Monday, October 27, 2014

Somerville's Historic Courthouse

On a recent trip from Huntsville back home to Pelham, I stopped at the old courthouse building just off state highway 36 in Somerville. That town is as old as the state, having been incorporated in 1819. Somerville served as the seat of Morgan County government until 1891. Morgan County was created as Cotaco County in February 1818 during the brief Alabama Territory period. The county was renamed in June 1821. The name "Cotaco" survives today as another small community in Morgan County.

The first wooden courthouse in Somerville was built around 1825; twelve years later the current building was constructed. The structure is the oldest courthouse building in Alabama. By 1891 much of the county's population lived in the towns of Decatur and New Decatur, and a vote resulted in the government's move to Decatur. The two sides of the historic marker seen below give further details about the town.

More detailed histories of the courthouses of Morgan County can be found in Samuel A. Rumore, Jr.'s article "Building Alabama's Courthouse: Morgan County" in the January 1989 issue of the Alabama Lawyer. That piece is one of many columns Mr. Rumore wrote for the journal on Alabama's county courthouses. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Did Alabama Still Have Slaves in 1883?

The following item was posted to the USGenWeb genealogy site in 2008. The original article supposedly appeared in the New York Tribune and was then reprinted in the Huntsville Weekly Democrat on November 28, 1883.

The article was written by an unnamed visitor to the South from Massachusetts who takes a horseback journey from Andalusia to Greenville on the "Bottom Road." What he encounters in the backwoods is a situation unchanged from antebellum Alabama. 

I leave it to the reader to decide the veracity of this article. Some details are real. The Weekly Democrat was published in Huntsville from 1866 until about 1919. The Tribune was established by Horace Greely in 1841 and published until 1966. Andalusia, Greenville and Selma are real Alabama towns. Pittsfield is a real town in western Massachusetts. 

A bit of Google searching produced nothing on possible Wiltsie or Delhi plantations near Greenville and nothing definitive on the "Bottom Road" mentioned. Deeper research beyond Google might turn up some answers. The version here is unsigned; some research could determine if the Tribune version--assuming there was one--had a named author.  

Until such serious research determines otherwise, I would suspect a hoax. This narrative fits a common 19th century American pattern--the sophisticate from the North describes his or her visit to the backward South [or West] and the strange customs and people he finds there. This item also appeared only six years after the chaos of Reconstruction ended, and would fit the view of an unrepentant South.

I apologize for  the formatting; my limited tinkering skills could not fix it. Blogger is definitely not a WYSIWYG editor.

The Huntsville Weekly Democrat November 28, 1883

Southern Rip Vanwinkle 
“Slaves” Still on a Forgotten Alabama Plantation
New York Tribune.

   PITTSFIELD, MASS., Sept 20.—Last summer, on my way from Florida to Selma, Alabama, I determined to make a part of the journey on horseback for the benefit of my health.  I was unacquainted with the country, and so was the 
clergyman with whom I spent a night soon after I started.—However, he produced an ancient map and by its aid I chose the “Bottom road” from Andalusia to Greenville, a distance of eighty-three miles, according to the same well-meaning guide.  I had no idea that the “Bottom road” was unused until I had ridden perhaps twenty miles and left the last, cabin behind me.  But the 
weather was fine, and I would not turn back.  When the first night came without 
the sign of habitation, tethered my horse, rolled myself in a blanket, and 
slept on the ground.
   All the next day I rode, and saw not a house nor a human being.  At 6 
o’clock, when I had already made up my mind to spend another night in solitude, I came upon a roadside camp fire, besides which a negro sat.  Of all the colored men that I have met, this one was the fattest, greasiest and happiest. He gave me a bow as I stopped.
   “Good ebenin’ to you, massa!” he saluted.
   “Good evening,” I returned.  “Can you tell me how far I am from the nearest 
   “It’s a powerful distance to walk,” the fellow grinned.
   “And who lives there when you get there?” I questioned, after vainly trying 
to get the distance in miles, or at least in length of time.
   “Ole mars’, he lib dar!” was the answer; and further questioning elicited 
the information that “ole mars’” was another name for Mars’ George Wiltsie; 
that I was then on the border of his plantation; that his residence was several 
miles distant; that the negro was yelept “Sam”; that he resided with “ole 
mars’,” and that he “was down dis way splorin’ to see if dar could’nt be timber 
cut in this seckshun.”  I was soon camping by his fire with my horse feeding 
near by on the grass.


