The people of Meeks, Georgia were in general, regular, faithful, church going folk. And they believed that when their lives were over, they would go to God’s kingdom.
That thought was not in the heads of the Odom brothers as they were playing around the sawmill of Linton Hutcheson near the town of Meeks, in southeastern Johnson County. It was a cool, cloudy day with a slight threat of rain on the February 16, 1938, seventy five years ago this week.
Lamar Odom and his younger brother Lanier, the younger of six sons of Mrs. George R. Odom, were supposed to be in school that day. Maybe they were playing hooky and maybe they had a break from the school work. The boys were playing close to the boiler, against the stern and wise advice of one of the mill hands.
Linton Hutcheson, a former Johnson County School Superintendent, was standing nearby, talking to Remer Hatcher. Clarence Pool, Lawton Smith, and Grover Watkins were close by, going about their business just before high noon.
Grover Watkins’ fifteen-year-old son, A.J., was firing the boiler when he noticed steam coming out of a crack. Mill owner Hutcheson was summoned and ordered his men to allow continue operating the boiler until all the steam ran out after which they were instructed to shut down the operation, according to a report published in the Swainsboro Forest Blade.
All of a sudden and without a hint of any warning, a massive explosion blasted the mill into kingdom come.
Lamar and Lanier Odom, ages 15 and 8, were instantly killed as they were hurled nearly a hundred feet away in an imperceptible instant, their heads partially ripped from their bodies. Hutcheson was unharmed, though the cant hook in his hand was split into several pieces. Remer Hatcher, just 10 days removed from his 51st birthday, was not so fortunate.
“It was the most horrible thing I ever saw,” sobbed Grover Watkins.
His son’s body, badly mangled and severely scalded was retrieved from a fence forty yards from where he was standing at the time of the blast.
“Mr. Hutcheson and I were standing within a few feet of Remus Hatcher at the time of the explosion. I could have reached out and touched him. He was killed, but neither Mr. Hutcheson nor myself was even scratched,” concluded Watkins, who jumped into a sawdust pit and escape injury from enfilading bricks as they rained down for hundreds of yards in all directions.
Those who witnessed the explosion felt the concussions from hundreds of yards away. The report of the blast, which completed obliterated the mill, was heard as far as four miles away. Those who knew the power they saw unleashed, estimated that the detonation was the equivalent of the explosive power of a ton of dynamite.
To understand the massive power of the blast, the 4000- pound boiler, equivalent in weight to two Volkswagen Beetles, was found 200 feet away. Whole and broken bricks, as swell as splintered shards of timbers were found 500 yards from where they once formed the sawmill. Edsel Flanders, climbed on top of the bursted boiler, waiving a handkerchief for a Courier Herald photographer. Five hundred feet away, a self-appointed investigator found a 200-pound section of the smoke stack which flew in the opposite direction from the boiler.
After he gathered his wits, Hutcheson surmised that the explosion was the result of an onrush of cold water into the boiling hot boiler. When the water level inside of the boiler was below a critical level, the influx of cold water, resulted in the massive blast.
Curious onlookers rushed to the scene from all parts of the surrounding countryside. To some, it looked like a war zone. A deafening silence fell over those who gathered around when a reporter picked up a shining object. Among the bits, pieces and smithereens was what turned out to be the lunch pail of young Watkins. In the wake of the calamity which had rocked the town, a pair of shoes belonging to one of the Odom boys was found lying against a pillar of a nearby cotton warehouse.
Watkins and Hatcher were taken by vehicle toward a hospital in Dublin. The less seriously injured workers, like Jonah Mathews who was hit by a flying brick, were taken to Wrightsville for treatment. Hatcher, a lifelong, prominent resident of Meeks, died along the way in the vicinity of Carter’s Chapel Church in eastern Laurens County.
Young Watkins made it to Claxton Hospital in Dublin alive, but just barely. Not soon after his arrival, he was pronounced dead by Dr. John A. Bell, who reported the horrible affair to the Dublin Courier Herald, which immediately spread the news around the state in its Wednesday afternoon edition.
Four funerals followed.
The Odom boys were buried in the Gumlog Baptist Church Cemetery in nearby Kite, Georgia. Interestingly, their grave markers do not appear on a list of persons buried there. Hatcher was buried, also nearby in the cemetery at Sardis Baptist Church. Watkins was laid to rest at the cemetery of Poplar Springs Methodist Church, between Adrian and Scott.
And today, some seventy five years later, when there are few people alive who remembered that fateful February day, there are still those who have heard the stories and those who still tell the stories, stories of the day that the Kingdom came down from the heavens to take four of their men and boys home.