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Riding Over the Past? Cahaba, 1936

ISSUE:  Winter 2002

The trees rise dense and tall down the sloping bank. Here the growth is so thick that the summer sun barely penetrates. Filtered light and flickering shadows play through the gloomy woods bordering the river’s edge. The heat, too, is filtered; the air is almost cool for an Alabama day this time of year. Even the sounds of summer are left behind—the buzzing of flies, the hum of insects, intermittent bird calls. Only the gurgle of the muddy river water as it plays around the roots of trees and the bare earth embankment breaks the dense silence.

In this forested river embankment, with the cool, moist earth covered by decomposed leaves of many seasons, all animal life seems to have departed. Where the ground takes a final steep slope toward the river, where the trees stop and the swirling muddy water can be seen in its full extent, I sit lost in thought. A few feet away, standing motionless, is my Welsh pony, Nancy, reddish brown, with a thick mane, bridled and saddled for my afternoon ride. This is a grand place for daydreaming. The likelihood of interruption is nonexistent. No other human being would come this way or indeed had likely come this way in months or years. Here in this isolated pocket, visions come readily to mind of the historical events that have ebbed and flowed through this part of the world. The past lies across the countryside as dense and thick as the summer heat. One can deliciously ponder what has been and what might be. Dreams run backward and forward. I see myself in some great heroic action in that Lost Cause of seven decades earlier or in some far distant future Armageddon when the life of the nation is at stake.

Having spun out enough visionary exploits for one sitting, I rise, take the pony’s bridle, and start to turn. But the hypnotic effect of the moving current holds me. This is the Cahaba River, here perhaps no more than fifty yards wide. In dry seasons, at low water, dead tree limbs protrude. From here the river makes a giant loop around to the north before emptying into the much larger Alabama River, the two rivers forming the boundary on three sides of the lost world of Cahaba. Into that world I now turn, leading Nancy up the slope, through the deep shade and then out into the burning brightness of mid-afternoon.

Mounted on Nancy, I ride along the edge of an immense pecan orchard, following a two-track wagon road. Row after row of trees stand like the ranks of some mighty leafed army. The trees rise 60 or 70 feet, with wide-spreading limbs in their full summer leafage of dark green. The aisles between the rows are grassy and wide enough for wagons and pickers. The trees are now full of the promising nuts of the fall, with their light green and bitter-tasting covers, which will turn into hard brown shells and begin to fall by September. The rows stretch away seemingly forever, converging in the vast distance.

The pony is at a walk, the saddle creaking softly beneath me. Out here, the air is alive with the sounds of a summer afternoon in the river bottom country. Unidentified insects of all sorts hum and buzz unseen. Flies and gnats dart here and there. Crows caw in the distance, and assorted other birds chirp and sing. Row after row the pecan trees slip by as the pony plods on unhurriedly. I can only guess at how many hundreds of trees the orchard contains. This great wooded rank and file was laid out and planted by my grandfather 30 years before, and it remains his major monument in Cahaba.

The last row of trees borders a long straight gravel road. Here we pass by the tall, two-story red brick barn; set back just a short distance from the road, the stable where I keep Nancy, all alone now amidst the dozen stalls that line the hay-strewn dirt passageway running through the center. Time was when those stalls were occupied by fine saddle horses; bred and trained as part of my grandfather’s many agricultural interests. But the stalls are empty now, as are the lofts overhead where once hay was kept.

I dismount to lead Nancy through the half-open, sagging wooden gate in the fence alongside the road. Then with my left foot in the stirrup, I again swing up into the saddle. It emits the squeaking sounds of good leather.

In the open road astride Nancy with reins in hand, I imagine myself master of all I survey, suffused with a sense of heady independence, a pony at my command and all of Cahaba at my disposal. It is the summer of 1936, and I am nine years old.

If I were to turn left, the road would take me along the pecan orchard on one side and a hay field on the other. In a mile, I would reach the high wooden bridge with its iron superstructure over the Cahaba River, and beyond that the road to Selma, ten miles away.

