History of Elba
Elba is located in the heart of the Pea River basin, at the juncture of Whitewater Creek and Pea River. Elba had its economic beginning when a ferry was established to cross Pea River in the early 1830’s by a Mr. McLane. It was located between what is today Claxton and Polka Streets and connected east-west traffic across the river.
The land on which Elba is located was entered by Ephrim King on February 17, 1836. This land was sold to John B. Simmons and his brother-in-law Gappa T. Yelverton about 1840. Simmons’ mercantile was the first store in Elba. The post office was located in the store and John Simmons was the postmaster. At that time the little town was called Bridgeville. A new post office was opened on February 2, 1841 with Bartley M. Tucker as postmaster. On June 20, 1850 the name was changed to Bentonville, in honor of Col. Thomas Hart Benton, Senator from Missouri who served in Alabama in the Creek Indian Wars of 1813-1814. The citizens soon decided should be changed to be more fitting for a thriving community. On December 8, 1851, the suggested names were placed in a hat. John B. Simmons, who had been reading a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte with reference to him being exiled to the island of Elba off the coast of Italy, placed the name of Elba in the hat. Mr. John Fountain, the ferry operator, was asked to draw a name and Elba was drawn. In 1852 the State Legislature created a voting precinct and the new town of Elba was officially recognized.
In 1852, after Elba was selected the county seat of Coffee County, the town was moved back from the river one-half mile to the present location. The Courthouse was in the center and most of the streets were named for leading citizens. Elba was incorporated on April 13, 1853. The first public school was established in 1863. The two-story frame building had one room on each floor. The upper room was the meeting room for the Masons and school was opened in 1900. The first graduate was Mary Annie Ham Mays in 1902.
Evergreen Primitive Baptist Church was located in what is now Evergreen Cemetery which is still an active cemetery for the city of Elba. The first marked grave in the cemetery was that of James Ham who died in 1858. His wife Susannah Mathews Ham, in the only “Real Daughter” buried in the cemetery. Her father Philip Mathews was a Revolutionary soldier. The gazebo in the cemetery, called a Summer House, was built in 1895.
The first church of any denomination established in the town of Elba was Methodist. It is still active as Elba United Methodist Church. It is considered the mother church of Elba. A minister was appointed to the Elba Circuit on December 15, 1853. The present Methodist Church was officially opened on Sunday, February 12, 1911. Large panels of elegant stained glass found in the church sanctuary are the memorial to the Confederate dead from Coffee County.
The coming of the railroad was a great economic boost to Elba and Coffee County. The only major structure on the line was the trestle across Pea River in Elba. The railroad line was planned for West Elba where the line ended and the “New Town” area of the town, also the industrial area, began. This section of Elba continues to be called “New Town”. The name of the railroad line changed several times. The first train came to Elba on March 20, 1892 and the trains were discontinued on November 27, 1984.
Pea River History is a vital part of the history of Elba. The Creek Indians named the river Talakhatchee but the early settlers rejected the name. In the Creek language, talak means pea and hatchee means stream, branch, or small river. The Talakhatchee River is a sister stream of the Choctawhatchee River, whose name was not rejected. Pea River is about 120 miles long. It emerges from a swamp in Bullock County near Union Springs and joins her sister river at Geneva. About half of the river is located in Coffee County.
Almost every generation of Elba citizens has had a flood story about Pea River to pass on. The history of Elba is water marked with stories of floods and high water problems. March is the month the floods usually come. The Lincoln flood of March 1865 was the first to destroy Elba, which was then only twelve years old. It was known as the Lincoln flood since that was the year that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. There are three streams which converge in or near Elba, Beaver Dam Creek, Whitewater Creek and Pea River. All play a part in the floods.
On March 19, 1888 Elba residents were again faced with what older people called the flood of Elba. The worst flood ever recorded, at that time, in the state of Alabama took place in Elba in March of 1929. Much has been written and Told about this great flood and all of those who were a part of the flood had their own story to tell. On Thursday morning, March 14, 1929 the people were warned that the river was coming out of its banks and would spread into the town. By lunch time, people were being taken from downtown and the immediate river area by boats. The water continued to rise, making it the most horrible night that the citizens had ever experienced. The next morning airplanes carrying food, milk, and emergency supplies flew over the town and dropped the much needed supplies. The flood edition of the Montgomery Advertiser was dropped to upstairs porches and to people on rooftops. The river crested at 43.50 feet early in the afternoon of March 15, 1929.
The story of “Little Noah Tucker” is one of the most often remembered and retold. Eleanor Talbot Tucker and her husband Ed Tucker became the parents of Noah at the Elba Hotel during the flood. The mother had to be moved from room to room during the birthing because room after room crumbled and fell into the swift water currents. The baby was named Noah since he lived through the flood like the biblical Noah.
Only one fatality occurred as a result of the 1929 flood, a blind Negro man named “Phoe” Larkins was swept from a box car in New Town.
