History of Fort Payne ›
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, Alabama, 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.
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.
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.
Another bit of groundwork was the incorporation of the city. A bill providing for this was introduced in the legislature in February 1889 by DeKalb’s senator, W. W. Haralson. After passing both houses, it was signed by Governor Seay on February 28.
The Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company, having by now purchased 32,000 acres of land in the vicinity, immediately set about designing a city and preparing for hordes of speculators and fortune seekers. Streets were graded and new ones opened across the valley and up the ridges. A water supply was developed and a two-mile-long sewage system was constructed at a cost of $35,000.
By mid-summer the boom was in full swing. Mines were being opened and more and more laborers and investors arrived at Fort Payne. Industrial companies, banks and investment companies were organized, and stores, schools and churches were built. The DeKalb Hotel, occupying an entire square in the center of town, was constructed. The largest and best equipped hotel in northeast Alabama, this hotel boasted 180 rooms, a billiard room, a huge dining room and a ballroom. The owners refused offers as high as $100,000 for this hotel. Nearby an $80,000 opera house, now a tourist attraction, was built.
To landscape the city, the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company hired Charles Landstreet who had come here from Virginia in 1887. Public parks were created, including Union Park across from the DeKalb Hotel, the site of the present city park on Gault Avenue. Trees, plants, flowers and shrubs were brought from all parts of the world. Several Japanage poplars planted at that time are still living.
One of the most interesting attractions developed under Landstreet’s supervision was Manitou Cave, located in the side of Lookout Mountain. Bridges and winding stairways were built leading to the huge ballroom, where dancers could watch the reflections of hundreds of candles glitter from the stalactites of the walls and ceiling. Later electricity was installed inside the cave and a public park created near the entrance.
Even the machinery of politics ran smoothly. The new and old residents of the city agreed, prior to the first municipal election on July 1, 1889, to elect Major Godfrey as mayor. And, in order to give both groups an equal voice in the city government, it was further agreed that three councilmen would represent the older residents and two the newer arrivals. Elected as the city’s first aldermen were A. W. Train, J. J. Nix, W. H. Minot, W. F. Payne and S. E. Dobbs. Ordinances were soon passed for the government of Fort Payne, including a law banning the sale of alcoholic beverages.
Due to the building boom, the grading of streets became one important function of the new city government. Within a year, 13 miles of streets had been graded and many streets were built upon as soon as they were located, often before they could be graded. With the postulation leaping from 500 to several thousand within a few months, temporary tents covered the ridges on either side of town, serving the newcomers as homes until hastily constructed houses could be completed.
The advertising campaign was intensified, and the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company issued an attractive prospectus which was sent to prosperous businessmen all over the country, especially those in the New England states. Agents in charge of publicity placed a display of Fort Payne minerals in the Quincy House in Boston.
Boasts were made of the high quality of iron ore contained in “Iron Mountain”, the name so optimistically given to the western ridge closest to the center of town. The capacity of the red ore mines located here was given as 300 tons a day. The capacity of the Brown Ore Mine, located on the eastern slope, was said to be 200 tons of good ore per day. The western side of Iron Mountain was thought to be rich in red hematite and large fields of ore containing manganese had supposedly been located on Sand Mountain, as well as smaller deposits of red and brown ore on Lookout Mountain.
The coke used to convert the ores into pig iron was made from coal mined on Lookout Mountain. Lookout Village was built near the mine.
To facilitate the movement of ores and fuel, the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company even built and equipped a railroad. The Mineral Railroad, begun in 1889 and completed the following January, ran from the Alabama Great Southern Railroad in the valley in a northeastern direction to Beeson Gap and eastward to its terminal at the Lookout Mountain Coal Mine. A network of sidings in the manufacturing district made it possible to load and unload freight at the factories. The train consisted of’ a locomotive, combination passenger and baggage coaches and coal and construction cars. Regular routes were run from the city to Lookout Village. A considerable amount of passenger and freight service was provided for the public in addition to the company’s business.
The Mineral Railroad was intended to form a link in an east and west line connecting the Tennessee River at Guntersville with the Atlantic Coast. Fourteen and one-half miles were laid on this line at a cost of over $76,000, but the road was never completed. It was later taken over by the Alabama Great Southern line.
By the summer of 1890, the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company had invested $1,900,000 in plants and equipment, and an additional $l,250,000 had been spent in developing the city. Meanwhile, Rice and other financiers had invested $50,000 on a water plant. This plant utilized the two immense springs of mild lime water at the base of Lookout Mountain and supplied the city with pure water. A power house had also been constructed, causing Fort Payne to be referred to as “the electric city”, although rates were beyond the means of the average citizen. The Fort Payne lce and Storage Company, organized in 1889, supplied the city and surrounding area with ice and cold storage facilities.