   In ten minutes I made up my mind that “Sam” was the most ignorant of 
Africans.  Could he tell me how far I had traveled since the yesterday 
morning?  He had no idea how far to the next turn.  How far to the nearest 
neighbor?—Did’nt spect there was any nearest neighbor now.  Mars’ Pelton used 
to be nearest, but his house was burned there dozen years.
   After some other questions, the answer to each leadivn me more and more 
convinced of the creature’s ignorance, he began to praise Mr. Wiltsie, 
concluding with “De bes mas’r in Alabam.  Never selled any of us nigs for some 
   “And you all continue living with him the same as you did before you were 
   “We ain’t freed!” declared the paragon of ignorance: and I now came to the 
conclusion that he was a tool.  Out of all patience, I fixed my bunk for the 
night and placed my pistol at my pillow.  In the morning the negro was not to 
be found, and I was more and more convinced of his insanity, and had him in 
mind as I rode onward.


   My third day’s journey—at least the forenoon’s part of it—was not unlike the 
first and second days.  At 2 o’clock I suddenly came upon a field of corn by 
the roadside. A little further on, five or six negroes were standing, among 
them “Sam” of the previous night.  “Dat’s him!” I heard Sam say as I 
approached, and like the cows and mules the negroes scampered.  I went on to 
the house.  It was an old fashioned typical Southern house that had evidently 
seen better days.  The main door was of heavy carved oak, battered and weather-beaten, and the knocker that I took up was much worn.
   It was ten minutes or more before my twice repeated knock had an answer.  
Then the door was opened slowly by a colored woman.  A nod of the head answered 
my question as to whether the master was at home, and scarcely invited I went 
in.  The woman vanished, to appear again after a minute with a scared face.  
   “Walk up mas’r,” she said leading the way up the stairs and through halls.  
I was ushered into a large room fitted up as a library.  A gentleman occupied 
an arm chair beside an oriel window.  His face was yellow, his hair was long 
and white, and a heavy grizzled beard hung over his breast.  He was a man of 
more than 70 years, with remarkable blue eyes that flashed in a defiant way as 
I introduced myself.
   “I can not arise, sir,” he said, in a lofty tone.  “Be seated, and tell me 
what you have come here for.”
   “I would like to remain with you all night.”
   “Yes; but travelers never come through here.  You are the first traveler—the 
first white person that has been here—that I have seen—in more than twenty 
years.  Why did you come?”
   I gave my reason as well as I could.  
   “You must have lost your way,” the gentleman said.  “I never have visitors.  
The Bottom road is never used.”
   “Then there is a better road by which you get out? I remarked.
   “I never get out,” he answered.  “For twenty years I have been a helpless 
   “But your servants—“ I began.
   “Never go from home,” he finished.  Then he went o to say that he needed no 
communication with the world, and, followed with some particulars of himself 
and family.


   The plantation of the Wiltsie family had originally comprised a section of 
5,000 acres.  It had been in the family since the State was settled.  The 
father of the present owner had been a politician of some eminence, and also a 
man of wealth.  He had left this one son who had married and inherited the 
estate.  After a few years of a happy life the wife had died, and two sons 
gladdened the father’s heart.  They were educated as the sons of Southern 
gentlemen and came home from their graduation twenty-three years ago.  One—John—had gone to New Orleans to purchase slaves, and had been murdered there. The other—James—had, in the following year enlisted in the Confederate army and been stricken with malignant fever when in camp at Selma, and there had died.  The deaths of the two sons had been occasions of prejudice to him.  “John’s death determined me that I would never buy or sell another slave, and I never have,” he said.  “Before James’s death I was an advocate of the freedom of the South.  But after the death of James I did not care what became of the South.”
   “I do not care to see the world,” he said.  “No one comes, and if by chance 
they do, they shall have my welcome. I am content as I am.  The world gets on, 
I suppose, but how or in what way I do not care.  I take no papers, have no 
mail, communicate with no one.  We make our own sugar, flour and meal, raise 
our meat, grain and fruit. I take no interest in our government, and neither 
know or care who is Governor of Alabama or President of the Confederate 
Southern States of America.  I do no trading; my goods and slaves that I have 
satisfy me.  In more than twenty years I have not bought nor sold anything, 
from a box of pills to a slave.”


