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Letter from ... Rome, Ga.

Insight: In Rome, you can't escape our Nobles

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Noble Foundry

ROME, Ga. -- Centered here on a grassy plot, where Broad Street and 1st Avenue meet, a rusting link between this Georgia river city and Anniston remains as it has for untold decades. Down below is the Etowah River. Up ahead, beneath the sun, is Myrtle Hill, one of the seven rises that make this attractive place what it is.

That Rome-to-Anniston link is a simple metal sign, double-sided, dangling from a post in front of a modern mill. “Noble Foundry: Approximate site of Noble Foundry, important Confederate arms manufacture center. Destroyed by Federal Forces November 10, 1864,” it reads.

Here in Rome, as in Anniston, you can’t escape the Noble name.

Anniston has Noble Street. And the Samuel Noble statue. And a handful of businesses that have borrowed the Noble name. Even a few of Anniston’s long-forgotten professional baseball teams of the early 20th century were called the “Nobles” and the “Noblemen.” Without the Nobles and their love affair with pig iron, there likely would be no Anniston.

Rome’s relationship with the Noble family — English immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania before embarking on their southern trek to Georgia and Alabama — is more complex, a puzzle with several parts. But the Noble name is here, in metal, in history and in flesh and blood.

For the latter, there is Robert Noble.

He’s an architect of some renown. His office is not far from where his family’s foundry sat before and during the Civil War. Englishman James Noble, the patriarch of the ironmaking Nobles, was his great-great grandfather. His great grandfather was George Noble, one of Sam Noble’s brothers. His father, Fred Noble Jr., was born in Anniston in 1911. Robert was born in Rome but was christened at the Church of St. Michael and All Angels in west Anniston built by — wait for it — John Ward Noble in 1890. Noble family members’ names adorn the church’s tower bells. And, speaking of towers, guess whose handiwork is responsible for Rome’s iconic Clock Tower? The Nobles’, of course.

The innumerable links between these former industrial cities of the South, separated by only 65 miles, resemble a ball of twine, impossible to easily separate.

Rome, Ga.

Noble-wise, where Robert Noble’s home and Anniston differ is in their relationship to the family itself: with Sam at the helm, the Nobles (and the family of Gen. Daniel Tyler) built Anniston and started the Woodstock Iron Co. that would fund virtually all of the city’s initial projects. But Rome’s history predates the Nobles’ Georgia arrival by more than 20 years. Here in the hills of Floyd County, the Nobles are preeminent but hardly the original catalysts they were to the west.

Robert Noble chuckles slightly when asked about Romans’ view of his ancestral relatives.

The Nobles “were important, but the fact that they had a foundry was probably why (U.S. Gen. William Tecumseh) Sherman bothered to send his forces over here and tear things up,” he said. “Important isn’t always a good thing.”

Isn’t Southern history grand? Can’t swing a stick without a mention of Yankees and Rebels and that regrettable war.

Anniston, much younger than its Georgia cousin, missed out on all that fun. But Rome was enveloped in it, thanks, as Robert Noble explained, in part to his family’s foundry that made cannons and other materiel for the Confederacy. The two sides, blue and gray, valued Rome not only for its cannon-making capabilities but also for its strategic importance, sitting at the elevated junction where the Etowah and Oostanaula rivers morph into the Coosa.

Today, nothing remains of the Noble foundry. No buildings, that is. Sherman’s men blew most of it up and burned the rest. The faded, metal sign marks the spot, as does a new interpretive marker erected nearby in 2013. History buffs have identified a collection of Noble cannons at different military parks. But if you hop in the car and take a short drive to the northeast here in Rome, you’ll find a massive 16-foot-long relic the Nobles didn’t bring with them when they migrated their business to Calhoun County.

To make Confederate cannons, the Nobles used an 1847 New Hampshire-made lathe that was shipped to Mobile and then toward Rome via the Coosa River. (The last part of the journey was made by cart, with the lathe dismantled into several pieces.) Try as they might, the Yankees couldn’t destroy the lathe in 1864. But the damage to Rome, the Nobles and the Confederacy had been done.

Noble Foundry lathe

The Noble Brothers Foundry lathe that is on display in Rome, Ga. (Phillip Tutor/The Anniston Star)

“A federal agent commenting on the Nobles’ unsuccessful claim for $19,051.49 for losses inflicted by the Union army wrote that James Noble and his family ‘did the federal government more harm that any one regiment of rebel soldiers did during the war,’” wrote historian Robert S. Davis of Wallace State in Hanceville in 2001.

The lathe not only survived the war, but it also remained in service at different foundries until the Rome Heritage Foundation bought it in 1972. It’s displayed today across the parking lot from the Greater Rome Convention and Visitors Bureau on Jackson Hill. What’s more, in the spring of ’72, a story in the Rome News-Tribune included this amazing passage: “Lesser reminders of the Nobles’ presence (in Rome) are the occasional cannonballs still found in the sides of Mount Aventine. Souvenirs of Civil War days, these old balls once whistled almost daily across the river when each latest cannon was test-fired for reliability and accuracy.”

There’s something else Rome, through the Nobles, and Anniston, through the U.S. Army, have in common: left-behind ordnance. Ah, the stories they could tell.

As for Robert Noble, the architect, he admits to owning no keen insight on what would have become of antebellum Rome had his ancestral family not moved here in the 1850s. “When you start speculating on what might have been, that’s tough to do,” he said. “I suspect that the industrialization of this area is more of the impact they had, not making Rome grow. If they had not been here, it would have been much more agrarian, but there is no way to tell.”

There, perhaps, is the quintessential difference between this Georgia river town and Anniston, the town the Nobles built. One profited and suffered from the Nobles’ arrival, the other was born because they came at all.

By the way, remember that new interpretive sign at the historic Noble Foundry site? Anniston isn’t mentioned, a link often forgotten.

Phillip Tutor is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at