WHAT’S IN A NAME? City of LaFayette

Published 4:30 pm Saturday, February 25, 2023

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LaFAYETTE ‚— Chambers County Road 267 is a little traveled road between LaFayette and Fredonia. A third of the road leading from LaFayette and the third going from Fredonia are paved, but the middle third is a dirt road going through a heavily wooded area. Two of Chambers County’s significant historical sites are on that road. On the LaFayette side, there’s a historical marker at what was once the home of Captain Baxter Taylor on the Chapman Road. It was here that Chambers County was organized and a courthouse site selected in 1833.

On the Fredonia side of CR 267 is the New Hope Rosenwald School, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. In 2011, the New Hope School gained status as a National Treasure.

The Rosenwald School program was a collaboration of Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute and Sears President and CEO Julius Rosenwald for the purpose of providing educational opportunities for African-American children of the rural South. Close to 5,000 of these schools were built in 15 states in the early 20th Century. The New Hope School was built in 1919 at a cost of $1,200, one-third of which was funded by the local African-American community. This one-teacher type school remained open until 1958. In recent years, the school has been extensively restored to return its original appearance, much of the labor being done by volunteers. At one time there were 20 Rosenwald schools in Chambers County. The New Hope School is the only one of them left.

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At the 1833 meeting on Captain Taylor’s farm, the first county officials were chosen. They included Nathaniel Greer, sheriff; William House, circuit court clerk; Joseph J. Williams, county court clerk, and Booker Lawson, John Wood, William Fannin and John A. Hurst, commissioners of roads and revenue. A committee made up of Captain Taylor, Thomas C. Russell and James Taylor selected the site for a permanent courthouse.

Members of the committee realized that the new county was bisected by a ridge that ran a north-south course through its middle. They agreed that a county courthouse should be built on this ridge near the center of the county. This site is marked CH on John James Abert’s map of early Chambers County, reproductions of which are on display in the courthouse and at Bradshaw-Chambers County Library. The first circuit court session in Chamber County history took place underneath a large oak tree at Captain Baxter’s home on April 20, 1833. 

The county’s central ridge forms a drainage divide between the Chattahoochee and Tallapoosa rivers. It has often been said over the years that if one pours a bucket of water onto the ground just outside the courthouse half of that water will flow toward the Chattahoochee and half of it toward the Tallapoosa.

US 431 traverses Chambers County atop this ridge. Because it’s a drainage divide, there’s no bridge over a creek anywhere on 431 all the way through the county.

Chambers County’s first courthouse was a simple log structure. In 1833 a site was cleared and lots plotted at a central location known as Chambersville. Lots in the new town were auctioned in October of that year with proceeds from the sale financing the construction of a permanent courthouse and jail.

Stories have been passed down through the years of a big celebration taking place the day of the land sale. Lots of corn whiskey was brought in for the gathering. It’s been said that some men woke up the next day with no money but with a deed in their pocket.

The money was raised that day to build a new courthouse and jail. The new courthouse that went up may be the only permanent courthouse ever built in Alabama with no financing. A large photograph of this courthouse is on display in the foyer of today’s courthouse. That first permanent courthouse was replaced by the current structure in 1899. A major addition was added in 2003.

The town surrounding the courthouse was incorporated on January 7, 1835. The name was changed from Chambersville to Lafayette, honoring a hero of the Revolutionary War. 

The small f in Lafayette became a big F thanks to the work of Johnson Jones Hooper, the noted southern humorist who began his writing career at the Planters’ Gazette, located in Lafayette. Hooper used his experiences with frontier families as the source of inspiration for such characters as Simon Suggs. People loved reading about the adventures of this man who lived in a town called la-FET.

Lots of people pronounce the Frenchman’s named la-FEE-ett. It’s called la-FAY-ett in Chambers County because of Johnson Jones Hooper’s influence. The capital F brings it home that this town is different from all the others.

Hooper’s writings in the 1840s had as definite influence on a young writer named Samuel Clemens, who became much better known when he changed his named to Mark Twain. The camp meeting scene in Huckleberry Finn was no doubt inspired by a Simon Suggs story.

Hooper was the grandson of William Hooper of North Carolina, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Simon Suggs was a fictional character based loosely on the rural people he met while working for the Census in Tallapoosa County in 1840. He was a bit of a con artist, and people loved reading about his adventures. Suggs was described as a man who wants to be “as comfortable as possible at the expense of others because it pays to be shifty in a new country.” 

John F. Kennedy references Simon Suggs’ shiftiness in “Profiles in Courage.”

The city’s current newspaper, “The LaFayette Sun,” was founded under the name “The Alabama Standard” in 1841 and adopted its current name in 1881.

The oldest building still standing in LaFayette is a library. It’s been there since 1836 and was built by settlers from Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas as a Presbyterian Church. An almost identical building was built 13 miles away in West Point and stood until being leveled by a tornado in 1920.

LaFayette went through a prosperous period in the 1850s, but that all changed with the Civil War and Reconstruction. Chambers was one of Alabama’s top cotton producing counties in the 1850s. Many young men from LaFayette and the surrounding area joined the Confederate army in 1861. On March 25, 1861, the LaFayette Guards were mustered in as the first unit in the Confederate Army. They were led by six-foot-seven Sandy Frazer, who was the first Confederate soldier. The ceremony took place in Pensacola, Florida, where the unit was renamed the 7th Alabama Regiment. Many others from Chambers County were in the 37th Alabama, which organized in Auburn (then in Chambers County) in 1862. Members of the 37th were recruited from the counties of Chambers, Tallapoosa, Russell, Macon, Pike, Barbour and Henry counties. Others served in the 14th and 47th regiments.

Many Chambers County soldiers saw action in the Atlanta campaign of 1864. Union cavalry came through LaFayette in 1864 as part of that campaign. They did so to bypass West Point, where a large number of Confederates were at Fort Tyler. The Union troops were on their way back to Atlanta after destroying some rail lines in Alabama.

Prosperity slowly returned to LaFayette after the Civil War. After the Reconstruction period ended in 1877, agriculture-related industries such as grist and flour mills arrived. The town’s expansion included an opera house and an electric-generating plant. By 1920, a textile mill was in production in the city.

Like the rest of the country, LaFayette went through a down economic period in the 1930s. The mill closed during the Great Depression, and agriculture shifted more to cattle and timber. When cotton was king in Chambers County, one could take a ride from LaFayette to the Randolph County line on 431 and there would be a sea of white on both sides of the road when the cotton was ready for picking.

Those days were gone with the Depression.

Textile production returned to LaFayette in the latter portion of the Twentieth Century. At one time, Avondale Mills, the Russell Corporation and Kardoes Rubber were significant employers in the town. Automotive supplier Saehaesung, Alabama, Inc., is one of the city’s major employers today. Headquartered in Daegu, South Korea, Saehaesung employs approximately 365 people in its plants in LaFayette and Andalusia.

LaFayette is also home to Alabama’s largest solar farm. It’s located on an 1,100-acre site on the south side of town and has a total of 338,682 solar panels.

Very few small towns can lay claim to a U.S. Senator. LaFayette has had two of them with a connection to the town. James Thomas “Cotton Tom” Heflin (1869-1951) was one of the most flamboyant politicians of the early part of the Twentieth Century. He attended college in Auburn, studied law on his own, was admitted to the Alabama Bar in 1893 and practiced law in LaFayette. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1904 and served until 1920 when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He lost favor with the Democratic Party in 1928 when he refused to support the party’s nominee for president, Al Smith, because he was a Catholic. Heflin was also a strong opponent for equal rights for blacks and women. 

Heflin was a gifted speaker. House Speaker Champ Clark once described him as the greatest orator in the country. He got his nickname for his constant praise of the cotton farmer and of what cotton meant to his home state. “It is a child of the sun,” he would often say. “It is kissed by the silvery beams of a Southern Moon and bathed in the crystal dew drops that fall in the silent watches of the night.”

Claude Pepper (1900-1989) was born in Chambers County and managed to have an Ivy League education. After graduating from Harvard Law School he established a legal practice in Perry, Florida. He served a single term in the Florida House of Representatives before being elected to the U.S. House, where he quickly became one of the most prominent liberals in Congress, supporting such legislation as the Fair Labor Standards Act. He served in the Senate from 1938 to 1951. He would return to Congress in the 1960s to represent a House District in the Miami area. He became a leading spokesman for the elderly from 1963 to 1989.

The most famous person with a LaFayette connection is Joe Louis Barrow (1914-1981), who was born and grew up just outside LaFayette. He moved to Detroit with his family in the 1920s and went on to become one of the all-time great heavyweight boxers. He reigned as a world champion from 1937 until a temporary retirement in 1949. Joe Louis is widely regarded as the first person of African-American descent to attain status as a nationwide hero within the U.S. 

He was the focal point of anti-Nazi sentiment leading up to and during World War II.

Louis was always proud to stay that he was from Alabama and that the Chambers County of his youth was a place where he loved to go fishing, lie on his back and watch the clouds change their shapes and the place where he learned the hard work of the cotton field and to revere the religious training he would get on Sundays.