   “I beg your pardon, Mr. Wiltsie,” I said, “but do you not know the history 
of the last twenty years.”
   “I know not and care less!” was the answer.  “I hope you do not propose to 
enlighten me.  If you do, as a matter of pity to me, I will excuse you.  I do 
not care to know.  The histories of times past that I read are just the same as 
that of times recent—names , dates and places being changed.
   “But surely you know the result of the rebellion?”
   He struck the table with his clenched fist, exclaiming excitedly, “I tell 
you once more that I do not know what has been done, and I do not care!”
   “I see that you suppose that the secession was successful?”
   “I suppose it!  I have never thought,” he replied.  “A well-made scheme is 
always successful.  Though little I care for citizenship, I am proud to be a 
citizen of the Confederate States.”
   “Why,” I said, “do you not know that the civil war resulted in suppression 
of the rebellion?  The secession was a failure.”
   The man glared at me and said nothing.
   “You spoke of slaves,” I continued.  “You do not own slaves now, do you!”
   He glared more fiercely, and did not answer.
   “There are no slaves in America,” I continued.  “Every slave in the South is 
a free person?”
   Still he glared then hissed:
   “Are you from New York?”
   “I am from Massachusetts.” I answered.
   “You are a fool,” he said.  “When Sam cam home at midnight saying that a 
crazy man had met him in the bottom lands, I knew whom to expect.  Sam ran away from you last night because he saw you were crazy.  But I thought then, and know now, that you are a Northern sorehead.  You have come here to amuse me with lies.” 
   Keeping my temper as well as I could, I looked him squarely in the face.
   “Mr. Wiltsie,” I said, “let me ask you a question.  Will you answer it 
   “Well?” he said sharply.
   “Do you know that Alabama is still a member of the Union, as it was before 
it seceded?  And do you know that slavery has been abolished?”
After abusing and cursing me, he gave me a most emphatic “No”.
   There were four of five hours from the time of my arrival until I was shown 
to my room, and in that time I tried as well as I could to convince my host 
that I had told him that which was true.  But in vain were my efforts.  The old 
man was positive he was right, and confident that I was a liar.  We had supper, 
and at 8 o’clock he called his “slaves” in the house and we had prayers.  There 
were nine of the negroes—three men and four women, who gray-headed, and a girl in her teens, and a little boy.  They sat with bowed heads, and after the 
reading, went out.  Then Mr. Wiltsie signified that I had better retire, and 
one of the women took a tallow candle and conducted me to a chamber.  When my sable escort withdrew, she bolted the chamber door.  The two windows had 
already been nailed up.
   At 7 o’clock the next morning, I was let out of my prison, and sat at the 
master’s frugal breakfast immediately after.  He was very uncommunicative, and when the meal was over, before he had rung for    “Sam” to wheel out his chair, he said to me;
   “Good-bye!  You can be off as soon as you may please!”
   I said, “Good-bye,” and one of the servants showed me out.  My horse was at 
the door, and, when I rode off, it was in the opposite direction from which I 
had come the night previous.  After two days of hard riding, I arrived at Delhi 
plantation near Greenville, not having seen a person since leaving Mr. Wiltsie’s.  Not at all to my surprise, I found that the hermit planter’s nearest neighbors (forty miles from him) did not know of his existence, or that there was a plantation on the “Bottoms road.”

Monday, October 20, 2014

Alabama Library History: A Call for Traveling Libraries in 1898

In September 2014 I posted an item on bookmobiles, one of a series I'm doing on library history in Alabama. Today's post is a late nineteenth century call for such "traveling" libraries in the state. 