But I turn right instead, leaving the river bottom and orchard to head into the center of this forgotten place. Just beyond the barn, tall pecan trees ring a large empty space where the big house once stood. Now in that void are only undulating mounds of dirt and a great sunken area covered by weeds and a scattering of broken bricks. It has been more than a year since the fire. A quarter million bricks have been sold from the gutted walls and columns. The house was the centerpiece of an elaborate brick complex of five buildings. Only the barn and a now-empty two-story servants’ quarters remain. The master of the place, Clifton Kirkpatrick, my grandfather, has been six years dead. His passing has left a void in Cahaba life, like the emptiness left by the destroyed house.

Not a human being is in sight. The only sounds are Nancy’s metal shoes striking the gravel, accompanied by distant bird calls—a bobwhite, the soft cooing of a dove, the squawking of a blue jay, the raucous cawing of crows.

The road ahead is straight and flat and stretches away into the distance. We stay in the center where the loose gravel has been pushed aside by occasional cars. But traffic is slim indeed. Other than the mail carrier who comes through once a day and the rolling store every week or two, no more than two or three cars a day pass along here, maybe none. It is not on the way to anywhere else except a few cotton plantations down river—the Mathews’ place, the Chambliss’ place, and Mollette’s Bend.

The day is sunny and hot, the sky clear and blue, with only a few high white clouds. “Good cotton weather” they call it. I move Nancy into a trot, her hooves scattering loose gravel and making a rhythmic clop-clop-clop. Her picked-up pace brings a faint, cooling breeze. I have the road to myself, as well as, seemingly, this whole lost world.

I pass the mule barn, a low, sprawling wooden structure set well back from where the house once stood and surrounded by a large fenced lot. Not so long ago it was home for an army of mules that pulled the plows, wagons, and hay mowers of this once extensive agricultural enterprise. But now there are fewer than two dozen. Then comes a cornfield, ears beginning to form on the tall green stalks. Woods are on my left. Then a cotton field appears on my right. Across long rows of knee-high dark green plants, several field hands chop at weeds to keep the rows clean. They work side by side in parallel rows, like an infantry squad in a skirmish line. The men are in overalls, the women in long, loose skirts. I stop, and, in the utter quiet, catch the faint sounds of their voices, talking to each other as they whack away with their hoes, the long wooden handles worn smooth with the years. Of the multitude who once worked the fields here, they are almost all who are left.

At my nudging, Nancy moves ahead. Abruptly, a gravel road runs off to the left at a 90-degree angle. I keep on straight. On the corner on my left is a white frame house, built high up and set close to the road. The house is roomy, but small compared to the big house now gone. Grandmother lives in this last intact house in Cahaba, having moved here after the fire.

I continue on the road ahead, past the chinaberry tree in the corner of the yard bounded by a white picket fence. Another gravel road goes off to my right at a 90-degree angle. If I were to take that road, it would turn squarely to the left in a couple of hundred yards and then, after a short interval, to the right and again to the left, before finally straightening out on the way to Orrville, some 15 miles away.

An unknowing stranger would think these square-cornered turns a curious configuration for a road deep in the countryside, passing through nothing but cotton, corn, patches of woods, pastures, and scattered field hands’ cabins. What he would not know is that this is not an ordinary stretch of countryside. Rather, he would be passing through, or perhaps I should say passing over, the site of a town. These roads are the remnants of a gridiron of streets, most of which have long ago disappeared, absorbed into cultivated fields or overgrown with brush or trees. The straight, flat road I have been riding along is—or was—Oak Street. The road I have just passed, in front of grandmother’s house, leading to the river, is really 2nd North Street; where it should continue across Oak Street it has been obliterated by a cotton field. The road turning to my right is really 1st North Street; it should also go to my left behind grandmother’s vegetable garden, but there is nothing there but a footpath leading into the woods.

In that spring and summer of 1936, when I rode my pony over Cahaba, the place was almost totally deserted. But signs of former human habitation were everywhere—lonely brick chimneys standing amidst bramble bushes, house sites marked by brick-strewn depressions in the ground ringed by hundred-year-old cedars and crape myrtles, still blooming luxuriantly in red, white, and pink. This abandoned and non-existent town had once been no ordinary place. It had been the first capital of the state of Alabama, a political, social, and economic center in antebellum times, and a major cotton-shipping point for a large region.

