Living History and Ancient Books

Recently, the online user-created encyclopedia Wikipedia shut down for a day to protest a proposed federal law regarding piracy (the intellectual property kind, not the swashbuckling kind). Wikipedia’s protest effectively raised awareness about the heinous SOPA propsal (which is likely to return, though it has been temporarily shelved).  A secondary consequence was the sparking of an avalanche of jokes about the panic of school children who (unwisely) rely on Wikipedia for their school essays and assignments.

The jokes were only half-funny, partly because of their ubiquity, but also because most adults raised in the era of libraries, encyclopedias and traditional research find it sad that that if something isn’t online, the next generation isn’t likely to be reading it. The generations of those academic types seeking to record oral histories and compile vanishing texts can only do so much against the inexorable march of progress and amnesia.

Therein lies one of the most interesting things about living in Montgomery. We’ve got over 100 years more of history as an organized city than, say, Las Vegas. The civil rights and Civil War histories alone make our city one of the most important places in the story of America. And we’ve got many more centuries of pre-municipal information, ranging from Indian mounds to nearby Fort Toulouse, even excluding the 85 million year history evidenced by the amazing Wetumpka Impact Crater.

Yet history of that sort (or of any sort, really) isn’t really a selling point to the young folks who will one day soon be asked to preserve it. A devoted cadre of folks at universities and places like Old Alabama Town and the Alabama Department of Archives and History are doing truly heroic work preserving Montgomery history, while animating it into lived experience for contemporary generations. But the feeling lingers, as perhaps it always has, that in the minds of tomorrow’s leaders, crucial historical truths may be falling through the cracks into the memory hole.

We’ve recently come across two texts that offer windows into Montgomery history. Neither are especially well represented on the Internet. And, at least for us, they provide a kind of gratification and stimulation suggesting that they could (if put into the right hands) offer at least some competition for the distracting multimedia information glut bewitching today’s citizenry.

The first is a four volume set called History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography. We got it at the amazing Over the Transom Books down in Fairhope, one of the state’s best bookstores. Maybe part of the reason this isn’t more famous is that the title is too long and doesn’t make a ton of sense. Dictionary of Alabama Biography? As Lisa Simpson says when passing a movie theater advertising a Yahoo Serious Festival, “I know those words, but that sign makes no sense.”

Also, the fact that it’s four heavy volumes probably hasn’t helped its staying power. It takes up a good chunk of shelf space. Thomas M. Owen, who was the founder and first director of the State Archives, produced the set in 1921. The entire thing is online at the Archives’ site. But some automated process obviously digitized this massive four volume set, resulting in lots of little weird textual “hiccups” in the online text — not fatal, but a less than ideal reading experience. While it’s nice to have a digitized search function for the text, the bound volumes contain a number of classical touches that instill euphoria in bibliophiles: multi-colored painting on the fore edge, the translucent tissue paper page in the first volume separating the picture of Owen from the title page, the spectacular pattern on the fly leaf and pastedown.

The Owen volumes are sort of strange. The first two are an alphabetical listing of everything in the state, as wide ranging as today’s online Encyclopedia of Alabama. The first volume starts with the City of Abbeville and runs through “Hydropathic Medical Institute” (a failed medical school in Coosa County). The second picks up with “Iberville Historical Society” (shortly after which the entry on “idiots” refers the reader to the section on “mental defectives”), concluding with “Zeta Tau Omega,” a sorority that entered Alabama in 1905 at Judson College (where the chapter evidently owned “a bungalow valued at $3,000”).

Volumes three and four are the biographical volumes, the former containing a touching notice from Marie Bankhead Owen (the wife of the author) noting that her husband died before seeing the completion of his astounding compilation. Some of the entries are only a sentence long and others are extremely elaborate.

Owen appears to have been a genius of sorts, described by his wife as having attending the University of Alabama “leaving a record for scholarship and for number of subjects covered in the shortest space of time unsurpassed by any other student.” He married into the legendary Bankhead factory (his father in law was Sen. Bankhead, Tallulah’s grandfather). Owen’s home in Cloverdale burned to the ground in 1906, incinerating untold volumes of historical research and writing. He died in 1920 at the age of 53.

The other invaluable book we found is called The WPA Guide to 1930s Alabama. We aren’t lucky enough to own an original 1941 edition of this item, but were fortunate to snag the version that was reproduced in 2000 by the University of Alabama Press. We got it at Capitol Book and News – they may still have some in stock. The original was produced as Alabama: A Guide to the Deep South and the story behind the book is almost as great as the book itself.

You see, the last time the economy collapsed, there was a thing called the Works Projects Administration. Denounced as socialism at the time, it was actually a hugely successful federal program that put a lot of people back to work. The New Deal footprint was pronounced here in Alabama, where the Civilian Conservation Corps built many infrastructure projects, including the museum in Moundville and numerous other things.

