September 2017
Homeplace & Community

From Depot to Deep History

Old Depot Museum in Selma holds an unmatched collection of artifacts spanning generations.

   

Selma’s Old Depot Museum draws tourists from around the country.

 

It may not have the glitz or glamour of big city museums but one of Selma’s most popular museums has something few others are likely to match.

Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement – two events that put Selma on the map.

Just inside the Old Depot Museum’s front door are a bow, arrows and a quill that once belonged to Geronimo, the Apache leader who terrorized other tribes as well as American settlers who upset him.

The museum obtained Geronimo’s bow, arrows and quill many years ago from Sturdivant Hall, Selma’s most famous antebellum mansion.

How he and 450 of his faithful followers wound up in Alabama, far from the Southwest territory where they once lived, is a story in itself.

If Geronimo’s bow and arrows aren’t enough to interest visitors, they can always take a gander at cannon balls made at the Naval Ordinance Works, not far from the Alabama River.

Selma was the Confederacy’s chief munitions maker during the Civil War, churning out everything from bayonets and belt buckles to its biggest creation of all – an ironclad warship. It was designated as the CSS Tennessee.

Apache Chief Geronimo’s bow and arrows are on display at the Old Depot Museum in Selma.

 

This huge mural depicting cotton picking in Dallas County during the 1930s covers much of a wall at the Old Depot Museum.

There are many more items on display, including vintage rail boxcars and cabooses, a car dating back to 1926 and even a unicycle currently hanging near the ceiling.

One of only 12 remaining railway depots in the Southeast, the museum has quite a collection of Alabama history, including a table setting once owned by Vice President William Rufus King, the state’s highest ranking federal official.

It also has a couple of huge murals that cover most of two walls and were painted by artists commissioned during the 1930s.

 

Beth Spivey, curator of the Old Depot Museum in Selma, finds a unique place to rest on this huge lathe used during the Civil War era.

Overseeing the Old Depot Museum in the nearly five years she has been director is Beth Spivey, a self-described "country girl" who continues to discover interesting tidbits about the big building.

"Country living is all I’ve ever known," said Spivey, 46, who was raised in Backbone Ridge deep in the boonies bordering on Dallas and Lowndes counties. "Some call my home place ‘Spivey Hill’ and that’s nice."

Back in the day, she said folks in her part of the woods didn’t worry about hunting or fishing licenses because "what we shot we ate."

"We’d finish supper and Daddy would say, ‘Let’s go shoot a deer,’ and we usually did," she recalled. "If anybody asked us about licenses, we’d just tell ’em we were looking for coyotes."

Spivey grew up appreciating the freedom that goes with country living because "we were honoring our ancestors for the way they lived."

"Farmers are the hardest workers with the smallest amount of recognition," she said, "but I don’t worry about that because it’s in my blood, always has been."

Back then, farmers still used oxen to plow their fields and spinning wheels to make their clothes. Doctors still made house calls and often were paid by patients on the barter system.

In the days before TV sitcoms, country residents spent nights reading by the glow of oil lamps, listening to "Amos and Andy" on the radio or exchanging gossip with neighbors.

That’s why the Old Depot Museum is so important and visitors are so warmly welcomed by Spivey, who often leads tours and urges visitors to browse around the exhibits.

Selma Councilman Carl Bowline checks his watch with an antique, but functional, grandfather’s clock.

 

Descriptions in the Old Depot Museum brochure were written by Selma Councilman Carl Bowline, who spent hours researching exhibits in the facility.

He can check the correct time on his watch by comparing it with a 19th century grandfather clock that has rarely missed a beat through the years.

Artifacts in the museum are housed within a Romanesque theme over a century old, making it one of the most historic facilities of its kind in the South.

"Selma’s history actually begins in prehistory when the land belonged to Native Americans," Bowline wrote. "The area’s rivers and streams allowed five Indian tribes to thrive."

Civil rights activists descended on Selma in the 1960s with as much fervor as relatives a century before when the Civil War attracted Confederate volunteers to enlist in what would become known as the "Lost Cause."

As a result of the violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, Congress quickly approved the Voting Rights Act, ending what had been decades of discrimination against black residents seeking the right to vote.

In 1865, Selma became part in the evolution of the fire engine. It would be many years before motorized vehicles arrived on the scene, making horse-drawn fire pumpers unnecessary.

A vintage 1926 American La France fire engine is on display at the museum along with other fire engines that draw attention from tourists.

The 19th century fire trucks may have seen better days, but visitors overlook the rust, dust, dents and chipped paint because they know they represent history.

Selma has several other museums, but none can claim such a wide array of memories, many linked to railroads and firetrucks and vehicles.

Built in 1891, the red brick museum continues to draw visitors from near and far.

The Old Depot Museum is located at 4 Martin Luther King Jr. Street and open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. It is open on Sundays by appointment.

For details about the museum call 334-874-2197.

 

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.