It all started shortly before Alabama was admitted into the Federal Union as a state in December 1819, when its territorial legislature faced the challenging task of creating a new government. Among the major decisions it had to make was to pick a location for the permanent seat of that government. The state’s two oldest towns were too off-center geographically—Huntsville, on the Tennessee River in the extreme north, and Mobile, the port on the Gulf in the south. Something in-between, more centrally located, had to be selected. The legislature did what Congress had done in designating a piece of the Maryland countryside for the national capital. It designated uninhabited land at the confluence of the Cahaba and Alabama Rivers as the site and authorized a town to be laid out there. At that moment, there was nothing there but a wilderness, but the spot seemed ideally suited. The land was level and fertile and was situated at the junction of two important waterways, giving access to Mobile and the world beyond. But unforeseen by the founders, those surrounding rivers were to be the curse of Cahaba.

Once the legislature had chosen this site, a town was platted along the lines of the city of Philadelphia. The central thoroughfare, 100 feet in width and appropriately named Capitol Street, began at the Alabama River and ran westward. Streets parallel to it, to the north and south, were numbered—1st North, 2nd North, and so on up to 7th North, and, going the other way, 1st South, 2nd South, and so on up to 7th South. The streets running north and south, intersecting Capitol Street at right angles, were named, as in Philadelphia, after trees—from east to west, Walnut, Mulberry, Oak, Pine, Chestnut, Ash, and Beech. They were 80 feet wide. Thus, as originally laid out the town ran fourteen blocks north and south and seven blocks east and west. It embraced 1,600 acres, given by a federal land grant. The main commercial street, parallel and closest to the Alabama River, was named Vine. It quickly became the center of Cahaba life.

Although the Alabama River flows westward from Selma, just before reaching Cahaba it turns sharply southward and thus forms the east side of the town. The opposite side of town was bordered by the Cahaba River flowing in from the west and turning sharply north at Capitol Street. From there it curved around the northern side of the town site and angled into the Alabama River on the east side at 2nd North Street. Thus the northern half of the town lay within the huge horseshoe-shaped bend of the Cahaba River, making the place in effect a peninsula. The water boundary was extended farther south on the west side by Clear Creek, which feeds into the Cahaba. Being surrounded by flood-prone streams on three sides was a circumstance fateful in the history of the town and my mother’s family.

Some streets intersected a river at both ends. The southernmost of these was Capitol Street, extending from the Alabama River in the east, a distance of about a mile and a quarter, to the Cahaba in the west. It and 8th North Street (later added to the town) were the same length and were the two longest east-west streets. The latter, being in the large horseshoe bend, touched the Cahaba River at both ends.

The blocks formed by the streets were two acres square and were divided into numbered lots, four to a block. Each lot was thus a corner lot, about half an acre in size, approximately 150 feet square. By November 1820, all 380 of those lots had been sold at public auction.

At the intersection of Vine and Capitol Streets, the state’s first capitol building was constructed on lot 125. It was a two-story rectangular brick structure containing chambers for the House of Representatives and the Senate and offices for the governor, the state treasurer, and the comptroller of public accounts. The legislature convened there for the first time in November 1820. The state Supreme Court had earlier held its first term there in May of that year. It was in this building and town over the next five years that governors, legislators, and judges laid the foundations for the new state. There, newly appointed trustees met to formulate plans for a state institution of higher learning, which shortly became the University of Alabama. The first steamboat reached Cahaba from Mobile in the fall of 1821, and steamboat service increased thereafter in frequency and speed.

But Cahaba was not long to be the center of governmental activity. High water from the rivers flooded the place in 1822—the first of many floods in the decades to come—and yellow fever plagued the town in summer months. Those unhappy events fueled mounting political pressure from the northern part of the state to relocate the capital. Responding to that pressure, the legislature decided in 1825 to move the capital to Tuscaloosa. Thus, after three governors, seven sessions of the legislature, and numerous terms of the Supreme Court, an important historical chapter ended for Cahaba.

