The Historic Summerville Depot was the site of the recent “Conversations with Bobby Lee and Bob” hosted by the Chattooga County Historical Society on July 10th. The program featured Robert S. Baker, author of the Bible on County History, “Chattooga County: The Story of a County and Its People” and Bobby Lee Cook, one of the best known figures from Chattooga County. The program was moderated by Gene McGinnis, president of the Historical Society. Baker and Cook carry fond memories of people born in the 19th century. They shared with the audience some of those memories from the past eight decades of Chattooga County history. Baker and Cook both remember a time when our county was full of farmers and when those farmers came to town on Saturdays. Baker has heard stories of the Saturday traffic jams and how not a single parking spot could be found on Commerce Street and all the back roads were packed with merchandise-stocked wagons.
Cook has obtained international fame as a lawyer and is commonly thought of as one of the best criminal lawyers in the world. He is easily Chattooga’s most widely known native son. Cook was born in Chattoogaville at the family home on February 12, 1927. Cook recalled beginning school at the age of 5 at Lyerly Elementary School. His family ran a store in Chattoogaville that “sold everything a farmer needed” which largely eliminated the need for traveling into the “big town of Lyerly.”
Bobby attended Lyerly School until his junior year in high school when he transferred to Gordon Military College, where he would later graduate from in 1942. Cook hop, skipped and jumped around colleges starting at the University of Georgia, then Vanderbilt University before joining the Navy where he served as a medical corpsman for two years.The two years ended Cook’s desire to be a physician and lead him to concentrate on becoming a lawyer. When asked if there was a particular reason or influence that directed Cook toward law, he stated simply, “Judge Clovis Rivers. He was a remarkable man. He read books written in Greek and Latin and he never wore a tie.”
Judge Clovis Dempsey Rivers was the son of Civil War hero, Captain John Welsey Rivers, who was the first white male born in what would later become Chattooga County (John Wesley Rivers was born in 1834, the County was formed in 1838). Judge Rivers served Summerville as Mayor six times and as a Judge for both the County Court and and City Court.
Cook passed the Georgia Bar Exam in 1949 and immediately opened his practice in Summerville. It is a noteworthy fact to mention that Cook never actually completed his law degree from Vanderbilt but passed the Bar Exam on his first attempt. His first law office was located upstairs over McGinnis Drug Co. and Cook still recalls the $500 he had to borrow from the bank to purchase the office. Cook said that once a big shot lawyer in New York inquired as to why he practiced in Summerville. Cook reminded him that, in Summerville, he read the same books that were read in New York City. Cook then proceeded to win the case. Mr. Cook has now tried cases in over 37 states and three countries proving that, when your services are as great as Bobby Lee’s, the clients will come to you.
Cook went on to recall a time in the late 1940’s when he was interrogating a witness in Judge Rivers’ courtroom. The questioning led the witness to become agitated and he threw a coke bottle at Cook. The bottle whizzed right by Cook’s head. Cook now took his turn as the agitated one and a scuffle ensued right in the courtroom. The altercation continued on the floor until Judge Rivers cleared his throat and told Bobby Lee the other man, “had had enough.”
Lawyers often tend to try their hand at politics and Bobby Lee was no exception. He served as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives during the 1949-1950 term, and as a member of the State Senate during the 1957-1958 term. He also served one term as judge of the State Court of Chattooga County from 1961-1964.
The TV series Matlock is loosely based on many of Bobby Lee Cook’s cases. Although Bobby Lee commented that he has never received any payment from the series, and had never asked for any either.
Bob Baker is the definitive historian of Chattooga County. Baker spent his time from 1982 thru 1988 composing the history of Chattooga into a 1200 page book, the maximum allowed in one volume. Baker told the crowd gathered at the Depot that he had to leave out between 400-500 pages out of the book which ended up being lost in a flood in his basement. Baker shared many stories, reflections and his unique perspective on the history of Chattooga County.
Baker spoke of some of the most important events that had happened in the County including the Trion Mill fire of 1875. While the Mill survived the Civil War, it was destroyed soon after by a fire thought to have been set by Confederate veterans or their sympathizers who were upset with mill owner, Allgood, for being a Union supporter. When the fire was discovered, someone was sent up the channel to raise the water gate so to fill the river. By the time the person got back to the burning factory someone else had let the gate back down. This happened three more times and, by the third time, the fire had claimed the entire five story building. The property destroyed by the fire was insured for $35,000 but the loss sustained was over $150,000.
Baker was asked about some of the history left out of the book that he may have regretted omitting. He responded that he wished he would have included Paradise Gardens and Howard Finster in his book. Baker noted that during the 1980’s, Paradise Gardens wasn’t exactly thought of the way it is today.
The Chattooga County Historical Society always have events going on. They publish a quarterly journal focusing on Chattooga County Heritage. The Society’s objective is to promote the preservation and conservation of historical sites, papers, and resources of Chattooga County, Georgia.
For more information on the Chattooga Historical Society and upcoming events: http://www.chattoogahistory.org/