Jerry Cummings, the Man from the Low Country
by Pastor Dan White
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"Because he loves me," says the LORD, "I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation" (Psalm 91:14-16 NIV).
Colleton County, South Carolina, has a long, rich history that is older than the 1776 establishment of our nation.
After King Charles II regained the English throne from Oliver Cromwell in 1660, he gave eight of his faithful supporters the rights to the land south of Virginia in order to establish British colonies in 1663. These Lord Proprietors were finally able to establish a colony on the West Bank of the Ashley River in 1670 and named the settlement Charles Towne in honor of the King.
The Lord Proprietors established Colleton County in 1682. It is one of three of the oldest counties in South Carolina.
Colleton County stretches 70 miles from Edisto Beach, a popular beach destination on the Atlantic Ocean, to the tiny rural village of Lodge in the northwest near the Bamberg County line with Walterboro, the county seat in the center of the county.
Colleton County is in South Carolina’s “low country” which is mostly rural and economically poor and has vast acreage of swamps with many of those acres protected from development by the state and federal governments.
On October 10, 1920, Jerry Cummings was born to Herber Henry Cummings and his wife, Dena Hiers in their home five miles down the dusty road from the little crossroads community of Lodge with a population today of less than 125 people.
In 1920, American soldiers had victoriously returned from World War I during the previous year. Woodrow Wilson was President. Paved roads didn’t exist, and they turned to muddy soup after it rained. There was no plumbing or electricity. Water had to be drawn from a well and carried to the house. A new Ford Model “T” automobile cost less than $300 and arrived by train unassembled in crates for dealerships to put together. There was only one licensed commercial radio station in the entire United States. There were no radios, televisions, telephones, and no refrigerators in 1920. Families spent the evenings together.
Colleton County had long been an area of farming. On the coast during colonial days, Carolina rice was the money crop. After the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793, cotton soon replaced rice as the money crop.
Cotton was still an important Colleton County cash crop when Jerry was born. Farms had to be plowed with a mule and agricultural products were hauled from field to market in a wagon pulled by horses or mules. The month and year Jerry was born, riots broke out in several southern towns and cities when the price of cotton dropped from 40 cents a pound to a low of 9.8 cents a pound. Next, the boll weevil entered South Carolina in 1921 further causing economic loss and suffering for southern farmers.
It was long, hard, hot work on their Colleton County farm with little monetary reward for the efforts when Jerry was born. Times were tough in the rural South.
When Jerry was but a young boy, his father developed kidney problems and was too sick to farm. With eight children to support, everyone had to pitch in to help.
Jerry was too small to plow. His hands couldn’t reach the stock of the plow pulled by mules. So, his dad had to make a special plow stock so his little hands could reach the handles to plow the fields of corn, cotton, and tobacco. In the hot summer days of Carolina, he worked from sun-up to sun-down.
Time was taken on Sunday to rest and go to the Baptist Church near Carter’s Ford on the Edisto River which formed the northern boundary between Colleton County and Dorchester County. The Edisto is the longest river within South Carolina flowing 250 miles through the state. It’s headwaters begin in the Piedmont counties of Edgefield and Saluda and flow through the swampy Low Country into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s black water beauty is unsurpassed. Cypress trees, once an important timber product, line its river banks, and they grow in its swamp land. Spanish moss lazily drapes from the branches of cypress trees creating an ethereal other world feeling.
Jerry’s mother played the old pump organ which she learned to play by “ear” without lessons. Her maiden family and ancestors, the Heirs, were prominent members of Carter’s Ford Baptist Church.
As a boy, Jerry heard the old-time preaching and singing of the Gospel. The Lord reached down in the grace and mercy of salvation. Jerry responded in child-like faith to the love of Christ and was baptized.
Somehow, he was also able to attend and finish school - something many farm children of that era were unable to do because of having to work on the farm. He graduated from Lodge High School in 1940, a few months before his 20th birthday. He still has his high school ring.
