J. Harry Ridgeway
We have to go back a long way to get the full impact that the recreation and sports program has on Jackson and Butts County.
The seed was planted in the early years of the 1900’s. The First Baptist Church of Jackson, for sixteen years, had a devoted pastor, Dr. Robert Van Deventer, who was deeply concerned about the youth outside of the church as well as within. He formed and was the leader of the first Boy Scout Troop in the county.
There was a young boy who became a member of the church and who was also a Boy Scout under the guidance of Dr. Van Deventer. His name was Hampton L. Daughtry. This you man grew up and took his place in the business world in the Atlanta area, but he never out grew the influence that Dr. Van Deventer had on him. Through the years, he became a very successful businessman, and he wanted to do something in memory of his former pastor and scout master. In 1943, he established the Van Deventer Scout Memorial fund to be used for the recreation and development of the youth in Butts County. This fund drew interest for the next ten years.
In the fall of 1952, the Butts County Parent-Teacher Association became so concerned about the youth not having a place to gather for fun and recreation that they voted to sponsor a recreation center. A committee was appointed to lay the ground work and Mrs. Roy (Thelma) Prosser was appointed chairperson. By January 1953 the plan was ready to be set in motion. The Van Deventer Memorial foundation let it be known that they were ready to help. The Foundation had acquired the former REA building on the corner of Oak and Second Street and offered it as a place for the youth center. Through the untiring efforts of the P.T.A. and many others, the center became a reality and opened on February 1, 1953 as the Van Deventer Youth Center. The center was a huge success offering television, table tennis, reading, dancing, billiards and other activities.
By the winter of 1954 the number of youth wanting to use the center became so great that more space was needed. The Veteran of Butts County, the VFW, and the American Legion, who owned a building on College Street, came to the rescue. Use of this building was donated to the Van Deventer Foundation as a recreation and activities center for the youth. After some remodeling, the new Van Deventer Youth Center was opened on February 1, 1955. Up to this point all of the activities sponsored by the center were confined to inside activities.
The only sport for youth in the county was baseball with four teams sponsored by the following churches; Jenkinsburg, Macedonia, Pepperton and Towaliga. These teams were made up of Royal Ambassadors (R.A, boys), a mission program for boys. These four teams played each other during the summer of 1955.
In the late summer of 1955, the Van Deventer Youth Center employed a full time youth, recreation, and activities director, Mr. James H. Wallace. Shortly after becoming director, Mr. Wallace was showing Mr. Hamp Daughtry, President of the Foundation, and Mr. Pliny Weaver, Chairman of the Board of Directors, the available facilities for outdoor sports. These men came by the high school baseball field, now known as Wallace Field, where two of these R. A. teams, Jenkinsburg managed by J. Harry Ridgeway, and Pepperton, managed by Mr. James Wise, were playing the last game of the season. After the game was over, Mr. Wallace called the two managers over to tell Mr. Daughtry and Mr. Weaver what teams were playing and who sponsored them. At the end of the conversation, Mr. Daughtry turned to Mr. Wallace and said “James, why can’t we organize a program where every boy in Butts County who wants to play ball can play?” James replied that “we’ll go to work on it and see what can be done”.
During the winter of 1955, Mr. Wallace made several contacts with directors of other towns that had an organized athletic program for youth. Griffin and Spaulding County had begun such a program and Mr. William H. (Bill) Beck III was director of the Little League in Griffin. He agreed to come over and explain the programs. In January, 1956, Bill Beck met with James Wallace, Harry Ridgeway, and W.A, (Buster) Duke at the home of Buster and Dot Duke. Mr. Beck explained the Little League and Babe Ruth programs and suggested how we might begin such a program. From this point on, the youth program began to pick up steam under the direction of Mr. Wallace’s untiring efforts.
In 1957, the Van Deventer sponsored program became affiliated with Little League and Babe Ruth baseball, although the program was ineligible for a charter at that time. Teams were formed on the local level. Two Babe Ruth age 13-15 years, teams were formed with the Black Shirts being coached by Eugene Prosser and the Red Shirts being coached by James Wise. Two teams from Henry County, Ola and Fairview, were also formed. Little League, ages 9-12 years, had three teams and one being from Ola. In 1958 the Van Deventer Foundation received a charter for Babe Ruth and Little League.
Other activities sponsored by the Van Deventer Foundation during this time included Girl’s softball, Pee Wee Baseball, and a swimming program.
The program continued to prow in all phases of activities for all youth in whatever area of interest the individual had.
About eleven years ago, under the direction of the Foundation, land was acquired to build a recreation complex. The City and County governments took over the program at this point. The complex was named Avondale Recreation Park until May 4, 1987 when the part was renamed the Hampton L. Daughtry Recreation Park in honor of Mr. Hamp Daughtry.
The park today furnished a place for all outside activities for children from 5 years to 80 years. As of this writing (1987), the program consists of twenty three baseball teams, form tee ball through 15 years, sixteen softball teams for all ages, twelve soccer teams, nine football teams, twelve basketball teams and tennis for a total of one hundred forty-four volunteer coaches, 69 teams, and with seven hundred fifty children and adults participating.
It’s amazing what has developed for our community! It all started by the influence of a devoted pastor in the life of a young boy, then the concern of the Butts County P.T.A. and spread to the business people and civic organizations. The flame grew until it reached all citizens of our county.
We should be proud that our youth have a place for recreation and fellowship. Let’s all stop once in awhile and say “thanks” to all those who have made this possible. Lest we forget!