In the summer of 1969, some of Fort Payne’s most historic structures appeared doomed, but a group of concerned citizens decided the historic Opera House and Fort Payne’s train depot – constructed to support the dreams of New England industrialist investors– were worth restoring and preserving for future generations to experience.
Fifty years later, Landmarks of DeKalb County, Inc. is commemorating this half-century milestone and appears set to thrive for many more years under the direction of a new executive director.
Valley Head native Jessica Harper-Brown took over the position on Oct. 7 following the death of Olivia Baxter Cox on Aug. 14. Randy Cochran paid a loving tribute to Cox at the 50th Annual Meeting in Hunt Hall earlier this month.
Harper-Brown’s background includes previously serving as director at the Fort Payne Depot Museum, so she shared information with Cox frequently. She is a graduate of Jacksonville State University.
The work done by Landmarks matters greatly, she said, because the past gives everyone living in the present a sense of shared identity.
As a private, non-profit 501c3 corporation, Landmarks issues publications, maintains interpretive exhibits, and conserves historical properties such as the Opera House, the old Cabin Fort Site, Wills Town Mission Cemetery, Wills Valley School, Richard C. Hunt Hall, the Hosiery Museum, & the Council Bluff School.
Harper-Brown said DeKalb County is extremely fortunate because “most small towns do not have such a wealth of materials about our history. Most historical artifacts are lost in fires.”
The tragedy of such losses was felt as recently as 2014, when a blaze completely destroyed the 1884-constructed Mentone Springs Hotel and White Elephant, and this past February when the old National Guard armory in Fort Payne was damaged by a fire.
Sometimes history takes the form of original documents such as maps, land grant deeds, photos of historic happenings or people instrumental in the development of the county.
Although many people have contributed to saving such remnants of local history, no history of Landmarks is complete without noting the efforts of founding president James Ray Kuykendall, who helped coordinate all Landmarks projects and events until his death in October 2007.
With assistance from volunteers like Opera House tour guide Lynna McElroy and intern Caitlyn Bell, Harper-Brown said a couple of top priorities going forward are to sort through archived materials for preserving and continue developing the historic property at Battelle, a mining community in the early 1900s located about five miles north of Valley Head.
The story of Landmarks involves many dedicated citizens working to save the county’s history, just as they did by joining together to stop the demolition of the now 130-year-old Opera House, which continues to function today hosting special exhibits, concerts, high school plays, and other events. McElroy gives guided tours of the building, which is the only remaining opera house in the state still in use as a theater, with adjoining buildings used for receptions and the nation’s only permanent museum dedicated entirely to the hosiery industry.
Earlier this year, the Richard C. Hunt Reception Hall was used for a traveling display commemorating Alabama’s Bicentennial Celebration.
Restoration of the Coal and Iron Building has made it a hub of activity, tied together by the close proximity of the Opera House and Fort Payne Depot Museum, as well as Union Park, the Alabama Walking Park, and Rotary Pavilion.
DeKalb County was established in 1836 from land that was ceded to the federal government by the Cherokee Nation. Fort Payne’s name refers to the stockade site where native populations were held in preparation for removal to make room for increasing numbers of white settlers from the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee.
After encountering some local teenagers who had no idea what the Trail of Tears was, Harper-Brown feels the county’s Native American history also deserves greater attention.
Harper-Brown reflected on the period when her organization produced plays featuring Landmarks Players serving as the performers. She hopes to book the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s traveling troupe to perform Mid Summer Night’s Dream at the Opera House on Feb. 28 and 29, 2020, with tickets available by Christmas. She would also love to see the Northeast Alabama Community College drama department perform there, as well as showing silent movies.
“Landmarks wants to know what people in our county want to see and read,” she said.
Reprinting some of Landmarks’ popular publications is also a priority for the group. Landmarks sells a large variety of print books directly from its website, https://www.landmarksdekalbal.org/ as well as select stores.
Harper-Brown’s generation owes a debt of gratitude to the men and women who had the foresight and have done the hard work for a half-century to protect Fort Payne’s most historic places and artifacts.
These greatly enhance our sense of identity, attract thousands of tourists to the area and boost the quality of life for residents.
For more information on joining or donating to Landmarks, call 256-845-6888 or visit https://www.landmarksdekalbal.org/membership-landmarks-dekalb-county-alabama/.