Days Gone By - stories from the past

LaFayette, in Chambers County, Alabama had many names before settling in LaFayette

A HISTORICAL SKETCH OF LAFAYETTE, ALABAMA

By Anne Elizabeth Newman

Written in LaFayette, Alabama, 1942

A first-time visitor to LaFayette, passing down streets overhung by great old trees, might quickly and rightly conclude that it is an old town. Located near the center of Chambers County, in the central-eastern part of Alabama, not far from the Georgia line, in the southern extension of the Piedmont Plateau, it stands at an altitude of 843 feet on the dividing ridge that separates the Chattahoochee and the Tallapoosa waters.


Legislative Act defined the boundaries

There is nothing outstanding in the topography of the surrounding country: The land is somewhat rolling, there are some hills, and the soil varies. Chambers County, which is named for a man born in Virginia but an early resident of Alabama, was one of the counties formed from the territory ceded by the Muscogees, the upper Creeks, and created by an act of the legislature December 1832. This act only defined the boundaries of most of these counties and in a general way made provision for their government.

Chambers County, Alabama map (WorldAtlas.com)

At a later date, there was created for each county the office of courthouse commissioners. In January 1833 the legislature elected James Thompson of Jefferson County judge of the county court, whereupon he came to Chambers County to effect its organization.

The election was held in March 1833, at which W. H. House was chosen clerk of the circuit court, Joseph J. Williams clerk of the county court, and Nathaniel H. Greer sheriff. The three courthouse commissioners selected were Baxter Taylor, James Taylor, and Thomas C. Russell. John Wood, Booker Lawson, John A. Hurst, and William Fannin were elected commissioners of revenues and roads.

At the first court held by these commissioners (April 1833), the following officers were elected: John Edge census enumerator, John Bean coroner, William McDonald surveyor, Elisha Ray County auctioneer—an important office in that day— and Captain Baxter Taylor treasurer.

County Seat had many names

The duty of the courthouse commissioners as prescribed by the act of legislature creating the office, was to name the county seat, where this had not already been done, obtain title to land for a courthouse, a jail, etc., and additional land to be sold to raise money for the .erection of public buildings. These official duties were performed in Chambers County. It is said that the first county seat was fixed seven miles northwest of the present site of LaFayette, at the home of Daniel Taylor, but this location was not permanent. Under an act of Congres, a hundred and sixty acres were set aside, the town site was surveyed, the locations of the courthouse and the jail were determined and on October 23, 1833, a public sale of lots was held. They sold well, bringing “satisfactory prices,” and enough funds were realized to pay for the courthouse, which was completed in 1836, and for the jail.

This settlement, situated in a primeval forest and growing rapidly, was called by various names before receiving its present designation: Chambersville, Chambers Court House, and Fayetteville.

When the country was afire with enthusiasm over the visit of its friend of the Revolution, the Frenchman, (Lafayette) on his last trip to America, the Georgia committee escorted him to the Chattahoochee River and entrusted him to fifty unclothed painted Indians under Chilly McIntosh. These warriors took General LaFayette across on a ferry, then pulled him in a sulky eighty feet up a hill and delivered him to the Alabama reception committee.

After that visit, when the settlers chose a name it could but be LaFayette. The post office, however, was Chambers Court House, the town LaFayette, until Colonel J. J. McLemore, postmaster, made application in 1876 to have the post office share the name of the town.

Settlers were of the rude pioneer mould

Most of the first settlers came from Georgia; a few were from the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Virginia. The greater part of them were of the rude pioneer mould; adventurers, fugitives from justice back home, land speculators, Indian traders, etc. The strength of these newcomers, however, were a determined, hardy people, hoping that a new country would offer them better opportunity to own homes and advance their interests than did the place that they had forsaken.

The original courthouse, twenty feet square, was made of pine poles and had a dirt floor. There was a crude raised platform at one end for the judge’s seat. Old county records show that at the first session of the grand jury the foreman was indicted for a misdemeanor in violation of the whiskey law— giving or selling whiskey to an Indian.

Freeney’s Tavern, also known as the Lafayette House, on the corner of Tallapoosa and Commerce Streets in Montgomery, Alabama.ca. 1890 (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

The men were more frightened than the women

This log court house, built within a stockade, was the place of refuge when the Indians threatened to break out. Mothers came from outlying homes bringing children and negro nurses and sought protection night after night, while their husbands kept watch. There is a story that once when some of the men came inside frightened the women threatened to tie aprons on these husbands and leave them to care for the children while the women themselves acted as sentinels. The men returned to duty.

This log structure which answered the purpose of a temporary court house for two years served as a community center and as a church for all denominations that wished to use it. After the sale of lots, a more comfortable and substantial building was begun and saw completion in 1836.