Among those New Deal projects was one to put writers back to work. So the feds paid out-of-work writers to produce a series of travel guides — one for each state. The writers got paychecks and the feds got to produce these travel guides to encourage tourism. The newly mobile American public got a handy guide to attractions across their nation. And since interstates didn’t yet exist, all manner of small towns crop up in the guides, which even go so far as to list driving tours from town to town, highlighting scenic areas and items of interest along the way.

These two books, the WPA Guide and the Owens history, both contain substantial sections on our town, Montgomery. It would be beyond the scope of the current post to highlight all of the interesting items about Montgomery denoted in these ancient histories, but here are a few:

• The first (white) settler on the site of the present city was named Arthur Moore. Evidently Moore “in 1814 erected his cabin on one of the bluffs of the river, just below or near the present union passenger station.” Not to be all Jebediah Springfield about it, but how cool would it be to have a massive citywide 200 year anniversary party in 2014, celebrating Arthur Moore and his cabin on the site of what would later be known as “Hostile Bluff?”

• Montgomery was home to mound building native people. The mounds weren’t just up at Moundville (near Tuscaloosa) at the famous necropolis on the Black Water. The east side of the river was home to the Alabamas and the west side were Coshatties, both sides speaking the same language. Nothing remains of the town of Towassa, where DeSoto first met these native people. We have named our sacred wastewater treatment facilities after these annihilated civilizations.

• A guy from Scotland named James McQueen came to this area to hang out with Creek Indians in 1716 and, according to the Owen book, he died in 1811 at the age of 128. He is buried somewhere on the west side of Eufaubee Creek in Montgomery County.

• There’s plenty in both books about Fort Toulouse. We’ve been there.

• In the WPA Guide, you find yourself smiling warmly during the introductory session when it says that Montgomery, despite its size, “has preserved the neighborliness of a small town and is as Southern as the white cotton fields near by. Its atmosphere of measured dignity tempered by cordiality is matched nowhere else in Alabama.” Then, sadly, you feel those smiles fade when you read the next sentence: “A Negro boy — his face wreathed in smiles — usually accosts the traveler with, ‘You don’t have to tote that grip, boss man; I’ll do it cheap.” It is important to remember that the WPA Guide was written in 1941.

• In a section talking about the notable patriotism of Montgomery residents, Owen also decided to include the overt treason of those who decided to break away and form their own nation.

• Speaking of feuds, most people know that our city was formed when two towns merged. But the WPA Guide is the first place that I’ve ever seen that described the relationship between East Alabama and Philadelphia as “a bitter rivalry.” Evidently, East Alabama was made up of people from Georgia under the leadership of General John Scott. Philadelphia was comprised of “a company of penniless New Englanders” led by Andrew Dexter.

• From Owen: “It is proper to note that in Montgomery the first electric trolley car ever known in the world’s history was operated. The story of the discovery of electricity as a motive power and its practical application as a means of rapid transit is a thrilling one. To Charles Vanderpoel, a Belgian chemist, working in an improvised shop in Detroit, Mich., is due the distinction of the discovery. The initial trip of the car was made on the morning of April 7, 1885, in the City of Montgomery, the whole work being done by Mr. Vanderpoel, under the direction of J. A. Gaboury, then the chief owner of the Montgomery street car lines.”

• Aside from a four year period from 1915-1919, our city had the same mayor. Mayor William Adams Gunter held office from 1911-1915 and then again from 1919-1940. Amazing. And his brother, Gaston, was briefly the mayor before him, from 1909-1910.

• The WPA Guide lists 31 attractions that it recommends that someone in 1941 Montgomery ought to check out. A number have been sadly demolished (evidently there used to be a fine arts museum at the corner of High and South Lawrence; it’s now been incorporated into the library complex there), but many are still recognizable today and are located in Midtown. Some are undeniably landmarks (Sidney Lanier High School, the Governor’s Mansion, etc.), while others (like Patterson Court housing projects) still exist but aren’t exactly on the top of contemporary Chamber of Commerce lists. It’s a fascinating listing and one that we hope to use in informing future travels around our city.

F. Scott Fitzgerald had already published The Great Gatsby some six years or so before he lived in Montgomery with Zelda. But in that legendary novel, Nick tells Jay Gatsby, “You can’t repeat the past.” And we understand that. Montgomery’s future only goes in one direction: forward.

We understand acquiring obscure history books isn’t for everyone. It’s a bourgeois habit and isn’t likely to do much to route young people playing games on their cell phones into the dignified halls of historical research and preservation. The tides of infinitely available trivial distraction may well be too powerful for a couple of dusty books to overcome.

However, knowing history can fully round out your understandings and opinions of contemporary issues. Your thoughts about the airport in Montgomery are refined by knowing about the Wright Brothers’ flight school and understanding Montgomery’s role in aviation history. Contextualizing events can’t happen when we live in the flickering immediacy of instant gratification and off-the-cuff reactions. And a world that over-emphasizes editing and brevity misses out on the struggle and toil of previous generations who made this reality possible. The result, a shared history jettisoned into online (and rarely viewed) archives and dustbins, is a result that impoverishes future generations most of all.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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