May 6, 2013
We’d spent a couple hours ducking the rain and the merest hint of routine at Johnny Devere’s backwoods hideaway. Roosters crowed, wrens sang and stories flowed. The time to go, alas, had come.
By the time we exchanged goodbyes, Johnny seemed to have warmed to my presence. Anthony had said he’s about the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. I saw no evidence to the contrary.
We bounced our way out of the dirt driveway and back onto the Rabbit Town Road. Instead of turning left and heading south toward the 78 Highway, Evan hung a right. We gained altitude and plunged deeper into the Talladega forest. A couple miles later, he pulled over so we could get a good look at Terrapin Creek.
The rain had ceased for the time being, and we leaned against a railing and gazed into the tumbling, roiling water. The big creek ran high and frothy thanks to the buckets of rain that had fallen since our arrival in Tallapoosa. Not much was said. I allowed the thoughts to turn in my head and silently admired the Terrapin’s virility. The turbulence below only served to enhance to the peace up top.
When we returned to the car, we continued for another mile or so. We made a right and soon were climbing a steep, rutted path that dead-ended in an old graveyard. They must have known it was here, but I never asked. I guess Anthony wanted to tour the rows of bleached, careworn headstones and pay his respects to the inhabitants of Grimes Cemetery.
We walked, talked and gawked in desultory fashion.
The air was still heavy with a rheumy gloom. I wasn’t fully engaged. My thoughts were a few miles back on the Rabbit Town Road with Johnny Devere and Harl Baggett and their aversion to conformity. I wished I had the wits and courage to live such a life.
We encountered no ghosts, though Anthony’s interest was piqued by neighboring headstones marking graves for three folks named Gilmer. Jasper Gilmer and his wife, Lucy, shared the one on the right. To the left, I.N. Gilmer’s subterranean remains rested all alone.
Both Jasper and I.N. died on May 15, 1883, a circumstance Anthony found intriguing and perhaps a little mysterious.
What calamity, intimate or widespread, killed two Gilmers on the same day. Or could it have been pure coincidence? If not, what event landed Jasper and I.N. side-by-side resting places in Grimes Cemetery, Cleburne County, a mile west of Terrapin Creek?
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed a good question.
The fate of the Gilmers became something of a minor obsession. I wanted to answer the question for Anthony, so I poked around in the Tallapoosa library and made a couple phone calls, all to little result.
May 10, 2013
Armed with no more than a few names and addresses, we headed back to Alabama on Friday afternoon in a quixotic quest for clues. I unplugged the electrical cord that tethered us to the rural charm of Chez Williams and fired up the Behemoth for the first time in a week. Our first stop was city hall in Heflin, the Cleburne County seat, where we came up empty. From there we hooked up with Route 9 and drove north for a half hour.
Soon the Behemoth was lumbering along North Main Street in Piedmont, Ala.
Upon cursory glance, little distinguishes Piedmont from the tatterdemalion parade of small towns strewn across the American continent. Tacked onto hastily drawn grids by 19th century speculators, most still wait for the boom times to arrive. Meanwhile, the paint flakes, the metal rusts and the Walmarts of the new capitalist order sink their claws ever deeper into the fabric of the local economy.
Piedmont can claim a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (Rick Bragg), but even he moved away. We pulled over at the public library, which nearly always represents a safe haven for reason and decency. When there are no more public libraries in small towns, you’ll know America is obsolete.
I sat on the floor and paged through a heap of folders containing capsule histories on area families. I might as well have been looking for a thimble in a landfill.
Piedmont is a confusing place, geographically speaking. We were no longer in Cleburne County. Piedmont straddles Cherokee and Calhoun counties, and it has changed names more times than Steve Earle has changed wives.
First it was Hollow Stump, and frankly, civic fathers would have done well to stop there. Alas, Hollow Stump gave way to Griffen’s Creek, which in turn became Cross Plains in 1851. In 1870, its year of reckoning, it adopted the name Patona.
Patona translates from the Spanish as “clumsy-footed,” which may or may not be germane to the town’s fate.
Since 1888, it’s been Piedmont. Well, I took French in high school and college. And I’ve been a fan of Carolina country blues since stumbling onto Bruce Bastin’s “Crying for the Caroline’s” in the stacks of Pattee Library more than three decades ago.
Somehow I only just learned that “Piedmont” translates into “foot of the mountains.”
But I never heard of Alabama’s Piedmont until Anthony discovered the Gilmers.
But for one violent day, Hollow Stump/Griffen’s Creek/Cross Plains/Patona/Piedmont might have developed into one of the New South’s industrial showplaces.
As it was, the town’s historical arc took a wicked turn on July 11, 1870, a Monday boiling with bad blood. The trouble began with a fistfight at the train depot and ended with torches, hoods and a good, old-fashioned Ku Klux Klan lynching. When it was over, seven men were dead.
