PELL CITY -- The Smithsonian exhibit “The Way We Worked” housed in the Pell City Center for Education and the Performing Arts opened to the public Saturday morning, with more than 200 people visiting within the first 2 hours.

The collaborative effort between the Smithsonian and Alabama Humanities Foundation, with support from the Alabama Power Foundation and Norfolk Southern Railroad, featured the Smithsonian’s 24 photographic display panels with interactive videos and seven sections put together by the Pell City Works Committee chronicling the 150 years of history in the Pell City area.

“We’re the first city to start for the 2014 year,” said Pam Foote, local project director for the exhibit. “We were very honored to be selected. It’s a great event for our community, not only to share our heritage, but it’s brought so many people together, working together to make this possible.”

Pell City was one of six cities in Alabama chosen to host the Smithsonian exhibit in 2014, joining Athens, Cullman, Demopolis, Dothan and Valley in sharing the opportunity.

“Ideally, each city tells their own story beside the Smithsonian exhibit,” AHF grants director Thomas Bryant said. “That’s what Pell City has done, and they’ve done a really fabulous job of telling the local story alongside the national story.”

The local exhibits explored life for community members who worked in places such as Avondale Mills and the Coal City mines, showcasing the tools and equipment used by them.

“We’ve had people bring in more than 2,000 old photographs and artifacts that all these people had in their homes,” Foote said. “We don’t have a museum in Pell City, and it’s just been amazing what we’ve discovered from what people are just holding in their homes. We were fortunate we were able to share this exhibit.”

Also included in the exhibit is a video featuring an oral history as told by residents of the six featured Alabama cities and a booth provided by Alabama Public Television where visitors could voluntarily contribute to the history of Pell City by answering questions about their jobs.

“It’s real interesting to me to hear what the voices of Pell City (have to say),” said Deanna Lawley, co-chairwoman for the local exhibit.  “Our oldest person we interviewed was in her early 90s and the youngest was probably in his late 40s, yet so many answers, regardless of the decade they represented when they began to work, all reflected each other. In these small Alabama towns, everyone seemed to have one thread of experience. It was very interesting.”

Jeremy Gossett, local exhibits committee curator and fabricator, helped design the displays and estimated they had compiled a database on Google Drive of more than 12 gigabytes of photos — more than 8,000 photos — he hopes to have people provide historical information to document the imagery.

Gossett also encouraged people who want to donate items with historical significance to bring them to him for use in displays.

“We’re interested in these items, especially those that have a local tie,” Gossett said. “I want to have somebody come to me and say, ‘This is a screwdriver that belonged to my uncle who was an electrician who serviced the mill and was on call 24/7.’ You know, that kind of thing to where it’s an item that has a local story, not just an antique to put on display.” If this evolves into a museum, as everyone hopes it does, this will maintain its living museum status of making it better and accurate for people to use with their genealogy research and things like that.”

Hazel Morgan, an 86-year-old resident of Coal City, said she was elated that some of the photos and items she contributed were used in the display.

“I’m very interested in history and genealogy,” Morgan said. “Most of my artifacts belonged to my dad, Edward Layton. He worked in the mines, and these artifacts shown are what he used in the mines.”

Nancy Kincade Jordan, a lifelong Pell City resident, described the exhibit as a great reminder of the way things were.

“It brings back a lot of memories of people who are no longer with us,” Jordan said. “I could remember my grandparents, my parents and some of my friends who’ve gone on. I’m proud of Pell City.” 

Greg King and Helen King, who were visiting from Washington, D.C., came to the exhibit with several family members for an opportunity to see the town where his father, William King, lived and worked.

“To see the pictures of the mill he worked in for a while and to see the barber shop where he shined shoes is an opportunity we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” King said. “It’s been really fascinating to see all this stuff. We didn’t get to visit here at all when we were growing up, so it definitely connects us with the past a lot more than we would have otherwise.”

The exhibit will be open until Aug. 23. To schedule a tour, contact CEPA at 205-338-1974.