Gurley Lions Club serving the Gurley community since 1948
Gurley Lions Club serving the Gurley community since 1948

From Our Past XV

Everyday Life in 19th Century Gurley

Among the various documents found in a long forgotten cedar trunk, in a long forgotten Gurley attic, were letters and journals listing various transactions of trade between the citizens of Gurley in the late 1800s. These transactions involved all types of items and services and are quite interesting to look at. They take you back to a time when transactions were usually made with a handshake and entered on to the pages of ledgers and journals in painstaking longhand.

More often than not, simple agreements or transactions were hand written on scraps of paper and stuck into files or drawers as records of the transactions. These transactions and correspondence give us a better insight how our ancestors lived during this period. Many land deeds were handwritten in longhand on plain writing paper or notebook paper and signed by a witness to make everything all legal.

The slip of paper shown below was a note from the Union Army to W. R. Gurley referring to the use of two black boys needed for work on U.S. Army fortifications in Stevenson, located near the Tennessee River slightly north of Scottsboro. It is highly unlikely the Union Army would pay a Southerner for the use of his slaves for labor. This note would be more in the context of an order to press these boys into service for specific labor. Of course it is not known whether the boys were paid any wages by the army, likely not.

Gurleys Station 1862

Gurleys Station, Aug.5/1862
Impressed for the use of the government to work on fortifications at Stevenson, two Negro boys said to belong to W. R. Gurley.

By Order of,
Col. C. B. Harker
H. D. Stereight Col.
51 st Indiana Vol.

The following note (below) was written to William R. Gurley by a Doctor DeBorn and refers to treatment of an apparent injury to either a slave or farm hand.It was written sometime in the 1860s or 1870s.

Mr. Wm Gurley

My Dear Sir,
                        I have examined your man and have furnished him with a plaster, which I want you have spread on a piece of thick cloth 4 inches wide and 12 inches long to be applied from the back of his neck between his shoulders, over his back bone. Let him wear this as long as he can bear it, then remove it and let it be off for some twelve hours. To apply again have the plaster well cleaned and spread fresh plaster on it before applying, let him wear a greasy cloth over the part where the plaster was applied, while the plaster is off.
Yours truly,
Ino. B. DeBorn

Doctor Ino. B. DeBorn

On July 1, 1864, W. R. Gurley was paid expenses for a trip he labeled 1864 Murphy Mathing Dr.
It is not clear what the trip was for but the expenses were pretty straight forward.

To crossing the river 50 cts.
To stopping at night $ 3.50
To stopping at night $5.00
To two gallons of oil $16.00
To ten pounds of tallor?
At two dollars per lb.
(could be tallow) 
$20.00
The amount paid out on trip $44.00
The amount paid out on trip
William Rutledge Gurley 1821-1888 William Rutledge Gurley (1821-1888) kept meticulous records and notes of various local transactions. A large ledger was found dated from 1876 to 1881. The ledger showed a listing of accounts which included some of the top names in Gurley. The ledger included about every type of item you could imagine from food to clothes and from labor rendered to personal loans. It is unclear exactly what William Rutledge Gurley did for a living but like most folks of that day, he probably had his hand in several ventures. He might have been the town bookkeeper keeping the daily records for those folks who did not like to keep up with their own finances. With this ledger, it appears he kept the books for either a general mercantile store or a combination of a store and individual personal expenses and records for a number of citizens. The latter seems most likely.

Some of the names set up as specific accounts in the ledger are as follows:
Allen King, James T. Thompson, Charles Childres, Bill Jones, Black Smith Shop, John E. Wakefield, Henry Bennett, William Miller, James Miller, John F. Childres, William Brandon, John W. Gurley, Frank B. Gurley, Jack Clark, William T. Bennett, Emmitt Jones, Jack Bell, John Bell, John W. Hawk, Robert Ragin, Milly Allison, J. R. Gurley, John Hancock, A. J. Clark, Rina Woods, C. C. McBroome, John Carruack, Dan Blankenship, William J. Paris, William Adair, Thos. G. Morrow & Co., McClung & Figures, and an account for himself labeled as "Money expended and Money Received." A few of these names are thought to be laborers and farm workers.

