Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Ghosts of Coal Fire

This little story is about a village named Coal Fire, in Pickens, County, Alabama. It’s located on U.S. highway 82, East of the point where Coldfire Creek crosses under the highway. The village is named after the creek that runs by it, even though the spelling was different. Over the years, the spelling of the creek's name was changed to Coal Fire, which is how the village name is spelled. The creek rises in the Southwest corner of Fayette County, and runs Southwestwardly through Lamar County, and Pickens County, emptying into the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway about three miles North of Pickensville.

There is a story as to the way this creek got its name. “In the early days of settler's coming to this area of Alabama from Tennessee, the actual date being unknown, it is said that some immigrants in mid-winter, forded this stream on a very cold day. They were cold when they rode their horses up to the creek, even colder as they rode through the water, but became warm after they got across it. Going through the cold water produced a reaction and warmth, or heat was the consequence. They, therefore called it cold-fire”.
But, this village was not always called Coal Fire. As it was told to me, it had its beginning, when some of the early settlers begin calling it Fundee, after one of the first settlers in that area, named Uriah Funderburk. The date of this happening is not known and no one knows just when the name was changed to Coal Fire.

Another family that settled there very early was the Bonners. They settled the area near the overhead bridge that spanned the M & O Railroad. They received a land grant deed for their property signed by The President of the United States of America.

Another early settler there was my Grandfather Warren Samuel Davidson, who was married to Martha Jane Bonner they moved to Coal Fire from Oakman, Alabama via Franklin County, Mississippi where he lived for a couple of years. He bought one acre of land around 1877 near where the late Buck Bonner's home was, and that is where he built a shack, and raised his first family. He lived there until around 1902, when he moved his family to Stafford, Arizona because his wife Martha Jane became ill with tuberculosis and she needed to be in the dry air of the Arizona dessert. She died in Stafford AZ in 1904 and soon after, Mr. Davidson moved back to Coal Fire and brought all his children with him except for one son and one daughter who had married and stayed out West.

On March 4, 1909, he married my Grandmother, Annie Lou Estes, and then on March 23, 1910, he purchased 33 acres of land in the heart of the village from D. H. Vail, and L. C. Vail. The neighbors surrounding him at this time were, Jim Sanders who owned the land to the South, John Bonner who owned the land to the East, and H. Blackledge who owned the land to the West. The North side of the land was bordered by the public road. The M & O Railroad, which was completed in 1898, ran through the land he purchased and divided it with approximately 60 feed being south of the railroad. He immediately began to clear and farm this land, and did so until his death in 1931. There was a sawmill located on the West side of the dirt road that turned south toward Carrollton, on the north side of the railroad, that belonged to a Mr. R. G. Jones. Sam Davidson worked at this sawmill some of the time when he was not farming his land. It was at this sawmill that Ben Davidson, son of Sam Davidson let a log roll on his leg and crush the bone. He had to have it amputated, and he wore a peg leg from then on. There was another sawmill on down that dirt road across the railroad tracks, on the East side that was owned by a Mr. Blackman.

It was told to me in my childhood, that the people of the area wanted a post office, but they could not get one for the settlement named Fundee, for whatever reason, so they had to change the name. Just who was responsible for naming it Coal Fire is not known, but they did get their post office. For several years, it was located in the commissary building of Dill & Curtis Lumber Co, which was located at the top of the hill on highway 82 at the junction of the road that went south to Carrollton. A gentlemen named John T. Abrams, was appointed Postmaster. He had moved to Coal Fire from Reform, where he had worked at Stringfellows General Mercantile Store. Mr. Abrams, moved into a new house that Dill & Curtis Lumber Co., had built for him. It was located next to the house that the late Bruce Darling lived in. Mr. Abrams was the only Postmaster that Coal Fire, Alabama ever had. Later Mr. Abrams built his own store just south of the commissary, and moved the post office to his new location. It remained there until Dill & Curtis moved their sawmill operation out of the area, at which time Mr. Abrams purchased the commissary building and moved back into it. He operated a general mercantile store at this location until his death in 1945. Between the commissary building and Mr. Abrams new store was the offices of a Dr. Smothers, who was the company doctor for Dill & Curtis. Across the dirt road from Dr. Smothers office, stood the offices for Dill & Curtis. I mention here that this was a dirt road, so at this point, I should also say that highway 82 was at that time a dirt road that wound around every hill and by every little shack of a house in both directions, toward Reform, to the East, and Columbus, Mississippi to the West. It was not until the late 30's that highway 82 was built and later paved. Convict labor was used to build the highway, and a detention camp was set up near McShan to keep the prisoners in at night. It was because of the widening of the dirt road in 1937-38, to build highway 82, that several of the structures, in the village, had to be moved back to allow for the right of way, including the house my Grandfather had built. As a child, it seemed to take half a day to travel in the old T-model Ford the 30 some odd miles to Columbus, and with the road turning as it did with all those curves, it also made a child nauseated, which was no fun. And even though there may have been a ice cream cone or candy bar waiting at the end of the journey, it was still a hard decision to make to go on the trip.

