An Attitude of Gratitude For Sylacauga Then and Now
November is the month for thanking God for health, family, friends, and all the other blessings that He gives us that we may take for granted. One of these blessings is the privilege of living in Sylacauga. It has been 174 years since the first settlers applied for land grants to own property here. Some came earlier, but had no real claim to the land . Our town is built on land occupied by the Creek Indians. Mrs. J.O. Luttrell, who recorded some early history of Sylacauga quotes Wellington Vandiver, an earlier Talladega County historian, “If Sylacauga existed as an Indian village in 1540 when DeSoto traveled through the county, its name was Talemachusy, Nauchee or Chalakagy.” Mrs. Luttrell reports that in Owen’s History of Alabama , Chalakagay, an Indian town was established in 1748 by a band of Shawnees from Ohio . He says this town was built near the present town of Sylacauga. This was a very different town from what we know now, a town without roads, churches, schools, and shopping centers. Reminds me of the poem “Indian Children” by Annette Wynne which elementary students almost always learned back in the 1940’s and 50’s: “Where we walk to school each day, Indian children used to play…..” The poem concluded, “What a different place today, where we live and work and play.”
The first settlers just moved in and settled down with no concerns about ownership, and it was in 1834 that they began to seek patents to lands from the government to live among the Indians. Mrs. Luttrell listed names we might recognize: Cleveland, Wilson, Bulger, Lindsay, Stone, Oden, Darby, Hill, Wallis, and Averiett. An act to incorporate Sylacauga was approved January 31, 1838.
There was growth after the first road opened in 1832. This Plank Road came from the falls of Wetumpka to Joseph B. Cleveland’s Store in Sylacauga. The Plank Road was so called because it was covered with planks as a means of paving it. No paving project could take care of the ruts and muddy roads. Mrs. J.O. Luttrell’s history of Sylacauga tells us that the Commissioners Court of Talladega County ordered a road to be laid out beginning at the Court House in Talladega to intersect the Plank, or turnpike road, near Cleveland’s Store on Main Street in Sylacauga. They spelled it “Cyllacogga” in that account. Down through the years, there were various spellings: Suillacauga, Syllagogga, and my personal favorite Syllacoggy. I can remember a grandparent saying Syllacoggy.
One of the most interesting articles that I have found about our town was written by Leona Bledsoe Kelly. It is a personal account of her life in Sylacauga from her birth in 1860. She remembers the Plank Road during its latter days when many of the planks were gone. (Urban renewal, where are you?) There were no sidewalks, just zig-zag paths off the main road, cow-trails she called them.
There was one general store, the Lanning Store, kept by Mr. J. M. Lanning. It was a small frame building painted white with a front porch where the men gathered and talked. It was heated by a wood- burning fireplace; and in the back there was a small room partitioned off for the post office established in 1837. The store had mostly items that they did not raise at home. She gave some examples and prices: boxes with perhaps a dozen matches sold for $.50 and calico cloth was $.15 per yard, stick candy was $.60 per pound. Mr. Lanning had partners at different times; and Mrs. Kelly speaks of them in her writing as one would of old friends: Mr. Morris, Captain John Piney Oden, Mr. Gus Cromer, Dr. Keller’s nephew, etc.
There was not much money in those days, but people did not need much money because they raised or made everything they needed at home. Most everyone had a garden, chickens, guineas, turkeys, ducks, geese, cows, sheep, hogs, and orchards. They raised wheat and corn. Wool and later cotton meant spinning, weaving, and knitting were done at home, too.
The other main building was a “grocery” which was what saloons or barrooms were called in those days. It, too, was on Main Street cat-a-cornered from Lanning’s Store. It was owned by a Mr. James M. Mallory, and Mrs. Kelly was quick to say that she was never inside its unpainted weather-boarded walls.
Mrs. Kelly mentions something that I heard my mother say several times about life in the long ago. “People lived much better then than now, though they had but little actual money. People also seemed to have much more time for visiting and for doing things than they have now. When having company entailed no expense and but little extra work, more visiting was done. Though there is more money in circulation now and it is easier and quicker to get around than it was then, people really have less of the real joys of living, it seems to me, yet work harder, and accomplish less, and feel less secure about things.” According to an old letter at the library, Mrs. Kelley was about 80 years of age when she wrote this about 1940.
Plank Road served the purpose that any road does; it enabled people to travel more easily and efficiently, and it was not too long until other people opened stores in Sylacauga. Mr. Hightower built a store south of the Lanning Store. He also had a tan-yard. He was the father of John and Milton Hightower. Mrs. Kelly remembers that a Mr. Mathews was the shoemaker, and remembers that he made her a pair of shoes. Many of you who are my age and older probably remember when we had our shoes half-soled and repaired at what must have been “modern” shoe shops compared to the one Mrs. Kelly’s father used.
These are our beginnings, and reading about them does not quite get ‘er done, becoming thankful that is. We have to really consider in our hearts how much we have to be thankful for right here, right now. Maybe we can revive some of that pioneer spirit. In a later article we will look at schools and churches of this early period of Sylacauga’s history. Meanwhile count your blessings and have a Happy Thanksgiving !