres and began raising pigs, cattle and crops. Before his death in 1909, Barber had outlived three wives and established a second farm on the edge of the swamp.
In between, Barber served with the Georgia cavalry during the Civil War and later as a justice of the peace.
His impact on the swamp was profound, according to Trowell, so much so that Barber’s cabin is now a National Historic Site, where “Obediah’s Okefenok” includes a living history museum and is routinely visited by tourists and local children on school field trips.
Howell said he learned much about Barber growing up in Waycross, and it didn’t hurt to have a famous ancestor while growing up.
“The kids in school thought it was cool,” Howell said.
Fast forward decades, and Howell discovered late in 2017 from his wife’s research that Obediah was born in Bryan County in July 1825, the son of Isaac and Frances Barber and a grandson of Moses Barber.
What’s more, Obediah owned a 333-acre far in Bryan County in 1850 before moving his family to the Okefenokee, according to Trowell.
And, Howell’s great-great-great-great grandfather on his mother’s side, Isaac, is buried in Black Creek Cemetery in North Bryan. Howell, who found the grave using an app and first visited it last winter after a trip to Nashville, said he believes Moses is buried in the Black Creek cemetery, too, though Howell has yet to find Moses’ grave.
In any case, Howell sees his story and Obediah’s as that of a family coming full circle, a descendant retracing his ancestor’s footsteps.
That journey took place in 2012, when Howell gave up a well-paying job as fire chief at the Kings Bay Navy Submarine Base in Camden County to take over Bryan County’s EMS and fire department.
Then, it was about an opportunity to make a difference, Howell said, but as he’s since learned, his family ties to Bryan County make it seem as if destiny played a hand in his decision to take the job.
“It kind of makes me feel like I’m supposed to be here,” said Howell, the Georgia Firefighters Association 2014 Fire Chief of the Year. “I came here to make the community a better fire service and be a part of that. I came here because I felt it in my heart to do it. And for five years I didn’t know I my ancestor was buried right down the road.”