Deep in the rural heart of Georgia, an ostracized community fights back against folklore and ridicule—if only the outside world would listen.
A few days after an unprecedented March ice storm pummeled the area, the ground crunched underfoot. The season reminded Earnest Edwards of the days when he went to school here, and how he used to stand out from the other children due to his patched pant knees, torn T-shirts, and the fact that he sometimes walked to school barefoot, even in winter.
“We were just low-class people, come from a — I don’t really know how to put it into words, to be honest with ya,” Edwards said on an unseasonably bitter day here in America’s Deep South. “Like I said, our clothes were a little different because they had patches sewn on them, but they were clean. We didn’t have the finest shoes to wear.”
Teachers at Effingham County High School in Springfield, Georgia, felt sorry for him and his family. In the 1960s the entire county, comprising some 482 square miles, went to the one high school, which for Earnest’s class of 1964 had about 160 graduating students. More damning than the clothes or the isolation that comes with being part of a small community in a spread-out rural area were the unfettered rumors about Earnest’s family.
The Edwardses live in Tiger Ridge, a community of Effingham County withdrawn into seclusion by topography and by choice. About forty family members live in this far-removed corner of the state. There are longstanding rumors throughout Georgia about the people of Tiger Ridge; as with plenty of other backcountry towns, they mostly have to do with inbreeding. Ask a resident of Savannah, Atlanta or Athens about Tiger Ridge, and more often than not they’ll bring up “kissin’ cousins,” with some folks swearing up and down that the residents here are all married to their brother, sister, father or mother, and that the enclave is full of one-eyed yokels with gruesome deformities.
For much of their lives, those who lived in Tiger Ridge faced ridicule for something they were not. They were taunted, and on several occasions drew their firearms in defense, standing guard outside the property to scare away reckless passersby who ventured to see something that was not there. Thanks in part to a yearly holiday light show, that has since changed.
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There was a time before Tiger Ridge, when Native Americans called this swath of Georgia home, a place abundant with outcroppings of flint perfect for fire-starters and arrowheads. For them it was a peaceful reprieve scattered with lush groves. The tranquil hush of the nearby Savannah River ebbed southward.
Much later, after Sisters Ferry Crossing was established nearby in 1829, and after General Sherman’s army came through during his Carolinas Campaign, the Indians were gone and post-war settlers colonized the area with riverboats and trade routes. Stagecoach horses trampled dirt roads. Then began the exportation of cotton, syrup, potatoes, vegetables, meats, resin and turpentine to Savannah and Richmond and beyond. Dasher’s Inn and other public houses sprung up. Track was laid for the Central of Georgia Rail, which would deliver mail to the small town that had not yet been properly named. The township ultimately decided on Clyo, like the Greek goddess Clios, the goddess of peace and contentment. A perfect name, many thought, for this lush and most fertile part of Effingham County.
Clyo would begin spawning highways and roads that acted like large tentacles, connecting it to a world it had for so long stood apart from. But near the bluffs where Sisters Ferry, Shawnee and Clyo mingled, two families carved out their own serene inlet. Off the beaten path and down several dirt roads, the Edwards and Morgans families found what they would soon call Tiger Ridge. To them, it was home.
For many years it was a difficult place to find unless you knew where to look, and depending on who you spoke with, it was an ill-advised idea to visit. There were no large municipal buildings or much infrastructure for miles. Trees towered over the wooded area, the chirp of cicadas a soothing soundtrack.
As time bore through the twentieth century, the area became more settled and plenty of living could be made off the land. Aside from hunting, good fishing could be had at a pastoral lake nearby. Children went to the local school, and like Earnest Edwards, they discovered how different their contemporaries perceived them to be.
“We were kind of picked on because, as they say in our society today, we were different. They also had rumors about, you know, brothers and sisters getting married,” said Earnest, now sixty-eight and collecting benefits after serving in Vietnam. “That’s a bunch of malarkey. I have no…that’s just…I don’t know how in the world they ever come to that conclusion. We’ve had a few cousins get married, but I guarantee if you go to Springfield, or Savannah, or any other place, if you look, you’re gonna find that, too.”
