November 2015
Homeplace & Community

1874 Revisited

UDC members Ellen Williams, left, and Sylvia Brown dressed in authentic costumes to welcome over 200 guests attending the dedication of the cabin.  

Wagarville’s Sullivan cabin has been restored
true to its early rural Alabama lifestyle.

Less than a mile from the intersection of Highways 43 and 56 in the Wagarville community of Washington County stands a piece of history: the Gibeon J. Sullivan cabin. For its architectural significance, the cabin was listed in the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage in 2010 and fully restored as a museum in 2012 by the Private Gibeon Jefferson Sullivan Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. 

Gibeon Jefferson Sullivan was a Confederate soldier who served in the Wilson’s Guards, a volunteer company composed of men from Washington County. This unit later became known as Company A of the 32nd Alabama Infantry out of Mobile. Considered a hero by many in this small community, Sullivan was captured at the Battle of Nashville and taken to Ohio, as a prisoner-of-war. In June 1865, Sullivan and two other men from Washington County were released and made their way back home. 

  The Sullivan cabin was decorated during the Christmas season by Carolyn Knight. She used traditional greenery from the area, the way the Sullivan family would have decorated in 1874.

Sullivan built his cabin on the east side of Bassett’s Creek in 1874. He died in 1914, and family members owned the cabin until 2009, when his descendants James and Myra Lankford donated it to the Private Gibeon Jefferson Sullivan Chapter of the UDC. The UDC moved the cabin from its original site to its present location on land donated by other Sullivan family descendents Mac and Nelda Sullivan.

The Sullivan cabin is similar to many other homes found in Southwest Alabama in the 19th century. The double-pen cabin has two rooms, joined by a breezeway or "dogtrot" that helped cool the house during summer. Sullivan used round, peeled logs that he notched with an ax and an adz. In fact, Sullivan’s original ax marks can still be found on some of the logs. The spaces between the logs are covered with thin sheets of wood. Some of the floorboards are as wide as 20 inches, with large sills beneath. Sullivan quarried the limestone for two large fireplaces. The spraddle roof covers both the front and back porches. Sullivan partially enclosed the back porch to add two rooms as the family increased.

The cabin has a full-length front porch. One unusual feature of the porch is that Sullivan built a "cooling board" on one end. By nailing three boards together and fitting them between two logs, Sullivan made a platform that extended to a bench, built on the edge of the front porch. This board platform was used to carry a body to the Sullivan cabin, where it was then prepared for burial. In the Wagarville community, family and friends would gather at the cabin to show their respect for the deceased and offer assistance to the family. 

A large crowd attended the dedication of the cabin. Jerrold and Laura Syphrit made chicken and dumplings, cornbread, and cherry and apple pies over open fires and coals to demonstrate how meals were cooked outside in the 1860s.  

After receiving the cabin, the UDC set out to restore it. UDC President Ellen Williams wrote and received two grants from The Daniel Foundation of Alabama. Williams also served as the liaison for three grants received from the Thomas L. Turner Trust of Clarke County. Hiring experienced movers to relocate the cabin proved to be the UDC’s largest expense. The home had to be moved in two parts and then put back together again. In addition, the fireplaces had to be taken down.

The UDC members were able to complete the restoration at a lower cost, however, because so many dedicated individuals helped. Williams, and her husband, Herman, were both instrumental in the restoration. He did the carpentry, plumbing and electrical work. 

Even though the interior furnishings are not original, the UDC has worked hard to keep the furnishings true to the 1874 era and to the lifestyle enjoyed by the Sullivan family. 

  Billy Harrison built most of the furniture in the cabin. He used heart lumber from Herman Williams’ and his own stockpile. All the furnishings were true to the 1874 era and to the lifestyle enjoyed by the Sullivan family. Harrison demonstrates how the bed key was used to tighten the ropes.

"The two pen (front) rooms are filled with furniture and accruements that would have been available during the lifetime of Gibeon Sullivan," Williams explained. "The furniture also represents pieces that would have been within his subsistence-farmer income."

Billy Harrison, whose wife Bonnie is a UDC member, built most of the furniture. Harrison used old boards from heart lumber to make a table, two benches, a washstand, mantel and two square tables in each pen room. The cabin still has its original shutters. Other period accents have been added throughout the home. 

Using plans found on the Internet, Harrison built the rope beds for the bedrooms. The rope beds traditionally had no springs or slats. Because the ropes would eventually stretch, they had to be tightened periodically with a wrench or bed key. After seeing a picture of the bed key, Harrison made one in five minutes. Williams pointed out that many believe the familiar, old saying of "sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite" could have come from using these rope beds.

Bonnie donated an old quilt that was made by her grandmother Welthy Brunson when Brunson was only 16 years old.

Numerous other volunteers helped in the restoration. Community members brought heavy equipment and smoothed the area for the cabin to rest. Jerrold Syphrit hauled limestone from Gainestown, and Ricky Powell rebuilt the chimney and fireplace. After Alabama Historical Commission advised the UDC to add a catering kitchen and half-bath for visitors’ comfort, a local business gave the group a discount on the installation of a septic tank. James and Carolyn Knight maintain the flowerbed around the historical marker and the crepe myrtles and roses in the old iron wash pots. The UDC did add electrical service and one of its members pays the bill each month.

"Many times during the restoration, people stopped by and most of the time they commented, ‘I remember my grandpa had a house just like this!’" Williams recalled.

Williams believes the Sullivan cabin is one of only three cabins of this type left in Washington County. Williams is especially pleased that younger people will personally get to see a style of architecture normally only found in a book.

Ellen and Herman Williams were both instrumental in the restoration of the Sullivan cabin. Ellen wrote and secured the grants and spent hours volunteering her time. Herman did the carpentry, electrical work and plumbing.  

"I am an avid student of the War Between the States," Williams added. "When I see the very ax marks and wooden pegs made by Pvt. Gibeon J. Sullivan, I am awed that I was privileged to have been a part of restoring this home, built with the same hands that fired a rifle at Murfreesboro and the Battle of Nashville and other engagements." 

Bonnie echoed Williams’s pride.

"We had an outpouring of people wanting to help us, but it would never have been done without Ellen’s leadership and dedication. She made everybody want to help! She is a true lover of the South and our heritage," Bonnie said. 

The UDC is proud of their restoration of the Sullivan cabin and invites everyone to visit. Their hard work has allowed countless visitors the opportunity to step back in time, remember those who gave so much for others and reflect on how blessed Americans are today. 

For more information or to schedule a tour for individuals or groups, call 251-246-9850. There is no charge for a tour, but the UDC does accept donations.

Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville.