Gainesville, Alabama

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church at Gainesville, AL, photo courtesy Rural Southwest Alabama

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church at Gainesville, AL, photo courtesy Rural Southwest Alabama

The small town of Gainesville is located on Hwy 39 in Sumter County, near the Sumter/Greene County line. The land on which the town of Gainesville now stands was originally owned by John Coleman, husband to a Choctaw Indian of the area. In 1831, he sold the land to Colonel Moses Lewis, who had the town divided into lots. Gainesville was originally named “Eaton” in honor of John H. Eaton, Secretary of War under President Andrew Jackson.  Because of a scandal surrounding Eaton’s wife, Margaret O’Neill Eaton, Mayor John C. Whitsett had the town’s name changed for Colonel George Strother Gaines, who was an American Agent to the Choctaw Indians and had helped negotiate the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek.  The first groups of settlers were from Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, and they settled on a street close to the river known as Yankee Street (which still exists today).

Many historic homes and churches remain in Gainesville today. The town hosts “Heritage Days” every March in cooperation with the Sumter County Historical Society.

1.)       Historical Facts:

  • The town grew very rapidly and by 1840 had become the third largest town in the state of Alabama, with a population of over 4,000. Gainesville was also a major port, shipping 6,000 bales of cotton to Mobile each year by steamboats on the Tombigbee River.
  • Thirty of Gainesville’s original buildings burned in 1855.
  • The old Gainesville Bank was erected in 1835.  Because it was one of the most influential banks in the state, it was allowed to print and issue its own currency.
  • The Confederate Cemetery in town is the final resting place of 250 Civil War soldiers who were injured in the Battle of Shiloh and brought to the hospital in the Female Academy in Gainesville.
  • The first church organized in Gainesville was in 1835 by the Presbyterians, and John Leybarn was pastor.
  • The first school was established by Mrs. Alexander in 1843.  The building erected, for that purpose, stood on what is now called “Virginia Hill,” and was a log cabin about 18 feet square.
  • The first steamboat, the “Cotton Plant,” ascending the Tombigbee River was in 1823 and was commanded by Stephen Chandler.  There were several small boats running the river going as far as Cotton Gin Port above Columbus, Mississippi.
  • The “Cossair” was the first boat landing goods at Gainesville after the town was settled.
  • Bennet and Winston started the first store in March 1832.
  • In 1887, Gainesville had 15 businesses, 1 Livery Stable, 4 blacksmith shops, 1 barbershop, population 1,000; the projections for 1890 were 100 businesses, 3 Livery Stables, 10 blacksmith shops, 4 barbershops, 1 cotton factory, 1 cotton seed oil mill, 1 hub, spoke & axe-handle factory, population 9,754.  These projections

2.)       Gainesville Historical Sites

**Historic Downtown Gainesville – One of the saddest moments in Gainesville’s history is the destruction of the original downtown business section.  The cause of the destruction was an accidental fire.  Some of the original buildings destroyed included a post office, mayor’s office, mill shops, department stores, a newspaper, jewelers, dress shop, livery stable, blacksmith shop, sawmill, hickory mill, lawyer’s office, doctor’s office, landing and loading dock, and warehouses.  Today, the Gainesville Historic District is bound by Carolina, Church, School, Lafayette, and Webster Streets (and includes the historic residential section of Gainesville).  The other historic district is the Main-Yankee Street Historic District which includes all of the historic homes and buildings on those two streets. **

Site of the Old Female Academy – Located on Yankee Street.  It was a two-story girls’ school before the Civil War, and during the Civil War, was a hospital for wounded soldiers.  Later, the original building was replaced with another school for both boys and girls.  The building deteriorated until it had to be torn down.  The present building was built by the Gainesville Civic League for meetings and family night suppers.  The bell next to the building is the original solid brass bell from the Female Academy.