The article below appeared in the Sewanee Review, Volume 6 in 1898 and found via the Internet Archive. That literary and cultural journal is still being published at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.  

The author is Kate Hutcheson Morrissette of Montgomery's No Name Club. She begins her piece noting the importance of education and bemoaning Alabama's low state appropriations in that area--only New Mexico is lower among the states. Even South Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia are moving forward. 

Morrissette notes that the Georgia Federation of Women's Clubs have adopted a Yankee innovation--"traveling" libraries to help with educational efforts. Such libraries will bring learning materials to rural areas that do not have it, allow graduates to continue learning and replace the "poisonous cheap literature" abroad in the land. The article credits the traveling libraries concept to "chief promoter" Melvil Dewey. Dewey was a prominent librarian and educator who created such mobile libraries while serving as director of the New York State Library from 1888 until 1906. 

The article closes with several rousing paragraphs extolling the virtues Traveling Libraries will bring to Alabama. I leave it to the discerning reader to parse these sentiments.

Morrissette's efforts are part of a grand tradition in America, one in which middle-class ladies and their clubs metaphorically rolled up their sleeves and went to work on various public issues---education, libraries, sanitation and so forth. We are the beneficiaries of those efforts.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Some History in Tuscaloosa, Alberta & Northport

In late August my wife Dianne, daughter Becca Leon and I spent a morning taking in some historic places in Tuscaloosa, Alberta and Northport. We spent most of our time at Capitol Park in Tuscaloosa, site of the capitol from 1826 until 1846 when Montgomery became the current seat of state government. The building then became the Alabama Central Female College and burned in 1923. The ruins provide a fascinating lesson in state history.

Then we visited the Old Tavern next to Capitol Park,  the railroad depot in Northport and the Moon Winx Lodge in Alberta. 

I've put further comments on some of these photos below.

Each governor from the period has his own plaque at the site.

The ruins that remain are impressive and many small decorative touches have survived.

Four plaques tell us what the building looked like inside and out.

Here Dianne and I are posing in an arched doorway.

Daughter Becca Leon and her mom did some posing too.

We had hoped to see inside the Old Tavern now adjacent to Capitol Park but they were closed.

After Capitol Park we headed to Northport's historic train depot, unfortunately also closed.

Our final history stop of the day was the legendary Moon Winx Lodge in Alberta. The lodge is not currently open, but the sign remains in all its glory. The Moon Winx opened as the Moon Winx Motor Court in the 1920s. A restaurant on the property was known as The Barn and the Lamplighter. The motel was expanded in 1950 and again in 1954. 

Unfortunately, Glenn House, the artist who designed that wonderful sign, died recently. His sign was installed in 1957.  Dianne and I both enjoyed his letterpress printing class while we were in library school at UA in the early 1980s. Druid City Brewing in Tuscaloosa uses the image in its logo.

Someone thinks he's taking a clever selfie!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Old Alabama Stuff (2): Alabama's Own in France

In April 1917 Alabama National Guard units returned from duty in Mexico; since October 1916 they had been involved in the U.S. effort to put down the rebellion led by Pancho Villa. In that same month the United States entered World War I and the 4th Alabama Infantry became the 167th Regiment of the 42nd or "Rainbow" Division. The unit participated in the Second Battle of the Marne in July and August 1918. The German defeat there resulted in the Allied forces' advance and further victories leading to the Armistice.

The book Alabama's Own in France published in 1919 is the story of the "Rainbow" Division. Not all its soldiers were from Alabama; many other states were represented. Yet for some reason our French allies identified the state with the Division.

An article on "World War I and Alabama" from the Encyclopedia of Alabama can be found here. Below are the title page and table of contents from the book which can be found on the Internet Archive. Last is a photograph of the 167th's victory parade in Montgomery.

Author William Henry Amerine was an Alabama native who served in Europe with the Red Cross in World War I. He died in 1964.

A recent history of the 167th is Nimrod Frazier's Send the Alabamians

Victory parade for the 167th Infantry regiment on Commerce Street at the intersection with Tallapoosa Street in Montgomery

Source: Ala. Dept. of Archives and History

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Vulcan Spotted in Lafayette, Louisiana

Well, yes and no. 

