The oldest son of a family of eight children who survived infancy, the exigencies of the situation prevented even a high school education, for at the age of 14 he entered the path as assistant bread winner, taking store jobs at meager pay with John Henry & Son, then M. D. Willcox, D. C. Joiner, and at the age of 17, with Merritt & Coney. On the dissolution of the latter firm, with R. A. Merritt taking the hardware division, young Whitfield entered that business. Mr. Merritt, going to Macon to live in 1889, sold his young protégé a half interest in the hardware store, taking his note for same, and the partnership agreement of Merritt and Whitfield was signed on May 18, 1889. The business had a remarkable growth. On the organization of the Merritt Hardware Company in Macon, the Whitfield Hardware Company in Hawkinsville was chartered
July 10, 1896, and it was an outstanding organization of Middle Georgia, its reach in both retail and wholesale going fifty miles out. The business moved to the two-story brick building at the corner of Jackson and Commerce Streets, both floors being required. This building was acquired by purchase from the Stetson estate, and on its sale some years later Mr. Whitfield purchased the two-story building at the Moore Brothers bankrupt sale-a building now owned by him.
His business, starting with his partnership, extended nearly forty years, during which period he was actively identified with every forward movement of the community in which he lives. Civic pride dominated him. No enterprise was suggested that his time and money failed to support. He led many of the worth-while promotive efforts. He was associated with J. P. Watson in the operation of steamboats on the Ocmulgee River, and was president of the company. Mr. Whitfield put money in this enterprise that gave to Hawkinsville the lowest freight rates from the east of any inland city of the State. He made frequent appearances before Congressional committees in Washington, D. C., for appropriations for the Ocmulgee River. He, as vice president and traffic manager, was associated with T. B. Ragan as president and H. E. Coates as secretary-attorney of the Hawkinsville & Western Railroad; was active with his associates in its construction and operation, an enterprise that suffered as did other short line railroads when the U. S. Government took over the trunk lines as a war measure, and thus forced receiverships for the short lines. But it was a miracle in financing so great an enterprise that at least was successfully started.
He was one of the charter directors of the Hawkinsville Cotton Mills, which was organized in 1900. He was on the board of directors and on the committee that purchased the machinery.
Mr. Whitfield was also a charter member in the organization of the First National Bank in 1905, a member of its first board of directors, and on the removal of T. E. Lovejoy to New York, succeeded him as vice president.
He was no less active in the religious life of the community. He served the First Baptist Church as superintendent of its Sunday School for many years, starting in his twentieth year. For twenty-five years he was a member of its board of deacons, serving as chairman of the board the greater portion of the time. At its organization thirty years ago, the Pulaski Baptist Association elected him moderator and has reelected him each of the succeeding years.
Mr. Whitfield was elected president of the State Baptist Young Peoples Union in 1897, and brought that organization into a place of prominence, though state conventions of the denomination refused to foster it. He declined to be reelected after 1900. He was chairman of the building committee of the commodious and beautiful building occupied by the First Baptist Church, a model arrangement for modern demands of the various departmentalization efforts.
The fear of ill health prompted him to leave the confinement of his hardware business. He sold out and became commissioner of roads and revenues of Pulaski County on May 1, 1924, and made a record that has given him a State-wide reputation for accomplishments. Of the five State “Federal Aid Highways” entering the county seat, none were any better than any county road of today. The State Highway Board required counties to stand a 25 per cent matching of funds to secure improvements. With a heavy bonded indebtedness already existing, and a large current debt, there were no funds available to meet these requirements. The county’s chain gang was utilized, and work from it matched the public funds of 75 per cent grants. Highways were graded, concrete drainage installed, and the stretch seven miles north paved with county road forces on the 75 per cent grant, and the net results of the eleven years’ public service will see by the end of 1935 all five of these highways paved to the adjoining county lines at a cost of approximately $800,000. The county received about $60,000 reimbursement certificates for the 25 per cent retained for the work job. The public road leading to Vienna was placed in the State system as a result of Mr. Whitfield’s efforts.
He is vice president of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, and his friends say he will be made president at the next convention.
On the death of his father, on January 28, 1886, James was the oldest son at twenty years of age. The responsibility of the elder brother and son fell on tender years, and added greatly to his life’s care. The youngest child was but four years old. These responsibilities probably account for the fact that he did not earlier become a benedict. On August 10, 1898, he married Miss Estelle Baynard Willingham, of Houston County, who became his constant inspiration and active helper. His wife was the daughter of Thomas H. and Frances Harper Wright Willingham.
Her great-great-great-grandmother on her mother’s paternal side was Sarah Ball, a sister of Mary Ball, the mother of George Washington. Her great-great-great-grandfather, on her mother’s maternal side was John Hendricks, whose daughter, Elizabeth, married Charles Smith, son of John Smith of historical fame. Her father’s people, on the paternal side, came from England, and their ancestral home, Willingham Manor, at Market Rasen, England, stands today in a splendid state of preservation, and is often visited by the Willinghams of Georgia. Her father’s family on the maternal side were the Baynards, who went from France to England with William the Conqueror and later came to Edisto Island and other parts of South Carolina’s seacoast.
The Willinghams are a well-known and prominent family in Middle Georgia.
Of the union, three children were born: Frances Willingham, born August 26, 1900, finished high school in Hawkinsville and graduated with an A.B. degree at Agnes Scott in 1921; attended the W. M. U. training school of the Baptist Seminary at Louisville, Ky.; married Henry M. Elliott, December 29, 1925; and Estelle Willingham, their only child, was born June 19, 1928.
John James, Jr., born January 18, 1903, graduated from the Hawkinsville High School with first honor and attended Georgia Tech, was a member of the A. T. 0. fraternity, and graduated in the class of 1924 in Architecture, and made the honorary Phi Kappa Phi. He has been associated with leading firms of his profession in Atlanta, Miami, and New York since the day of his graduation in Architecture. For the past eight years he has been in New York, and is today associated with Jones & Erwin, one of its leading firms of interior decorators.
Mary Lee, the youngest, born January 24, 1911, likewise graduated at the local high school, taking second honor, and attended Shorter College, graduating with distinction. She received her A.B. degree in 1932. She married Henry C. Duggan, October 5, 1934.
Mr. Whitfield early became a great reader; has absorbed much from a well selected course of reading, and has traveled extensively. These two things have overcome the early handicap above referred to. He is a fluent speaker and expresses himself well before any audience.
Alert, progressive, energetic, one wonders if there is not some mistake in the date line that begins this sketch, for there are many of us who are glad that while he yet lives it may be recorded of him that illuminating and beautifying and ennobling the man himself is the blameless character that has marked his life; and yet it has not been a negative, passing existence, but one active in all good works, not for himself, but for others.