The ledger appears to include both credit accounts and cash transactions for goods sold and services rendered. The Debit column shows the amount of the sale and the Credit column shows money collected. There is also a section called "Accounts for Cash" and listed all the transactions made for cash. There is even a section called "Inventory of Property, January 1880". This appears to be a listing of all the personal property owned by William Gurley on January 1880. Some of the listings and values are quite interesting. Examples of his property were:

400 acres of land - $4000
1 house and lot in Gurleyville - $500
In house - $500
1 horse - $100
2 mules - $200
2 young cows -$10
1 young bull - $5
200 cottonseed - $20
2 double shovels - $8
1700 # pork .05c - $85
1 wagon - $50
2 small plows - $8

His total property inventory was shown at $5,803.50. In 1880, this was a fairly decent estate, especially at a time when one dollar would buy basic food staples for a couple of days.

Frank B. Gurley account The example left is the Frank B. Gurley account. The blue ink used is fading and somewhat hard to read from this picture. Captain Gurley's account was long and had to be continued on page 59. His debit balance was $470.60 and the credit column showed payments of $440.20 leaving a balance owed of $30.40. Apparently Capt. Gurley was a good credit risk and paid his bills on time. Most of Gurley's expenses were for cash paid out to different persons for various jobs rendered. For example, on Sept.1st 1876, he paid Dick Wells & A. Clark for cutting 54 telegraph poles - $52.

On May 30, 1877, Frank Gurley was given $21 in silver to buy a saddle blanket and on August 27th, he got $10 to ride up to Tennessee.

Bill Miller was not so credit worthy. He ran up a bill for $3.25. He had purchased one pair of boots - $2, paper of tacks - .05c, goods for pants & shirt - $1, and one straw hat for .20c. He quit work on July 10th and $3.25 was taken out of his wages to settle up.

There were a lot of entries for monies owed to Jas B. Joplin. Mr. Joplin was Gurley's first mayor and he operated the first general store there. Many of these entries appear to be for purchases from his general store which further leads us to believe William R. Gurley was a bookkeeper and kept books for several different people and businesses.

There was even an account set up for "King of Paint Rock". This may have been some kind of small business because it is doubtful if there was too much royalty in the valley at the time.

William R. Gurley also used his ledger to make personal notes about things. On page 156 he started listing the weather for the first twelve days of 1881. He finished with the fourth day and then stopped.

Jan. 1st - Cold and cloudy, snow in evening, cleared sometime during the night.
Jan. 2nd - Clear in the morning, heavy frost, snow melted very fast.
Jan 3rd - Cloudy all day, sleet a few drops early in the morning, rain in for part of the night.
Jan 4th - Commence to drizzle in early part of the day, very cold and continued to rain sharply during the day. At night the air still heavy and very foggy and cold with some ice and snow on ground.

Perhaps after four days of cold and rainy weather he wasn't in the mood to record it any longer.

On page 158, Gurley wrote a draft for an indenture or deed between he and his wife Sara, to deed some land for the purpose of erecting a white public school house to the township. The draft places the date as 1878 and spells out the description of the land in detail. It is not known whether this was ever done because we do know that it was Capt. Frank B. Gurley that deeded land for the original Robert Donnell Academy in 1893. In the ledger however, entries keep showing up for cash given to the school house. It was most likely a small frame elementary school house was built around 1879-1880 on the Gurley property described in the draft.

On page 160, Gurley wrote a recipe for apple jelly or other fruit jelly.
Boil fruit in water until a pulp. Strain through a cloth. To every pint of fluid, add ¾ pound sugar for sweet and 1 pound for acid fruit. Put on the fire and stir. When it begins to boil, take out the spoon and let it boil a full 15 minutes and no more. Pour into jar.

It is interesting to read about all the different transactions entered in the ledger. They included almost every goods and service available at that time. There were transactions that involved bartering or swapping one item for another. One entry swapped cotton for 12 cedar ties. There were a lot of transactions for cotton and cedar ties. We know these two items were some of Gurley's best cash resources during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Unknown tending the chickens in Gurley Alabama
Unknown tending the chickens

Let's look at some of the items people purchased
And look at the prices they paid in the 1870s.

