Friday, September 27, 2013

Buried Treasure in Beauregard - Opelika, Alabama

The plantations and family homes of Lee County’s first settlements are mostly forgotten by today’s standards of local history. Family stories and legacies die hard in the rural south and verbal traditions of storytelling are sadly dwindling away with every generation. However, one legend from Opelika’s sleepy Beauregard community is almost completely unknown. A very old story; written by Rev. Cherry during the first fifty years of recorded history in Lee County, Alabama.

Near the Watula Creek, close to the old Watoola church, in Opelika, Alabama, there is a dense forest covering many acres of land. All private property today, the land was once the burial grounds of Creek Indians who lived in the area. Most notably, Paddy Carr, a half Creek - half Irish native who lived near Fort Mitchell during his adult hood. Carr’s history is a bit of a mystery since his father allegedly returned to Ireland just after his birth in 1807, leaving his Creek mother to care for him and his siblings. He later deferred the European traditions of Christianity and took three wives of his own. The Creek tribe, his mother hailed from, was from the Watooa area (which is today Watoola). The settlement was located near the Watula creek and the burial mounds of Paddy Carr’s ancestors were buried throughout the location.
Paddy-Car Half Creek Indian and Irish interrupter 

Somewhere, within the vicinity of the settlement and the burial mounds, there was a small hill where the chieftains were buried. Within the burials were clay pots, made by the natives, filled with silver. The silver coins were given to the town’s chiefs as partial payment for land by the American government. Of course the Native American’s had no use for American currency and instead of trading it, they buried it to avoid it be stolen by rival tribes or other white settlers.

After 1836, the location was known as “Dog Scratch Hill”. Once settlers and pioneer people became aware of the rumored buried treasure, despite the Indian curses associate with burial sites, they flocked to the mounds to unearth the clay pots in search of silver coins. Paddy Carr’s Creek grandfathers were buried on the hill, and he was particularly upset to find that the “grave of his fathers” had been disturbed, and more importantly that the deposits of silver were also missing. It was noted that certain parties, living within the areas were met with a sudden stroke of good fortune and that no one reported the removal of any Native antiquities in the area. The clay remains of the pots were reported to be visible up until 1846, but no record or indication as to where they are or were located outside of that report has ever been documented.

The last written testimony to the treasure was listed by Rev. Francis Lafayette Cherry in The History of Lee County.

“ I have referred to the above only from the fact that it is believed by some that there are still large deposits of coin hidden by the Indians in that locality, which have never been reclaimed by the depositors, and consequently the “place of their sepulture in unknown to this day.” Some lucky farmer boy may run his plowpoint into one of those long hidden Indian treasure pots when these old “clay-roots” and hollow stumps have disappeared and “left no sign”. “

Rev. Cherry lived with the Creek tribes of Lee and Russell County for more than a decade and recorded their history. Verbal traditions and ancestry were spread through generations but most of America’s Native American history is lost because it wasn’t recorded. Paddy-Carr (Patrick Carr) lived well into age and was very influential as a translator and interrupter for the Creek tribes and European settlers. As for the buried silver near the Watoola creek, one could only guess today where the treasure could be found, or if it was ever there at all. Still the story stands as part of a legend in Lee County and more importantly, one that was written down and documented by historians.

Maps and demographics of Creek territories in Alabama vary but tell little of the minor settlements that were established throughout the rural south, before removal of Native Americans in 1836

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Forgotten in Lee County Alabama

Rural routes in Lee County Alabama
Today, I took a stroll down an old dirt road in search of an abandoned cemetery I found when I was about ten years old. The first time I saw it, it looked forgotten and neglected. The tall Alabama pines shadowed the hidden gravestones on a slight incline and the straw, which fell from high in the canopy, kept the area clear and did a great job of naturally keeping the brush down. It seemed to be a sad place. No one kept it up and I could feel a sense of dying hope as I read the names aloud from each marker that was still readable. I never spoke of it until I was about sixteen. The first time I took a friend to the old place, something trotted through the surrounding woods, scaring me back into the car and locking my friend outside by accident. (A joke we tell now that she will never let me live down).

Golden Silk Orb Weaver
When I visited today, I found again, that nature is still slowly devouring this meager resting place. I’ve documented the names, birth and death dates; just in case the cemetery is gone one day. It still feels very lonely there. A glimmer of hope hanging on by a thread; that was the symbolism I gathered from the countless Orb weavers building their homes in the trees and surrounding brush. It's not unusual to see old cemeteries being forgotten but it just seems untimely. A place so small and lonely, will perhaps be gone; erased from history all together.
Abandoned family cemetery in Lee County Alabama
This sacred spot is nearly covered in vegetation. A Confederate soldier is buried here, a mother, father and child together, and many headstones are weathered to the point the names are no longer visible. The grave markers; so brittle that the slightest touch deteriorates the stone into powder. Just as the people buried here have become ash, so is their resting place. Consumed and overgrown with the Acorn and Water Oaks, Confederate Jasmine, and creatures of the Alabama forest, it’s hard to watch something sacred decompose and disappear. Soon, this place will be only a memory.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Ghost of Hank Williams

Hank Williams
September 17, 1923 - January 1, 1953

Hiram King Williams was born in Butler County, Alabama on September 17, 1923. His parents, Lon and Lily Williams were migrate rail road workers who traveled with the progressing railway systems in the South. They lived in box cars and rail road shacks until they moved to Georgiana in 1929. A brain injury, Lon sustained in WWI, caused Lilly to have him committed to a Veterans Hospital in Pensacola, Florida where he stayed until 1937, leaving Lilly Williams to raise her family alone.

