More on Gurley's History
Gurley Lions Club serving the Gurley community since 1948

From Our Past IX

Gurley and the Post Civil War Years

The end of the Civil War generally saw a South broken, burned, and devastated beyond description. The South had made two basic mistakes at the wars offset. First they had underestimated the will of northern leaders and people to continue the fight and secondly, they did not realize that superior technology and resources would be unleashed. In the end, the north simply had too much industrial strength and overwhelming manpower.

Despite the hardships, the people of the South and North Alabama were forced to adapt to the Reconstruction period and put up with the hardships and depravations brought about by a prolonged Yankee occupation. In early 1862, Huntsville and most of the eastern part of North Alabama were occupied by the Union army who maintained Huntsville as a command center throughout the rest of the war. As a result, the area around Huntsville did not experience the utter destruction as many other areas had in Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee. At the close of the war, the town of Gurley was still only a few scattered homesteads and farms. Gurley also had the benefit of fertile bottom land ideal for crops, excellent timber resources, good water supply, and some fine young community leaders like F. B. Gurley, J. F. Morrow, J. B. Joplin, and E. F. Walker. The first store was opened in 1866 and for the next several years, the town continued to grow until it's incorporation in 1890.

Captain Frank Gurley never forgot his troopers from the 4th Alabama Cavalry. He was to hold eight reunions with the first in 1890 and the final reunion in August 1913. This photo was taken at the reunion held at Wortham's Mill in August 1906. Gurley (center) is wearing a lapel metal given to him by General Forrest.

4th Alabama Cavalry Reunion
Captain Gurley gave this reunion photo to his friend Capt. Elijah F. Walker
(Click on the picture to view it full size)

Captain Gurley gave this reunion photo to his friend Capt. Elijah F. Walker. He even numbered and named each of the attendees in the photo. It should be remembered that most of the veterans were local men recruited by Frank Gurley during his return to the Huntsville-Gurley area in 1862. It is quite probable that several of these troopers were residents of Gurley.

Capt. Walker also received a small silver "Confederate Reunion Cup" given as a memento of the occasion. This particular cup has the words "Confederate Reunion" engraved on the front and was typical of the small mementos Capt. Gurley would pass out to his veteran troopers of the Fourth Alabama Cavalry and visitors at the reunions.

Confederate Reunion Cup
Confederate Reunion Cup

When Gurley was incorporated in 1890, the population went from 250 to 1000 residents within one year. The "heyday" years for Gurley appear to be from 1890 to about 1940. Getting the churches in 1891 and the Donnell Academy in 1893 seemed to be a big boost for Gurley and its growth.

In the February 22, 1925 Birmingham News, in an article about Madison County and specifically referring to Gurley, it was written: "The frame buildings have been replaced with modern brick buildings and now the main thoroughfare makes a creditable showing. Some of the stores are as good as can be found anywhere in the state, in places with a population under 2000. The town is by no means standing still but forging ahead".

In the period between 1890 and 1910, considerable land was sold to different people in lots and small acreage plats. Most interesting are the transactions and deeds set forth at that time. Most were written by hand on plain paper. Two of the most interesting deeds involved tracts sold By Capt. Frank B. Gurley. The deed on the left was a deed whereby Capt. Frank Gurley was administrator for the estate of George Coil and offered several tracts of land to the highest bidder in a public auction. The auction was held March 14, 1879, in front of the Huntsville Courthouse. The highest bidder was Capt. Elijah F. Walker who won the bid at $835. The deed appears to be written in Frank Gurley's hand.

The second deed on the right was where Capt. Frank Gurley sold two plats of land for the Robert Donnell High School. The land was sold for the sum of $10 and the deed was recorded on December 2, 1893. The deed indicates the land was conveyed to the Trustees of the school who were W. J. Walker, W. W. Thompson, R. D. shook, J. R. Morris, G. T. Hayes, A. F. Evans, and J. D. Coffey. The erection of the school building was estimated at $10,000, of which half was contributed by the citizens of Gurley and the other half by the Robert Donnell Presbytery that was then part of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The deed further explained "The said school building shall be used as an institution of learning, under the superintendence and discipline and according to the usages of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, but nothing herein contained shall be construed as a limitation upon the right of said Robert Donnell Presbytery, under the proper authority of said church, to sell or dispose of said property."

Captain Frank Gurley and the other leading citizens of Gurley remained very busy over the next few years with various endeavors involving land sales, new businesses and especially the start up a new company to build a new railroad.

In the March 30th issue of the Gurley Record, it was reported: "The annual stockholders meeting was held on Tuesday together with a financial meeting for the purpose of raising the capital stock of the company and increase the number of Directors. There was a good attendance with about four-fifths of the shares represented".

