Where Alabama Began
Alabama’s oldest county has a rich history based in farming, timber, waterways, rail and industry. Washington County was established in June 1800 in the Mississippi Territory and became the first county in what is now Alabama. Several rooms in the basement of the courthouse in Chatom are designated as the Washington County Museum. They tell the story of the county from Native American settlements on the banks of the Tombigbee to the quiet, but productive timber and industry corridor it has become.
In 1965 a group of citizens interested in preserving the county’s history approached the Washington County Commission regarding a possible museum. The commissioners, sensing the eagerness of their constituents and knowing the importance of preserving the valuable artifacts, agreed to allocate the space to house the collections. The county provided the materials and labor and agreed to cover the general operating expenses. Thus, the collecting began.
What is now considered “farmhouse chic” are the items that started the collection. Manual washboards for cleaning clothes, a wooden doorknob from the original courthouse, quilts, milk pails and Mason jars fill several cases. Items that are being sought now to decorate the home were once the essentials within the home.
The canoe and the Tombigbee
The focal point of the museum’s first room, and perhaps its most noted piece is the 20.1 foot-long dugout canoe. The canoe has fascinated both children and adults for decades. It was found on the Tombigbee River near Peavey’s Landing in May 1973. Prior to preservation by the University of South Alabama, a small piece of the wood from the canoe was used for radiocarbon dating. Based on this process, it is estimated that the canoe was built around 1345, during the Mississippian Period, making it 674 years old.
The canoe is likely made of cypress, a water-friendly wood. Using scrapers likely made from shell and bone, Native Americans would have scraped out the tree trunk which would have been burned out first.
Much of Washington County’s history centers around the waters that the canoe would have commanded. The Tombigbee River flows through the ancient hunting grounds of the Native Americans, the rich pine forests, and the continual developing industrial sites. Old St. Stephens, which was located directly on the banks of the Tombigbee became the first territorial capital of Alabama. Once a thriving town, the original settlement of St. Stephens was completely abandoned by 1927.
Traces of life in the original town of St. Stephens can be seen within the cases of the museum. Pottery, china, nails and hinges, along with photographs of the first newspaper, The Halycon, are evidence of the county’s bright beginnings.
Timber, turpentine and transportation
The county’s rich timber industry is highlighted in the museum, along with the turpentine business that is yielded by the pine-rich forests in the county. Turpentine is an oil that can be obtained from the resin of pine trees. It is highly flammable and in the decades prior to electricity, it was used as lamp fuel. Although Washington County no longer is a large producer of turpentine, turpentine is still a very viable product. It is sold in hardware stores and art supply stores and is used as a water repellent, paint thinner and solvent. Historically, turpentine was used medicinally in Washington County and throughout the South. During the Civil War, it was used to treat soldiers’ infections. In addition to turpentine, the pines of Washington County have been tapped for their pine tar which continues to be an ingredient in medications for skin disorders. Between 1840 and 1930, turpentine distilling was a major industry in the county.
The turpentine industry promoted economic growth and development as well as industrial expansion in Washington County. With this came various forms of transportation. From mule or horse and buggy to the Model-T Ford and eventually to passenger and transport rail, the Washington County museum showcases the transition to automation in this area. While rail travel has decreased due to the availability of personal automobiles, regional airports and lack of infrastructure, Washington County’s railways continue to contribute to the efficiency of industry in the area. There are five Class 1 railroads in Washington County’s chemical corridor.
Farming is no longer the primary source of income in Washington County, however it does continue to be an important element in the county’s economy. Encased in the courthouse basement are antique farming tools, a spinning wheel, and antique, handmade quilts. Interior designers seek such items for simplistic décor, but the items encased were constructed and used for their functionality, rather than for their beauty.
Leaving the farming and homestead area of the museum and turning the corner into a new room, one notices typewriters, both manual and electric along the perimeter. A large wooden file system, now obsolete, is displayed, once having been in use upstairs in the probate office. Eight-track tape players, vinyl record machines and tape recorders are on exhibit to help the younger visitor understand the great advances that have taken place in technology just during the lifetime of their parents. A wedding gown from the 1960s and several artifacts from Washington County Schools including wooden desks and retro band and football uniforms and helmets are on display. A poster related to the “Space Race” of the 1980s is an excellent conversation piece as well.
Patriotism and faith
The citizens of Washington County are known for their love of God and country. This is not new. The Washington County Museum houses a collection of military uniforms, regalia and memorabilia generously donated by citizens who have served in various wars throughout the 200-year history of Alabama. A wall honors those who lost their lives in these battles. The names and hometowns of the fallen are listed, along with the conflict in which they were killed.
The churches of Washington County also have their place within the museum. Church hymnals, photos and bulletins are encased. A drive through the main roads and the backroads of the county will allow a traveler to see the many churches throughout the various communities and towns. While denominations vary, there remains evidence of the faith of the people who built Alabama’s first county.
The Washington County Museum is filled with items that would have been functional and necessary for life through two centuries in Alabama. Wooden bowls, pottery, metal tools, manual plows and spinning wheels represent the strong work ethic, but the people of Washington County also enjoy the beautiful things in life. Art and literacy are among these things. The talented Maribeth Tatum Turner carved exquisite designs from the eggs of ostriches, geese and rheas. These intricately detailed creations are a source of pride for the museum. These are displayed in the final room of the museum, the Betty Scott Room.
Betty Scott and her husband Howard Gordon Scott were instrumental in the legal and literary realms of Washington County. They were vital in starting the first library and championed the cause of literacy within the county. Betty Scott left her art collection and her many dish collections to the museum. These rare and beautiful items can be seen daily.
A recent addition to the museum demonstrates the love for music that many share throughout the county. A beautiful pipe organ was generously donated last month. It is well-preserved and beautifully carved and its sound is gorgeous despite its age.
The Washington County Museum is open any day that the courthouse is open. It is located on the basement level and is well worth a walk through. There is no charge to view the items. Curator Ashlea Singleton welcomes both new residents of the county and well-established residents, along with visitors, to journey through time and history in Washington County.
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Weekly columnist. Feature Writer.