On 17 December 2019 around 11:45 AM, an EF-2 tornado touched down near Mystic, with sustained winds up to 125 mph. It traveled northeast from Mystic into Ben Hill County, doing significant damage on Old Whitley Road, Vo-Tech Drive, Lake Beatrice and Pine Level Church Road.
The damage in Mystic was concentrated around the campus of the old Mystic High School (later known as Irwin Academy and Grace Christian Academy), which has recently been serving as a church.
The main building is still standing but sustained serious damage, especially to the roof. Hopefully, it can be saved.
Other structures on the property didn’t fare as well and will likely have to be razed.
Most of the focus now is on cleanup and an amazing amount of work has been done in the week since the tornado.
In July 1893 delegates and members of vocal classes established by William Jackson “Uncle Billy” Royal assembled at Irwin Institute to organize the Royal Singing Convention. From 1893 until 1912 the Convention met in Irwin and surrounding counties in churches of different denominations or in school houses. In 1912 a huge tent was purchased to accommodate the large number of people attending. In 1919 the people of Mystic established a fund to build a tabernacle to serve as a permanent home for the convention. The tabernacle was erected on this site in time to house the 1920 session. Changes in society and advancements in technology brought an end to the Royal Convention after meeting continuously each July for 85 years. The final session was held in 1977. The tabernacle was razed in 1982. [The New Georgia Encyclopedia notes that the first documented gospel singing convention in Georgia was founded as the South Georgia Singing Convention by Uncle Billy Royal in 1875, prior to the convention profiled here].
As many of the old timers were passing on, the first commemoration of this special place was the placement of a granite marker by Uncle Billy’s grandchildren in 1953. It’s located at the entrance to the new memorial.
This memorial reproduces the plan of the original tabernacle at full size. A low brick perimeter wall supported wooden posts which held up a massive roof. Today granite cubes indicate where those posts were located. The singer’s stages is recreated with the monument to “Uncle Billy”. At its edge, permanent memorials are dedicated to friends and loved ones or recall precious memories, favorite hymns and treasured Bible verses. It was dedicated in 1991 after much work by the Royal Singing Convention Association. The Board of Trustees included: Charles C. Royal, Jr., President; Dorothy Royal Grimsley, Vice President; Helen Day Spacek, Secretary; Ralph W. Sims, Treasurer; and board members Eloise Royal Luke, Michael F. Royal, and Jacqueline E. Turner. Stanford Anderson, a nationally-known architect and professor at MIT was responsible for the design.
The memorial is located next to the historic Mystic Baptist Churh on Highway 32 in Mystic. It’s an open air memorial and therefore always open to the public. There is no admission charge.
Famed sculptor Marshall Daugherty, who created the John Wesley Monument in Savannah’s Reynolds Square, completed this bust of Uncle Billy Royal in 1953. Following are archival photos from the memorial.
This is a view of the tabernacle tent in 1916. It was used from 1912 until 1919.
This photo from 1953 shows the tabernacle which was first used in 1920.
William Jackson “Uncle Billy” Royal (16 April 1850-24 May 1931) – Founder and 1st President of the Convention.
James A. “Uncle Jimmie” Royal – 2nd President of the Convention, 1931-1950. Son of William Jackson Royal.
Erston B. Royal – 3rd and last President of the Convention, 1950-1977. Grandson of William Jackson Royal.
G. Morgan Copland was the first Principal. Members of the Board of Trustees were: J. B. Morgan, Chairman; John M. Willis, Secretary-Treasurer; M. G. Hogan; Warren Fletcher; and W. A. York. It has since served as the home of Irwin Academy and Grace Christian Academy. Mr. Foster Goolsby served for many years as headmaster of Irwin Academy. Grier & Biggers were the architects.
Bussell Pond is a well-known local natural landmark and even though I’m related to the Bussell family, I’ve never known much about it. It was once a busy millpond, and the remains of the old mill are still on the property, though inaccessible.
Today marks the five-year anniversary of Vanishing South Georgia!
What began as a personal project has grown into something much greater than I would have ever imagined. In traveling thousands of miles through 82 counties and hundreds of towns of varying sizes, I believe I have been privileged to see a Georgia that few people get to experience in such depth. As I branched out from Ben Hill & Irwin Counties, I did search after search for little places with interesting names I’d found on the map. I knew most would be hard to track down, but one after another seemed lost and forgotten. Part of my mission, and one that remains central to this work, was to create a permanent record of these places for researchers and people nostalgic for a glimpse of their roots. As a historian, I was very aware of the need to document them, but what made my work take wings, so to speak, was the early support and feedback from the people I began connecting with as a result of my photographs.
And I’m not the only one out here, doing work like this. When I began posting my images to the internet I found a small but determined community of people doing the same thing as me, albeit it on a different scale and usually with far more credentials as artists. Too countless to name are all the other Georgians, whether serious or just taking snapshots for the benefit of their own memories, who record history with their cameras. As Mark McDonald of the Georgia Trust for Historic recently said in an interview with GPB regarding the scope of the work, “…in historic preservation, if you can’t save a historic building, the last step is to document it.” Tobacco barns, country stores, and farmhouses truly are vanishing every day and with them the way of life they represented and the stories of the lives built around them. Just this week I’ve heard from several subscribers of the demolition of places I’ve photographed. And I know these are important because people are always so sad to report this kind of news. I’m glad they do, though. As long as the need exists and I’m able, I’ll be out in the country with my camera.
My work on Vanishing South Georgia saved me, in a way. It came at a time when my own life was in flux and when I seemed to be looking for something as yet unknown. It’s renewed my love for place and for the people whose lives define all the places I visit and photograph. I hope that it brings a little happiness to everyone who sees it. That, as much as the documentary aspect, is worth it.
This is located between Ocilla and Mystic. I visited here and saw the inside of this beautiful home around 1998 with Hank Rowe. Billy Vickers writes: Jonnie McCranie lived with her widowed mother Mrs. John M. Willis as this was the Old Willis Homeplace. Kathy Wilson and her husband Mike now own the home. Kathy writes, in part: I do know the attached room on the far side of the porch is where a Mr. Phillips lived, during Ms. Jonnie’s childhood. She told me they moved him here to help them learn about planting and growing cotton. Later, that room was rented out, to others, by Ms. Jonnie. Ms. Jonnie was born in and passed away in the house; if I’m not mistaken, I believe her son told us she passed away in the very same room she was born in. As Billy Vickers said above, her ashes were scattered in the field, by airplane, right in front of the house.
This photo was made by Howard Marshall in 1977, as part of a folklife project funded by the Library of Congress. It depicts a dinner-on-the-grounds, which is a communal dining experience sadly disappearing from today’s church and family gatherings. To see more images like this, please visit the wonderful South Georgia Folklife Collection.