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