Fall Pilgrimage Decatur, And The Jesse Owens Museum

The Alabama Historical Association had its fall pilgrimage last month in Decatur, and the first tour that many of us attended was that for Pond Spring, the General Joe Wheeler home in Hillsboro. Wheeler was commander of cavalry for the Confederate Army of Tennessee, served as a member of Congress, then returned to serve the US during the Spanish-American War. He was the only person known to hold the same position in the CSA and then later the US Army — in his sixties, he fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba where he is quoted as saying, “Let’s go, boys! We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run again!” (which was included in Ken Burns’ excellent Roosevelts doc series) — and is one of only two former Confederate generals to be buried at Arlington.

Pond Spring is an 1870s Federal style that was recently restored. It sits on a 50-acre site that includes another circa-1830 Federal-style, some farm outbuildings, three cemeteries, a small Indian mound (which I’ll explore next time), gardens including a boxwood garden (they loooooved boxwoods — there’s an annual plant sale), and this ~1818 dogtrot log house, where the original settlers first lived:

As part of the pilgrimage, we also visited historic sites in Decatur including the Old State Bank,


the circa 1829 Dancy-Polk House, which is a private home now

from its historic marker:
The oldest home in Decatur still standing, this Early Classical Revival mansion was built by Frank Dancy and was a private residence until 1872, when it became a boarding house and hotel. During the Civil War, the home belonged to Dancy’s daughter, Caroline Wood, and occupied the front center of Union fortifications during the October 1864 Battle for Decatur, and was used as Federal officer’ quarters. Tradition holds that a Confederate 6-pounder cannon ball, fired from the Confederate lines south of here, struck and dislodge one of the chestnut columns on the lower front porch. The column was subsequently repaired, and the patch can still be seen today. Local legend also maintains that the main staircase was damaged by Federal cavalrymen during its occupation. The house passed to Dancy’s granddaughter, Lavinia, in 1869, after she married Captain Thomas G. Polk, a nephew of late Confederate General Leonidas Polk and cousin of late U. S. President James Knox Polk. One of a handful of structures in Decatur to survive the Civil War, the Polk House, as it was later known, became a popular stopping point for train passengers. Joseph Wheeler, a Confederate General, later a U. S. Congressman and U. S. General, and a resident of Courtland west of Decatur, is known to have stayed at the Polk House. Noted outlaw Frank James allegedly stayed at the Polk House under an assumed name in 1883. James later said that he never committed any robberies in Decatur because “there was nothing worth carrying off.”

featuring a handrail damaged by a Federal soldier who apparently found out it was harder to destroy than he thought
Dancy-Polk House, Decatur AL//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

the circa 1836 Burleson-Hinds-McEntire House which served as a military command post – more in the home’s National Register paperwork

from its historic marker
This Greek Revival mansion belonged to Dr. Aaron Adair Burleson and his wife, Janet, during the Civil War. Part of an original 778-acre land grant, the brick home covered by Flemish bond, features 18-inch thick walls and contains one of the significant Federal period interiors in North Alabama. The iron fence work surrounding the property is original and Union soldiers used it for drying blankets as seen in the accompanying photograph. The original gates, however, are missing and are thought to have been taken by soldiers for use as fire grates. Before the war, Burleson served as the first President of the Tennessee and Central Alabama Railroad which became part of the Nashville & Decatur Railroad – a vital north-south transportation link. Burleson served as a physician with the rank of Major in the Confederate army. Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston is thought to have stayed in the home while reorganizing his army here in March, 1862, although his headquarters were actually located in the office of the nearby McCartney Hotel. During the occupation of Decatur the Burleson family was well treated, and “got along with their guests with minimum friction,” according to relatives. Janet Burleson received passes to travel between the lines until she was caught smuggling quinine to injured Confederate soldiers, which she accomplished by putting the medicine in holes bored into her surrey and sealing them with beeswax. When Union Major General Grenville M. Dodge ordered citizens to evacuate Decatur in early 1864, the Burleson family’s possessions were piled in the street and burned. Among those possessions were books from Dr. Burleson’s library. A volume of “Byron’s poetic works, “ stolen from the fire heap by a Federal soldier and then confiscated by Lieutenant L. N. Weeks of the Federal army, was returned to the family in 1900. The home was sold in 1869 to Jerome Hinds, a former Union soldier from Illinois. It was here that Hind’s niece, Grace Hinds, was born. She later married Lord Curzon, who at one time was England’s Viceroy of India. After the Hinds’ occupation, the home was used as a boarding house and hotel before standing vacant until its purchase in 1895 by R. P. McEntire for use as a private residence. The home remains a private residence, and the privacy of the family should be respected.

There were plenty of other sites to choose from, but especially for those of us who went out to Pond Spring, it would have been just another thirty minute drive to have visited the Jesse Owens Museum in Danville and the Oakman Indian Mounds. This isn’t a criticism — the pilgrimage was great — it’s just that these two other spots were so close that I made my own trip to visit them and hope they can be considered in some upcoming meeting when AHA again meets in that part of the state.

We’ve been to the park several years ago, but this week on my way to a meeting in Huntsville, I stopped and was able to go in the museum and the replica cabin where Jesse Owens lived until his family moved to Ohio when he was in elementary school. It’s there in Ohio, when the teacher misunderstood him saying that his name was ‘JC’ for James Cleveland that he started being known as ‘Jesse’.

The museum is well done, and includes a 40 minute movie
Jesse Owens Museum, Danville AL//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Many of the items featured are replicas, like his 1936 Olympic uniform featured here and his Congressional Gold Medal and Medal of Freedom, but the Owens family donated many other items of note, like a track time program from the games.

Adidas sponsored a display of track equipment then, and now.

Outside, the monument

and a very short walk away is the replica cabin where Jesse spent his earliest years, with the walkthru narrated by a recording of his brother
Jesse Owens Museum, Danville AL//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

The parents’ room served as the main room of the house
Jesse Owens Museum, Danville AL//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

The children — Jesse was the tenth child — slept on the floor in this fashion in another room. Jesse’s health was poor as an infant and toddler, and was unable to go to the doctor due to finances as the family were sharecroppers. Despite these conditions, the museum explains that he found tremendous freedom as his health improved and he was able to run. The school the children attended was nine miles away.

In high school, Jesse’s skills were discovered and he joins the track team, going on to break world records. At Ohio State, he proves himself as a track star, being undefeated in 42 events.

The museum tells the story of Jesse meeting Babe Ruth right before the Olympics:
Jesse meets Babe Ruth at a dinner honoring the Olympic athletes. When Babe Ruth asks Jesse if he is going to win at the Olympics, Jesse replies, “I will try.” Babe tells Jess, “Everybody tries, I succeed. Why? Because I know I’m going to hit a home run just about every time I swing the bat. I’m surprised when I don’t. Because I know it, the pitchers, they know it too. Know, Jesse, that you will win!”

Jesse wins four gold medals. His accomplishments after becoming the world’s most famous athlete go on and on.

Today, his granddaughter speaks on his legacy, recently at a college campus for an ‘Embracing Our Differences’ program.

Jesse Owens Museum, Danville AL

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