Getting back to the story, Mr. Dill, one of the owners of the lumber company never moved to the Coal Fire community. He continued to live in Tuscaloosa. However Mr. N. S. Curtis, did live there, and his home was located on the south side of what is now highway 82, on the west side of the creek. The sawmill at that time had a railroad spur running from the M & O Railroad north to the sawmill, and then continuing on north for several miles. This was the means they had for getting logs out of the woods and delivered down to the sawmill. Some of the concrete foundations for the sawmill are still to be found north of the new four-lane highway that runs through Coal Fire today.

The house where Bruce Darling lived, and another house built exactly the same that sit next to it, belonged to the mill. A Mr. Howell, who was the sawyer for the mill lived in the house Bruce Darling lived in, and as stated earlier, Mr. Abrams lived in the house next to it. Mr. Abrams built a house on the North side of the Reform-Columbus road and then a Mr. McIntyre, who was the saw-filer for the mill moved into his mill house.

Mentioning Bruce Darling, he and Robert Oliver were hitch-hiking through the area in the early 1930’s on their way from Wyoming and decided to try to get a job at the mill. Both were hired, but Robert Oliver only stayed a short time and then moved on, but Bruce Darling continued to work there for a while, and married a local girl, Mamie Burgess, daughter of Lonzo and Lula Burgess who had their home just south of Blackman's sawmill. Bruce later went to work for the steel mill industry in the Birmingham area, but continued to live in Coal Fire and commuted to work from there.

Dill & Curtis's mill prospered for several years, and provided employment for many of the residents of the area, some walking as many as 3 to 4 miles to work each day. Just a few of the employees were:

     Tommy T. Sparks                                   Tony Davidson
     Bunyan Burgess (Office manager)            Otis Burgess
     Webb Hester                                          Bruce Darling
     Robert Oliver                                          Walter Williams
     Fletcher Bell                                            Bob Bell

The community was thriving so, that the residents decided they needed a school house, and Uriah Funderburk and Sam Davidson, my Grandfather each gave one acre of land to the state for the purpose of a school house. This schoolhouse stood several years until it burned down. (I was told that some boys were smoking in the back of the two room building and the fire started from there). The schoolhouse was rebuilt after that and school continued to be taught there for a period of time until the students were transferred to the Reform School. During the years school was taught there, the building was used for church services on Sundays. One Sunday each month a preacher would come and hold preaching service. He usually came by horse and buggy, or sometime on the doodlebug, (the small passenger train that ran through there). On the other Sundays of the month, there would only be Sunday School held. In 1940, 13 local citizens got together and formed Coal Fire Baptist Church. These charter members were: Judge Iverson Bonner, his wife Blanch Bonner, Mamie Darling, Vera Bonner, Linnis Bonner, Pauline Bates, Linton & Burton Burgess, Tom Collier, his wife Carrie Collier, Lynwood Bryant and Mr. & Mrs. J. L. Bryant. The state deeded the property to the deacons of Coal Fire Baptist Church on November 20, 1945. Mr. Bunyan Burgess had the school house rebuilt after the fire destroyed the original building, and then donated that building to Coal Fire Baptist Church, when the state deeded the land to them.

In 1927, Mr. Dill & Mr. Curtis, decided to dismantle and move the sawmill to Florida. When they did , Mr. Bunyan Burgess and also his son and daughter-in-law, Otis and Clair Burgess moved to Florida with it. They didn't remain there very long, and came back to Coal Fire where Otis operated the old mercantile store for several years and then built a new cement block building that he moved the store into, and tore down the old wooden building.
Sunday School meeting at Coalfire School

Dill & Curtis Sawmill

Mr. & Mrs. Funderburk

Three Coalfire Neighbors

Mrs. Nell (Bell) Keating

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