Marshall Williams: Keeper of Madison’s history • Dick Hodgetts
You likely have seen the unusual historic building behind our courthouse. It once served as Morgan County’s jail and is now the County Archives. All types of important documents – dating back to 1809 – are stored inside in what today is a temperature and humidity-controlled environment. And, if you want the printed history of Morgan County to come alive please enter through the iron jail door and meet Marshall "Woody" Williams. The man who has preserved our records and who can delight you with tales of our past history works inside with his supervisor, Linda Williams, the current archivist for Morgan County and Marshall's daughter-in-law.
Let’s be clear that while Woody knows the ins and outs of the archives, he lived an interesting and varied life long before Morgan County’s history appeared on his “to do” list. The native of Seneca, S.C., served in the Glider Corps in World War II and was a photo-interpreter, selecting bombing targets in enemy-held France. He graduated from the University of Georgia and later served as a principal, when Morgan County High School was in the Academy building. His wife, Ruth, was a teacher and was later involved with the Department of Family and Children Services (DFACS). She started an early kindergarten as a private enterprise until Georgia mandated kindergarten for school curriculum. They were married for 62 years and, together, left an impressive legacy with their talented children.
Woody became involved with banker Clifton Hanes in investigating the possible remodeling of the Dovecote House as a commercial facility. Records and excavations determined that five previous structures have been on the Dovecote site, including an 1817, two-up, two-down, Plantation-style house. Woody soon became familiar with the disarray that characterized Morgan County’s early records. He approached Bill Cochran, then-chair of the Morgan County Board of Commissioners, regarding the possible use of the old jail for an archives location. Without Cochran’s support it is unlikely our archives would have been housed in the present facility. He secured inmate labor, paint and shelving, giving Woody the green light to proceed. In 1986 Woody earned $1 as our archivist; it was a labor of love.
And with limited funds, but lots of energy and attention to detail our court records, deeds, newspapers, maps, Grand Jury findings and hundreds of other records were brought into the building, catalogued and stored in an environment where they are best preserved. But that is the stuff of record storage; what Woody brought was a passion for what the records tell us. He knows what’s in the records and can entertain you for hours as to happenings here and there and why. He can not only cite the history of past buildings and events, but Woody has the quiet capacity to debunk some of the myths that seem to flourish in Southern towns. Especially unhappy towns hosting Federal troops in 1864, like Madison. Yes, Uncle Abraham’s invading army did damage to our records and showed scant respect for deeds, records, court proceedings and our paper heritage. The 1867 Grand Jury cites a need to “get our records in order after the passage of the Federal Army.” Woody Williams took on the task in the late 1980s.
Madison today is the focus of movie making, historical books and wonderful photo books of local historic homes. Most of those endeavors include Marshall “Woody” Williams' participation. He is an invaluable source of information for anyone wishing to include the past of Morgan County.
If you want to reward yourself with a delightful experience, sit down with Woody and let him relate stories of the big jail break from what is today our archives. He can provide information on the hanging in 1921 of a man convicted of killing his wife. And, you will be regaled with tales as to how our forefathers lived their lives. But if you have a favorite myth about Madison, best expect to find details that don’t exactly match what your grandfather related some years ago. Woody Williams has the records of those events, and can show you exactly what happened.
Morgan County has so much intriguing history, and the repository for that has been made possible and accessible by Woody Williams, our very unique and talented first archivist for Morgan County.
Printed in the March 15, 2012 edition.