A year and a half after graduation, the Japanese unmercifully attacked Pearl Harbor forcing the United States into World War II. As a true patriot, Jerry answered the call to arms willing to give his life for his country.
Most of the southern farm boys had never been out of their states. Some had not even traveled out of their home county.
When the Army sent him to Camp Blanding south of Jacksonville, Florida, for training, it was an all new experience for Jerry and thousands of others. For many, it was their first glimpse of the ocean which they would later cross on their way to war.
The sprawling Camp covered over 170,000 acres and trained more than 800,000 soldiers for war. The training included preparing nine entire infantry divisions of 15,000 men each. A division included three artillery battalions and one heavy artillery battalion. In addition, there was an Engineering Battalion, a Medical Battalion, a Quartermaster, Ordnance Company, a Signal Company, an Anti-Tank Company and a Service Company in each division.
Because of Jerry’s seemingly innate math skills, he was chosen for the artillery and was responsible for aligning the weapon to hit the coordinates radioed in from the battle field. The proper alignment insured that the projectile flew over the troops and precisely hit the enemy. It was a big responsibility, and Jerry had to instantly make the math calculations in his head to successfully hit the target.
Jerry’s training culminated in fighting on the June 6, 1944, D-Day landing on the Normandy beaches of France. The amphibious assault was the largest in history with over 160,000 troops.
Jerry and his artillery company landed after the beach head had been secured. They scaled the cliffs and supported the infantry along with the big guns on the battleships raking havoc and death upon the German soldiers to begin the inland push to free France and Europe from the Nazis. In battle after battle, our men made their way toward Berlin. The Battle of the Bulge was fought during the brutal winter of 1944-45. It was Hitler’s last stand. Americans lost over 19,000 men and had over 70,000 wounded in that winter battle. Under heavy enemy fire with casualties around them, Jerry’s artillery hit its marks.
On May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe was declared. Jerry made it through the deadliest war in the history of mankind. He returned home to Lodge, South Carolina, with his hearing impaired due to the constant artillery fire he directed.
Jerry enrolled in courses and learned carpentry, electrical, welding, blacksmithing, and plumbing with the goal of owning his own construction company.
The first piece of furniture that he built was a desk complete with pigeon holes above the desk for the storage of papers and office supplies. The desk is in his mother’s three bedroom, two bath home which he built for her on the farm after he started in his own business. His sister-in-law, Louise Cummings, and her daughter, Virginia, live there today.
His mother was thrilled with her new home. Later, Jerry built a large table to put into her kitchen. Three years after the War at age 28, Jerry married Sue Belcher from Varnville, SC. She owned a home just across the railroad tracks which was just across the main highway through Varnville. He moved in with his new wife.
Sleeply little Varnville woke up for a few days back in 1993. The town was formed when the railroad came through in 1872. Its biggest claim to fame came from scenes filmed there from the 1993 movie, “Forrest Gump.”
While Jerry struggled to make his business successful, he worked full time at various places such as the Savannah River Site where nuclear bombs were made. He also worked with the Beaufort Water Works. and helped build barracks at Parris Island, South Carolina, south of Beaufort. Parris Island is the home of the United States Marine basic training.
Only able to work part time in his construction business, he eventually built it up to the point he no longer had to hold down any other job. Jerry’s work ethic, Christian character, business acumen, and determination made him a success as a contractor. On the Low Country roads stand houses, stores, warehouses, ice plants, and other buildings which his company built.
Jerry’s wife, Sue, developed a chronic illness that often debilitated her. She was in and out of the hospital and spent long periods of time in the hospital. Jerry was always there for her and took care of her.
His wife died in 1999. They were married for fifty-two years.
Jerry and Sue had two children, Jerry, Jr. and Harriet Murdaugh.
Shortly after moving to Varnville, Jerry joined First Baptist Church. He is an active member and enjoys the Bible Study and fellowship of his Sunday School class. The good church people, friends, and his pastor walked with him in the death of his wife helping him carry his burden of grief.
