Woody was an appropriate last name for this pioneer in Georgia forestry, for he loved the virgin forests, the undulating hills that surrounded the Woody family cabin, the sparkling mountain streams, the cry of whippoorwills and other birds, and the passing seasons that painted his domicile with variegated landscapes.
Legend holds that he saw his father shoot the last white-tail deer in the forest at a time when there were no laws in these mountains to protect them. He resolved then that when he grew up he would do whatever it took to bring the deer back to the forests and to prevent their extinction from over-hunting.
William Arthur Woody was born April 1, 1884 in a log cabin in Suches, Union County, Georgia. His parents were Abraham Lincoln Woody and Eliza Ingram Woody. His great grandparents were Jonathan Wesley Woody and Axey Seabolt Woody. He assisted his father on their farm and with their herds of cattle that roamed unhampered and pastured in the mountains. At time to sell them, he and his father would drive the cattle to market in Atlanta, a trip that took at least ten days. He learned early to work hard, to persevere, to set goals and strive toward them.
Arthur Woody’s early education was in the small one-room school near his home in Suches. At about age sixteen, he entered North Georgia College, Dahlonega, an institution his great grandfather had assisted in founding. But academic life was not for the outdoors-loving Woody. After a year of study there, he returned to Suches and continued to help on the farm and with cattle drives.
He married Nancy Emma Abercrombie whom he affectionately called “June.” She was from a third-generation Suches family. To them were born three children: Walter W. Woody (July 13, 1902); Clyne Edward Woody (April 30, 1905); and Mae Woody (July 15, 1907). The sons followed in their father’s footsteps and became foresters. Mae became a teacher.
He began his career with the U. S. Forest Service on October 1, 1912 as an axeman on a baseline crew. He gained valuable knowledge on forest fire control.
He soon advanced to surveyor for lands acquired by the forest service. On May 1, 1915 he was sworn in as a forest guard with the assignment of protection of forestry lands from fire, trespassers and poachers. On July 1, 1918 he became the first official Forest Ranger of Georgia, and among the first in the nation. His area was the Blue Ridge District that later became the Chattahoochee National Forest.
On the test to become a ranger, Woody was questioned on basics of life in the forest which he had mastered since youth. Among them were saddling and riding a horse, building a campfire with only flint and sticks, tying certain knots in rope, skills with which he was familiar as a man of the mountains.
To fulfill his promise to restock the mountains with deer, he first rescued three male deer left behind by a traveling circus from Wisconsin. Then he bought five fawn with his own money from the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. He named them Nimble, Bessie, Billy, Nancy and Bunnie-Girl. He fed them with a bottle and they became pets. When they were strong enough to make it on their own, he released them to the forest. He added more deer to the herd, carefully protecting them from hunters.
To deter hunters, Woody discovered a large bear track, perfectly formed. He made a plaster cast of it and used it to make ominous bear tracks near his deer preserve to discourage poachers. By 1941, the deer population had grown to about 2,000.
His next conservation effort was to restock the mountain streams with rainbow and speckled trout. These he had shipped into the Gainesville train depot from Denver, Colorado, the first shipment arriving in 1918. Clyne Woody recalled that he and his father met the train and hauled the barrels of fish by truck to the foot of the mountain and from there by wagon across Grassy Gap. Woody, his sons and others hand-distributed the fish to the cold mountain streams. He also ordered shipments from Washington State.
During President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps was founded to give young unemployed men a job and to provide income for needy families. During this “New Deal” period, Ranger Woody used many of the young men to build roads, string telephone lines, and protect the forests from fires.
Building dams on streams was another work of the CCC boys. At Dockery Lake near Suches, Woody, tiring of government bureaucracy, drew up specifications himself and had the dam built. When the engineers came they adamantly said the dam would not hold and had two more erected downstream. The first flood following hard rains washed away the two government-order dams, but the one Woody had erected using his own natural skills as an engineer held firm.
“Do what needs to be done and get permission later,” was his mode of operation.
He was known for his humor and philosophizing. When the road from Stone Pile Gap to Suches was being paved, Woody took some of the gravel and had it assayed for gold content and discovered that it yielded $30 of gold per ton. Asked why he allowed the gold-laden gravel to be used, his wry comment was, “Wal, I wanted at least one government road in this county to be worth what it cost.”
Trying to cheer up a friend who was down, Woody used the mountains as metaphor: “These mountains must be a little human. They go through periods of being dark and cold, and it looks like night will never end. But I’ve been watching it for nigh onto 60 years and it always does.”
He once tore up a lien against property when a mountain farmer died still owing Woody money. Asked by his wife why he did that, he told her to tell the widow when she came inquiring that the debt had been settled before the farmer died.
Woody Gap School stands as a monument to Ranger Arthur Woody. Situated on land donated by Woody, built of stone from his quarry, and lumber sawed at his sawmill, the school has operated since 1941, an isolated school with excellence in education its goal.
The tall man among tall timbers died June 10, 1946. He had been instrumental in building the new Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church sanctuary, as he said, to have a place big enough for his funeral. But that summer day, the crowd of over 1,500 attending his service could not begin to find seating in the church building he loved. By his request, he was laid to rest in the church cemetery, facing Black Mountain, so that “on the resurrection morning he could rise up and see if his forests had been properly preserved.”
Sosebee Cove on the road between Vogel State Park and Suches is a memorial to William Arthur Woody. He negotiated the sale of 178 acres from F. Alonzo Sosebee on February 16, 1925 and it became a part of his Blue Ridge Ranger District and the Chattahoochee National Forest. Within the confines of this preservation are numerous trees that make the spot a botanist’s dream.
Today we enjoy the benefits of forest preserves because Ranger Woody cared enough to begin early efforts in Georgia to save them for posterity. Only their continuous preservation will remain a fitting and ongoing tribute to the “bare-foot,’ untraditional forester, W. Arthur Woody, forest ranger extraordinary.
c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Mar. 3, 2005 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.