Midway Church more than a 'meeting house'

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By The Staff

I recently attended the annual family church reunion at the Midway Church in Midway, Ga., 28 miles south of Savannah. As a boy growing up in Hinesville, about 8 miles west of the church, I looked forward to the last Sunday in April when descendants of the church founders gathered at the church for a one-day meeting and picnic afterward under the huge oaks that part of Sherman’s Union army camped under.

As a kid I gave little thought to the historic significance of the church or my family’s connection. While the folks were greeting family and friends from all over the country, some they had not seen in 50 years, we would climb the oaks and play in the Civil War cemetery across the street – also filled with relatives.

As I grew older I became fascinated with the family stories and the many famous speakers who were invited each year. I am now passing this on to my children and grandchildren.

In 1630 a group of Puritan families meet in Dorchester, England, to discuss moving to the New World and soon after they set out for Massachusetts, and then Connecticut and in 1695 settled Dorchester, S.C.

In 1752, after receiving a large land grant, the colony moved to the Midway district of St. Johns Parish, Ga. – later changed to Liberty County. They were called the Midway Society and described as “mostly a dissenting or congregational church.”

In 1754 they built a temporary “meeting house” or church and, in January 1758, the first service was held in the permanent church. Unfortunately those ill-mannered British burned this one in 1778. So, the church was rebuilt again in 1792 and is in use today.

The timeline of the church was interrupted in 1864 during the War Between the States when Federal troops occupied the entire area. December 1865 saw the last meeting of the church and society. Over the next 20 years it was leased by African-American members of the congregation and in 1887 the church and society resumed with an “annual meeting” tradition which continues to this day.

In 1905 the society solicited contributions from descendants for a restoration project of church and cemetery, and one who answered the call was President Theodore Roosevelt. The last restoration was completed in 1993.

From the Midway Colony came many very interesting people, like two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Lyman Hall and Button Gwinnett, and Woodrow Wilson’s mother was a descendant. The colony also produced 86 ministers, several were my family, several foreign missionaries, governors, U.S. senators, congressmen and cabinet members.

Among the ministers were the Rev. Abiel Holmes, father of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and grandfather of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes; and the Rev. Jedidiah Morse, father of S.F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph.

Also General Daniel Stewart, the great-grandfather of Teddy Roosevelt. Many scientists, physicians and educators also came from the colony, including two of the most famous, the LeCont brothers, both medical doctors, who were the founders of the University of California. As a boy I enjoyed playing on their tombstones.

The list goes on but I will move forward several years to my era of family and friends, all members of the church and society. Some are serving today as overseers called “Selectmen.”

My grandfather, James R. Waite, born 1875 in Dorchester, Ga., enlisted in the Liberty County Troop in 1890 and served 33 years in the cavalry.

I spent many years playing games in the front yard of retired Army General Joe Fraser under the watchful eye of his two sons, Joe Jr. and Charles. Both became internationally famous islander developers with Sea Pines Plantation at Hilton Head, the most recognized, and later Amelia and Kiowa.

What are the odds? When they grew up in Hinesville the population was only 500 people in 1940. I had a newspaper route in the Army Camp Stewart when I was in the fifth grade and Charles was my boss.

Now I’ve saved this next one for last, as it also defies all odds. In this same little town from 1941 to 1947, I lived next door to the Normans, also members of Midway, whose daughter was my age, and her sister, one year younger. We were close friends and playmates through kindergarten up through the fifth grade.

Many years later this girl, her husband, her brother and his wife became major developers of Cancun, Mexico. Today they own six huge resorts, a fleet of cargo ships and a rubber plantation. Just your average south Georgia country folks tired of growing taters. What are the odds?

This year’s Midway meeting was extra special, visiting with my two oldest cousins and their families and some new additions. I also arrived a day early for lunch with two grammar school friends I had not seen in many moons. One a retired fire chief, the other a retired football coach of 30 years.

Well, I’ll close with a brief bio of my personal exploits which will one day be discussed around the picnic tables under the Sherman oaks.

I was a highly recognized shoeshine boy, specializing in combat boots, a renowned boiled peanut salesman and a decorated paperboy at the army base hospital and the German prisoner compound. I finally retired in 1995 after many prosperous years of selling “Cool Georgia Spring Water” to the northern tourists migrating to Florida.

One day a State Trooper stopped by and asked where the spring was located and I told him it dried up. Early the next morning I joined the northerners headed for Florida.

Tom Waite is a long-time On Top of the World resident and Citizen contributor.