Someone asked me about the legend of Merkel Mountain. It is absolutely Southern to tell stories about mountains, sometimes in poems, stories, and often in songs; but the legend of Merkel Mountain is a fascinating true story about a place right here in Sylacauga and a family named Merkel who came all the way from Bavaria to build a new life and contribute to our lives right here.
I sat down with Charles Merkel this week, and he told me a few stories about his family. Charles is the son of Robert (Roger ) Merkel. He is the owner/operator of Merkel Mountain Shell, or you may say the Fulton Gap Shell station on Highway 280. The former Mayor of Oak Grove is married to the former Debbie Floyd Howard, and they live on their property near the station. He has a brother Doug who operates Merkel Towing and Auto Parts Company, and an older sister Mary Asherbranner who lives in Foley. Their Mom, Joyce Hughes Merkel Chambliss, lives with her and is a well- known nurse, graduating from Sylacauga Hospital School of Nursing.
The Merkels who originally came to our area were farmers. Leopold and Louisa Merkel eloped from Bavaria and settled in Lincoln, Alabama. Leopold had been a priest who left the priesthood when he fell in love with Louisa. He was an educated man, not much into farming. It was said that he liked to sit under a tree and read books in foreign languages. They had sons: Ben, Otto, and Willheim Angelo who became postmaster at what is now Cahaba Heights. Because he was a prolific reader, he could read letters to some who had settled there who could not read. The area became known as New Merkel.
Otto Merkel, Charles’s great grandfather, came here to the Sylacauga area, and secured approximately 750 acres in the early 1870’s Homestead Act for the purpose of farming. The family planted cotton, corn, and various fruit trees, especially pears. They built a house, barn, and everything they needed connected to farming was right there on Merkel Mountain. That old home place is still visible on the property. Otto married a beautiful, feisty young woman, Mary Ellen Matson, who is pictured here with their children. Their youngest son, Roger, was Charles, Doug, and Mary’s Grandfather. He is sitting to the left of Mary Ellen. Then we see Josephine, Gretchen, Frankie and Gemima (the youngest). The boys in the front are Will Waco, and Lee.
Charles and Doug’s Father, Robert grew up in that house helping on the farm like a farmer’s son would do. He did not dislike the farm as much as he disliked the stubborn mules that were used to plow the land. In the late 1940’s he secured a tractor and started using tractors for plowing. Necessity combined with an interest in tractors and a dislike for mules led to his learning how to make repairs when something went wrong. (If you have owned a tractor, you know that it will). Bob became very good at this. In the United States Army he became a Sergeant over the Motor Pool and learned more about repairing motorized vehicles. When he was discharged, that led to the establishment of the Parts and Wrecker Service that his son, Doug, still operates on Merkel Mountain.
If you are wondering about the name Fulton Gap, Charles told me that story, too. An officer in General Andrew Jackson’s army who camped there when they were marching through this area wrote in his journal about the beautiful view from this area which then became known as Fulton Gap Road. Later when the Wrecker Service was built (in the sixties), policemen and patrolmen referenced that location and called it Merkel Mountain. This was when the new (four lane) highway to Birmingham was built. And so I hear that James Spann still mentions the beauty of Merkel Mountain on his weather broadcasts today.
Lee Merkel is a story all by itself. Lee loved airplanes and flying though he was not a pilot. He donated the land to the City of Sylacauga where Lee Merkel Field is now located. More about Lee will be coming up later and also about that street called Merkel Avenue.
I hope this story and these pictures take you back to a kinder, gentler time when family stayed family even as they followed their own hearts. It is a story of the Merkels and Merkel Mountain, and it continues on today, from a time when Great Grandfather Otto came here, not so long ago at that. (And to you, songwriters out there, it would be a good song, “Merkel Mountain.”).