Johnny Vardeman: Footprints of ‘barefoot ranger’ were as big as the mountains
Ranger Arthur Woody’s life is chronicled in the book “Arthur Woody and the Legend of the Barefoot Ranger” by Duncan Dobie. - photo by Times file

If you’ve ever traveled through Woody Gap on Ga. 60 north of Dahlonega, you appreciate the grand mountain views, thick woodlands and the magical valley around Suches.

Johnny_Vardeman

If you do, you also must appreciate Ranger Arthur Woody, whose ancestors gave the name to some of the most picturesque scenery in the North Georgia mountains. Ranger Woody is a legend in those majestic mountains and valleys. As he was growing up, forests were almost denuded by logging companies, white-tailed deer had disappeared and streams once teeming with trout were almost fishless.

Duncan Dobie, an outdoors writer, has written the most thorough account of the ranger in his book, “Arthur Woody and the Legend of the Barefoot Ranger.”

Dobie didn’t know Woody, who died in 1946, but you would think he did by all the stories he tells through the ranger’s relatives and friends. “I felt like I got inside his character,” Dobie said. “I was very fortunate there was so much information. When you write about individuals, you get to know them.”

One of his main sources was a granddaughter, Jean McNey, who lived with Woody and his wife for several years. Now 88, she returned to the Woody homeplace after a successful career in education.

Ranger Woody joined the U.S. Forest Service in its infancy in 1912 when he was 28 years old. He performed mostly manual labor until he became a ranger in 1918, one of the first two in North Georgia.

Knowing the mountains as he did, Woody pretty much advised the Forest Service on how they could reforest the area, restock the deer and bring trout back to the streams. The story has been told many times about how he traveled to Pisgah National Forest to bring five white-tailed deer back to Suches. He raised them in his backyard until they were released into the forests to reproduce. The white-tailed deer in the mountains today are a legacy of Woody’s restocking efforts.

Likewise, he ordered trout from Colorado, hauled them by truck or wagon over the rough mountain roads from Gainesville and Dahlonega to replenish their numbers in the various streams.

The Blue Ridge Mountain Wildlife Management Area, which he helped create, was the first of its kind in the nation. 

His work with the Forest Service was just one aspect of this man whom many called “larger than life.” He was a big man physically and other ways. He loaned money to friends, some of whom never repaid him, or if they did he didn’t charge interest. He even loaned money to the Union County School Board on one occasion to pay teachers.

Woody Gap School, where many of his relatives attended or taught, exists because he donated the land, help build and pay for it. He completed only a few grades in elementary school, but self-educated himself on mountain ways, skills and people. 

Woody Lake, across from his homeplace, was built by the ranger. He helped build a rough road over Woody Gap to Dahlonega and prodded state and local officials to complete an improved route.

While Forest Service and other officials couldn’t praise the ranger enough, he sometimes butted heads with them over policies and rules. For instance, he didn’t care for the green Forest Service uniforms and mostly wore plain working clothes. Only on special occasions would he put on the uniform. When he couldn’t get out of making talks, he made them short and sweet. He turned down an offer of an honorary forestry degree from the University of Georgia. 

Woody’s barefoot reputation, Dobie says,

is somewhat exaggerated, as are some other 

legends. Woody enjoyed going barefoot, but he wasn’t shoeless all the time, relatives told the author.

Woody was a conservative, but a conservationist first. He wanted as little government as possible in people’s lives. He changed his mind some when during the Depression in the 1930s President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps came into the mountains to provide jobs, build roads, parks and other improvements. He worked closely with them, became their go-to person when they needed advice on projects and leaned on him for his wisdom and intimate knowledge about the mountains and people.

He bought land for the Forest Service and became somewhat of a real estate dealer on his own. The Forest Service relied on him for dealings with mountain people in a number of instances. 

Dobie’s book is filled with stories about Ranger Woody, many from Charlie Elliott, an outdoors writer and close friend, and from Jean McNey and another granddaughter, Lou Nichols. As a bonus, much of the history of the mountains in that area is covered, including how familiar landmarks, Sosebee Cove, for instance, came about and for whom they’re named. His footprints, barefoot or not, are all over the place, including the Appalachian Trail, Vogel State Park, Dockery Lake, Brasstown Bald and Lake Winfield Scott.

“Arthur Woody and the Legend of the Barefoot Ranger” is available by mail from Duncan Dobie, 3371 Meadowind Court, Marietta, GA 30062, for $35, including postage.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times whose column appears Sundays. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; e-mail vardeman1956@att.net. 

Regional events