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COLUMN: Remembering the biggest Hill in Lyerly

I was a Daddy’s girl growing up. My Dad was beyond “God status” to me which, by default, made my Dad’s hero, Hill Caldwell, positively larger than life. Hill was a true “country” character, complete with a long hippie beard, who still dances through many of my childhood memories. Mr. Hill was one of my people.

Saturday morning, September 23rd, a small group of less than 20 people, mostly of the homegrown Lyerly variety, gathered at the ribbon cutting for the Lyerly Community Center in memory of the legend, Hill Caldwell. I knew why I was there. My Dad had instilled in me, through osmosis or some other technique, a pride and respect for Mr. Hill which time had only intensified. The building itself, an iconic Lyerly landmark, has served as a bank, post office, a town hall and now, as a community center. The Caldwell family donated the building to the citizens of Lyerly in 2015.

A person from Chattooga County can’t think of Lyerly or the Chattooga Democratic party without thinking of Hill Caldwell.  He was a lifelong resident, business owner and public servant in Lyerly and Chattooga County and, for over four decades, he dedicated his personal time as a leader of the Chattooga Democratic Committee.

Hill and his wife, Louise, always lived within a three-mile radius of Lyerly. The couple ran a gas station from 1953 to 1971 that was built by my own great-grandfather, A.M. Bryant.  My Dad grew up running around that gas station with the Caldwell’s only son, Mike. Louise, now a vibrant 88 years old, jokingly said, “I was the first Grease Lady in town, and a lot of the local ladies sort of looked down on me because of it.” She spent years working alongside her husband, pumping gas and tending to whatever else needed to be done around the station. She even covered the lunch hour so Hill and Mike could go home for ‘dinner,’ the biggest meal of the day. Hill worked 14 hours a day, six days a week at the station.

Mr. Hill with a gentleman who sold minnows

Mike spoke humbly at the dedication of the building in honor of his father. The sparse crowd was treated to a rare look at a great man through the eyes of a cherished legacy; a child who revered his father. Hill Caldwell was born August 13, 1928 in Lyerly, Georgia and was named after Judge Hill of Summerville. His future wife was born Louise Brady on September 10, 1929. The two attended school together, eventually graduating from Lyerly High School in 1947. They married when they were just eighteen years old. Shortly after getting married, Hill contracted tuberculosis in 1951, and spent 18 months at Battey State Hospital.

Hill and Louise 1947

Hill Caldwell was known for being a man of few words, his long flowing beard and his love of politics. While he was a soft-spoken man who “didn’t say a lot, Hill meant what he said,” Louise said proudly.

While his signature look hinged around the beard, obviously it wasn’t always a part of Hill’s features. Mike told me the story…  “After dinner, your granddad, my dad, the Reece’s, Mr. Crawford and a lot of people would show up at the gas station to talk and ‘solve all the world’s problems’. During the 1965 Civil War Centennial event, this group of “problem solving” Lyerly men decided to hold a contest to determine who could grow the biggest beard. “Hill grew his beard out for 18 months in 1965 before getting grease in his bread and cutting it off. He let it grow out again when Dennis Ragland passed away and… he just let his hair and beard grow out,” recalls Louise.

Politics

Hill loved politics. For forty years, Caldwell presided over county elections at the Lyerly precinct right in the very building now being dedicated in his honor as the new community center. Would-be officials running for office would come to Hill, looking to gain his support, thereby almost ensuring victory.

Mike recalls one evening during his high school years, while working at the gas station when a car pulled up and three men jumped out…. “Son, I’m looking for Mr. Hill Caldwell!” said the tall stranger. “Well… that’s my dad. He’s standing right over there,” answered the young Mike. The gentleman eased over to Mr. Hill and said confidently, “I am Jimmy Carter and I am running for governor. I am told I need your support!” Hill didn’t miss a beat and was quick to respond, saying, “well that depends!” Seeing that this endorsement was going to take a little convincing, Candidate Carter ended up joining the Caldwell family for dinner in what could only have been called an “intensive vetting session.”  Carter’s interview at the Caldwell dinner table proved to be a success and, true to form, the Hill endorsement took Carter all the way to the Governor’s mansion in Atlanta. Over the passing years, Hill became one of Carter’s biggest fans, and Mr. Carter remained a fan of Hill’s when he became Governor Carter and later, as President Carter.

Louise, a seamstress by trade, returned to her craft after closing the gas station. Hill built her a fabric shop in 1972 when little “mom and pop” fabric shops were all the rage. The couple worked together and became very successful throughout the 1970’s, servicing about 50 fabric stores across the Southeast. The Caldwell legend grew as their family grew and the influence of Hill spread across Lyerly, Chattooga and the state.

As the crowd gathered for the dedication ceremony, Mike was quick to point out, “It’s really not about who donated the building. It’s about who gave it new life and made it what it’s going to be for the citizens of Lyerly.” The building required a good bit of elbow grease including electrical and plumbing updates, heating and air conditioning, and a new roof. Lyerly Mayor, Josh Wyatt, wanted to install a plaque, recognizing the gift of the Caldwell family, but Louise said that if they were going to put a plaque up it should be dedicated to Hill because… it was Hill’s building.

Mr. Hill Caldwell passed away in 2007, but his love for Lyerly will live on through the generosity of his family. Mike recalls his Dad saying, “you know, I had a lot of good times in this building”.

Life Lessons of Hill:

Nothing good happens after midnight.

“My dad had few words, but if he said something he meant it.” After a night that lasted past midnight, Hill told Mike, “when you leave this world you only have two things you are remembered by, one is the dates/years you are here, the date you are born and the date you die, the other thing you leave is your name.”

You need to do the right thing even though no one else is looking.

Mr. Hill gave my Dad (Billy Bryant) an empty wallet as a high school graduation present in 1969. Inside the wallet was a note, “this will always be empty if you don’t go to college.” Dad still has the wallet.

 

 

 

 

Villeda Concrete

Casie Bryant is the NW Georgia Regional Manager for AllOnGeorgia.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Lamar Woodall

    September 28, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    This is a great article and I commend you on your work. There is one person who was missing in this article that had a bigger part in Hill’s life than all others. That was his Daughter Rose Anne Caldwell Woodall. She loved per Dad beyond compare and he she. He was proud of what she become and all of the world travels she was able to see outside of Lyerly and what she accomplished in her short life. They are together now in Heaven. I’m not complaining just want you to know Rose Anne was just as important to Hill as was Mike or Louise and I know they know. She had the same memories of Lyerly and was proud of her Dad for being Hill Caldwell.

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