In February 2011, an eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Joe Louis Barrow was unveiled by his son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr., on the west side of the Chambers County Courthouse. This impressive work by Mobile sculptor Casey Downing Jr. has become one of the most photographed places in Chambers County. Many people heading north or south along US 431 through LaFayette have stopped to have their picture taken with Big Joe.

LaFayette has also made a contribution to the art world. It’s the hometown of a professor at Ohio State University named Hoyt L. Sherman (1903-1981). His prized pupil, Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), has had a dozen pop art paintings sell for millions of dollars. A work titled “Masterpiece” sold for $165 million in 2017.

During his life, Lichtenstein said many times that Sherman had had the greatest influence on him as a pop artist. The Hoyt L. Sherman Studio Art Center at Ohio State was endowed by Lichtenstein in the 1990s.

The 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning” was filmed on location in LaFayette. Over $200,000 was spent on covering the downtown streets with dirt and painting new names on the downtown store fronts. Local people were paid $50 per day to be extras in the movie. People still talk about getting to meet Gene Hackman and other stars of the picture. 

The movie was loosely based on the murders of three Civil Rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964.

It was a highly successful film, making $34.8 million at the box office off a budget of $15 million. The film was nominated for Best Picture and won the Oscar for Best Cinematography.

All Chambers County roads do lead to LaFayette. Highway 77 leads there from the northwest part of the county. There’s a crossroads town on the west side of the Tallapoosa called Frogeye. According to some oral history, it was named that during the county’s dry period. A big plaster of Paris frog in the store’s front window was a way of signaling whether or not you could get a drink in the back room. If the law was watching too closely the frog would have his back to the window, meaning wait till the coast is clear. When the proprietor felt it was safe to serve home brew in the back the frog would be facing the front. Seeing the frog’s eyes was a way of saying “Come on in!”

Another crossroads in the northwest corner of the county is named Abanda. It began in 1907 when the Atlanta, Birmingham & Atlantic Railroad (AB&A) came through the area. Abanda has always taken pride in being the No. 1 polling place in the U.S. Alabama is the first state alphabetically and Abanda is Alabama’s first town alphabetically. A 1915 article in The LaFayette Sun reported that the Abanda Ladies Club was having an OOC supper the next Saturday. That stood for Opossum, Oysters & Chicken.

At one time Abanda had a post office, lumber yard, warehouses, a hotel and two churches. The Baptist church and the Methodist church are still there.

Down the road on Highway 77 is Milltown. It dates to the 1830s when William Graggs and William Carlisle built a grist mill on Chickasanoxee Creek. Chickasanoxee is a Creek Indian word meaning cane ridge. It’s a name that remains appropriate today. Cane still grows on hills along the creek. Before the Civil War, Milltown had a carding business, shoe factory, cotton gin, a carriage manufacturing business and several general stores and saloons.

A school house was built there in 1860. A huge bell was placed in front of the school. Organizers of the school wanted a big one that could be heard for miles. 

It was so big that it had to be brought in on a huge wagon pulled by a team of oxen. The school was completely destroyed by a tornado in 1892. That big bell was swept away, too. A total of 50 people were killed in northern Chambers County. Lots of property destroyed and livestock killed.

A Baptist church in Milltown was leveled by the storm. Miraculously, the pulpit lectern was undisturbed as was an open Bible on it.

Chambers County High School opened in Milltown in 1912. It had 120 students by 1920. The school closed with consolidation in 1991.

The road leading south of LaFayette goes to a small community known as Oak Bowery. It dates to the mid 1830s, and a number of well-known people lived there at one time or another. From 1837 to 1867 the town’s post office called it by one name, Oakbowery. It became two words when a new post office opened there in 1882. It closed in 1908.

Oak Bowery residents include Willam James Samford, who served as governor of Alabama; Robert Lee Bullard, an 1885 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) and one of the leading generals in World War I; J.F. Dowdell, president of the East Alabama Male College (forerunner of Auburn University) and Sam Jones, a famed evangelist from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The locations of the present-day cities of Opelika and Auburn were in Chambers County before the Alabama Legislature created Lee County in 1865. It was carved out of Chambers, Tallapoosa, Macon and Russell counties.

In the 1850s, Oak Bowery residents fancied the town as “the Athens of the South” and had ambitious goals in the way of higher education. They wanted to start a male academy for boys and a female academy for girls. The boys school turned out pretty good. It was placed in the growing little town of Auburn under the name the East Alabama Male College. 

It later became the first land-grant institution in the U.S. that was separate from the state university. 

What was once the East Alabama Male College later became the Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical (A&M) College, Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API) and finally Auburn University, a major institution that today offers more than 150 undergraduate majors housed in 12 different colleges.