Lecture recounts history of lost town

Published 12:42 pm Wednesday, October 24, 2018

By JOYANNA LOVE/ Senior Staff Writer

The Chilton/ Clanton Public Library joined this week’s historic celebrations with the first of its lecture series on Oct. 22.

Courtney Pinkard of the Alabama Department of Archives and History spoke on “Abandoning a Community: The History of Salem.”

The unincorporated community of Salem was located where G.R.A.C.E.’s Marina is today on the shores of Lake Mitchell.

The original inhabitants of Salem would have been the Creek Indians. The first settlers arrived from 1829-1837.

“In the 1830s, we just had an influx of settlers from other states like the Carolinas, Georgia and down from Tennessee, a flood of people coming into the area,” Pinkard said.

Back then, the area was a part of Autauga County because Baker County (the original name of Chilton County) had not yet been formed.

Pinkard said land near the rivers was a good place to live for fresh drinking water, food, power for mills and transportation.

“The river provided the only sort of highway,” Pinkard said.

She said boats were used to transport people and supplies long before the railroads were built in 1870. Once the railroads were established, people began to move away from the banks of the rivers to more interior locations, creating Jemison and other towns.

Sawmills were also established in Salem. Back then, sawmills were designed to be portable to go from worksite to worksite, Pinkard said. One Chilton County sawmilling family was the Drivers. Pinkard recounted how Nick and Corb Driver served in World War II in the pioneer brigade creating roads and camouflage for troops in France. Pinkard showed the audience copies of the men’s draft paperwork and some of their records. The men had been born in Verbena.

The oldest written reference Pinkard has found to the area of Salem is the 1829 minutes of the Unity Baptist Association.

Establishing a church was important to the early settlers. Salem Baptist Church was accepted into the Unity Baptist Association in 1890, yet Pinkard believes the congregation was meeting for about 60 years prior to this as a church not affiliated with any denomination.

Pinkard showed a copy of the deed where the church purchased two acres from the Calloways for $5 in 1899. The church and a graveyard were located on the property.

“The Calloway family had been in this area,” Pinkard said. “They patented their land from the federal government in the 1830s.”

“This deed specifically mentions a graveyard, so we know the church had been around long enough to establish a cemetery,” Pinkard said.

The church became a focus of activity for the area through its singing society and the annual singings held on the fourth Saturday each May.

“It really became a homecoming,” Pinkard said.

People from all over the county who had ties to Salem would attend the event.

When Mitchell Dam was in the planning stages, the Alabama Power company purchased the land from the church.

After Mitchell Dam was established and the river flooded, most of Salem was under water.

“I took this title for this talk from the …  article that was published in the Union-Banner in 1921 called, ‘Abandoning a community,’” Pinkard said. “It discusses how Salem was going to be inundated by the back water from the dam.”

The article also announced that the church had sold its land and how individual families were also going to have to move.

“It specifically says that Salem is one of the oldest communities in Chilton County,” Pinkard said.

The Alabama Power Archives has preserved the letters in which what to do about the cemetery was discussed. Pinkard said ideas included moving the graves or elevating a portion of the land to keep the cemetery from flooding.

This second idea was the plan the power company followed.

“These graves, many of had been there for a long time, and they were not buried in cement vaults,” Pinkard said. “They were just in pine coffins and buried in the ground.”

An article in the Union-Banner addressed this issue at the time. Family members were also not in favor of the cemetery being moved.

The May Singings that had become so popular were continued at Providence Church.