A wise man once said, "You can’t see where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been."
Folks in Blount County don’t have that "directional problem" thanks to the efforts of the Blount Historical Society, past and present, in their establishment and maintaining of the Blount County Memorial Museum.
Exhibits on the Champion Mine, L&N Railroad and the once-gilded-magnificence of the Blount Springs-Bangor Cave area are interspersed with items like a walking spinning wheel; folk art pottery from Selfville’s Bobby Gaither; old hand fans from no-longer-existing businesses like Hood Store, Brown Furniture and Copeland Oil; a bottle tree; former long-time Oneonta Mayor and businessman Jack Fendley’s extensive photography collection; and an exhibit dedicated to the county’s men and women who are serving or have served in the military.
There’s also a bench from the original Blount County Courthouse donated by George and Jo Ann McCay and a hand-embroidered quilt made by the late Hazel Keene Bryant of Blountsville, who was instrumental in forming Blount’s Quilter’s Guild.
Curator Amy Rhudy explained the Blount Springs-Bangor Cave exhibit is probably one of the most visited and examined at the museum.
In the mid to late 1800s and into the early 1900s, Blount Springs was known worldwide for its spa and huge hotel where folks came to heal from various diseases while sipping the tonic spring waters from cobalt blue bottles.
Wealthy from Birmingham also came to the more than 100-room hotel for dances and other recreations and many owned huge antebellum homes in the area where they often summered away from the city’s heat.
Nearby Bangor Cave was another tourist stop, where politicians made lengthy speeches on the Fourth of July, huge outdoor dances were held to live music from a band in the pavilion and candle-lit tours of the cave were held.
During the 20s and 30s, Bangor Cave was a "speakeasy" with gambling including slot machines and casino tables!
June Reid points out photographs of her family’s Blount Springs General Store at the popular Blount Springs-Bangor Cave exhibit showing old glass bottles from the spa and photos of the hotels, cave and gambling casinos!
Hayden residents June and Thomas Reid grew up in the early 1900s when stories of the area’s glory still abounded. Her parents ran the biggest general store in the area with the post office located inside. Thomas remembered his father setting up the pins in the Blount Springs bowling alley!
Recently, reviewing the photos and other Blount Springs artifacts at the museum, they reminisced about the stories they’d heard, including one of a young relative who was told never to linger when he delivered groceries to the Bangor Cave Club. The young man couldn’t resist one time and slid a nickel into a slot machine as he passed —- but his presence wasn’t easy to overlook because his one nickel hit the jackpot and coins began spewing onto the floor!
The Champion Mine exhibit, donated permanently by mine owner descendent Van Gunter, is equally popular with photographs of equipment and employees, and samples of the many types of ore.
Champion Mine is an integral part of Blount County’s history and the display, donated to the Museum by mine owner descendant Van Guner, features many photographs and ore samples.
John Hanby discovered the county’s rich ore deposits in 1817, the year before Blount County was created by the Alabama Territorial Legislation (making Blount County a "county older than the state" according to a nearby historical marker in front of the courthouse).
The ore mines were named "Champion" in 1882 by Henry DeBardeleben and James Sloss who brought the L&N Railroad to the county to transport the ores. Since the railroad came through Oneonta, the county seat was moved from Blountsville to Oneonta in 1889.
The majority of the ore was mined by Shook and Fletcher from 1925 to 1967 from the Taits Gap and Champion Mines, and shipped to Woodward, Sloss Furnace in Birmingham and Republic in Gadsden.
Those interested in their family histories said the small museum is a "mine in itself" as it has a computer system (purchased from a grant obtained in part through the assistance of Probate Judge/County Commission Chairman David Standridge and County Administrator Ralph Mitchell) to help them trace their ancestry.
On a recent visit, Oneonta resident Larry Brewer said the system "blows your mind!" Amy helped him trace his family back to 1760 when his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Lewis Brewer, was born in England.
There are currently also more than 500 books on individual family genealogy (like those of the Murphree and Bynum families linked throughout the county’s history), more than 1,000 family files, and numerous videos which Amy is compiling of interviews with U.S. veterans and others.
A grant for four additional computers is in the works.
As agriculture has played and continues to play such an integral part in the area, the museum has featured a dairy farm exhibit by Dr. Jack Avery, different types of motors collected by Billy Mack Eller, antique farm tools and more.
Jo Akeman was on the original Historical Society Board instrumental in forming the museum in 1970 and remains on that board today along with Jane Wright, Stan Burnette, Rosie Woodard, Beverley Mize and Historical Society President Stanley Moss.
Jane feels one of the most important aspects of the building was when alumni of Howard College in Birmingham bought bricks when that college was demolished in East Lake for its move to Lakeshore Drive (it is now Samford University).
"The college was selling the bricks and alumni would buy 25 to 50 and would have them around their homes, some using them in patios and barbecues, that sort of thing," Mrs. Akeman remembered. "We asked them to donate the brick and many alumni did, donating them a few at a time."
School children also gave small donations, but the foundation for the museum’s original funds was $2,500 raised throughout the 1950s and 1960s to build some type of permanent remembrance for the county’s veterans. Blount County has long been proud of the service of its men and women, with Blount’s Kelly Ingram being listed as the first official casualty of World War I.
While there have been many governors and other political figures who have visited the museum through the years, probably the visitor who caused the most "stir," according to Mrs. Akeman, was when Nancy Reagan visited in 1976 during a bicentennial campaign trip through Alabama for her husband’s first run for national office.
While Mrs. Akeman is especially proud of the exhibits of the county’s history, she also enjoys the rotating exhibits of those who are currently making history. After reading about Blountsville-area resident Brad Martin’s chainsaw carvings in a previous AFC Cooperative Farming News, Mrs. Akeman suggested and Amy followed through on having several of Martin’s sculptures on temporary display. These include a full-size cowboy now standing in the window.
Folk art pottery by Selfville resident Bobby Gaither.
Amy explained several programs will be held throughout the summer, like those in the past concerning local storytelling and local art. A free genealogy class will be held in July.
The Blount County Co-op will once again be donating flowers for the beds out front.
Mrs. Akeman explained the museum shows off the best of Blount’s past and present. "It’s just nice to share what you have with others because they enjoy it so much."
Mrs. Akeman, other board members and the public said the most special part of the museum is not really old at all: its curator Amy Rhudy, who is now serving her tenth year and who has moved the museum into an even more hospitable source of family and area information.
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County. You can reach her at www.suzysfarm.com.