Rending the veil—Historic Preservation in Alabama

And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom…
— St. Matthew 27:51 (KJV)

One of Eufaula’s magnificent mansions seen through the veil of trees of North Eufaula Avenue. Photo 2014 by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Frequent travelers on Alabama Highway 431 know the short section that passes through north Eufaula as a verdant meditation, a brief respite from the normal hustle of this four lane highway. For about a quarter mile, the road narrows from four to two lanes; the speed limit drops while ancient oaks spread their branches over the road, and historic homes keep watch from the sides. Travelers throughout north Georgia and Alabama know this lush drive, called North Eufaula Avenue, as they head towards the Florida Panhandle. Movie-goers may recognize this street from the Reese Witherspoon film, Sweet Home Alabama. In the film, the lead character drives down this historic roadway on the way to her Alabama home.

Historic preservationists often talk about the “historical fabric” which includes the concrete things that actually make up a historic structure, but also the things surrounding a structure that help to provide a complete historical picture, or context, if you will. Within a historic district this may include outbuildings, the roads and streets, sidewalks and other fixtures, plantings and the arboreal canopy. North Eufaula Avenue and its trees are a major feature of the historic fabric of the Seth Lore and Irwinton Historic District, which encompasses the residential neighborhoods to the north and west of Eufaula’s downtown.

The Alabama Department of Transportation is ramping up to rend part of the fabric of North Eufaula Avenue, considered by many to be the most iconic street in the city, if not the whole state. In an effort to ease occasional congestion on Highway 431—proponants argue that the congestion only occurs a few times a year—the DOT has decided to expand the two lanes to four through the historic district. This will require the destruction of part of the median and the removal of a few trees as well as trimming the arboreal canopy. Aside from this minor destruction to the physical fabric, the construction would cause some drastic changes to the aesthetics and spiritual fabric of the district.

Quite simply, the increased traffic will destroy the quiet beauty of the district. But there’s also the possibility that the spiritual fabric of the district may be harmed. In cities ranging from New Orleans, Louisiana to Savannah, Georgia to Frederick, Maryland and Williamsburg, Virginia—places where the historical fabric is very much intact—there often seem to be many ghosts. Perhaps the ghosts remain because the historical fabric has not been disturbed. While documentation for Eufaula’s spirited side is sorely lacking, there is one documented haunting on North Eufaula Avenue. The grand SHORTER MANSION (340 North Eufaula Avenue) has graced this lovely street since 1884, though it was remodeled into its current form starting in 1901.

The Shorter Mansion, 2014. Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Considered an outstanding example of neoclassical architecture, the house remained in the politically prominent Shorter family until 1965 when it was purchased by the Eufaula Heritage Association which has operated the house as a museum, memorial and events facility since. The house has been used frequently for weddings and it is in some of the wedding photos taken here that two spirits are purported to appear, though the man in the top hat and the woman in pink have also made some rare appearances in person as well. In one case, a staff member encountered the woman in pink and spoke to her in the parlor. The staff member turned away from the woman for a moment and turned back to her to find she had disappeared.

In 2007, Southern Paranormal Researchers, a paranormal investigation organization out of Montgomery, investigated the house. In their investigation report they note that there is other activity that has been witnessed within the house including phantom smells, items being moved and a feeling of being watched. Over the course of two investigations, the investigators had a few personal experiences including hearing “loud laughing” and banging in the next room. A possible apparition was observed as well as shadow figures. The investigators concluded that the house had residual energy manifesting itself, though there is the possibility of an intelligent spirit at work here as well.

While the activity at the Shorter Mansion is the only documented paranormal activity on North Eufaula Avenue, I imagine there is activity in many of the other graceful structures along the avenue. It is accepted in the paranormal community that renovation and remodeling can stir up activity, though it may also eventually lead to a decrease. Certainly, the activity from cities that have lost much of their historic fabric is decreased, witness Southern cities like Atlanta, which has little-reported activity from its core.

A sign advertising the Eufaula Pilgrimage in the median in front of the Shorter Mansion, 2014. Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

The battle of North Eufaula Avenue is turning into a David and Goliath type fight. The city government, citizens and supporters of historic preservation have taken a stand against the state DOT and the Governor, who has come out in support of the road widening. Walking down North Eufaula Avenue just last month, I observed that nearly every house had signs against the widening prominently displayed. But the saddest sight seemed to be a large sign advertising the Eufaula Pilgrimage that is held annually in the spring. As if to rub in the destruction, the DOT originally scheduled the widening to be completed by the start of the pilgrimage.

One of the many anti-widening signs lining North Eufaula Avenue, 2014. Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Proponents of the widening have tried to stop or at least put the construction on hold through legal means. A lawsuit in federal court was dismissed just before the new year because the federal government is not involved in this battle. The judge suggested that the heart of the matter is really who owns the median of North Eufaula Avenue. Just yesterday (January 2), the mayor and members of the city council voted to not sue the state over the median’s ownership. It now appears that barring any further delays, Eufaula’s verdant veil will be rent beginning on Monday.

While the fate of North Eufaula Avenue looks bleak, another historic and haunted Alabama site appears to be off the chopping block. The future of Prattville’s landmark PRATT COTTON GIN (Bridge Street) building has been up in the air for a few years. The huge mill complex, which provides a background for downtown Prattville, has been abandoned since 2011. Recently, developers have taken an interest in the buildings, some wishing to demolish the buildings for their brick and wood while others have bandied the idea of renovating the mill into residential lofts.

One of the old entrances to the building now locked within the more modern structure. Photo 1997, by Jet Lowe for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

On Monday, the mill complex was sold on the courthouse steps to the Historic Prattville Redevelopment Authority, which will immediately begin to stabilize the buildings and begin creating a plan to reuse the old mill. The HPRA purchased five large mill buildings constructed between 1843 and 1912, some 40 acres of mill property, the millpond, and a few spirits.

Downtown Prattville with the Daniel Pratt Cotton Gin in the background. Photo 2010 by Spyder_Monkey, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Before the advent of child labor laws, mills throughout the country employed young children. Often lacking safety policies and devices, millworkers were sometimes seriously injured or killed. At some point in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, sources do not provide a date, a young boy named Willie Youngblood was killed in one of the mill buildings. After his death, a woman was observed near the mill clad in black. Legend says that she threw herself off the mill dam.

The Pratt Cotton Gin with the mill dam in the foreground. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, 1974 for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Believed to be the spirit of Willie’s mother, the darkly dressed figure has been seen by millworkers for decades. Recently, the mill buildings were investigated as part of the SyFy Channel show, Deep South Paranormal. While the team was able to capture some evidence during their investigation, the most impressive evidence was video of a black-clad figure walking on the mill dam. Perhaps the veiled figure won’t be rent from her nightly dam walk by the mill’s renovation.