Early Schools and Churches in Sylacauga
Once people began moving to Sylacauga, a place to worship together became important. Col. George Hill organized a church on his property on the Old Fayetteville Road. It was a branch of the Tallassahatchie Baptist Church , and In 1835 became known as Mount Zion Baptist Church. As it grew, Henry P. Oden gave the church property, and it moved to Sylacauga on Church Street near the Lanning Store. Around 1890 it became the First Baptist Church of Sylacauga. It was a white, painted frame building set in a grove of trees, facing Church Street. Mr. Leona Bledsoe Kelly, born in 1860, and the writer of a narrative of her recollections of Sylacauga in that day, was married in that church. The churches were much affected by the Civil War, and changes were felt there as in other areas of life. According to the book First Baptist Church One Hundred Fifty Years of History, the membership dropped from 151 members in 1867 to 63 members in 1870. Five of the members of the church including Henry P. Oden who had donated the land for the church were killed in the War.
A Methodist congregation was first reported in 1837, and the first Methodist church was built in 1853 and was used by the Methodists and the Masons. Mr. James Lanning gave the church the property where the present Methodist Church is located, and the church was built there in 1887. Mrs. Leona Kelly says the Methodist building was also in a grove of trees, and was two storied, unpainted, unceiled building, of which the upper story was used for a Masonic Lodge. Both the Baptist and Methodist buildings were unheated. According to Mrs. J.O Luttrell’s account, the Cumberland Presbyterian and the Episcopal “House of Prayer” were organized here before the turn of the century. All of this to say, worship has always been a part of life in Sylacauga.
The people of the area also were very much inclined to want a good education for their children. According to Mrs. Kelly’s writing, the one school in Sylacauga during this period adjoined the Baptist Church on the south, and the children played in the church grove. Mrs. Kelly went to school there for a short time, and her description of the school is like that none of us ever attended. Mrs Kelly describes the school as an unpainted, weather boarded building, unceiled on the inside, and heated by a great big fireplace which had a rock hearth. When the children got cold at their desks, they would raise their hands and get permission to go stand by the fire for awhile. The desks were long unpainted boards down three sides of the room with a long bench behind each one. A desk at the front was where the pupils recited their lessons. In this primitive school, the teacher sat in a chair in the middle of the room. Home schooling is not a new idea, for Mrs. Kelly said she had a governess for most of the years of her education until she went away to college in Oxford and then Staunton, Virginia. Researching this, I wonder if she went to Mary Baldwin College, a women’s college that existed in that day as a seminary and liberal arts school?!
Mrs. Kelley remembers some sad occurrences at that first school and names of some prominent people who attended, among those Dr. French Craddock’s mother, Emma French. Dr. Craddock was given his mother’s maiden name, and he passed that name to his son, Dr. French Craddock, Jr. Mrs. Kelley remembers a little girl, Jodie Nix, dying of diphtheria. She remembers a Dr. Keller’s three children attending also, Mamie, Eola and Willie. The boys brought water to the school from a spring in the woods. This changes the picture in my mind of the “church grove” mentioned previously. The boys also made the fires in the fireplace.
Who was the teacher? From her writing it seemed to be a community effort that included Professor Parks, Mr. Cromer (who was blind) but was Dr. Keller’s nephew and a brother of Gus Cromer who was in business with Mr. Lanning who ran the store in the settlement. Another school that was established in the area was at Herd’s Gap. Called Mountain Springs Academy, Professor Dennis N. Finn was the principal, but the academy closed and never reopened when he went off to the Civil War. Mrs. Kelley’s father graduated from this Academy which taught English, Latin, Greek, mathematics, and surveying; he later taught there, and named his homeplace “Mountain Spring.” This building was a large double log house, with a hallway between the two halves, and huge fireplaces; and when the school closed, it became a dwelling, and later a tenant house. Churches and schools were then and still are basic foundations of a good community. They were very important to our ancestors and should continue to matter very much to people today. Join me next time as we take a look at doctors of those early days.