A couple of years ago, the homes were slowly deteriorating husks of their former selves.
Dr. Carla Thomas spent around $1 million to repair the homes, not just to house her expanding family medical practice and the law practice of her husband, Cleo, but to preserve a piece of the community for future generations.
“Without a vision, the people perish,” Thomas said, quoting Scripture. “We’re restoring the vision.”
Like Thomas, there are people in Calhoun County who want to preserve the area’s history.
There just does not appear to be enough of them.
“The community as a whole has just not put much emphasis on it,” said Anniston resident David Schneider, executive director of the Alabama Trust for Historical Preservation. “There are people interested, but there is no organized effort … no historical preservation effort.”
The Thursday morning destruction of the vacant 19th-century antebellum Davis Farm house in Oxford, allegedly the result of arson, is the latest example of historic county sites that have disappeared mainly through neglect. It is a trend that has not gone unnoticed among individuals and state organizations trying to preserve local history.
“I wouldn’t put (the county) real high up on the list certainly,” Schneider said of communities that work to preserve local historical sites. “I try to promote historic preservation, foster it, but, for some reason, it doesn’t take root here.”
Elizabeth Brown, deputy state historic preservation officer for the Alabama Historical Commission, agrees that the county’s overall record for saving local history could be better.
“Yes, we have lost some things in Anniston and Calhoun County that were very important,” she said. “There have things that have been saved, but I wish there had been more of those. Sometimes people just don’t have a sense of when these things are gone, they are gone.”
A history of neglect
In March 2009, arsonists destroyed Pinky Burns’ cabin, a Rabbittown landmark constructed in the late 1800s that was first used as a one-room schoolhouse. The log cabin became part of the Talladega National Forest after the last owner, Pinky Burns, died in 1999. There were plans to turn it into a historical site or museum when it burned.
Anniston’s 120-year-old former L&N Railroad train depot fell victim to a likely arsonist in December 2008. The depot was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The L&N ceased passenger service to the Anniston station in 1951 and the station later became home to Kelly Supply Co. until it was abandoned completely. It remained vacant for several more years up until the fire.
The Davis Farm home, built around 1850, was on a site that contains an historic cemetery and what once was the location of an American Indian town that experts suspect dates back to the last Ice Age.
“It is a pretty big loss historically,” Brown said. “It certainly represented the kind of thing people built around there … and the people of Calhoun County.”
In May, a suspicious fire destroyed an old barn near the home. And before that, vandals damaged the inside of the house. Both incidents led Harry Holstein, professor of archaeology and anthropology at Jacksonville State University, to believe the house would soon be lost forever if more was not done to protect it.
“I knew it was going to happen,” Holstein said. “It could have been prevented, too.”
Holstein has been studying the site off and on for years and has long advocated the preservation of the house and the farmland.
“Calhoun County has a really bad reputation for preserving its past,” he said. “People would rather tear down an old building and build a Walmart.”
Holstein said one of the problems is simple apathy.
“People are not concerned with history,” he said.
However, Henry Agee, a Tennessee attorney who manages the company that owns the Davis Farm property, told The Star Thursday that proper measures were taken to protect the home, including gates along the roadways leading up to the farm.
Agee said he had hoped to incorporate the house in the commercial plans for the property, adding that he still plans to sell the land for commercial development.
Though the Oxford City Council has no plans to acquire the land, at one point it considered turning the house and property into a visitor’s center. The council abandoned that idea, however, when it learned that the land came with a more than $20 million price tag.
The council did however, recently approve a plan to renovate the city’s former city hall and turn it into a performing arts center. The old city hall, located in downtown Oxford, was a schoolhouse in the 1920s and 1930s.
Preservation by the people
To John Hildreth, director of the Southeastern regional office for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, neglect — not the drive for new commercial development — tends to be the main reason why historic sites are lost across the country.
“More are threatened because they are neglected, under-valued and underappreciated more than they are just in the way of development,” he said.
Hildreth said there is no easy answer to how to encourage more communities to save local history. But the path to preservation begins with local residents, not government, he said.
“When one looks at historic preservation, where it’s successful, people at the local level cared about their history and community and did something about it,” he said. “It’s all local … preservation is like politics.”
Hildreth noted there are plenty of economic benefits to drive preservation efforts.
“It can be very profitable, and not just for tourism,” he said. “Look at a lot of buildings downtown … they are ideal for small-business development incubators. They are great places for new, cutting-edge kinds of businesses.”
Many state and federal grants are available to help with different restoration projects, he added.
Brown said she was also unsure what would inspire communities to better preserve local history other than the kinds of losses Calhoun has already experienced. In her experience, preventable fires that destroy historic landmarks tend to spur most local communities into action, such as the 1970 fire that destroyed Terminal Station in Birmingham.
“Birmingham realized they had lost enough and started doing more to preserve,” Brown said. “You’d think some of these types of things would serve as a wake-up call for more people.”
While Anniston has a type of historic preservation commission, there is no concentrated effort for preservation in other parts of the county, Schneider said.
And even with the Anniston commission, he said, its function is more to designate historic areas and not to publicly advocate preservation.
Like Hildreth, Schneider says it will take an organized, active, public-minded group, not local government, to get more community involvement in preserving Calhoun County history.
“In my experience, a historical committee or commission that tends to have strong leadership at the government level usually has someone advocating at the public level,” Hildreth said.
A community that cares
Nearby Talladega, with a rich antebellum history, appears to have just such a historic preservation organization.
Talladega has increased efforts to preserve local history in recent years, said Nancy Lutchendorf, chairman of the Talladega Historical Commission.
“I’m not saying we are perfect,” she said. “But we have just about now a completely new commission, and everybody is very involved and has a vested interest.”
In recent years, the commission has worked to have many historic homes and buildings in Talladega city restored and has obtained state grants to better educate its members and the public about preservation, Lutchendorf said.
She added that nearly all the old homes in the city’s historic silk stocking district have been restored. The district carries the stocking name because the women who once lived there only wore silk and not nylon stockings, Lutchendorf said.
“We’re working on getting the last few houses there restored,” she said.
Through a city ordinance, the commission routinely advocates preservation by sending encouraging letters to historic property owners.
“When we see a building that needs to be repaired, we send a letter to the owner,” Lutchendorf said. “There are people here who don’t want us to tell them what to do, but we are here to preserve.”
For Thomas, her independent preservation efforts were not easy, but they were worth the time and money.
“It takes some diligence … it’s not something you do overnight,” she said. “But now the houses are beautiful.”
Contact staff writer Patrick McCreless at 256-235-3561.