Dekalb County Communities

History of Fort Payne   [Page 1, 2, 3, 4]

Reproduced from the Landmarks publication A Pictorial History of DeKalb County, Alabama

Fort Payne was a small rural community, a little village of less than 500 people, surrounded by Wills Valley cotton fields. This was Fort Payne, A labama, in 1887. The families making their livelihood here included those of the McCartneys, Claytons, Greens, Duncans, Poes, Cravens, Garretts, Lyons and Smiths. Weather and crops were important topics of conversation, though some attention was given to news of the industrial growth in the Birmingham-Bessemer area of the Alabama mineral belt. But that was almost 100 miles away.

Rumors did persist that Fort Payne, too, was surrounded by rich mineral deposits. But none of the original residents here could have predicted the mad rush of prospecting, speculation and development which was soon to descend upon them. For, of all the industrial booms which developed in north Alabama towns thought to be possibilities for future "Magic Cities", Fort Payne's boom was by far the most colorful and spectacular.

First Street in Fort Payne looking west. DeKalb County Courthouse is in background. May's Hotel is seen in the right foreground. This was one of Fort Payne's first hotels and patronized by many traveling salesmen.

The three-year boom period, which began in 1889, was to provide historians and amateur buffs with more absorbing factual material - as well as exaggerated myths - than had the whole previous fifty-year period beginning with the forced removal of the Indians.

But first, a brief summary of Fort Payne's earliest period reveals the following historical facts. In December 1869, the first post office was established in Fort Payne. Nicholson S. Davenport was appointed postmaster at a salary of $12 per year. The location of the post office changed many times during the 70's and 80's as the postmaster moved the office to his own home or place of business.

The coming of the railroad and the location of the county seat in Fort Payne served to attract merchants to the town. Among the first business establishments was a saloon operated by Jolly McCurdy, a one-armed former soldier, in a railroad shack. The leading store in the early l880's was a general store operated by J. E. Russell. He built up a thriving business by taking mortgages on farms and selling supplies to the farmers of the vicinity. There was also a firm named Nix and Quin, which changed about l885 to Quin and McArver. There were also grist mills which had been built by the Beeson and Hudson families in the 70's. The Fort Payne Journal was founded in 1873 by Thomas H. Smith. A Memphis lumber company set up a sawmill in Fort Payne about 1885 but closed it in 1887.

The first church in the vicinity of Fort Payne was a Cumberland Presbyterian church, established some time in the 70's and known as Union Church. lts building was used by other denominations until more churches were constructed in the 80's. A Missionary Baptist church, organized in 1885 by Reverend John B. Appleton and Bailey Bruce, was located on the corner of Spring Street and Gault Avenue. The upper story of the building was owned and occupied by the Masonic organization, which was the only fraternal organization of its kind in Fort Payne prior to the boom. The First Methodist Church of Fort Payne, also founded in 1885, was organized by John Norton and J. R. Williams. These three churches were active during the boom days which followed and have continued to serve Fort Payne ever since.

The first school in Fort Payne was located on the present site of the Dobbs sisters' home. The instructor, Mrs. Mary Childers, taught an ungraded school of about 18 students for one term in 1876. The following year the school was moved to the Presbyterian Church, where it remained an ungraded, one-teacher unit. John Hammak taught 30 or 35 scholars there. Around 1880 the school was moved to the site now occupied by John B. lsbell's residence, where it served Fort Payne until the boom days.

Thus Fort Payne, with its small school, one church building and few businesses, had not grown much in its half century of existence and remained an unincorporated village when wealthy and ambitious men focused their attention upon some mineral samples from a ridge and devised fantastic plans for a giant manufacturing city.

Four men, Milford W. Howard, C. O. Godfrey, W. P. Rice and J. W. Spaulding, were responsible for the speculation mania which was touched off in Fort Payne in l889.

Howard, a restless and imaginative young attorney, had for some time been busily proclaiming the advantages of Fort Payne as a manufacturing center. His ideas appealed to Major C. O. Godfrey of Massachusetts, who was interested in lucrative investments for eastern capital. Through the Fort Payne Land and Improvement Company which he organized, Godfrey secured an option on several hundred acres of land in the vicinity of town. Howard, though not directly connected with the company at that time, helped secure an option on the Duncan farm, located in what is now the center of the business district.

During the latter part of 1887, Frank Y. Anderson, affiliated with the Alabama State Land Company, entered into a partnership with Godfrey. But their efforts to promote the town were unsuccessful. The following year aid was sought from W. P. Rice, a New England speculator and former warden of the Vermont State Prison, who had made several successful financial ventures, especially in the field of banking.

Hotel Rainey, a mecca for tourists, salesmen and local boarders
for many years. Rainey's snacks and chicken dinners became
famous through the "Butch" service on the Southern Railway trains.
Thus it was that the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company was organized in November l888 by a Vermont financier and the fabulous boom soon began. The capital of the company was established at $5,000,000, with 50,000 shares of capital stock having a par value of $100 each. Most of the $4,000,000 worth of stock offered to the public was sold in New England by Rice and his friends within five weeks after being placed on sale.

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