Losing a spouse is never easy. Jerry continued in his construction business before retiring and handing the business over to his son, Jerry, Jr.
The house was lonely without Sue. Jerry was always trying to find something to piddle around with to help pass the days. Every spring, he plowed up his garden and planted it.
Retirement gave him more time to fish in the quiet, picturesque, blackwater Combahee River which begins about ten miles north of Varnville at the confluence of the Salkehatchie and Little Salkehatchie Rivers. This lazy Low Country River is surrounded by idyllic scenery, wildlife, and a variety of fowl.
Migratory birds from Central and South America spend the summer along the river. These small colorful birds travel thousands of miles from their wintering areas in Central and South America. Prothonotary warblers, painted buntings, and ruby throated hummingbirds are just a few that flitter through the cypress hardwoods lining the bank like sentinels guarding the grandeur of God’s garden.
The Combahee is a great place to get away and relax, It is a great place for catching blue gills wider than your hand. Bass, catfish, and “stump knockers” are plentiful. No wonder Jerry loves it so much and knows where every fishing hole is found. Millionaires with their yachts and resort homes don’t have it as good!
The Combahee River empties into the Atlantic Ocean at St. Helena Sound, and that area was first settled in the 1680’s. It is famous for the elegant “Carolina Gold” rice plantations that once graced its tidal water basin, and it is known for a daring June 2, 1863, Union raid on a Combahee plantation which freed over 750 slaves.
It would take almost divine intervention to pry Jerry away from the Combahee and his retired life in Varnville.
Practically every morning, Jerry and the good old boys would gather at the Hardees in Hampton, Varnville’s twin town just up the road. There, they would drink coffee, catch up on the latest gossip, and solve the world’s problems.
In May of 2002, someone walked in who no one recognized. A stranger. Jerry being the true southern gentleman overhead the stranger saying she was in town to visit her two sisters, Betty Evelyn Mixon and Dorothy Griner. She wasn’t sure she remembered the way to their homes.
“Oh, I know where they live. Let me take you. Follow me.”
The widow from Appling, Georgia, followed him, and as a result, Jerry has been following Ruth Schlein around ever since!
Their lives have been enriched through their companionship. Jerry spends a lot of time now in Appling, and she and Jerry make the one hundred mile trip to Varnville about every two weeks where his friends and the fish in the Combahee wait for him.
Ever the builder, Jerry built a screened in porch on to Ruth’s house. In the spring, he plants her garden and shares the harvest with his adopted church, North Columbia Church. He holds dual membership in Varnville Baptist and North Columbia Church where he serves as an usher.
Any time we have a covered dish dinner, Jerry is always requested to bring a pot of rice. True to his Low Country rice roots, he loves rice and can make the best pot of rice ever!
Jerry has a heart of gold. A homeless woman asked him to rent one of his properties. She got behind on the rent. She lost her low paying job, and Jerry allowed her to stay there until she found employment. On one of his trips back to Varnville, he found the mobile home completely empty. She not only left owing rent but stole all of his furniture. Jerry said that is the risk you always take when you try and help people. He doesn’t regret trying to help her.
Jerry attributes his long, productive life and his continuing good health to the grace of God, hard work, and not partaking of alcohol or tobacco.
Jerry faced adversity as a little boy and came through. He suffered through the Great Depression, survived World War II, trained himself to eventually become a successful business man, and ministered faithful love and care for his sickly wife.
He is very proud of his two children, Jerry, Jr. and Harriet Murdaugh who gave him three grandchildren. He has five great-grandchildren one of which, Michael Allen Harmon, Jr., recently earned the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest award in the Boy Scouts.
On October 10,2010, Jerry will celebrate his 90th birthday with family, friends, and members of the two churches where he belongs.
You can reach Pastor Dan White at email@example.com
Pastor White is the pastor of North Columbia Church, Appling, GA
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This was very interesting reading. God bless.