Despite this setback, the town later flourished and reached its fullest flowering in the decade before the Civil War. It was in a region of large cotton plantations, and there thousands of cotton bales were loaded on steamboats for shipment to Mobile and thence to the textile mills of England and New England. It was the home of two future United States senators; a vice president of the United States lived across the river. Substantial residences were built, the town was extended by the addition of numbered streets on the north and south, and new, larger lots designated by letter were laid out to the north along the Cahaba River. It remained the county seat.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, two Confederate military units were raised in Cahaba. One was an infantry company known as the Cahaba Rifles, which became part of the 5th Alabama Infantry and saw action throughout the war with the Army of Northern Virginia. It was commanded by a great-great uncle of mine, Captain Elijah Buckley Moseley, until a wound at Gettysburg took him out of combat. The other unit was a cavalry outfit known as Lewis’ Battalion, which was involved in campaigns in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida. My great-grandfather, Samuel McCurdy Kirkpatrick, who established the family in Cahaba, rode in its ranks.

On the banks of the Alabama River, a prisoner of war camp— Castle Morgan—was established. At one time it housed some 3,000 captured Union soldiers. In April 1865, federal troops entered the town, and the war was over for Cahaba.

After the war, the county seat was moved to Selma, and the town rapidly declined. People moved away, and buildings and residences gradually disappeared. Some were simply abandoned and fell into decay, only some were torn down, some were moved bodily to Selma and Mobile. By the end of the century the town was virtually gone, and all signs of it eventually disappeared except remnants of streets, lonely brick chimneys, and scattered bricks and depressions in the ground suggesting that something once stood there. Only a few structures survived intact into the 20th century. The largest and most prominent of those were the Kirkpatrick house and surrounding structures, a complex of five brick buildings, the home of my mother’s family for three generations.

During that spring and summer of 1936, I rode Nancy several times down to the embankment overlooking the Alabama River. She brought me down a narrow rutted road, impassable to vehicles, from what had been the intersection of Vine and 2nd North Streets. The silence was broken only by bird calls and the gurgling of the brown river water through dead tree limbs against the bank, about ten feet below me. Seemingly motionless, the wide, muddy current was powerful, moving inexorably southward. My grandfather’s brother had drowned here at the age often, and I had been warned from my earliest years of the dangers of these treacherous waters. This was a somber place, now bereft of human life, but filled with history and exerting an unusual stimulus to my imagination.

In my mind’s eye, I saw steamboats tied up here, long lines of cotton bales being loaded on board by sweating laborers, fashionably dressed passengers boarding for the trip downstream to Mobile. Here the Marquis de Lafayette landed in 1825 as an official guest of the state of Alabama, one of the stops on his grand tour of America, as the country neared its 50th anniversary of independence. Governor Israel Pickens had initially welcomed him in Montgomery, and the two had come down river together. Lafayette was greeted at the foot of 2nd North Street by the state attorney general and was taken along Vine Street, through a ceremonial arch erected especially for the occasion, to a reception in his honor in Saltmarsh Hall.

Back up the hill, on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the two rivers, stood the ruins of the Crocheron house, one of Cahaba’s most substantial residences and the largest ruin remaining. In this house on April 8, 1865, six days after federal troops captured Selma, Gen. Nathan B. Forrest met with Union Gen. James Wilson to discuss an exchange of prisoners. Only fragments of brick walls and columns remained. I had heard my grandmother talk about the night it burned, a New Year’s Eve in the early 1920’s.

Now I was at the intersection of Vine and 2nd North Streets, once the center of Cahaba’s commercial life. Along Vine between here and Capitol Street, two blocks to the south, had been the two-story Perine mercantile establishment, Saltmarsh Hall, law offices, the Dallas County courthouse, and numerous other businesses.