Dianne and I recently made a trip to Lafayette, Louisiana, to visit our son Amos. While there he told me about these manhole covers he had spotted around town, and we wondered if there was a Birmingham connection. 

Well, yes and no.

In Birmingham we think of the Vulcan statue, Vulcan Materials Company, and so forth. Interestingly, that company is NOT named after the statue, but a New Jersey company Birmingham Slag merged with in 1956. A number of companies in our area do make use of the word "Vulcan" after the Roman god of metalworking and the forge. As they say about Sherlock Holmes, "He is everywhere."

And that includes the Vulcan Iron Works, which operated in Chicago from 1852 until 1960. That company was responsible for the many "Vulcan" manhole covers around the country that were manufactured into the late 1940's.

Amos sent me the two photographs.

And now we know...

Monday, October 6, 2014

Old Alabama Stuff (1): An 1888 Pamphlet

I'm going to begin a series featuring books, pamphlets, articles, and whatever from the past that relate to Alabama in some way. These posts will consist of title pages, brief comments and a link to the full text.

First up is this 1888 pamphlet by William Shephard Walsh [1854-1919], "Alabama." He seems to have been a prolific author of his day. The item was published by the J.B. Lippincott Company in Philadelphia, a firm still operating today. There are only a few pages of text.

I'm guessing Lippincott may have published such pamphlets for each state, since it gives an overview of geography, resources, towns, etc.

This work can be found at the wonderful Internet Archive, which notes it has been downloaded 409 times.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Bookmarks for Some Alabama Bookstores

This post displays a few items from my modest collection of bookmarks related to Alabama bookstores. I'll make a few comments along the way and intend to offer other selections in a future post or two featuring bookmarks for libraries and more.

First up are four different bookmarks from a Birmingham store thankfully still in operation, the wonderful establishment of Jim Reed. The first bookmark notes the store's current location on Third Avenue North; the other three date from the previous location on 1st Avenue South where 20th and 21st anniversaries were celebrated. 

I can recommend this store to anyone with the least interest in any kind of printed book. But others may enjoy it as well, since the shelves are filled with items beyond books--magazines, toys, and many other goodies from days gone by. Those of us lamenting the passage of print culture down the great digital black hole can renew our spirits here.

The bookmarks below represent stores once thriving but no longer with us. 

Shaver's was a very nice bookstore located near Huntsville Hospital. The store carried a combination of new and used titles and had a great selection of books related to Huntsville and Alabama history and culture. A profile of owner John Shaver and a photo inside the store can be found here. My brother and I always enjoyed a visit when we were in town and bought many books here over the years. Shaver's closed several years ago, and I believe he opened a booth in a local antique mall. 

I assume the bookmark below relates to the downtown Birmingham Loveman's store and is a reminder of how far books could penetrate our mass market culture back in the day. In addition to bookstores, book selections could be found at department stores and drug stores. The book racks in places like Wal-Mart and Target and some larger grocery chains such as Publix are the last vestiges and will probably disappear soon as well. 

This bookmark and business card advertise A Good Bookstore, which was a Huntsville institution for many years. The address given is the courthouse square downtown, the second location that I really don't remember ever visiting. I did go many times when the store was located in a small strip of stores just outside the Five Points Historic District where California Avenue becomes Andrew Jackson Way. The place was a beacon of culture in the late sixties for several friends and myself.  

The final three bookmarks are from two locations of one of Birmingham's legendary bookstores, Smith & Hardwick founded in 1934. The first item shows the North 20th Street address; the other two are the Clairmont Avenue address in Forest Park, across the street from the Silvertron Cafe. I visited that location a couple of times before the store closed a few years ago. Allen Dean Shaffer was one of the final owners; he died in 2012. He had retired as owner following a stroke in 2004. Shaffer had moved the store to Forest Park in 1990.

One thing we can conclude from these few samples is that many bookstores across the country must have ordered their bookmarks from the same source!

An article about another legendary Huntsville bookstore, Books as Seeds, can be found here.

A history of Birmingham bookstores is available here.

Bookmark histories can be found here and here.

Some interesting things booksellers have found in used books are described here.