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Roy Hubbard: 1940s New Year’s bonfires were a community effort
ROY Hubbard may 2017
Roy Hubbard is a retired former Green Beret. He lives in Richmond Hill

I remember the New Year’s bonfires that were built every year on both Washington Square and Troop Square in downtown Savannah. They represented a masterpiece of engineering by neighborhood teenagers.

The squares competed with each other for the biggest bonfire. The last one I attended at age 7 around 1946 was about three stories high and burned and smoldered for a month.

Every year with school out, the entire neighborhood got involved in finding material for the bonfires. The boys worked through summer and into winter finding fuel for the big fire.

Many folks had garages but no cars. World War II got all the vehicles. The garages were perfect for storing giant crates and tires to become part of the great New Year’s Eve bonfire.

The electric company had giant solid wooden wire rollers. They stored empties down by the river until it was time to put them into the bonfire structure.

My family first lived in a basement and then moved up to the third floor of the same building on Charlton Street off Troop Square. That was in 1946.

Fifty-five years later, I was at an art show near Atlanta and there was a pastel painting of that basement entrance. It hangs in my home now.

I remember my mom would hang a cardboard square in a third floor window. The four edges had 10, 15, 20 and 25 marked on them. The iceman would check the sign. The number on top was the amount of ice he would haul up the stairs.

We had an ice box, not a refrigerator. It was amazing that there was a machine that could make ice right there in the kitchen.

Far too expensive for us.

The ice man would chop up blocks of ice.

That meant lot of ice chips all over the tailgate.

He would leave with a section of ice on his shoulder and an army of Roy Hubbard Local columnist

kids would converge on that tailgate.

Nobody would touch the ice blocks. We went for the chips. August heat, hot dirt to play in, no air conditioning – what a treat.

The parks are nothing today like they were then.

We had dirt, no grass.

No sidewalks, no trees to speak of and one broken basketball hoop. No ice cream man. Just the ice man and a guy with a palomino pony. He would take your picture sitting on the pony wearing a cowboy hat.

Troop Square holds lots of fond memories for me like the Chinese restaurant on one corner.

The kids would show up on the sidewalk outside the restaurant with an alligator on a leash.

A real gator in downtown Savannah and some fearless handlers not much bigger than the gator. Of course there were the bets on who would touch the gator.

Adults would get involved with the bonfire.

Pine trees were cut and transported on a flatbed truck. They were set in holes. Ringed with old tires, they were the frame for the bonfire.

For months the boys gathered stuff. Wooden crates big and small.

Wooden containers were common for moving materials. No styrofoam or plastic.

Around the first of December, furniture crates, wire rollers, heavy stuff along with thousands of tires, began the move to the site of the bonfire.

Then the lighter materials came.

It was a logistical nightmare and an engineering marvel handled almost solely by the older teenagers in the neighborhood. Right up to New Year’s Eve there were teenagers swarming all over that pile, carefully stacking it as tall as the apartment buildings On New Year’s Eve it seemed like the entire city would show up for the lighting. A mass of people gathered around the stack and down the connecting streets, competing for front row positions.

The older guys would make a big show out of pouring a couple of gallons of kerosene around the base. A gallon of kerosene in those days cost around 5 cents.

The guys would then go around with containers hitting the crowd up for money to pay for the kerosene.

When that thing lit up, it just thundered and roared. The heat quickly made the crowd start backing up. A front row seat was no longer desirable.

The city fire department positioned tanker trucks there to play the hoses on the building’s rooftops and sides.

Spontaneous combustion! Steam would come rolling off the buildings as cold water hit them.

Cheering, singing, firecrackers going off, the roar of that giant fire – New Year’s Eve on Troup Square!

Bonfires in the squares continued till sometime in the ‘50s. Somebody realized that it was a hazard for the historic buildings around the squares.

The bonfires were relocated to Daffin Park.

No community effort to speak of. The city had to get involved delivering boxes. The bonfires got smaller and smaller till they disappeared entirely.

My paternal grandfather owned a farm over in Jasper County, South Carolina. It was a fantastic place to visit as a child. My memories of it were of a huge building. A great wooden porch stretched all the way across the front. A long hallway right in the middle running the depth of the house to the back porch.

Bedroom doors, one after the other, along that hallway and a great kitchen at the rear. The smells were of lye soap, fresh cut wood and delicious &cooking. Uncle Tom and his sons took care of the farm. Grandpa Hubbard was in his late 90s. He lived to 99. He smoked a pipe filled with Prince Albert smoking tobacco.

I remember the first time he allowed me to pack that pipe for him.

It was a distinct honor to be allowed to do so.

He would inspect the packing job by lighting up and taking a draw. He would then instruct you accordingly if it was not just right. We would sit on that grand front porch in a swing and swing back and forth watching the chickens slowly work their way up the wooden stairs. You had to be very quiet so the chickens would come right up to the swing.

Suddenly grandpa would explode, shouting and swinging his cane at the chickens and both of us laughing like all get out as they squawked and scattered. Darned if they would not come right back again. Scattering the chickens was one of his few pleasures, along with his occasional 2 mile walk to get a refill in his Old Stagg bottle (moonshine) at a place called the lime house. Why they called it the lime house, I never knew. It was a little grocery and gas station complete with a pot-bellied wood burning stove to huddle around in the winter.

It was where you might run into a neighbor other than at church on Sunday. The men would swap lies and the ladies would share their gossip.

Grandpa had a shed at the edge of the road in front of the house.

He sold feed and seed and such. A lot of things came in big sacks as tall as me.

The sacks themselves were decorative with flowers and designs dyed into them. The ladies turned them into clothing. Flour sack dresses.

You could see a sampling of their handiwork at the lime house. There was a two lane blacktop that ran past the lime house. A black man who raised pigs lived just around a curve past there. At some point the powers that be cut his property in half with that paved road. He had to cross the highway to get to his pig pens!

He fed them slop – you will not find the definition for “slop” in Google.

It necessitated him carrying the heavy buckets across the highway twice a day.

To complicate matters he was crippled. Every step he took was a painful looking, lopsided wavering thing with his whole body dipping down on one side. It made me cringe watching.

He had been that way most of his life from an accident with a tractor or a bull. No one was sure which. I was betting the bull.

If I were going to be injured like that I would rather it be a bull than a tractor. Much more romantic with the possibility of a story of a heroic escape from an angry bull and you can blame the bull.

A tractor leaves the distinct possibility that it was one’s own stupidity that got them in trouble and the whole thing best be forgotten.

One night he was crossing the road with his buckets of slop. Someone came around that curve and hit him. They rushed him off to the hospital.

The adults were all sure he was a goner.

It was bad news. I really felt sad for that old man. It just seemed to me that life should give someone like that, who worked so hard, a little slack.

Sometime later, he came home! St. Joseph’s Hospital, God bless those folks, had fixed his broken body and in doing so, cured his limp.

He was so proud, walking as straight as anyone could. Everyone was bragging like it was a community event and what a tough old man he was.

Everyone was happy for him, slapping him on his back, not too hard!

Him grinning like a Chessie cat. Life was good.

Roy Hubbard lives in Richmond Hill. He can be reached at Roy39hubbard@

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