By 1890 Fort Payne had quite an impressive directory of businesses and factories. The Fort Payne and the Bay State Furnaces had been constructed. The Fort Payne Rolling Mill and Steel Company was said to be the largest of its kind in the South. The Alabama Builders’ Hardware Company was one of the most extensive hardware manufacturing factories in the South, and a stove foundry was being constructed by the Fort Payne Stove Works. The Fort Payne Basket and Package Factory, located two miles south of Fort Payne, and the Fort Payne Fire Clay Works appeared to be promising industries.
In addition, there were other hardware and lumber companies and quite a few miscellaneous industries. There were also four banks and several investment companies. Of the banks, the Bank of Fort Payne, organized in March 1889, was the first. The Fort Payne Journal, which had preceded and would outlast the boom, was joined by another newspaper, the Fort Payne Herald.
The Fort Payne Educational Association was organized in June 1890, with ambitious plans for a system of preparatory schools in anticipation of a university to be founded soon thereafter within the city. The Fort Payne Academy for Young Ladies opened in October of that year. But other high grade schools, including at projected military academy for boys erected on Lookout Mountain – and the university itself – remained an unfulfilled dream of the city planners.
The building of the new industrial plants caused real estate prices to soar as a speculative fever spread through the city and fortunes changed hands many times. Older residents sold their property at fabulous prices. John McCartney sold a lot to John B. Stetson, the hat manufacturer, for $11,000 and bought it back after the boom for $100. E. S. Killian, a local cotton merchant, sold the lot now occupied by Southern Hardware on Gault Avenue for $75 per front foot. The Fort Payne Land Company then resold the same lot to Milford Howard for $200 per front foot. Judge W. W. Haralson paid $50,000 for one lot, at a rate of $100 per foot.
Among those who came to Fort Payne during the boom days and remained even after they were over was C. M. T. Sawyer, originally from Littleton, New Hampshire. While still in his teens, Sawyer went to Orlando, Florida, to serve as office boy for John W. Weeks, who later became secretary of war in Wilson’s cabinet.
After acquiring skill in surveying and title work, he brought his bride to Fort Payne and helped organize the DeKalb Abstract Company . He was to remain here for 62 years, until his death in 1950. Active in civic and political affairs, he served as mayor for 26 years, which included all but two terms between the years 19l 0 – 1940. Though he was admitted to the bar in 1896, after having studied under his business partner, he preferred to spend most of his time at his abstracting work and his insurance business. Sawyer donated the land for Forest Avenue School, as well as that for the old high school activities building and for the Saint Paul Methodist Church.
In 1889 the remarkable Kansas City financier, W. P. Rice, further proved his aptitude for advertising and publicizing by arranging excursions for literally trainloads of New Englanders. When the hotel and boarding house facilities became full, barracks and tents were hastily erected to take care of the overflow. These visitors were lavishly entertained while being duly informed about the value of local real estate and the “vast deposits” of minerals in the area. Every effort was made to bring even more New England people and capital to Fort Payne.
Property continued to change hands rapidly and at higher prices during the first half of 1890. The taxable property rose that year to $3,000,000, as compared to a value of $147,000 two years earlier. Many of the northern buyers came to Fort Payne hoping to sell their property later at a big profit.
Southern residents became far outnumbered, and the city took on the atmosphere of a New England city. There was a New England Shoe Shop, a New England Barber Shop, and a New England Clothing Store. Friends and visitors were invited to “beans” until even the older residents sometimes developed a taste for the famous Boston dish. In advertisements Fort Payne was often referred to as the “Pittsburg of the South”, or the “New England City of the South”.
The election of 1890 approached with little interest aroused and few issues, other than the enforcement – or alleged lack of it – of the law against the sale of liquor.
Friends of Mayor Godfrey were in favor of renewing the compromise made previously between the new and old residents. A petition signed by J. W. Spaulding, the Maine attorney serving as president of the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company, and 100 other residents asked Mayor Godfrey to serve another term. But the editor of the Journal led an opposing group which thought it time an older resident served as mayor. When Godfrey declined to seek re-election, Spaulding announced his own candidacy and was elected by the votes of his northern colleagues.
During the latter half of 1890, it began to appear that the mineral resources, especially coal and iron, were below expectations both in quality and quantity. Thus far the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company had actually been operating at a loss. Even desperate attempts, including the floating of a $5,000,000 bond issue in December, could not keep the boom going.
By l891 property values had dropped, industries had lost money, and people had begun to leave the city. In December, with total collapse of the boom eminent, the stockholders of the eight largest industries made one final effort to avoid financial ruin. They voted to merge into one giant company in order to secure a loan from English investors.