Pair of shoes: $1.50
Syrup @ .40 c per gal.
One bucket: .35 c
One dress from Matilda: 4.50
Sack of flour: .75 c
Bag of coffee: 1.00
Snuff: .40 c
Shoeing mules: 1.00
Cord of wood @ .75 c per cord
Lb. butter: .25
Slab of bacon: 1.00
Whiskey @ .40 c per pint
Bar soap: .10 c
Fresh pork @ .08 c per lb.
Suit of clothing: 12.00
Wagon load of hay: 3.00
Hog killed by John Bell: 5.00
Dozen eggs: .10
Another suit of clothes: 8.00
Spool of thread: .05 c
Bottle of cordial: .50 c (probably liquor)
Bushel of meal: .50
A meal for Tip Lewis: 1.00, Underwood: .75 c
Coat: 1.50
Bushel of corn: .50 c
Election expenses: 5.00

There was a consistency of prices during the four year period from 1877 to 1880, especially on food staples like flour, sugar, coffee, and syrup. Items like flour was sold in sacks and fresh produce like corn usually in ½ and full bushel baskets. Somewhere around the turn of the century, flour companies begin shipping flour in printed cloth sacks and ladies would pick out the patterns they liked and made dresses out of them. From this came the term "flour sack dresses".

Meat was a different matter. Meat was usually sold by the slab (bacon) or individual cut (beef or pork shoulder). It had to be eaten quickly because of the lack of cold storage facilities. Hams could be coated in salt and hung in a spring house for several weeks to cure into "country hams". Beef had to either be dried into jerky or eaten within a couple of days. Storage in the winter months were normally much easier except those times when a warm spell would set in, as so common in the deep south.

Transportation was an interesting endeavor for Gurley residents. Citizens had four ways to travel; they could walk, go on horseback, ride in a buggy or wagon, or have the luxury of riding on a train. In 1857, the Memphis and Charleston Railway build a track right through the spot where the town was to develop. In July 1878, T. J. Morrow paid $2.35 for tickets to Huntsville. There was one transaction called "Expenses in town H" $10.00. When "town" was referred to it generally meant Huntsville which was a fifteen mile journey by dirt road or railroad, and the only town close by with any size.

This Indenture December 9, 1895 One very interesting document was called "This Indenture" that was executed on December 9, 1895. It was a sale of a spring and 1/4 acre of land that had been deeded to J. R. Gurley in November 1866 by William. R. Gurley. The 1/4 acre was conveyed from J. R. Gurley to Matilda E. Walker (wife of Elijah F. Walker) for the sum of $75.

The description reads: "To a spring and our one quarter acre of land in side of mountain, the spring being the center of said quarter of acre of land. The spring is known as Pipe Spring where Eagle Pencil co. at Gurley placed pipe to convey water to their mills. Also the right of way for said pipe, through my land, for said pipe or any other pipe that it may become necessary to put down to convey water to the Town of Gurley".

In other words, for some reason, Matilda Walker bought one of the Gurley water supply sources and the one that that was used by the Eagle Pencil Mills. Before her marriage to Elijah Walker, Matilda was a Gurley so it seems that they wanted to keep the water supply within the family. W. R. Gurley was her father.

Things were pretty simple in those days. There was much more interaction between citizens mainly because most of their business was conducted among themselves. There were no tourists and visitors were infrequent. Transactions between citizens were straightforward and conducted with trust and a handshake. Retail stores were plain and simple and carried those items considered to be everyday staples and necessities. Many new products were introduced and offered through the Sears and Robuck catalog which when obtained, would circulate around town like wildfire. The thin pages of old catalogs had their use too and eventually found their way into outhouses around town. All in all, Gurley was a pleasant place to grow up and live. The early citizens were hardy and resourceful souls, and given that time and place, they were folks we would all be proud to live among.

Walker hardware store
William A. Walker Sr. in his hardware store about 1909.

William Walker (1875-1934) was son of Elijah and Matilda Walker and was born in their house on Gate Street in Gurley. He married there, had three children, and lived several years in the Walker house across the street from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (see From Our Past - article IX). Later in life he and his family would move to Humboldt then Knoxville, Tennessee. His store was typical of the times and was stocked with only the basic staples needed by his customers every day.