Near the intersection of Wilson Bridge and Martin Bridge roads off Exit 154 of Interstate 85 in Banks County, there once was a community called Arp.
Dr. H.P. Quillian, a White County native, is said to have practiced there, and the place even had its own post office from 1880 to 1905, probably inside a general store, according to postal records. Only a house, pastures and a farm are in the immediate vicinity today.
There also is an Arp in Irwin County and a school and park with that name in Douglas County.
Those places honoring Bill Arp reflect the popularity of the 1800s humorist whose writings in Atlanta papers and other periodicals gained wide attention in his day. He was the Lewis Grizzard of his time, though his early commentary often skewed more toward political satire.
“Bill Arp” was his pen name, adopted from a real Georgian who later moved to Texas. The writer’s actual name was Charles H. Smith. He was born in Lawrenceville in 1826. His early education was in the Gwinnett Manual Labor School, which Arp described in his writings as a place where “the boys played with the hoe and the axe for three hours a day and called it ‘work.’” Most students were the sons of wealthy families.
Arp had to withdraw in his senior year at the University of Georgia because his father was ill. He took over the family mercantile business temporarily before marrying and studying law. After passing the bar, he cut his lawyer teeth in Gainesville and other North Georgia communities, quickly becoming the “pet of all the lawyers,” according to one account.
Arp and family, which would include 10 children, moved to Rome in 1851. He practiced law until the Civil War broke out, but would continue it afterward for a total of 27 years until, he claimed, he “reformed” before it was too late.
It was during the war that “Bill Arp” gained attention as a writer of letters to the editors of newspapers. His best known was a response to President Abraham Lincoln, who had demanded the Confederates “disperse and retire peaceably” after Fort Sumter fell to Union forces. Arp wrote to the president, “Mr. Linkhorn, Sir, I tried my darn’dst yesterday to disperse and retire, but it was no go.”
From the first drumbeat of the war, he had written letters of secession.
Arp, or Smith, attained the rank of major in the Army of Northern Virginia. After being wounded he returned to Rome, but continued to serve in the militia. Once while he was away from Rome, Union soldiers stole some mules from his farm. Later, he and some friends stole them back. The Smith family later fled Rome, and Union Gen. Sherman used their home as his headquarters as he began his March to the Sea.
Arp’s letters continued after the war ended, and he criticized the federal government’s Reconstruction policies in his homespun dialect. He once wrote that while he accepted his “salvation,” he had never been “thoroughly converted” to the reconstructed Union.
“They conquered us by sword,” Arp wrote, “but they haven’t convinced us of nuthin’ much that I know of. All is lost save honor, and that they can’t steal from us nor tarnish. If they had held out the hand of fellowship, we would have made friends and buried the hatchet.”
During the Civil War, he and other Southerners demonized President Lincoln. Yet he mellowed toward him in later years, writing, “I have long since harmonized on him (Lincoln) for he was a sincere, big-hearted man and had he lived would have done the South justice and saved us from the ignominy of the Reconstruction.”
Though written from a Southern perspective, his letters eventually appeared in hundreds of newspapers all over the country. He also wrote several books and became a lecturer in demand. After a while, he discontinued writing in dialect in favor of more proper English, cleverly recounting his family’s experiences on their farm.
An example: “There’s nothing in nature I enjoy more than red bugs. It keeps me busy looking for ’em on the children and greasing ’em with salt butter; but I tell you they are a healthy insect for they keep the pores of the skin open and save doctor bills. I never knew anybody to die while red bug bitten, and it’s better to save a life by scratching than not save it at all.”
One writer described Arp as “something more than a humorist — a philosopher in touch with every side of life, and his sunny and yet practical philosophy is of the kind that amuses, instructs and strengthens. He does not give himself up to the frivolity of the mere jokester. He brings tears as well as smiles and while no man can tell a good story more entertainingly, he can show himself thoroughly in earnest and well equipped for the discussion when a great question interests him.”
He died at age 77 in 1903.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.