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The Edwardses live in Tiger Ridge, a community of Effingham County withdrawn into seclusion by topography and by choice.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.
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.”