Argonne oak was sent by LaFayette

The present court house is of red brick with marble trimming. It was finished in 1900, costing $30,000; now it would be estimated as a structure worth several times this amount. It was on the southeast corner of this court house lawn that the Argonne oak was set out—an oak sent the town of LaFayette by the French government just after the first World War and now grown to a large tree. The setting out of this tree was attended by ceremony, with Judge W. B. Bowling presiding and a large crowd present.

Chambers County Court House, Alabama (chamberscountyal.gov)

The original log jail, put together with long iron spikes, later bricked inside and out, almost baffled the workmen who razed it in order to erect the present brick, steam-heated building. There are no extraordinary occurrences in the history of the town and county. There was the degree of lawlessness customary in a new settlement, but the inhabitants kept to their tasks.

Schools were established

The land was cultivated, villages arose, and after some years schools were established, mainly, if not entirely, private schools. There were the Baptist Female College and the Methodist Ashbury College, which attracted girls from Montgomery, Talladega, and other places. Oak Bowery Institute was another school that enjoyed more than local eminence. The Methodist Ashbury College, a building of Colonial architecture, was torn down and was succeeded by Shepherd Hall.

LaFayette High School. LaFayette, Ala ca. 1890 (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

The education of the boys was provided for in the Boy’s Military Academy, which belonged to the town and the county. It was scrapped and sold when the LaFayette school was built. LaFayette College was chartered December 9, 1886, though it had been founded three years previously. There were two issues of a school publication, LaFayette College Sunbeams. After the establishment of high schools about over the state the name of the institution was changed to LaFayette High School.

Baptist and Methodist denominations were pioneers

The Baptist and Methodist denominations were represented among the pioneers. So far as there is any record, the first church to be established was the Baptist Church at Welsh, called Bethel, and founded in 1832. The Methodist church in LaFayette was organized in 1833, with three members, and the building was erected in 1837. The Baptist church had its beginning in 1834, with eleven members.

Fredonia Methodist Church Constituted 1833 (ALGEnweb Chambers county)

The Presbyterians organized at some later date. Whatever prejudice existed in the early days when there were denominational schools is now entirely gone and the different church groups cooperate harmoniously and “dwell together in unity.”

Newspapers, railroad, and cotton mill

The weekly paper has appeared under various names. In 1842 The Chambers County Times was being published. In 1863 the newspaper was called The Chambers Tribune; later it was The Chambers Democrat. For awhile two papers existed together: The LaFayette Sun and The Leader. The lone surviving weekly publication of the county seat is The LaFayette Sun.

A railroad first called the East Alabama and Cincinnati was surveyed and built during 1870 and 1871. It later became the Central of Georgia. Samuel Spencer as a young man helped to survey this road, he who later became president of the Southern Railway and to whose memory a monument stands near the Union Station in Atlanta.

The LaFayette Branch Railway was built to Opelika in 1894 and 1895 by local capital and operated eight or ten years. In 1919 LaFayette capital began the construction of a cotton mill near one edge of the corporate limits. It was taken over by the Shenandoah Cotton Company of Utica, New York and began operation in 1922. Then came a time when the spindles were idle for a considerable period, in fact, till the mill was purchased by the Avondale Mill Company in 1932 and operation was resumed.

Beautiful homes

A stranger passing through LaFayette and noting the many dignified residences of Colonial architecture and the modern homes set in well-kept lawns or in spacious grounds of trees, grass and flowers might correctly deduce that here reside a people who take pride in their homes and their community.

Among the antebellum homes is the old mansion of the late J. R. Dowdell, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama, set far back from the street in its own park. It is interesting not only for those who have resided there but also because of its notable architectural characteristics.

Dowdell-Mathews-Bullard House  U.S. Route 431 (State Route 37), Oak Bowery, Chambers County, AL 1935 Front (W. N. Manning, Library of Congress)

The Andrews home, just south of the Baptist church, said to date back to the forties, has history locked up in it. During the last fighting of the Confederates, men were stationed on its high flat roof to discern the approach of troops. Once when it was thought that the tired Confederates were coming, hams were brought out to be cooked on large scale in big pots in the yard, pastry was prepared, and flowers were picked. It was the Yankees, however, who came, but before their arrival, some things were saved and the few carriage horses left in town were hurried to hiding-places in the swamps.

Andrews House, South Lafayette Street (U.S. Route 431), Lafayette, Chambers County, AL (Sep. 10, 1935 W. N. Manning, Library of Congress)

The McLemore home became a possession of the family in 1878 but was built in the fifties. It was once photographed for the Library of Congress. Some years ago, if one approached through the colonnade of cedars, climbed the high steps and gained entrance, he could find within this home old furniture, interesting vases, enormous oil paintings, a great oil portrait of the grandfather, swords of the soldier brothers, statuary, and two gallant sisters of the McLemore clan who embodied the culture and grace of their tradition. This old home, which for some while had been standing unoccupied, has just recently been torn down. Thus one of the ancient landmarks of LaFayette has been removed, but the old order gives way to the new.