Sitting atop Nancy, I saw it all in my mind’s eye. But what I actually saw as I looked down this stretch was a narrow dirt road flanked by underbrush and several unpainted wooden cabins occupied by field hands and their families. For all that appeared, Vine Street might never have existed. As Nancy moved along the road, black children peered at me from around the corners of the houses. On their porches and in their front yards were elephant ears and ferns planted in old chamber pots and wash basins.

At what was once the intersection of Vine and Capitol Streets, I came to the large ten-foot-high limestone boulder, the lone historical marker in this abandoned place. Capitol Street was impenetrable, non-existent, completely overgrown. I paused to read the inscription, as I had done before and would do many times again:

        Cahaba, first state capital, 1818—1826
This stone marks the site of Cahaba selected November 21, 1818,
      as the first permanent capital of Alabama.
        The seat of government remaining
 until removed to Tuscaloosa by the legislature January 1825.
        As state capital and county seat,
Cahaba was representative of the best in the life of a great commonwealth.
Erected by the Alabama Centennial Commission and the citizens of
            Dallas County
        and dedicated November 11, 1919

I was particularly fascinated with this spot, realizing that as forlorn as it now was, it was once the political center of a new government and that on this very ground the legislature met and passed laws, the governor presided over the affairs of a state stretching from the Tennessee River to the Gulf of Mexico, and the state’s highest court heard and decided cases from throughout that territory.

Cahaba was so filled with lost pockets redolent with history that I could never visit all of them on a single outing. On one afternoon, I moved southward with Nancy at a trot, down the long straight road, known as Oak Street in the time of the town. It was the only street still open its entire length. In the middle of the 19th century it had been extended northward to the Cahaba River where the bridge to Selma had been erected. From the bridge to the cemetery at the foot of Oak Street was a distance of two miles. The day was hot, and I pulled Nancy over and dismounted at an artesian well. She drank eagerly from the trough, and I bent over and drank from the stream flowing from the spout on an upright iron pipe. The water was deliciously cool, almost sweet in its taste. It came from 900 feet down and flowed day and night without ceasing. In the old days there were dozens of these ever-running wells all over Cahaba, which together with two rivers and a creek gave it a superabundance of water. In the 1920’s there were still more than two-dozen of those wells. Now there were only half-a-dozen left.

Back in the saddle, I nudged Nancy south on Oak Street, still straight and level but becoming narrower and less well maintained, from here on used only by farm vehicles. Passing along a nothingness where once stood the Dallas Female Academy with its two-story Greek revival portico, the Presbyterian Church, and fine houses, I came within sight of the old Methodist Church, constructed in 1849, sitting a block back on what used to be Mulberry Street, now surrounded by scrubby, abandoned fields. It was the only brick structure surviving from antebellum times, other than the servants’ quarters on the Kirkpatrick house site. It was a handsome edifice, tall enough to accommodate a slave gallery inside. It had a steeple and a recessed entrance, known as a “temple in antes,” with two round white columns. Once the Methodist Church for the town’s white citizens, it was now the church for Cahaba’s remaining black inhabitants.

A little farther on, I headed Nancy off the road to the left across an unkempt pasture, dotted with wild primrose bushes and a few cows grazing on weedy grass. I passed a shallow pond covered with water lilies. Here and there was the bleached skull of a cow or mule. High above, two buzzards floated in a slow circle, black and motionless against the cloudless blue sky.

I was heading for one of my favorite spots in all Cahaba, a hidden pocket, known only to me, I fancied. It was the site of the long-vanished Perine mansion, built by one of the town’s wealthiest merchants at the foot of Vine Street in the antebellum era. Its architectural style was unusual for the time and place; it had an Italianate flavor, with battlements around its top. It was the largest residence in Cahaba, said to have 26 rooms, including twin parlors, each measuring 20 by 27 feet, and a dining room of the same size. Leaving the pasture and moving through underbrush and dense tree growth, I emerged into an open space where the house had stood. Here were old oak trees and giant crape myrtles and low weed-covered mounds and fragments of bricks marking the house site. The silence was total, except for distant birdcalls. There was a cathedral-like quality to the place.

