Downtown tour stirs considerable interest

Editorial

Blount County Historical Society had no idea what kind of response it would get to its first tour of historic Oneonta, but it’s a given its members hadn’t anticipated the some 100 who came downtown that bright, pleasant Sunday afternoon Oct. 18.

Society president Stanley Moss and Memorial Museum docent Amy Rhudy had grabbed historybuff and museum-supporter Peggy Jenkins’s initial idea for the tour and had run with it, with help from several quarters, of course.

Though they said the experience of the first tour revealed to them several improvements that could be made for subsequent ones, it had been carefully prepared for, with an easel bearing a sign to identify each stop on the route, a several-page brochure giving pertinent facts about the several businesses or sites of oldbusinesses, and a map delineating the route.

Not all who came visited all stops. The 35 or 40 who came to the newspaper were a remarkably attentive crowd. They appeared quite interested in the history of The Southern
Democrat,
later to become The
Blount Countian
and now the oldest continuously operated business in the county. It’s always gratifying for listeners to ask questions.

The attractive brochures the historical society provided carried photographs of several old buildings and a bit of information about each, much of it taken from the society-published county histories.

Blount County Memorial Museum, first tour site, was built in 1970 by the historical society in honor of the county’s war veterans. It was constructed of bricks salvaged from an old building at Howard College in Birmingham, later to become Samford University. The public’s interest in the museum has grown in recent years, largely through the dedication and resourcefulness of its docent, and its building is bursting at the seams as more and more local artifacts are being donated.

The Methodist Church in Oneonta was first housed in a building that served it until 1923 when it was replaced by the existing building, named in honor of the Reverend Samuel R. Lester.

First Baptist Church was organized in 1904 by a group of 17 Baptists. It is now Oneonta’s largest church in both facilities and membership. The frame building constructed in 1904 was replaced by a brick building erected in 1928, replaced in 1973 with the present structure, whose sanctuary seats 800.

Oneonta Methodist Episcopal Church in 1913 built the building at the corner of Second Avenue and Second Street that came to be known as the Little Brick Church. In 1938 its congregation united with Lester Memorial, and Oneonta Bible Church continues to occupy that charming building, which sorely needs to be preserved as a town landmark.

The Denton-Hendrix House, next door to the Little Brick Church, was designed by Charles Hughes and built for Dr. N.C. and Maude Chambers Denton in 1917. It was recipient of the first Blount County Historical Society official marker. It is now occupied and beautifully maintained by the Huie Group.

Garner Hotel, 111 First Avenue East, built by Stansberry Bricklayers in 1915, must have been a source of pride for the town. It was solidly built, modern and attractive. Garner Drug Store was attached. After later being passed from one use to another, it has been renovated and converted to office space on two floors and a residential loft on the third by Mark Sims.

Louisville & Nashville Railroad Depot was originally located between Ingram and First avenues behind main street stores. The line hauled iron ore, coal, and limestone, provided passenger service, and brought in the mail. Its arrival was usually attended by any number of townspeople as a big event of the day. Local passenger service ended in 1951. L & N sold its rights to Cheney Lime in 1989 and rail service ended some years later. Oneonta had earlier exchanged the railroad property for switching land in the industrial park. The restored depot now stands in Oneonta’s recreation complex and serves a variety of public uses.

Citizens Bank of Oneonta was established in 1931 at 201 First Avenue East. The building was remodeled in 1964 complete with new facade. Regions Bank, successor to Citizens, occupies the same building.

Chamblee Store, across the street from the bank, occupied what had been the home of McPherson Company, both selling fresh ground coffee, fresh meat, hoop cheese, and Coca Cola sold from old drink boxes. Later occupied by Elegant Touch, the building now stands empty.

Miller Drug Store. A drug store with soda fountain was established early on by Eb Maynor in the middle of the 200 block of First Avenue. Its name changed when Aubrey Miller bought the business. Several more changes occurred in ownership. The pharmacy continued but the soda fountain closed. Now the pharmacy is no more, but in the adjoining building, a quaint eatery reminiscent of the old drug store now operates as Miller Soda Shop.

Ellis Hotel, 222 First Avenue East, at one time the Guthrie Hotel, was located in the building now occupied by Bennett’s Men’s Store. It boasted a long porch across its front complete with rocking chairs. Eating at the long table in its dining room were travelers, salesmen passing through, regular roomers, and townsfolk stopping by for the homecooked meals. One chivalrous newspaper employee carried home from the hotel every day a basket of food for his and his wife’s noontime dinner.

Reeves Hatchery, owned by James Wesley “Wess” Reeves and located in the 300 block between First and Second avenues, was in business from around 1932 to 1949. When the incubated eggs hatched, the chicks were sold to the public from cages. Reeves also carried chicken feed and groceries. Faye Dumas, one of his 15 children, tells that she began taking piano lessons after her dad traded 100 chicks for a piano.

Tin Town is the name given the 300 block of Oneonta’s main street. It’s said that “out of the debris and desperation of the Great Depression there were those who erected some semblance of buildings of scrounged tin and used 2x4s and opened shop.” Over the years, new facades have been installed and interiors improved. Other buildings have been razed and replaced. But though the name no longer fits, it lingers.

Neely Theatre opened in the ‘40s, giving Tin Town a new air. Replacing the rundown old Strand a block away, it was surely as fine a movie house as could be found in any Alabama country town. It thrived for years until television supplanted “picture shows,” and it closed around 1972. A whimsical tale, true or not, stirs nostalgia for older movie lovers: The caller inquires, “What time does the feature start?” Replies the manager, “What time can you come?” The abandoned theater, deteriorated over the years, is being restored by Randy and Deborah Beason, who have converted it into the home of Blount School of Music, where their 13 instructors teach private lessons in guitar, piano, voice, and violin to all ages.

Old Ice House was a huge old building where ice was stored and sold and from where it was delivered. It was located next to Towns Realty’s present building at 103 Fourth Street. Frequent sales were to customers making ice cream. Kids got huge hunks to crunch.

Blount County Courthouse, 220 Second Avenue East, completed in 1954, replaces one on the same site that was built in 1890 after a majority of county electors voted to move the county seat from Blountsville to Oneonta. That first structure was remodeled in 1935, when Corinthian columns were added. The old building was unkempt and filthy, making its modern, handsome successor doubly prized.

Old Post Office, next to the courthouse, 204 Second Avenue East, is now occupied by the Blount County Board of Education. It was constructed in 1938 of red common brick laid in an English bond style. It features some hammer-finished white marble. On one foyer wall is a 12×4 mural of life in Blount County. It was painted in 1939 by Aldis Brown, a graduate of Yale School of Fine Arts, as a part of a government program to assist impoverished artists.