Valley dedicates city park

Published 2:06 pm Monday, May 27, 2019

VALLEY — On Friday morning, the City of Valley and Valley Historic Preservation Commission officials dedicated Bethlehem Cemetery Park as a place for local people to visit, learn about local history and have picnics while enjoying the beauty and serenity of a public park. 

Within the past year, the historic Bethlehem setting has undergone a major facelift due to the generosity of a long-time resident.

In 2015, Donald Williams died, bequeathing $633,000 for the restoration of Bethlehem Baptist Church.

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A cattle farmer, Williams had a degree from Auburn University. A quiet, pleasant guy, he loved going to the Valley Senior Center in his later years and socializing with his peers. His senior center friends knew that he’d never married nor had kids, but had no idea he had amassed that kind of money.

Mayor Leonard Riley said he got to know Williams really well those last few years.

“He was at our coffee table every morning,” he said of those early morning meetings at McDonald’s,” Riley said.  “He would pour out half the cup and drink the other half. He never mentioned that he was going to leave his estate to the Valley Historic Preservation Commission.”

On a hand-written will, Williams directed that his estate be dedicated to the restoration of the Bethlehem Church, which dated to the early 1870s. There was a big problem in even attempting to do that. An engineering assessment of the building done in the recent past determined that it would cost well in excess of $1 million to firm up the building’s foundation. There would be more expenses on top of that to restore the building itself.

Riley met with the executor of the estate to discuss this and the two agreed for the bulk of the money, an estimated $508,000, would go to the new Valley Senior Center, then under construction at the Community Center. The largest room inside the center is now named the Donald P. Williams Activity Center. The name is prominently displayed inside the center along with a large portrait of Williams.

The remaining $125,000 of the estate went to a Bethlehem Cemetery project. This involved taking down the 148-year-old church building, removing the debris, and locating a parking lot on the site where the church was located. Some extensive landscaping work went on. This including planting grass and ornamental shrubs, building a wooden structure known as a pergola and erecting a wrought iron fence around the historic cemetery. Some graves that had gotten in bad shape were reworked. A total of 24 unmarked grave sites were located and marked, and in a most unusual but appropriate move, the remains of pioneer settler David Dunlap were removed from an original burial site in Shawmut and reinterred at Bethlehem. The new Jack’s restaurant is going up on the site where Dunlap was buried following his death in 1852. Using a high-tech procedure, the site was scanned for remains within the past year. All that was found were iron nails that presumably were in the coffin and some buttons that were most likely on a shirt Dunlap had been buried in.

Approximately $50,000 is left from Williams’ estate. That will be used for the upkeep of the Bethlehem Cemetery Park.

The mayor is most pleased with the way the site looks now.

“I didn’t envision it looking this nice,” Riley said. “I’m sure Donald would have loved it. I would like to dedicate this cemetery in memory of Donald Williams. We will see that the remaining money in his estate will go to keeping it up.”

Jason Williams — no relation to Donald — of the VHPC said the work done at Bethlehem was an ideal example of an appropriate way to reuse a historic site. Williams said the park site and nearby Whitesmill Road has a long history that goes back to the Native American period. Whitesmill Road, he said, was a trading path when the Creeks lived in the area. It later connected the Glass and Cusseta communities with the road crossing Osanippa Creek via a covered bridge.

“The Bethlehem Church is connected to that era of local history,” he said. “Bethlehem Baptist Church was the oldest of the City of Valley’s designated historic structures and is also a Chambers County landmark. This property has adaptive reuse as a beautiful new park.”

Construction on the church began in 1870 and was completed in 1872 or 1873. The cemetery dates to 1871. An infant was interred there that year. Prominent citizens from the mid 1800s are buried there. Elisha Trammell, for example, built a grist mill on the Chattahoochee River at the site where Moore’s Creek flowed into the river. Langdale Mill would later be built on that same site. At one time, Trammell owned most of the land in what today makes up Langdale and Fairfax. Also buried there is Felix Shank, a prominent resident of Glass and a close friend of John Parnell, a wealthy Irish immigrant who had a large farm in the area in the 1870s and 1880s.

Parnell’s brother was famous in politics and has been called the uncrowned king of Ireland for his leadership in land reform policies and the eventual move to Ireland’s independence from Great Britain in 1920.

The brother, Charles Stewart Parnell, lived on John Parnell’s Sunnyside Peach Farm for several years before returning to Ireland and running for Parliament.

“John Parnell’s most significant contributions to life in rural east Alabama were his humanitarian efforts on the people who had suffered economic hardship as a result of the Civil War and its aftermath,” Williams said. “When the local cotton mill in River View burned in 1870, he brought the workers to his farm and provided them employment and temporary housing.”

The cemetery has an estimated 250 graves. Family names found there include Anthony, Bradfield, Chambley, Combs, Crowder, Duffey, Lamb, Scales, Shank, Still and Trammell.

A historical marker near the pergola notes that the cemetery “has a myriad of markers and cemetery art, including Woodmen of the World and Masonic logos. The most unusual grave is that of Wayne Brown in the Williams plot. The headstone has a miniature train with the number 108 and the marker reads ‘Destination Heaven.’”

Valley Planning and Development Director Travis Carter said that he’d enjoyed working on the project and credited Chuck Rudd on having done a great job in the landscaping that had taken place there. The parking lot next to the pergola sits on the same site formerly occupied by the church. It’s some 40 feet wide and 65 feet long.

Carter said the unmarked graves were located using ground penetrating radar. Those sites are now marked.