But, after three years of rapid and unwarranted expansion based upon faith in greatly exaggerated mineral claims, Fort Payne’s bubble was ready to burst and the clouds of a long depression were already settling over the city. The value of real estate soon declined to a point below the level of 1887. Each train took on more passengers than it left behind, as many New Englanders again headed north. Most of these people either sold their property at a great loss or left it in the care of a rental agency, hoping for better prices in the future.
The boom had been almost exclusively controlled and managed by New England people, while southerners, knowing little of the “Yankee” business methods, had served as interested observers. Only a few native Alabama citizens had lost fortunes, as most of the older residents of the city had sold their property on a rising market.
However, two local men, Milford Howard and Dr. W. E. Quin, did lose fortunes. Howard had been a rather flamboyant speculator and had amassed a sizable fortune which he had reinvested in a mercantile business and real estate. The collapse left Howard unable to meet his financial obligations and he lost all his holdings.
Dr. Quin’s losses were not as great as Howard’s, but he had the added misfortune of being left $10,000 in debt. His creditors, however, allowed the doctor to pay back the money as he was able to do so. He repaid most of the debt from profits made by buying property at a low price and selling it after its value increased. Among Dr. Quin’s purchases were a house formerly valued at $2500, which he bought for $50, and another which had cost $1500, but which he acquired for $25.
Many of the large boom houses were sold for the lumber used in building them. Farmers often purchased houses to salvage the lumber, rather than cut their own timber. Some families who had never lived in anything but log huts moved into the large houses and lived in one section of a house while using the rest for fuel.
On December 8, 1892, the city of Fort Payne sold and bid in for the city taxes the property formerly held by the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company. But the city itself was also faced with indebtedness and warrants used to pay city obligations were often used by citizens to pay their taxes.
When the panic of 1893 rocked the nation, its full force was not felt in Fort Payne where people had already suffered the effects of depression for over a year.
In July 1893 when the third municipal election was held, it was the first time that New England boom promoters were not in control. Dr. Quin was elected mayor, along with councilmen S. E. Dobbs, A. B. Green, Jr., Charles Landstreet, John A. McCurdy and C. M. T. Sawyer.
Fort Payne’s population at the beginning of the new century was approximately 1700, as compared with over 3500 in 1890. Most of its citizens realized that the city’s future prosperity would depend upon small industries and the surrounding agricultural area.
Early in 1900 the North Alabama and Georgia Telephone Company was granted a franchise by the city council, thus adding a telephone system to the water works and sewage system already established. But several years were to pass before electric service was again provided for the town’s residents.
In 1910 the DeKalb County High School was built and five students graduated the following year. In 1957 the school became a part of the city school system and was renamed Fort Payne High School. A new addition, costing $170,000, was added to the school in 1959. A new high school, consisting of a complex of seven buildings, was completed at a cost of over $2,000,000 in 1969 at the north end of Fort Payne.
A city library had been established during the boom and located on a second floor in the Opera House block. But during the depression years there was no money available for library service. Although various women volunteered their services as librarian during these years, no new books were purchased. Old books were lost or destroyed and interest waned.
Later, through the efforts of a very remarkable Fort Payne woman, a library was again established in the depression year of 1930. Mrs. Mary C. Weatherly, wife of G. I. Weatherly, president of the First National Bank, scoured the county for books and, with 400 volumes donated by interested citizens, started the Fort Payne Library on October 1, 1930. This date was to mark the beginning of 40 years of library service to the citizens of DeKalb County by Mrs. Weatherly, a period during which she neither received nor desired any compensation.
The city council having agreed to pay the $5.00 per month rent for the upstairs room of the Masonic Building, F. E. Ladd donated coal for the open grate which heated the room. The initial supplies were purchased from a $100 loan made by Mrs. Georgia McFarlane, who was reimbursed in a month from small charges collected for the rental of books. Every day of the week Mrs. Weatherly ascended the stairs to the library, carrying her infant son in her arms, and proceeded to build and tend the fire and to serve as librarian, janitor and handyman.
By 1940 the little room was not large enough to hold the 4,000 volumes Mrs. Weatherly had accumulated through donations and careful buying. Fortunately the W.P.A. was at this time providing funds for small libraries, and $11,000 thus obtained was matched by the state and county. But as federal and state money could be used for county libraries only, the name was changed to DeKalb County Library when it was moved to the basement of the new City Hall.
The industry for which Fort Payne became best known first came in 1907. In that year the W. B. Davis Hosiery Mill became the first of numerous hosiery mills which have brought Fort Payne the title of “Sock Capital of the World”. Steel-fabricating plants, home-fabricating plants and many other diversified industries add to the financial well being of the town. A new and lucrative tourist industry is also being developed in Fort Payne, where the many natural scenic wonders of the area are a great attraction, as well as the historical sites of the boom era.