One of them was white. His name was William Luke, and he was a defrocked Methodist minister-turned-schoolteacher. A native Irishman, Luke came to Alabama from Canada in 1869 to teach at Talladega College. Before long he moved to a school for black railroad workers.
The school was the baby of the Selma, Rome and Dalton Railroad, a precursor to the Southern Railway.
The railroad, it turns out, envisioned big things for Patona. This nugget was turned up by a union rubber worker named Gene Howard, who got turned onto William Luke’s story by a newspaper editor in 1978. Howard didn’t put it down until he’d finished “A Death at Cross Plains: An Alabama Reconstruction Tragedy,” published in 1984 by the University of Alabama Press.
Howard discovered that a group of New York magnates had debarked a train at Patona’s Prior Station. They intended to locate their headquarters in Cross Plains, Patona or whatever the hell they chose to call it. Prominent among these men of influence was Franklin Hughes Delano, president of the railroad and uncle of the man who would became the only man to win four U.S. presidential elections.
The railroad wanted a cheap, compliant labor pool to draw from, and Luke came south to assist in the effort. He’d been in town less than a year. The saga that ended his life, not to mention that of six black men, was ignited by fistfight at the railroad depot and a gun battle that left no one dead. Luke, along with four black men, was arrested and confined to the schoolhouse, where an ad hoc trial commenced, during which he admitted to selling pistols to black citizens. The proceedings suspended for the night, a seething mob of local Klansmen dragged Luke and his fellow prisoners from the school and gave them a torchlight processional to the edge of town. Then they hanged them from a roadside tree.
Luke’s primary crime was infusing blacks with the notion that they deserved equal treatment and wages. Even in his final moments, the hooded mob gave him special treatment, allowing him to write a farewell letter to his soon-to-be widow.
I die tonight. It has been so determined by those who think I deserve it. God only knows I feel myself entirely innocent of the charge. I have only sought to educate the negro. I little thought when leaving you that we should thus part forever so distant from each other. But God’s will be done. He will be to you a husband better than I have been, and a father to our six little ones. . . .
Your loving husband,
And that was that. Soon he dangled from a tree branch, his corpse casting an eerie shadow beneath a lush Alabama moon. Surprisingly, his untimely demise did not go unnoticed, even beyond the provincial boundaries of Cross Plains.
A newspaper in Selma, 170 miles to the southwest, reported a heavily skewed version of events. Due to the miracle of the telegraph, said story appeared in the July 12 edition of The New York Times. And lord does it make for some sensational reading. The headline alone is so spectacularly mind-boggling that it reads like a page out of “Our Dumb Century,” The Onion’s history of 20th century America.
“The War of Races in Alabama –Only a Few Negroes Shot–They Were, as Usual, to Blame.”
Only a few negroes were shot, and I’m pretty sure no satire was intended.
Oh hell, in case you think I exaggerate:
Yes, that headline ran in the New York Fucking Times, the doddering, power-addled Grey Lady of American journalism. The entire story is a wonder to behold. It carries a Patona dateline, but some crusty editor in Manhattan must have applied that righteously ridiculous headline.
The story reported the fight on the train and the gun-toting posse of black folk taking target practice at humble church folk. Other tidbits: “Over 100 negroes” were arrested and “a carpet-bagger named LUKE, from Canada, who is teaching at a negro school at this place, is under arrest as being the leader of the negroes in this murderous assault.”
Miraculously, it took the writer just two sentences to get from “Only one lady was slightly hurt” to the “murderous assault” that justified mass lynching.
“The white people are the masters of the situation, and will hold the negroes to a strict accountability for their insane folly.”
Luke, of course, would share in the accountability. His fate was revealed in the long, concluding paragraph:
On Monday night, a party of armed men took them from the Sheriff and hung them by the road-side. … Luke was given time to say his prayers, and a letter was written to his wife, which was found sticking on a post near where he was hung. The bodies were still hanging at noon yesterday. Everything was reported as quiet at the Plains.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer also ran the story. It’s headline was only slightly less inflammatory:
On the subject of “of course,” no one was ever prosecuted for the killings. You’ll find nary a mention of the insalubrious episode on Piedmont’s official website, though it does allow that citizens for some reason found the name Patona “most undesirable.”
Turns out the railroad men also found Patona undesirable. Cross Plains, too. Franklin Delano and Co. were not impressed and voted to put their headquarters elsewhere, and left Cross Keys/Patona waiting around to die.
Which is were we found it in the spring of 2013.
As for the Gilmers, who the hell knows? Locals call the area Oak Level, and it has a long history of volatile weather events. Floods and tornadoes, drowned mules and submerged rooftops. The place has it all. Did the restless Terrapin swell and rise in the wake of a nasty Gulf Coast hurricane and swallow a handful of Gilmers? Maybe.
