A Distinguished Innovator
William B. Rice was arguably the most important farmer, naval stores operator, businessman and financier that Laurens County has ever known. Known simply as "Captain Rice," he was one of the most respected men of his day. Never one to seek political office, he served his community by pursuing his business interests. In building his own substantial fortune in the process, Rice pumped the economic engine which catapulted Dublin and Laurens County to become one of the most preeminent economic markets in Georgia in the first two decades of the 20th Century.
William Brooks Rice, son of Benjamin F. Rice, was born on Edisto Island, South Carolina on October 2, 1856, one hundred and fifty years ago yesterday. His mother, Rebecca Sauls Rice, died when he was only two years old. The young William was sent to live with his aunt. His early years were spent in the maelstrom of South Carolina's secession from the Union and the resulting turbulence of the Civil War which nearly consumed Charleston.
Toward the end of the 19th Century, William and his brothers Dan G. Rice and Samuel Percy Rice, migrated from Florida to the western end of Emanuel County, Georgia. The Rice brothers established a highly successful naval stores operation near Rixville, located at the far limits of the county below Adrian. Pine trees in the area were highly suitable for the production of gum turpentine, especially in the forests between Adrian, Rockledge and Soperton. It was during this time when William Rice earned the title of "Captain Rice." Turpentining was a labor intensive operation requiring the employment of many men, usually black men, who worked for humble wages just to survive. The title of captain was usually bestowed as an honorary title to a man who was the boss of a group of laborers.
Captain Rice began to diversify his interests by engaging in farming. In 1901, he made the headlines in the Atlanta Constitution by earning nearly two thousand dollars on a 40-acre hay field. By 1902, as Captain Rice's fortunes began to mount, it became apparent that he needed to move to Dublin to keep up with his station in life. Though he was no longer a resident of Adrian, Captain Rice offered his services to the movement to establish the new county of James surrounding the town of Adrian. Rice served as vice president of the organization along with Captain T.J. James, Adrian's most influential and powerful businessman.
Captain Rice and his family moved to Dublin in the summer of 1904. He moved to a fine home which he called "Brookwood" on the western outskirts of Dublin along the Macon Road. His home was located on the site of the Carl Vinson V.A. Medical Center. Following the resignation of J.E. "Banjo" Smith as vice president of the First National Bank of Dublin, Captain Rice and his business partner, William S. Phillips, were appointed as co-vice presidents of the bank. The First National was Dublin's largest and most prosperous bank and was known as the largest country bank in Georgia.
One of Captain Rice's greatest contributions to Dublin and Laurens County was his leadership in the establishment of the Twelfth Congressional District Fair in 1911. Rice chairmaned the 1913 event. Perhaps the greatest in the fair's brief history, the exposition recorded twelve thousand admissions in a single day.
Always a strong spiritual and monetary supporter of business interests in Dublin and Laurens County, Captain Rice joined his colleagues J.M. Finn, R.M. Arnau, R.F. Deese, Izzie Bashinski and D.S. Brandon in incorporating the Dublin Chamber of Commerce in 1914. Rice was involved in other business ventures as a director of the Dublin Buggy Company, the Chamber of Commerce Warehouse Company, the Citizen Loan and Guaranty Company (the region's largest insurance company,) and the Thompson Horse and Mule Powder Company. Rice partnered with W.S. Phillips and W.T. Phelps in a stable business on the north side of the courthouse square in the first decade of the 20th Century. Known as a man with great foresight, Rice purchased one of the first automobiles in Dublin, a thirty horsepower Cadillac from the Miller Brothers in 1907.
But without any doubt, W.B. Rice's greatest contribution to Laurens County came in the field of agriculture. He sought out and studied new methods of farming to improve crop production and profits. Within five years of cotton farming in the county, Rice boasted that he could harvest 800 bales of cotton on an 800-acre farm. In 1913, he studied the use of new irrigation techniques. Rice believed that a network of terra cotta pipes delivering water evenly throughout his fields would greatly increase profits. During World War I, Captain Rice urged his fellow farmers to plan a more diversified array of foodstuffs to support the war effort. On his Brookwood plantation, he maintained one of this section's finest herd of cattle, many of them registered Herefords. He annually maintained a passel of hogs weighing more than fifty thousand pounds. A kine of a hundred dairy cattle grazed on his farm supplying his dairy, bringing him an annual profit of more than twelve thousand dollars.
In the disastrous years following World War I, Georgia's agricultural economy began to collapse. The near annihilation of the cotton crop and the beginning of a vast migration of Negro farm workers to the North forced farmers to diversify their crops and livestock operations by banding together to take advantage of farm cooperatives. One of the first national organizations to form in Georgia after the war was the American Association of Farm Bureaus. The Farm Bureau was formed to provide opportunities for information on production, conservation, distribution and better living conditions for farmers. Captain Rice was selected as the initial 12th Congressional District member of the Georgia Farm Bureau Advisory Board in 1920.
Captain Rice was a fervent leader of the Baptist church. He moved his membership from the Adrian Baptist Church to the First Baptist Church of Dublin in 1905. A century ago, Rice was one of the leading contributors to the erection of the present church in Dublin.
Captain William Brooks Rice died on the morning of December 9, 1929. He was buried with his family in a vault in the Mausoleum in Northview Cemetery in a funeral attended by hundreds of friends, family and admirers. He was described by a biographer as one of those people you like the first time you meet them. He always spoke what was on his mind, without shuffling or evasion. Able to converse with any person on his level, Rice was a bright blue-eyed man, frequently humorous and habitually smiling, except when being photographed. Perhaps these words in his obituary aptly symbolized his character: superb strength of character, most generous helpfulness of hand and great kindness of heart.