I liked to dismount here and sit down in the shade, leaning against a tree trunk, contemplating the scene, while Nancy did a little grazing on some grass patches. I found a strange pleasure in being alone in this isolated place where a grand mansion once stood. To see a human being here would have been startling, even a bit frightening. I felt the same way about all of Cahaba. I had a peculiar proprietary notion that it all belonged to me alone, that, except for the few hands still working the fields and the people at my grandmother’s house, the presence of anyone else would have been an inappropriate intrusion on this lost kingdom.

Near the Perine house site was its huge artesian well, the only tangible remains of the glory that was. An ornate cast-iron column, taller than I was, stood in the middle of a round brick pool of water. The spout curving out of the upright column was as large in diameter as a man’s leg, but no water flowed from it. The pipe had cracked at its base, and the water bubbled up vigorously there. This was the largest well in Cahaba, in terms of the volume of water flow, and was said to be one of the largest artesian wells in the world. I had heard it said that it was second only in size to a well in Paris, France, but I did not know that to be a fact. Legend had it that the stream taking the water from the well to the river was laid out to duplicate the course of the Alabama River from Cahaba to Mobile.

From the Perine house site, it was not far to the cemetery on a little rise at the foot of Oak Street. For me, this was the most haunting spot in Cahaba. The trees and undergrowth were so thick that only a tunnel-like passage remained through its center. On foot, I led Nancy up through the gloomy, densely shaded graves. A breeze always seemed to be playing mournfully through the tall pines that topped the rise. Wrought-iron fences surrounded the various family plots. They enclosed marble gravestones, some broken or crumbling, some still upright and intact. The dates of death ran mainly in the 1840’s and 1850’s. There was an earlier cemetery, but I had not found it. Poignant inscriptions were on the graves of children and young women.

Though I was only nine years old, this abandoned last resting place for the town’s leading citizens gave me an eerie sense of things gone—long gone and forgotten—an awareness of the transience of all human endeavor. I was in the midst of ghosts. Indeed, all of Cahaba was one huge ghost of a time past, of long-dead statesmen, planters, slaves, and my forebears.

The only living link to the Cahaba of old was my mother’s family. In the wake of the Civil War, the Kirkpatricks had established a vast agricultural enterprise over the ruins of this first state capital as the town disappeared, extending into lands beyond. By the early 20th century my grandfather, carrying on from his father, had created a showcase of progressive, diversified agriculture, including saddle horses, Poland-China hogs, large dairy, immense pecan orchard, cotton, and other crops. He came to personify the place, widely known as the Duke of Cahaba. He was actively involved in public affairs, serving in the state legislature and becoming a leading advocate throughout the South of scientific farming, working to break the region from the grip of the one-crop cotton system. But now he was dead, his landmark house burned, and his horses, hogs, dairy gone, and cotton diminished. His three sons—my colorful and memorable uncles—had departed, leaving my grandmother and her sister, Aunt Blanche, and their Cousin Sallie—three elderly women—as the last white inhabitants in Cahaba. Even in my nine-year old mind, I sensed that this last link with the past was unraveling, that the family here, like the town before it, was coming to its end. How, I wondered, had it all happened? What awesome fate repeatedly befell this historic spot? For the family, as I perceived later, it was the combined hammer blows of floods, fire, and the Great Depression. In retrospect, though, the ever-threatening waters of the encircling rivers seem to have foreordained Cahaba to be doomed from the beginning—doomed as the state capital, doomed as a town, doomed as the seat of the Kirkpatrick agricultural domain.

On one of my last and most memorable rides with Nancy, I had been lost in reverie in the cemetery when I noticed that the dark clouds which had been far to the west a little while ago had moved across the sky, now nearly overhead, turning the glaring sunlit afternoon into a dull gray. A jagged line of lightning played down from the darkest clouds to the west. Thunder rumbled in the distance. I knew these late afternoon thunderstorms well enough to know that it would not be long before rain would sweep the countryside. I had to get back to the stable before it hit in full force.

As I swung into the saddle, I felt the still, hot, and humid air suddenly turn cool. Trees began to move with a rising breeze. Nature was now about to put on one of its most spectacular shows. The blackening sky, lightning, thunder, and high winds would be followed by driving sheets of rain.