Cleburne County also sits in the heart of tornado alley. Two monster twisters ripped through the area in the past 20 years alone, killing 22 people each. In March of 1899, a tornado reportedly killed seven people in the same house.
But, you know, maybe the Gilmers died in a hill-country feud. Maybe they killed each other in an internecine battle. Maybe they died of natural causes.
Nobody seems to know.
I have squandered many hours searching for a telling clue in the vast landfill of the Internet. This haphazard research has accomplished nothing. Not only does no one seem to know what killed them, nobody can say who the hell I.N. Gilmer was in the first place. There is plenty of genealogical data on Jasper Gilmer, but I.N. is a total cipher.
At first I figured they must be brothers. According to the headstones, I.N. was one year and two weeks older than Jasper. Born Sept. 27, 1858, Jasper was the last of five children born to George Washington Gilmer and his first wife, Juniah Buchanan. Census records reveal Jasper had brothers named Lemuel and William, and sisters Elizabeth and Mary. They say nothing of I.N. Gilmer.
George Washington Gilmer was born in Anderson, S.C. He bought property there in 1852. In 1855, something compelled him to sell it and move his growing family to Alabama. Family lore says he was killed during the Civil War. It has even be suggested that he deserted his post to check on his measles-riddled family and was shot before their eyes.
Jasper Gilmer married Lucy Jane Grimes, who apparently gave birth to a son prior to their marriage. An ancestry.com thread led me to Jeri Coppock, who descends from George Washington Gilmer and his second wife, Margaret Coppock. Jeri said her great-grandfather, Lafayette Coppock, also perished on May 15, 1883, and might be buried in Grimes Cemetery in an unmarked grave.
Jeri Coppock has been trying to unlock the Gilmer mystery for more than a decade. She hasn’t found a clue yet. She’s still searching, and hopefully her hard work is rewarded with a small breakthrough, and soon.
Speaking of floods, tornadoes and cutthroat capitalism, here’s a musical interlude from the Drive-By Truckers, who wear their Alabama roots on their shirtsleeves:
Back on the floor of the Piedmont Public Library, I found interesting morsels of information on Gaineses and Gilleys and Gilmans and Gilmores and Glascos, but not a single Gilmer. This seemed a little strange, as a cluster of them live in and around Piedmont. And from here it’s only a nine-mile trek over Dugger Mountain to Grimes Cemetery.
I shrugged my shoulders and rose to my feet, an act accompanied by the usual array of creaking, popping and cracking joints. We departed the haven of the Piedmont Public Library and headed for the home of Sally and Ken Gilmer out on Philadelphia Church Road, a street which owing to our shared roots had something of a propitious ring.
I steered the Behemoth east onto Ladiga Road. We rumbled past downtown Piedmont’s brick buildings, many of which sat unoccupied and forlorn. The grid soon gave way to ramshackle countryside. As we traveled Vigo Road, Talladega National Forest again rose before us green and hopeful.
We turned at Old Borden Road, a gently sloping country lane surrounded by fallow farmland and scrubby hills. In a minute we arrived at 67 Philadelphia Church Road. The Gilmer’s tidy trailer home was adorned by a colorful banner. Half-red and half-orange, it hung from the carport and welcomed wayfarers to “A House Divided.”
With only slight trepidation, I knocked on the front door. A woman soon appeared before us and gave us a friendly smile. Her fingernails glowed orange, making her auburn locks appear dull by contrast.
Sally Gilmer stood before us wearing an Auburn football jersey. Becky, never attuned to the rolling cycles of the mad, mad world of sport, asked if there was a game today. It was May 11. The Auburn baseball team was in Gainesville, Fla.
And we’d missed the spring football game already. Auburn held its annual spring scrimmage three Saturdays ago, and 83,401 zealots filled Jordan-Hare Stadium to get a look at new coach Gus Malzahn’s new-look team. Over in Tuscaloosa on the same day, Alabama’s spring game pulled in a mere 78,315. On the same Saturday, more than 160,000 Alabama football fans paid good money to get a glimpse of teams that wouldn’t play a game that counted for another four months.
By the way, those attendance figures ranked 1 and 2 for similar games across the nation. Down in Alabama, you never have to ask if anyone is ready for some football.
Sally Gilmer may know her football, but she didn’t know anything about Jasper or I.N. Gilmer. At least that’s what she said. Ken, who of course is a die-hard Crimson Tide man, was taking a nap. She said he probably wouldn’t be of much help in our quest.
We thanked her for the pleasant visit, and offered our best wishes for her Auburn Tigers. We returned to the road, marveling at the wonder of humanity and still at a loss for any information about Jasper and I.N. Gilmer.