Discovering the Rich History of a Small Southern Town
Being born with a thirst for knowledge has been both a blessing and a curse. I have stayed awake both day and night researching the local history of the town in which I chose to live and raise my children. While living in a small town in Alabama named Pleasant Grove, I wondered how this community had begun and I was determined to find out as much as I could.
I decided to begin researching the first families of the community. I found out a few of the names of the founding residents from the library. It was in the small print of the local phone book that I had first seen the three sentence history of the city. After reading that history I wanted to know more. The librarian told me that if I wanted to know about the history then my best source would be Mrs. Nora Busby. The telephone book had one Nora Busby listed in Pleasant Grove. I got up my nerve, grabbed my pen and paper and made the call.
I introduced myself and I explained that I was not from Pleasant Grove myself. I explained that I had married a man that grew up there and had moved here to raise my children. I was an Ensley girl and she was willing to talk to me. She told me she was born an Anthony and she told me she might be fuzzy since she was almost ninety years old. When she asked where I lived I told her my address, she then told me that she was the mother of the man that built the house in which I lived. With that first piece of unexpected news, I was hooked. I wanted to know everything that this woman was willing to share with me.
Mrs. Busby began to tell me some of the fascinating facts about the families that lived all over the community. I recognized some of the houses and businesses that were built by the sons and grandsons of these same founding residents.
She first began telling me about this small house and how it came to be situated next to her son's mother in law's house. When he came home from the war in the early 1948's he bought a kit that was made available to the returning soldiers. He built this small home for himself and his wife on the back edge of his wife's family property with re-purposed wood from the army barracks in Cullman.
Mrs. Busby was happy to relive these memories with me and she was very eager to tell me about the people that lived all around me and all across the town. There were old houses that I recognized from her description and I began to feel connected to the Chapman family, the Perkins' family, and the McDonald family. All of these names I had seen in passing but had not realized they had all shared the same history in this old community.
She even told me secret childhood memories about being at church when men dressed in a hood and robe walked into the church. The children did not know why they had entered the church but the children whispered to their mothers that they recognized their shoes. They knew who the men were, even though their faces were covered. She was embarrassed by this memory. She did not want me to dwell on this piece of information because she assured me that these type of men did not still live in this community. The men that remained had moved past their prejudices and their innocent participation of this secret group. She was not even able to bring herself to use the name of the group. She saw this as a sign of weakness on the part of these adults. She was a very intelligent woman.
Mrs. Busby told me of the mine explosion in 1922 that affected so many families in the communities. With over eighty men killed she remembered this day vividly. She was able to name most of the men that had died in this explosion. She shared with me how her mother took her by the hand and walked to the mine to stand at the entrance waiting for the survivors to exit the mine.
Then Mrs. Busby gave me a list of names.
This list of names provided me with people that I should contact so that I could learn more. I began to call some of the men and women on the list and each person gave me a new perspective on the events of the mine explosion. A different view of the War and the war heroes that returned to their wives and children. I learned about a local man that was part of the Flying Tigers. Mr. White had passed on several years earlier and his widow was so happy and willing to share with me the pride she felt knowing that her husband was part of this elite flying squadron.
The Wheeler family, The Connell family, the Coffman family and the Anthony family names were all scrawled on my previously blank paper and each name had a few first names and some of their children. The names of families grew through the summer as I spoke to one family after the other.
My research began to fill the page. I learned about the families that had gathered together to form the first church. The Pleasant Grove Methodist Church began as a small log cabin built on land donated by John Reagan in 1883. The log building also doubled as a school for the local children and the cemetery was located directly across the road.
The community had sprung up between Birmingham and Bessemer and the original family names were the same names that you find scattered throughout the area. These neighbor children grew up together and married and stayed in the vicinity.
Learning about these families was a pleasure for me. I found myself wondering about the lives these people shared. I heard about couples that struggled with the loss of their babies and children. The life expectancy was so much more fragile for the babies that were born during this time frame. I found myself crying for lost children and painful memories of people I had never met.
I longed to learn more. I called other families and asked about their earliest memories of living in this dirt road farming community. I learned about the fathers and brothers that worked at the Dolomite mine and I learned about the terrible tragedy that happened in 1922. The men that died had been the father or older brother of the person that shared their memory with me. I was touched by their openness and willingness to let me see the pain they still felt about the day their father left for work and never came back.
I did this research before the computers were connected to the Internet and so research was not going on Google for information or pictures. It was going to the library and hoping to find one small bit of information on a family which would lead to another family name. It was looking at the census reports that had been released and the placing an order for the copies. I waited for those forms to arrive so that I could find the names that I was learning so much about. I had several people that I had never met but they heard I was researching this subject and they wanted to bring me pictures of their lives. There was one picture taken of an 8th-grade class which had gathered outside the old school house in about 1915. Some children had their names listed and some other child's name was faded or forgotten
I learned about suicides and murders, which were sad moments in the local resident's lives. I learned of the brave men and women that joined the military and fought across the sea. I learned of the soldiers marrying their childhood sweetheart before being deployed. The young soldier leaving his bride and waiting until he came home to start a family. I learned about teachers that were loved and remembered these former students. The people I spoke with remembered parties and different social events that brought the community together and they were willing to share.
I lost sleep while I researched this community. I spoke with people during the day while my children were in school. Sometimes we would meet a new source after I picked them up and the children amused themselves while I took notes and studied pictures. I wrote my notes all through the night, putting them in chronological order so that I could connect the families and the history.
What I gained while researching this subject was so valuable to my life. First of all, I made friends with some of the people that were so willing to share their life with me. Secondly, I learned so much about the history of a thriving community that I never expected to learn. With the lessons in life that I learned, I believe that the time spent on this project was well worth the time and energy.