Shelby County sits in the geographic center of the state and is the birthplace and childhood home of Gov. Robert Bentley. It is also renowned for being the fastest growing county in Alabama for the past four decades. Shelby County has become a mecca for suburbanites in the Hoover/ Birmingham metropolitan area.
Shelby County has not always been a suburban enclave of Jefferson County. While Gov. Bentley was growing up, it was a rural county much like most of the counties in the state. Shelby County was part of a four-county center that was known as the home of the original Republicans in the state.
Shelby, St. Clair, Chilton and Bibb were all white counties made up of yeomen farmers who lived off their own land and labors. They did not own slaves nor did they want to own slaves. They simply wanted to be left alone to raise their crops and their children. These folks epitomized the Alabamians that were not inclined to leave the Union at the onset of the Civil War. In fact, their delegates voted against seceding from the Union when the state Secession Convention met in Montgomery in 1861.
The people of Shelby, St. Clair, Chilton and Bibb counties were known as progressive Republicans. In fact, these Alabamians more closely resembled New England Republicans in their political philosophy.They were frugal, but were willing to pay more in taxes if their money went to education.
They believed that education was the path to a better future for their children. Even though they lived off the land and were proud of their 40 acres and a mule, they aspired for their children to move past the life of seeing the rear end of a mule for 12 hours a day. They felt that with a good education their children might grow up to be doctors, perhaps in Tuscaloosa.
That is precisely what happened with Gov. Bentley. He grew up in rural Shelby County, the son of hardworking Shelby County yeoman people. His father had little formal education and owned a sawmill. Bentley went to school in Columbiana and was a good student and a leader.
Bentley’s progressive Republican roots first came out during the presidential contests of the 1950s. At that time, all elected officials in Alabama were Democrats and the state voted for the Democratic candidate for president. The future doctor and governor was the campaign manager for Republican presidential candidate Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. Thus, nobody can ever claim that they are more Republican or have been a Republican longer than Robert Bentley.
While Bentley was in school in Shelby County, his superintendent was Dr. Elvin Hill. Dr. Hill is the father of longtime Shelby County State Rep. Mike Hill, who has served close to three decades in the Legislature and is one of the most likeable and popular members of the House of Representatives. Hill and Bentley are close friends and their families have been Shelby County friends for generations.
In fact, there are several old political families from Shelby County. As I was walking down Dexter Avenue the morning of Gov. Bentley’s first inauguration in 2011, I stopped to speak to Gov. Bentley and then ran into a host of folks from legendary Shelby County stock with vintage heritage. I saw Mike Hill and his wife Carol. Then I saw Conrad Fowler Jr., who practices law in Columbiana and was a stellar tight end for Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama. Conrad Jr.’s daddy was Conrad “Bully” Fowler. He was a distinguished longtime probate judge in Shelby County. Bully Fowler holds the distinction of being one of the few people to ever beat George Wallace in a political race. Bully Fowler and Wallace ran against each other for President of the Cotillion Club at The University of Alabama and Bully prevailed.
Conrad Fowler Jr.’s law partner for over four decades is Butch Ellis, who served a couple of terms in the state Senate. He was one of the most honest, friendliest and popular men to ever serve in the Alabama Senate.
Butch’s daddy, Handy Ellis, was also a state senator, as well as lieutenant governor. He ran second to Big Jim Folsom in the 1946 Governor’s race. Handy Ellis was the “Big Mule” candidate for governor that year and was expected to win. However, Big Jim came out of nowhere and beat him. Butch Ellis and Gov. Bentley are related by marriage.
Alabama is really just one big front porch.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in over 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.