Site of the American Hotel – Located on Yankee Street.  The American Hotel was an impressive three-story building with the lobby, restaurant, and bar on the ground floor.  The guest rooms were on the third floor.  The Hotel was destroyed in a fire in the early part of the 19th Century.

“Lewis-Long” House was built ca. 1832 by Colonel Moses Lewis on Yankee Street.  This house occupies Lot Number 1 on the town’s original plat.  It is Federal Period style with a large hand-carved wooden staircase and two underground cisterns for storing food and water.  The home is currently owned by a member of the Long family.

“Howard-Bolton-Harrison” House was built ca. 1830 and is located on Yankee Street.  It is Greek Revival style with Victorian additions.  Its original owners are not known, but the house served as a temporary hospital during the Civil War.

“Lewis-Jones-Fields” House was built ca. 1840 and is located on Yankee Street.  The house combines two elements of antebellum architecture: the two-room plan with separate entrances and the elongated Greek Revival style façade with inset portico.  The home was once owned by William M. Lewis, the son of Gainesville’s founder, Moses Lewis.

“Russell-Woodruff-Turrentine” House was built ca. 1835 and is located on Yankee Street.  It is Vernacular style with Federal and Greek Revival elements and is thought to have been built for Walter W. Russell; he was one of the earliest settlers and merchants to come to Gainesville and built homes on Yankee Street.

The Forrest Monument is located on the intersection of State and McKee Streets.  It marks the spot where General Nathan Bedford Forrest paroled his troops to General Canby on May 15, 1865.  The cannon mounts were used to position cannons to defend the town from Union invasions from the river.  There used to be a house on the site which burned in 1855.

The Ice House is located at the intersection of State and McKee Streets.  The ice was sawed and gathered during the winter from the frozen river and stored in the ice house with straw for insulation.  This was the storage house for the American Hotel.

Old Gainesville Bank is one of the oldest banks in West Alabama and was even allowed to print its own currency.  It was moved to Tuscaloosa to be restored but is now located at the intersection of State and McKee Streets.

Park and Bandstand (or Bandstand and Town Square) is located on State and McKee Streets and was constructed in 1830.  As most towns have a town square, Gainesville was unique in that it had a town triangle.  Although the present bandstand is very old, a picture shows the original to have been larger and more of an octagon shape.

Kring Coffin Shop was built ca. 1860 and is located on McKee Street.  It is the only original building to survive the 19th Century commercial district and fires.  This was the showroom for coffins built by Edward Kring.  Here, one would pick out the material and wood for the coffin which was custom built for size and expense.

The Presbyterian Church was built in 1837 and is located on McKee Street.  It is Greek Revival style with Federal elements.  The church has its original whale oil lamps, pump organ, clock, pew doors, and servants’ balcony.  The Bell was cast from 500 silver dollars.

“Stein-Garth” House was built in 1835 and is located on Webster Street.  It is of the Federal Period style and one of the two oldest standing dwellings in Gainesville.

“Ellis-Waddell” House was built ca. 1835 and is also located on Webster Street.  It is Vernacular style with Greek Revival elements.  The edifice of this house is one of the least altered of Gainesville’s early buildings.

“The Magnolia” was built in 1845 and is located on Webster Street.  It is Greek Revival style and one of the most imposing antebellum residences in Alabama.  The home was originally built for Colonel Green G. Mobley and his wife.  Its four fleeted columns support its three-bay portico and second floor balcony. Several original brick dependencies are still there.  The home and gardens have been restored by its current owner Mrs. Daisy McLelland Falls.

Clark’s Chapel A.M.E Zion Church was founded in 1867 and is located on the corner of State and Spruce Streets.  This church represents the assertion of a new freedom by the formation of an independent Black society and congregation.  It still has its original pews.

“Allison-McLelland” House was built ca. 1851 and is located on the corner of Chestnut and McKee Streets.  It is Gainesville’s only example of the Italianate style.  The home is believed to have been built by Edward Kring.