There is both truth and fiction surrounding the rumors. There were indeed occasions when cousins married, including Earnest’s brother Alvin, who married his second cousin, Sigma. Together they have three grown children, all of which is legal in the state of Georgia. According to Georgia statute 16-6-22, “(a) A person commits the offense of incest when he engages in sexual intercourse with a person to whom he knows he is related either by blood or by marriage as follows: (1) Father and daughter or stepdaughter; (2) Mother and son or stepson; (3) Brother and sister of the whole blood or of the half blood; (4) Grandparent and grandchild; (5) Aunt and nephew; or (6) Uncle and niece. (b) A person convicted of the offense of incest shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than 20 years.” (While 25 other states do ban marriage between first cousins; none prevent more distant cousins from marrying.)
In a 1998 article in the Savannah Morning News, both Alvin Edwards and his wife nonchalantly addressed the concern of the reporter and disparagers. “That has happened, but not with brothers and sisters and fathers and daughters. That just ain’t true,” Alvin says, matter-of-factly.
All of this didn’t keep kids from being kids. Beyond what word of mouth passed between neighbors or people further away, no one today can trace the roots of the rumors other than hearsay. Effingham County Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie started on the force in 1987 and was appointed to his current position eleven years ago. He has watched as the rumors turned to curiosity before becoming more invasive.
“People in the community — I don’t know specifically who it was now, some of the deputies might have told me — some of the citizens might have told me. It was just a place we had to go and be particular and be careful and don’t get yourself into situations,” he said. “But I think a lot of those rumors came by people harassing and picking on those folks. That’s the reason they had to retaliate and pull guns on people and run their butt outta there. They’re there minding their own business and people go making fun of them and carrying on and actin’ all crazy and I think that prompted some of it.”
Regardless of whether it was simply children being children — talking badly about Tiger Ridge at school or the supermarket, driving by the subdivision with car horns blaring — the harassment lasts to this day, much of it stemming from a curiosity about the strange and purportedly unsightly people there.
“They were different than everybody else and it was someone to pick on, I think,” Sheriff McDuffie said. “Like bullying in school, you ain’t gotta have a real reason, just a reason.”
But they aren’t different. When pulling off of the paved road that unrolls past the doorsteps of the single-wides and hand-wrought ranch houses on Tiger Ridge today, people mill about, standing under corrugated tin roofs, friendly and interested, if eyeing any new arrivals strangely. And rightfully so — they’re wary of bothersome passersby looking for a Ripley’s attraction that is not there.
“They good people. There’s a lot of folks up there that’s good people,” said Sheriff McDuffie from his office late this winter. “They’re a little different…and they live close in a closed community, and when you’re different from someone else, someone’s gonna pick on you about something.”
McDuffie has heard many rumors during his tenure here, but he hasn’t seen any evidence of the rabid inbreeding many imagine. “The Hills Have Eyes,” a common reference here, doesn’t apply in the slightest. Even if there are certified cases of cousins marrying, scientific studies contradict the widespread belief that cousins having children together often results in birth defects and mental retardation.
As residents of Tiger Ridge tried to put their past behind and a better foot forward, a light emerged that began to give voice to the reclusive community, a venerable beacon of hope. Many from the surrounding areas within Bulloch and Chatham counties started noticing Tiger Ridge lit up like an airport on wintry nights. Starting in the early ’90s, Tiger Ridge became synonymous with one thought, a new sort of rumor traveling by word-of-mouth: It’s almost sinful to miss the annual Christmas light show.
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“It started by just us putting up a few lights, mainly for ourselves, and then each year it would get bigger and bigger,” Earnest said. “Then finally when they paved the road through here was when we really started getting, you know, traffic coming in. They just come in. No advertising, [just] word of mouth.”