The heroic efforts of Miss Vivian Harper were very significant during the tragic flood. As flood waters continued to rise, Miss Harper and her relief operator, Mrs. Minola Libert, were on duty and stayed in touch with local residents until every telephone had failed. Miss Harper warned the citizens of Geneva about the flood and enabled them to be better prepared for the coming flood. She also contacted telephone operators in neighboring towns and relief came much sooner because of her efforts and dedication to the people of Elba. As the water came into the building the two operators escaped into a waiting boat. Miss Harper received the Theodore N. Vail Silver Medal for her heroism. In the summer of 1929 the flood weary citizens of Elba were once again faced with the threat of the river flooding. The temporary bridge was safe only for foot traffic as the swift current raged. Paul Rowe Brunson left the family home next to the river when the mail arrived from Ozark. The six year old boy was taking the mail across the river when the bridge collapsed. The child fell into the river but said God took him by the hand and pulled him onto a section of the floating bridge. Holding the mailbag, the child floated down Pea River. The train was crossing the trestle and Mr. Byrd Mitchell, the engineer, lowered a rescue line. At the same time a rescue boat carrying an older brother, Sollie, over took and rescue the child, still holding the mailbag. The mail went through and Paul Rowe Brunson was spared to become one of Elba’s distinguished citizens.
A levee was built beside the river, around the town in 1930. The canal and Beaver Dam Creek drainage was improved and flood gates were erected at strategic points. The Simmons Bridge was constructed and raised to its present level. Years passed and high water came regularly. In 1938 and in 1959 rising water flooded the Smith Avenue area and did much damage. On Wednesday, February 19, 1975 flooding occurred again. The river crested at 4:00 a.m. on February 20 at 37.26 feet. Smith Avenue, Riverview, and the New Town areas near Beaver Dam Creek were hardest hit. At this time Mr. A.C. Brunson read the level of Pea River every day for the National Weather Service. He read the river level this time every hour for three days and two nights.
The “decade” of floods in Elba was the 1990’s. The flood of March 17, 1990 is the most devastating flood ever recorded in Elba. The river crested at 48 feet. When the levee broke, swift current s of water quickly rushed into town about 7:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. The break occurred on the Troy Highway near the Elementary School. The break came from Whitewater Creek, not Pea River. The entire town was under water for four days before the levee broke on the other side of town and some of the water could drain away. The entire city was almost destroyed, including all of the school system buildings, the county jail built in 1912, the county Department of Human Resources and the Coffee County Board of Education.
A wedding was scheduled for the United Methodist Church for Saturday, March 18, 1990. Aleah Hudson and Blue Morrow were to be married. Many worked hard to get things together and the wedding took place on that day, at the Ham United Methodist Church near Elba. Serious floods also occurred in March of 1994 and 1998. In the flood, there were two deaths from drowning, Marquindale Thigpen and Edward Horstead. For this reason, the decade of floods is a very real part of the history of Elba.
Elba is proud to be the home of James E. “Big Jim” Folsom, the only Coffee County native to serve as Governor of Alabama. He was one of the most colorful politicians in Alabama history and served as Governor of two terms. His son, Jim Folsom, Jr. was Lieutenant Governor in 1993 when the sitting Governor stepped down. He became Governor and completed the term.
One of the most colorful residents in recent memory was “Uncle” Charlie Porter. He was a beloved black man who was born onto slavery and lived to be about 122 years old. He lived on Railroad Hill on the Old Samson Highway with his wife Quida “Weedy”. The couple did not have any children. This much loved, unique citizen walked to town everyday, wearing his overalls, black felt hat and brogan shoes. He always had a beard. Also, he carried a burlap sack over his shoulder, which held personal items and purchases of the day. His very loud, but pleasant voice could be heard for blocks.
Alberta Martin, long time resident of Elba, now living at the Enterprise Nursing Home, is the only surviving widow of the War Between the States. She is the widow of William Jasper Martin, a confederate soldier. Mrs. Martin was born on December 4, 1906. She was a young widow with a child and married a very old man. They had one son, William Oren Martin, who lives here in Elba. [NOTE: Mrs. Alberta Martin died on May 31, 2004]
Elba has three hotels is its history. The Blue Hotel at the corner of Simmons and Claxton, the Garrett (City) Hotel at the corner of Davis and Factory, and the Brunson Hotel on Collier Street.
Noted Interior Designer, Martha DuBose Culpepper, was born and raised in Elba.
In addition to the city of Elba and the Elba Methodist Church celebrating their Sesquicentennial birthdays, the Brunson Reunion is also 150 years old. This historic reunion, the oldest continuous tradition in Coffee County, also had its beginning in 1853. That was the year Matthew Brunson and Sarah Blanchard Brunson moved their family to Coffee near Elba and the Brunson Reunion began. This reunion has never been cancelled or postponed in its century and a half of existence. The Sesquicentennial Brunson Reunion was held on April 26, 2003 and more than five hundred relatives from ten states were in attendance.
There is so much more that could be said about our wonderful and greatly loved city here in this beautiful valley. In celebrating our Sesquicentennial Anniversary a King and Queen were selected for the festivities: Marion Brunson was selected King and Lois English was selected Queen.