“Roberts-Parham-McLelland House” was built in 1835 and is located on McKee Street.  It is a Greek Revival style cottage and one of the earliest homes in Gainesville.  The home has a shed-roof pent at the northeast corner abutting a single massive brick chimney.

“Baker-Roberts” House was built in 1833 and is located on the corner of Sanders and Church Street.  It is a modified Greek Revival style home.

“Roberts-Cargile” House was built ca. 1851 and is also located on the corner of Chestnut and McKee Streets.  It is a Vernacular style cottage.  This house still does not have indoor bathrooms.

The Methodist Church was built in 1872 by Edward Kring.  It is Late Greek Revival style and is located on the corner of Webster and Spruce Streets.

“Travis-Harwood” House was built ca. 1832 and is located on Spruce Street.  It is Greek Revival style and closely resembles Aduston Hall because both homes were built as summer homes for the Travis brothers.

“Gibbs” House was built ca. 1860 and is located on Carrol Street.  It is a Vernacular style cottage and owned by Fourth generations owners.  The flanking semi-detached, two-bay, one-story cable wings were added later in the 1800s.  Rumor has it that the builders worked late into the night (on the eve of the Civil War) in order to have it completed before leaving the next day for the battle front.

“Kring-Cate-Acton” House was built ca. 1865 and is located on Spruce and Church Streets.  It was the home of Gainesville’s leading 19th Century builder Edward N. Kring and is a Vernacular “I” style home.

“Ellis-McGough” House was built in 1850 and is located on the corner of Spruce Street and Church Street.  It is a perfect example of a smaller Greek Revival style home.

“Laura Watson” or “Dappy’s” House was built ca. 1900 and was located on Spruce Street/County Road 21; it burned several years ago.  It was an example of the rapidly vanishing folk type dwelling and was part of a complex that includes several small dependencies such as an old-fashioned privy and corncrib.

Old Confederate Cemetery is located on Old Cemetery Road off of Fulsom Street.  It is the final resting place for 250 unknown Confederate and Union Soldiers who died in Gainesville.  The large Confederate Cannon was one of four casted in Selma during the war. It was shipped to Gainesville and thrown into the river to be kept out of Union hands.  Years later it was salvaged and placed in the Cemetery as a monument to the fallen soldiers.

 

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church was built in 1879 by Edward N. Kring and is a Carpenter Gothic style.  The church has its original pews, oil lamps, and leaded stained glass windows.  It is located on the corner of McKee Street and County Road 21/Spruce Street.

Aduston Hall was built ca. 1832 for Amos Travis who lived in Mobile.  In 1895, it was acquired by the John Aduston Rogers family (and become known as “Aduston Hall).    It is a Greek Revival style cottage and is now owned by the Sumter County Historical Society.  It is currently located on McKee Street.

Colgin Hill was built in 1832 and is located on the corner of County Highway 39 and McKee Street.   It was originally a dogtrot log building, and probably one of the oldest structures in Gainesville.

“Methodist Parsonage-Smith” House was built ca. 1833 and is also located on Spruce and Church Streets.  It is Vernacular style with Greek Revival portico.

“Schifman-Syring-Dunn” House was built ca. 1850 and is located on the corner of Sanders and Pearl Streets.  It is Vernacular style with Greek Revival details, a departure from the architectural norm of the South.

“Oakhurst” was built in 1854.  It is Plantation/Italianate style and is occupied by eighth generation owners.

Winston Cemetery is located atop a prominent knoll, which some settlers have called an Indian mound.  Alabama’s first native born governor, John Anthony Winston, is buried here.

Grave of Maria Fearing – Maria Fearing was a former slave from Gainesville who became a missionary for the Congo.

3.)       Other Gainesville Documents

Excerpts from Old Gainesville – 1832-1875: You are There by Thad Holt

Pictures of Old Gainesville

Gainesville Tour Guide