From the time Hiram was born, his parents noted that an unusual deformity was present on his back. Today, doctors would understand this condition as Spinal Bifida. This hindered him from playing sports and from being as physically active as other children and most likely contributed to his interest in music. As he grew older, his mother and sisters encouraged him to learn bible hymns and play instruments. At a very young age, while living in Georgiana, Hiram met Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, a street musician and one-man-band. Rufus Payne was born to slave parents in Louisiana on the Payne Plantation. Payne later moved to New Orleans where he was influenced by the soulful culture of the city. He shared his love of blues music with Hiram and taught him how to play the guitar and sing.

Hiram was 16 when he dropped his given name for, “Hank” and was playing on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, just as his predecessor, Tee-Tot had done in New Orleans. His mother served as his agent and entered him in several of the local talent contests, which he won so frequently, he was asked not to enter in order to give other contestants a chance to win. Hank was eventually picked up by WSFA for a radio segment called the, “The Singing Kid”. His connection to Braxton Schuffert helped him establish his band, "The Drifting Cowboys". In 1938, Hank dropped out of school permanently to be a full time performer and traveled all over the south with his band preforming in shows and honky tonks.

Hank and Audrey Williams (Lycrecia - Audrey's daughter and Hank Williams Jr)

In Banks, Alabama, while preforming at a medicine show, Hank met Audrey Shepard and the two fell in love. They were married on December 15, 1944. Hank had a serious problem with alcohol; when he drank, he drank until he induced severe depression or anger, which essentially led to the constant fighting and replacement of band members. Hank had managed to stay sober for more than a year prior to marrying Audrey, but while living in Andalusia, Alabama, Hank and Audrey had a huge argument over his drinking which escalated to him throwing her out of the house. He was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct and spent the night at the Covington County Jail. When his friend and band member, Don Helms came to bail him out the next morning, Hank looked smugly over at Don and asked, “What’d ya want me to do, stand on my head?” Don paid the $30 bond and on the way out a jailer said, “Come back and see us Hank.” And Hank replied, “You can all go to hell.”

In 1946, Sterling Records released a six-song record that caught the attention of MGM. By 1947, Hank’s career went from mainstream radio to one of America’s most prominent and famous country music singers. He signed with MGM and became part of the cast of The Louisiana Hay Ride. Hank was one hell of a performer, it was rumored that while singing, women would fall faint and actually pass out. He also made a name for himself due to some of his drunken behavior. 

Hank continued to perform all over the south and abroad but his drinking and womanizing would finally catch up with him in the summer of 1952. He was denied a position at the Grand Old Opry due to drunkenness and his wife Audrey divorced him. He had also developed some dependency to morphine during that time, after a hunting accident aggravated his fragile back condition. 

Hank Williams and his second wife, Billie Jean Jones Williams
In October 1952, Hank married Billie Jean Jones, the 19-year-old daughter of a Bossier City Police Chief in New Orleans, Louisiana. The event drew some 10,000 specters who attended the wedding as a paid event. That December, Hank and Billie Jean attended the 8th annual party for the American Federation of Musicians in Montgomery, Alabama at the Elite CafĂ©, where he gave his last performance. That evening, Hank and Billie Jean had an argument and she left him. The following month, on New Year’s Day, Hank was on his way to a show in West Virginia. The Driver, Charles Carr, stopped for gas just near Oak Hill Virginia and when he turned to the backseat to check on Hank, he was dead.
According to documented history, Hank visited a doctor that week for his back and was given a morphine injection to get him through the long car ride. Coupled with heavy drinking, this caused Hank’s death. On January 4th, 1953 the largest funeral in Alabama history took place at the Montgomery Auditorium for Hank Williams. He was laid to rest at the Oakwood Cemetery Annex where he spends his eternity with his beloved Audrey.
Hank Williams funeral January 4, 1953
Hank Williams Jr.
Shelton Hank Williams III
His grave has long been a source of legend in Alabama as a location frequented by his ghost. Music by Alan Jackson, David Allen Coe, and even Hank’s son and grandson; Hank Williams Jr. and Shelton Hank Williams III, have all written songs about this legendary spirit. His ghost has been spotted as far away as Nashville, Tennessee, where he allegedly haunts the Ryman Theater (the former location of the Grand Old Opry), his boyhood home in Georgiana and even the Old Covington County Jail in Andalusia.

The lost highways between Nashville and Montgomery are littered with the stories of Hank’s ghost. Still carrying the charismatic and charming demeanor of the man he was in life, it’s no wonder he is still so beloved and cherished today. No amount of legacy would be complete without the spiritual aspect of a man so prominent and influential to music and history. The spirit of Hank Williams lives on, in song and inspiration, somewhere between raising hell and amazing grace.
You can read more about the ghost of Hank Williams in, Haunted Montgomery Alabama by Faith Serafin