Gurley land deeds "Mr. J. W. Grayson was elected chairman and the business of the special meeting was first transacted. The meeting unanimously ratified the Directors action in all matters which had been transacted. It was resolved to make a further call of three percent on the subscribed capital to be paid on or before April 1st, 1892. It was proposed by Capt. Gurley to add a Vice President to the list of officials, also to appoint a separate treasurer for the company which was approved".
The railroad would be called the Gurleys and Paint Rock Valley Railroad. In 1899, a group of Gurley business men partitioned the state of Alabama to issue a charter allowing the formation of the new railroad. On October 7, 1899, the Alabama Secretary of State issued a charter (right) to form the company and appointed Frank Gurley, M. A. Clay, Sam Butler, and W. F. Hamar commissioners. It constituted them the rights to open Books of Subscription to the capital stock and provided for the organization and management of the new railroad. Other officers of the new company were William McMaples, E. F. Walker, John Grayson, and James Williams. Frank Gurley was appointed the new President and Elijah Walker was Secretary. In the months to follow, a great deal of time was spent in survey work and right of way work to acquire land to start laying the rails. (See "From Our Past I") showing stock certificate and news article about railroad).

Secretary of State
Alabama Secretary of State issued a charter
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For the next two years, the proposed new railroad would occupy a great deal of time and effort by Frank Gurley and the other new officers. A lot of letters were written concerning land acquisition and financing. To the right is a letter written by Frank Gurley to R. E. Breckell, June 20, 1892. It concerned a piece of land they were trying to purchase from a Mrs. Eloplan. It was signed "Respt FBG. This letter concerns getting right of way to proceed with the work. He makes the comment "it is difficult to raise money from strangers to build a RR when those that ought to be friends are so exacting".

Letter written by Frank Gurley to R. E. Breckell, June 20, 1892
Letter written by Frank Gurley to R. E. Breckell, June 20, 1892
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Another very interesting letter from Frank Gurley was written to his close friend and business associate Capt. Elijah F. Walker on August 23, 1890. It was a three page letter written by Gurley from the Cotton Exchange in Liverpool England. Gurley went to England on business and addressed the letter "Dear Lige". Most of the letter talks about the fine time he had on the voyage and on the sailing ship Eturid. Gurley said: "there were plenty of "nice ladies" on board with music and dancing and even games of "Blind Mans Bluff". He further stated: "I went to the rear of the ship at night and saw the hot salt water come from under the ship and for a hundred yards, the water looked like it was full of sparkling diamonds and presented a grand sight". He further said: "It was not long until we could see land and very soon we could see this big city. We anchored out in the river near where the Confederate gun boat C.S.S. Alabama was built for Semmes during the war" (Admiral Raphael Semmes).

Sunday 24th : We are now in Birmingham, (England) the great city of stacks and chimneys, When we went to Liverpool, I was pleased with many things I saw, but there were many things a long way behind us. The rail cars are very small and for passengers, the step goes in at the side. There are no conductors, no cowcatchers, and not much whistle, and switching is done by a horse." Capt. Gurley devotes several more sentences discussing rail cars and the "Grand car shed". He does not specifically indicate why he went to England but it is surmised he probably went to look at some rail equipment and rolling stock for their new railroad in Gurley. Capt. Walker had written Gurley a letter dated August 14th that had come over on the same ship. He did not receive it until the 24th when he got to Birmingham. In Gurley's letter he stated: "You continue to sell as you think. Best if you sell any on my side and I will sanction anything you do and deed it when I come back". It does not explain what they were selling (maybe land or cotton) but it shows the confidence each of these good friends had in each other. Finally Gurley said: "I met one of the men today that we have business with and well pleased with him. His name was Richards and was the agent for the CSA during the war. He was glad to meet an old Confederate". As with Gurley and Walker, like other veterans, there was a strong bond between them that was carried on until the rest of their lives. They had faced the horrors of civil war together and survived. For the most part, their confidence in each other was strong and their word to each other was an unquestioned bond.

Of interest is some of the firsts in Gurley. In a 1925 Birmingham newspaper article it was stated: the first mayor and oldest merchant was J. B. Joplin. The first physicians were Flynt and Allen McLain. The name of the first teacher was mentioned as Professor Wood. The first drug store was operated by W. T. Roberts. The first hotel, and one long noted for its cheer and table was opened by T. R. Hall and known as The Hall House. The first gin was operated by Capt. F. B. Gurley and the first water mill was run by Judge Clarke. The first blacksmith recalled was opened by L. H. Lewis.

At the turn of the century, several fine Victorian and antebellum homes were built, replacing several smaller wood frame houses. Many of these were "showcase" homes and many still stand and are occupied today as reminders of Gurley's past.

William A. Walker Sr. house about 1910
William A. Walker Sr. house about 1910
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The newspaper writer remarked in 1923: "I was struck with the number of holly trees in the yards, some of them being in full berry and were things of beauty. There were also fine specimens of magnolia. One yard was alive with jonquils; there must have been over a thousand blooms".

"Most of the citizens keep chickens, cows, and some raise their own meat. Everyone has a vegetable garden as well as a flower garden. They live and board at the same place".

The founders and builders of Gurley were men and women of enterprise and character. All of Gurley's residents and those whose ancestors were a part of Gurley's past can be very proud of her colorful history. Gurley is a true Southern and American icon and a town to be honored and maintained in the highest fashion. The founders who built this great little town are due that.