Rare treasures are available for genealogists from area

The Nichols Library was placed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks on Dec. 27, 1974.

Sherry Kughn

Residents of Northeast Alabama who are interested in their ancestors have two treasures, the Northeast Alabama Genealogical Society, Inc. and the Nichols Memorial Library at 1 Cabot Drive in Gadsden. The society started in the late 1950s, and members now meet at this well-stocked library on Thursdays to search for and help others search for ancestors, read the history of the area, and about the cities and towns. Also, the Library provides a meeting place for newly discovered family members.

At a previous meeting I attended, one of the members, Gloria Gregg, met a distant relative for the first time. At the most recent meeting, a visitor from Cave Spring, Ga., struck up a conversation with a Society member and learned that they were likely related.

One member, April Ozbilgin is the society’s web master, and oversees a site called www.neags.com. She keeps the Society’s information updated. Gloria Gregg, Gail Brown, and Anita Sue Gates are currently transcribing divorce records for Etowah County and indexing microfilm for future uploading. Kathy Burttram edits a journal called Northeast Alabama Settle that is mailed to members twice a year. This year’s treasurer, Rosemary Jones Hyatt, recently told me about the history of the library building.

The parents of Howard Gardner Nichols donated the money and materials around 1897 to build a library in Gadsden in memory of their son. It opened in 1900.

Nichols was a Harvard University graduate whose affluent family was proud of his contributions to the South. He came in 1884 to supervise construction of the Dwight Manufacturing Co. in Alabama City and to plan the model mill village. He also served as mayor of Alabama City. Tragically, Nichols died shortly before the cotton mill opened when a wooden crane snapped and struck him. Such a promising future was gone.

The library is stunningly lovely. It sits a short distance off Meighan Boulevard in Alabama City mill village, and its white-columned, redbrick building sits on a corner lot enclosed with a wrought-iron gate. The interior is made of rich oak, a type of wood with golden warmth. Its hand-carved mantel is exquisite.

The namesake library was one of the first lending libraries in Alabama, and it is now the oldest stand-alone library in the state. The books that line its shelves today are not on loan but can be used on Thursdays. All are focused on genealogy and history.

During World War II, the library converted to a daycare to help with the number of mothers who had to find jobs while their husbands defended the country. The family of the late Ola Hamil bought the building so that she could run a daycare. At the time, the books were moved to the Alabama City Library. The Hamils sold the building in the early 1970s, and the Society bought it for $6,500. Society member, the late Jerry Jones, mortgaged his home in order to secure the library. The society began collecting books on genealogy.

Like the rich oak wood of the building, members of the Society exude warmth too. They greet visitors kindly. All are volunteers dedicated to furthering the goals of linking family members and preserving the library. They hold fundraisers every year and solicit grants. They encourage new membership at a cost of only $20 a year, a fee that also helps maintain the cost of the building. Younger members, especially, are being sought at this time to carry forth the society’s ideals.

Members bring sack lunches and share plates of cookies. They arrive at 9 a.m. for a historical discussion led by John McFarland, and they are welcome to stay afterward until 3 p.m. Members drop in and out. Carolyn Parrish volunteers as the librarian and handles paperwork, makes copies, and helps visitors find documents.

“People come from all over,” said Hyatt. “Visitors recently came from Washington, D.C., Texas, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia.”

Cave Spring resident, Brenda Mason, visited the meeting for the first time.

Chari Bostick dropped by after the discussion. She is the director of the Black History Museum, the Sixth Street Cemetery, and the Grace Heritage Community Development.

Hyatt found many relatives in Calhoun County earlier this year. She is related to the late John Perry and Odessa Mae Cofield Jones of Piedmont. He was once a Baptist preacher there, and his relatives are still located in the area. She connected with them through DNA studies. The family members held a reunion at Noccolula Falls with 120 members from throughout the United States.  

Communities are built on friendships and families. Members of the Society certainly are doing their part in building and maintaining strong communities. For that, they should be appreciated; but all they really want is for others to care enough to continue their efforts to build on their years of service to others.

Email Sherry at sherrykug@hotmail.com.