In most parts of the country you can find much more extravagant ordeals, higher-end productions with houses wrapped in lighting reacting to soundtracks blaring from five-foot speakers. But here, in these tiny Georgia backcountry woods, all they have is on display, everything aglow for all to see. While there was never anything extravagant, the sheer brightness emitting from this dark corner could be halting, and attracted people from all around.
Just past the screen door leading into the cozy home where Earnest has lived with his wife Carrie nearly all his life, wind chimes and birdfeeders dangle from the wall like precious ornaments. Earnest and Carrie recalled the joy they derived from setting up all their lights each year and the attention it drew. “Oh mercy, I have no idea,” Earnest responded when asked to give an estimate of how many people came. Alvin estimates it was more than 500,000.
Yet the excitement died down. “We’ve been out of commission now for six or so years or longer,” says Earnest.
Carrie Edwards, seventy-nine — “And I’m proud of it, hon” — walked outside to a shed where she and Earnest keep the lights strung into knotted bunches within Rubbermaid containers. She won’t let Earnest get on a ladder, and in 2009 Carrie had knee surgery that put a stop to the show. Soon the rest of Tiger Ridge followed, hindered by age and worsening weather. Many of the younger generations have enlisted in the armed forces and moved on, wishing to put the past mockery behind them. Others stayed in Tiger Ridge, proud of whence they came, but silent about their upbringings — none would go on record for this story, which is understandable, as the media has not been kind.
What was once a conduit to a fresh start, a new light upon a shadowed corner of a town long snubbed for being different, has disappeared. Illuminated plastic cups are hidden away or trashed. Bells of wood and the hand-painted signs that made the display awe-inspiring are gone. At the time, they accepted donations for their work, but even so the electricity bills became too much of a financial burden.
“I think it was getting too expensive and the time and effort it took to do it, a lot of those guys are getting older now, their age is just catchin’ up to them,” said Sheriff McDuffie. “I mean it was good, it looked good, it was done in good taste. They had a box out, if you wanted to leave a donation they would accept one; if you didn’t, they wouldn’t say a word to ya ’bout it.”
Each year Sheriff McDuffie and his children would go around to see the lights, often returning several more times to stare at the spectacle that for such a small area meant a great deal. Even families from Savannah, an hour south, made the trip to drop in, sign Carrie’s guestbook and to see the new Tiger Ridge — or perhaps more accurately, to see a place they thought they knew but never really did.
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With no lights to show off now, Carrie rummages across mason jars filled with snap beans and homemade tomato sauce, and offers them up as a treat. The gate shuts and Lady Girl, their rescued dog, peeks out through the screen.
Talking outside in the cold chill of an unseasonably frigid Bible Belt winter, Alvin and Earnest stand sturdy, undeterred by the weather. Behind them is Alvin’s house, which has received considerable additions since it was first built. Hanging from the beams and posts supporting the overhang outside his front porch are the scraper tools the families here once used in harvesting the turpentine from trees around town. Catfaces, or V-shaped slits, were cut into the trees, which would then secrete oleoresin into buckets. The turpentine would sell for $12 to $30 a barrel depending on who you ask, and who could remember. It would be hauled off in a 1937 Chevrolet truck and that money went to Christmas and the fall season.
The Edwards mostly spend their days now enjoying the quiet on a plot of land that to them is heaven. Much of their life is spent on The Ridge, contemplating the idea of maybe one day putting the lights back up, inviting the town into their enclave, opening themselves up for all the area to see, and to share in the festivities. But where the lights once did that job, Earnest himself is working diligently to quell the stigma that still lingers today.
“They’ve been picked on over the years and bullied and all that kind of mess, so they sort of stay out of the limelight.” Sheriff McDuffie said. “Earnest…he’s trying to make the stigma go away. You know, there’s a lot of good folks out there and they don’t need to be harassed no more than anybody else does.”
The paved road that now runs through Tiger Ridge has even been given a new name.
“It used to be called Tiger Ridge,” Sheriff McDuffie said, “but now it’s pretty much referred to as Friendship Road.”
A perfect name, for a place of peace and contentment.
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Kenneth R. Rosen writes and works for the New York Times.