McLemore House Sep. 11, 1935 front view by W. N. Manning (Library of Congress)

Among the handsome residences of later years in the Mose Allen home, a tall brick edifice with turret-like projections, which from its hill site surveys the grassy slope and grove extending down to the street. It might pass for a small college set back on its campus.

Another of the places of interest is the Colonial home of Honorable J. Thomas Heflin, ex-senator, and orator. It stands in its snowy whiteness on a hillside overlooking a wide extent of country. Many other homes in LaFayette may claim one’s attention—the older ones for their interest and charm, the modern ones for their attractiveness.

Several successful men came from LaFayette

Besides two justices of the state supreme court, a Congressman and a Senator, LaFayette has furnished other notable and successful men.

The most famous one in the first part of the nineteenth century was Johnson Jones Hooper, author, humorist and newspaper editor. In 1842 he published humorous articles and political sketches in The Chambers County Times. He was the author of Simon Snuggs, which first came out as a serial in the LaFayette paper. This book, republished in 1881, but now out of print, gave Hooper a position among American humorists and secured him praise from Thackeray.

Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs: Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers; Together with Taking the Census and Other Alabama Sketches

Reverend Sam P. Jones, famous evangelist, was born twelve miles south of LaFayette. The town can claim also Dr. J. W. Ham, once pastor of the Baptist Tabernacle in Atlanta, and George Muse, who established in Atlanta the clothing firm that bears his name.

When King Cotton was in power and merchants furnished tenants with supplies till harvesting time LaFayette was a busy and thriving market for the outlying agricultural section. In those days there were a number of families and firms of considerable wealth. In the intervening years, the wheel of fortune has made its revolution. Outsiders and new families have moved in, there is less self-complacency than there used to, be and the town is more democratic. One may feel confident, however, that, there will ever be those who, whether they remain at home or go afar, will wear proud hearts while they cherish the cultural traditions of LaFayette.

SOURCE

  • Alabama Historical Quarterly, Vol. 04, No. 03, Fall Issue 1942.

RIBBON OF LOVE: 2nd edition – A Novel of Colonial America Inspired by actual people and historical events! Based on the Cottingham ancestors of Bibb County, Alabama.

Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs: Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers; Together with Taking the Census and Other Alabama Sketches (Library Alabama Classics)


Features: Used Book in Good Condition
By (author): Johnson Jones Hooper
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About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and www.daysgoneby.me All her books can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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17 comments

  1. Bill Harris

    My mother was a Chambers County Girl.

    1. Tom Waldrep

      I knew Anita Harris and Kermit, you and Lee when you lived in 5 Points. Your mom took classes at SUSJC in Wadley.

  2. Charles Clifford Thomas

    My Thomas relatives came from Lafayette. Also, the Alsobrooks there and in 5 Points I have fond memories of living there for a while with them and being on the family farm. Jett Thomas was GGrandfather.

  3. Nancy Roberts Wilson

    My great grandmother, Abigail Stanley, was born on a plantation in nearby Cusseta, owned by her parents, Felix Stanley and Ellen Shealy Stanley. Sometime after the war ended in

  4. Nancy Roberts Wilson

    1865 they moved to town. The home they lived in is still there.

  5. My Grandmother, Alice Elizabeth Lamb Greene, was a resident of Chambers County. Her farm was north of LaFayette. I always enjoyed visiting her and being taken around LaFayette. She loved to talk about the people she knew. Wish I had listened with more attention.

  6. Shirley Looser

    I’ve been to the Court House, lots of times! My Father-in-law, Mr. Lumos Looser was raised there, and we still own some land there!!

  7. Kay Finney Roney

    Thx, Tom Waldrep! Very interesting early history. As you know, my roots run deep. My mother was a Wheeler. Young Dr Nick carried me piggy back to the OR for my tonsil removal when I was five. Also, and I’m not sure we have talked about this, Annice Harmon in Roanoke was a Wheeler cousin. I visited at her house often.

    1. Tom Waldrep

      Loved Mrs. Harmon. She taught piano to dozens of young kids!

  8. Greatest town to grow up in. Spent 40 years running Collins Drug Company, a third generation business, that was 110 years old when I sold it in 1998. Judge Bowling, that was mentioned was my grandfather, for whom I was named. I am W. B. Bowling, II and now there are the III and the IV. I will always have a warm spot in my heart for LaFayette, Alabama.

  9. Cecelia Owens

    Amanda Fannin Bryant–this mentions a Fannin.

    1. Elaine Brazell Fuller

      I love it! I love it! I love it!. Thank You . Appreciate it.

    2. Jeff Fuller

      This is a really good history page

  10. Robby McCurdy

    Tom, Just read through this post. It elicited a lot of personal connections in the comments. Pretty cool.

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