Sensing my urgency, Nancy took off at a good clip, heading up the remnant of Oak Street, bound for the barn a mile to the north. The wind rose at our back. This was an exhilarating moment. Lightning was drawing closer, the thunder—giants rolling barrels across the sky—growing louder and more frequent. I slapped the pony’s shoulder with the end of the reins, sending her into a run, gentle at first, a kind of lope. Then I spoke to her, slapping her lightly again with the end of the reins and putting her into a dead run. Along the straight flat gravel road, as though responding to a challenge from nature to race the rain home, she now reached her full speed. This was not the gait of a trained racehorse moving down the track, but rather the wild gallop of an ungaited pony.

Leaning forward, head close over her mane, I held on tightly to the saddle horn, thankful for the western-style saddle. Only occasionally did I put the pony into such a run, but I enjoyed these experiences above all else. I imagined myself on some Paul-Revere-type of warning ride, perhaps a ride to alert the countryside that the Yankees were coming.

Somber indeed had grown the afternoon, now nearly as dark as twilight. Thunder was almost continuous. Trees bowed toward the east as the wind came in with increasing velocity from the west. Holding on to Nancy at a full run, I felt on my neck and arms the first few scattered splats of rain. Far ahead, beyond the pecan trees where the big house once stood, the brick barn came into view. The pony needed no direction; she knew where she was headed, and her pace did not slacken. The drops now splattered with quickly-mounting frequency as Nancy left the road, angling into the open gate and across the short space into cover without a moment to spare.

The rain broke into great sheets. Darkness now covered the face of the earth. Looking through the huge doors at each end of the long passageway flanked by empty stalls, the air suffused with the aroma of old hay and manure, I could see the gray, billowing columns of water obscuring vision. The wind-driven rain pelted drum-like on the steep roof high overhead, setting up an unearthly roar in the vast space. Nancy, breathing heavily from her frantic run, stood beside me in the gathering gloom, the two of us alone in the world. In this lost land where Western civilization had once touched for a season and then vanished, my young mind was overwhelmed with the mysteries of human experience and profoundly impressed with the impermanence of man’s works, impressions that have never left me.

Sixty-three years later, on May 1, 1999, a hundred yards from where that barn had stood, I gathered on the Kirkpatrick house site with dozens of relatives, friends, and officials. It was a magnificent Cahaba spring day—unclouded blue sky, pleasantly warm but not hot, light breeze moving, a day like one out of my childhood. We had assembled there at the invitation of the Alabama Historical Commission for the unveiling of “interpretive signs”—what I used to call historical markers—commemorating the Kirkpatrick family and the Duke of Cahaba and their place in the history of Cahaba. In the decades since, fire, high water, and the Great Depression had brought the Kirkpatrick era to an end, the land had fallen into assorted private hands, fishing shacks and house trailers had sprung up, desecrating the historic site. But now the state had established an historical park. The commission was proceeding to acquire all Cahaba land, to reopen streets, erect interpretive signs at key historic points, and eventually undertake archaeological explorations.

The day had an air of unreality about it. Indeed, it was downright surreal. We were assembled on the site of the long-destroyed house, but there was no indication that it and its surrounding brick structures had ever existed. All was covered by a grassy lawn and trees grown to maturity in the decades since. Only one of the two-story brick servants’ quarters remained, but it had been transformed into a residence. In the midst of this near nothingness, filled with ghosts and rich in childhood memories, I, my brother Clifton, and one of our cousins—the only living persons who had known the place before its destruction in the 1930’s—gave our recollections to the assembled crowd. The commission formally unveiled the plaques, providing future generations with some inkling of what once was here.

For me, Cahaba remains that enchanting land between the rivers in the years before the great brick columned house burned and in those later days when that nine-year-old boy rode his pony over the ruins of that abandoned state capital. The long-ago scene—family and place—lives on vividly in my memory, available to be called up and relived at any hour of the day or night, dramatic evidence of the transitory nature of human endeavor.


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